Interview with GianOrso

by Fabrizio Giuffrida

(A special thank to Vincent Keith for his kind help)

Versione italiana
It’s a nice spring afternoon.
Two good friends sit drinking coffee.
They discuss their common interest in photography…

How did you start with photography?

I have been drawing ever since I can remember. I was in love with Michelangelo, Bernini - in Rome you can see their works everywhere - I was in love with the statue of the “Ganges River” in Piazza Navona [one of the statues of the Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, a Bernini’s masterpiece], and at school I started drawing more seriously. I have always loved advertisements and graphics, so when I finished secondary school I wanted to go to the art college. My parents didn't like that idea very much, so instead I wound up studying accounting and business administration; but alone in my bedroom I continued to draw, and to read books about the art of drawing. Around the time I was 15, I started buying American porn magazines and copying the models and poses featured in their pages.
It wasn’t long before I was interested in doing more than simply copying the images, so I bought my first camera and started to take my own photos. This happened at the beginning of the '80's, at a time when I was totally addicted to fashion photography. Mapplethorpe was everywhere in magazines and art shows with his enchanting, disturbing black and white portraits; and of course there were Newton, Ritts, Avedon.
I would buy fashion magazines, tear out the pages with the most interesting photos and add them to my growing collection.
I still have a lot of those magazine clippings, many that feature some amazing and adventurous photography, little to none of which has been featured in proper photo books. By observing and studying these photos I started feeling the desire to create something original, to experiment with image making, and I began with little steps. I started by finding and reading photography books that focused on the technical elements of the art form. Then I spent time walking around Rome photographing statues at different times of the day, with different lenses, all the while writing technical notes on all the photos I was taking in a small book (EXIF data was years from being created!). The advantage of taking pictures of statues is that they never get bored however much  time you need to take nice photos of them.
When I felt more confident in my technical skills I started asking my friends to pose for me. To begin with, it was hard going -  I was pretty much always turned down. Things changed in the winter of 1985, when my friend Michele accepted, and I finally had the chance to take portraits of a human being instead of statues.
When I look at those early photos of Michele today I can clearly see mistakes, it was, after all, my first experience in taking portraits, but I feel a strong affection for them because they remind me of  my desire to take photos and they remind me of my friend Michele, who died a few years later. He was a very handsome, big, tall man. I still remember his beautiful big hands, his booming loud voice and his great sense of humor.
Michele was the first to believe in my potential as a photographer. Recently I “thanked” him on my Flickr gallery, because I had never had the occasion to do it before. Even now, when I am taking pictures or when I am all alone editing the photos on my computer, I wonder what Michele would think of my work, what he would say about the thousands of portraits and the nudes, after all these years of experience, especially now that I have my own website...

Let's talk about your website, When did you start it and why? Do you have many visitors?

The website was created in 2004, but it did not go online until October the 20th 2005.
I started it because I wanted to show my works without any censorship or mediation. For the very first time I felt the need to do it personally and directly.
So I bought my own domain, I looked for some software to create galleries in flash and thanks to the patience of my webmaster, and “husbear”, ZippOrso, the first version of the site was built. I check the statistics of the site often, and apart from the big number of European and American visitors  I've been nicely surprised by the strong interest by Japanese visitors.

The daily traffic is about 1,000–1,500 visits, but it rises to more than 4,000 when I change the galleries or when some other site publishes an article about my work and puts a link to my website.
As I've said before, the website’s principal function is to show my work simply.
It's my personal art gallery, where I can put the shots I love, without having to bow to commercial pressures, or god-knows-what goals, and especially with no censorship.

Quite often I wonder if all the time I spend taking photos, editing them, studying the best poses, undertaking artistic research and finding citations, isn’t simply a game in my head, and that in fact,  people really don't care about all that and are only interested in the immediate gratification of seeing  nude bodies?

Then from time to time I receive an e-mail from someone who discovered my website by chance and who not only appreciates the artistic side of my work, but also tells me it has helped them in changing the way they look at themselves. Through my photography they manage to move beyond years of struggling with a bad body image and choosing to hide their bodies from public view. These e-mails mean a lot to me. They incite me to go further and create even more and better work.

The process of making photo galleries depends on the number and quality of images I have taken and edited in the previous months. Originally, I had hoped to change the galleries every month, but I soon realized it was an impossible task, furthermore, I came to understand that the pictures needed more time to be seen.
Now, the galleries change every six, seven months. This gives me enough time to keep the standard very high and to devote enough time to editing my shoots. Usually there are two or three galleries dedicated to models, one to portraits, one to couples and one to urban and natural landscapes – a category that had not been planned in the beginning and that is constantly evolving.

