At San Francisco’s Magnet, a gay men’s health center in the Castro district, Peter Berlin spoke during the Oct. 3 reception for his photograph exhibition, “Photographer/Porn Star/Gay Icon.” He specifically referenced a Facebook post that advertised his art show, emphasizing that the post amassed about 32 comments — some with very hateful language.
“(That) viciousness and negativity — it is what I used to live through when I walked the streets as Peter Berlin,” he said.
Even as he reminisced on the public contempt he faced as a gay porn star, Berlin stood unapologetically with his stern confidence in front of a wall of his explicitly beautiful self-portrait film photographs. Visible nowhere in Magnet was the blatant homophobia of the ’70s — the prime of Berlin’s career, which was an era when he established “the most recognizable erotic gay male imagery,” according to his web biography. Unsurprisingly so, the opening night gallery attracted a full house of admirers, and Berlin, both an adult film star and photographic artist, carried himself humbly about through a crowd enamored by his creative output.
The knowledge, skill, care and film-processing ability with which he approaches his photographs are almost unexpected for someone as prolific in the industry as Berlin.
Patrons can witness gems such as a vintage, colored, grainy photo of Berlin in a tall grass field, where he bends backwards until he is parallel to the ground — with one hand supporting his body weight and the other on his erect penis. His facial expression is matter-of-fact yet still inviting. He endows a ruminative, almost stoic quality to his nudity that entrances the viewer, giving a nuanced aesthetic to pornography. And to photograph oneself while maintaining an erection in an impeccable, muscle-demanding pose is a feat completely beyond the base of porn’s reputation.
But to fixate only on his penis, his naked rear and his body distracts from the beauty of his work.
There are photographs of Berlin against castle-like architecture and of him brandishing his artistic brawn in a warehouse, and there are several with titillating, tasteful bondage and dominance themes. Earthy hues and authentic film composition capture his signature shoulder-length blond hair as it is tousled about — each photo reading like an artifact of a well-recognized career
Black-and-white photos with striking, adept poses showcase the best of his sexual allure, mysterious expressions and earnest modeling. Some feature two images of Berlin’s body in the same frame, tricking the eye and leaving one to wonder how he self-photographed and seamlessly blended two images of himself together.
One of these double-bodied photos presents a nude Berlin on his knees, resting his buttocks on his feet. He exposes a side view of his body as he gazes upward. To the right of him is a standing, fully clothed Berlin, returning the gaze of his double in a strong stance. Viewers can perceive a multitude of telling contrasts in just this single photo, as with many others.
As many photos were damaged in development or during storage over time, Berlin took to painting by hand over his portraits. This bestows an immersive dimension of photographic record and 2-D coloring, forcing the viewer to pause and differentiate between life and fiction in his art — a theme similar to what some may perceive as a disparity between Berlin and his true identity, Armin Hagen Freiherr von Hoyningen Huene, and between porn star and artist.
His career spans many disciplines that range from photography and filmmaking to modeling, acting and designing.
For every photograph in which Berlin is clothed, he wears dashing, lusty costumes that he once designed and sewed himself. From leather jackets and Greek fisherman hats to a variety of colorful, skin-tight pants, each garment is styled by Berlin with impeccable fit and alternative taste. His dedicated construction and unique fashion reveal a commitment to detail and creative talent that is visible in every frame.
At the Magnet photo exhibit, attendees will indeed see Berlin as photographer, porn star and gay icon — but they will, most astoundingly, see Berlin as a true artist.
“Photographer/Porn Star/Gay Icon” is on view at Magnet in San Francisco until Oct. 31.