On your website, in the “Portraits of Modern Gentlemen” gallery, you talk about a “specific male typology that is my object of desire”. Looking at your photos one can see a large number of models with different ages, body shapes and degrees of self-confidence in front of the camera. What do you mean by “male typology”? How do you define it?

I think I made that statement at the time I was first creating the website. I suppose I was looking for a “manifesto” for my photographic subject. “The male typology that is my object of desire” referred to big, burly men, with blue eyes, red beards and blond or red hair. Something like a Viking-Scottish-Irish giant! Of course it’s just a projection of my own personal desires, though its a “projection” that I've never actually met in real life. Ever since I was a kid I've been attracted by a “typology” or type of man that does not adhere to the “usual” or popular concept of handsomeness. My eye was caught by big men rather than by slim guys, even if I was aware that the latter were considered by the majority as handsome while the ones I liked weren’t. Another important detail in my formation is that ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by art books and photography. I remember when I was six or seven years old I was offered a book about the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel frescoes, with detailed photos of the big bodies painted by Michelangelo and even all his studies about male forms. Even then, I was attracted to the  big bodies; I was enchanted by the sensual hyperbolic bodies of Rubens, Giambologna and Canova, artists that have portrayed big, magnificent men that were far from the present concept of male beauty imposed by the world’s media. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman represent the popular ideal male beauty today, and while I like them for what they are, I have absolutely no interest in taking photos of them. I remember when I was in my early 20s, I was talking with some guys about the kind of men we liked. I have been the standing joke for years because unlike them, I fancied John Goodman and not Tom Cruise.

This means that your photography is in fact a transposition of your desire?

Absolutely! My desires, my interests, my likes, my ideals all influence my photography.
It’s true that there are some physical details that catch my attention immediately: faces, legs, body shape, and there are some people that make me want to take photos of them instinctively. But after talking with them my interest disappears. For that reason, I can say that my photography is similar to my sexual desire. Conversely, I've experienced the situation of taking photos of men that were really handsome in the flesh but, in front of the camera, proved to be very different from what I had expected.

What inspired you to start taking photos of nude men?

The American magazine “Colt” was my personal bible.
While I was aware that the kind of hyper-muscled, glamorous men they used to feature in their pages were absolutely far from reality,  the quality of the photos of Jim French, the guy that created the Colt style, was breathtaking.  It’s still being copied today by a number of photographers. The poses, the perspectives, the editing are still in my head as personal references.
My second obsession was the American porn magazine “Drummer.” It featured another intriguing, teasing typology of men that conquered my heart and head. Last, but not least, discovering the great art of Mapplethorpe, with his extreme black and whites, and his ability to turn situations that could be seen as extremely violent into aesthetically artistic shots. One of his photos that I still consider to be striking and extremely modern is the portrait of two big bearded men, one tied up head upside down, his partner holding his balls firmly, both staring at the camera [“Elliot and Dominick, 1979”, in Robert Mapplethorpe, Ten by Ten p. 11, Schirmer and Mosel, Munich 1988]. It's a beautiful, disturbing, and anything-but-dull portrait.
I remember people running away from a great retrospective dedicated to his work in Venice some years ago - his photos show an aesthetic and a sexuality that not everybody is willing to see and accept.

Is it difficult to find models?

As I told you before, when I started to take photos and asked people to model for me, they always said no. I recognize that people often have a very bad relationship with photography and with the idea of posing in front of a camera for a photo that is not the usual holiday shot. It’s been said that some Native American cultures refused to have their portraits taken, because they believed that cameras stole their souls. In some ways, I think there may be some truth to this view. Some portraits I've taken show the subject’s personality more than words alone could possibly tell. Anyway, things started changing when I could show prospective models my work and people then realized that I wasn't looking to make some cheap porn catalogue, but that I was undertaking a personal exploration into aspects of male beauty.
I started with my friends, then friends of friends, then my friends’ lovers, and so on.
Today I even use web chats to contact possible models, with different results depending on people's availability and seriousness.

You stated that your models “have in common their being “different” from the dominant aesthetic concept of male beauty”. Could this be considered as a criteria you follow when taking photos?

Along the years I had the chance to take photos of an incredible variety of bodies, faces, hands, expressions, gestures, that all have in common their being “different” from the dominant concept of aesthetic male beauty. This is my starting point, the will and objective to show to the world that men who are so often treated so badly by the media have a sensuality that is equal, if not superior, to all the models we get  shown on TV, in movies and in ads.
I stand against what is “usual”. Instead, I continue to fight my personal war for big men’s beauty.

When I asked you about the male typology you never mentioned “bears”. Why? Would you accept “photographer of bears” as a definition?

I find “photographer of bears” is a rather strict definition. I do not repudiate anything, but I think I have gone well beyond that. I have shown I have a wider concept of male typology. I really like big men, but there are some husky guys that I find extremely attractive. I have personal preferences, of course: you know already of my partiality for red men with pale skin, I am crazy for the American guys, I am enchanted by the fascinating Spanish guys and the handsome north Europeans, as much as I am struck by the mesmerizing beauty of Black men and the elegant sensuality of Oriental guys.
The concept of “Bear” was very interesting at the beginning, when it started as reaction to the gay stereotypes of the 80's.
I remember how my hands trembled when I got my first copy of Bear Magazine featuring the first photos of Jack Radcliffe. But after many years and many personal relationships with bear groups here in Italy, I have lost any interest in those labels and that identity. That's why I never refer to my men as bears, chubbies or whatever, because I hate labeling anyone. I just take photos of people.

How are your personal relationships with your models?

You have no idea of how difficult my models can be!
My personal appreciation for their faces and bodies usually clashes with their own conviction of being ugly and useless. I have rarely met guys that had a good relationship with their bodies.
Most of the guys would love to be completely different. I remember a cute furry, dark haired young cub that came for a photo session with a picture of Cameron Diaz in his hands. He asked me: “Please make me look like her!”. I answered that even Photoshop has its limits!
I try to talk to my models a lot before the photo shoot, and hope to work through possible problems such as “my bf doesn't want me to pose” or “I look so terribly ugly”. Now I usually introduce myself by showing my website and asking the guys if they might be interested in posing for me. If they are not... ok, never mind. Maybe next time, maybe never. One thing really makes me mad though: people who write me offering themselves as models, making me organize everything, and then the day we fixed for the session, they disappear without calling or sending any message to inform me.
I keep on hoping one day I will meet a bunch of exhibitionist big men that will pose with no problems and troubles! Another big problem relates to the fact they are not professional models, so a lot of guys, when they get in front of the camera, simply... freeze, turn into a big piece of wood! It takes patience, a lot of talking, music, and jokes to make them relax and finally have fun with the session.

How important is Photoshop in your images? How do you use it?

Photoshop helps me in editing the RAW files to get the maximum quality.
I use it to take off pimples, little scars or skin imperfections, but never, never to drastically change  colors or body shapes. Obviously, it is also useful when converting color photos into black and white or duotone images.

Where do you take photos? Do you have a studio?

My studio is usually... my living room!
Along the years I have bought equipment that can turn my living room in a professional photo-studio.
I use it mostly during winter. When the weather permits, I prefer to take photos using natural light. Even if it's not so easy to find quiet places where you can take pictures of nude men.

How do you work with natural light? What are your technical solutions?

When I take photos outdoors or on beaches I prefer to shoot towards the end of the afternoon, when the sun is lower on the horizon, and light is oblique and brilliant. I generally avoid taking photos in midday hours, light is too strong and it makes models close their eyes. When it is possible I ask some friends to help me with the reflecting panels.

How do you create your compositions? Do you follow any rules?

No, I do not follow any particular rule. I have several ideas and possible poses in mind when I organize the sessions, and sometimes models have troubles in achieving them. I can be influenced by other photos, or by masterpieces of art (I have often used the pose of the “Amor profano” by Caravaggio, or the “Thinker” from Rodin). I usually use neutral colors as a background to the models, so that viewers can concentrate more on the subject than to the surroundings.

Now tell us the most strange or shocking thing that happened to you while taking photos.

It’s not easy to shock me. Strange... well... there was this guy from Spain who offered to pose for me during his holiday in Rome. He sent me some photos, forgetting to tell me that they were 15-20 years old. So when I opened the door I found in front of me the pale remains of what he had once been. I tried to take pictures anyway, but the results were disastrous!

Do you have any contacts with other photographers specialized in male nudes? What do they think of your work?

I have daily contacts with photographers worldwide through, especially those who specialize in similar subjects. You should ask them what they think of my work [laughs].
Personally I find there is a very interesting exchange of ideas, suggestions and points of view.
And with some of them good friendships are developing.

Is it possible to buy your photos? Do you plan to publish a book of your works?

No, for the time being, my photos are not for sale. I haven't even thought about it, even if some people seem convinced I am getting rich from selling photos on the web! Maybe some day I will do it, maybe not, I don’t know.
Making a book is an idea I’ve cherished from a long time. I’ve considered the self-publishing route with printing services like, but haven’t taken any steps in that direction. Maybe after my next show some world-famous publisher will offer to publish me! [laughs]. Well, I can dream can’t I!