"If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path."
-- Joseph Campbell
The philosophy of American mythologist, writer and lecturer Joseph Campbell could be summed up in one phrase, "Follow your bliss."
Vincent Keith's exploration of his own visual mythology is a perfect example of the payoff in Campbell's words. By going deeper into his personal tastes and desires, his enthusiasm and passion gather us up. If we did not share his tastes before seeing his work, there is the strong possibility that his images of unconventionally beautiful men may ensnare us and take us along for the ride.
That was the case for me when I saw one of his black and white photographs of one of his friends on -- Tumblr?, Pinterest?, Facebook? -- I no longer remember the make and model of vehicle, only the face of the passenger staring out the window of my computer screen.
What I saw was a man, close to my age, with all the character and degradation that happens to a man's face after a half a century. It was a simple set up. A square cropped portrait on a black background. The gorgeous details -- wiry white facial hair clear and focused; the cross-hatching of wrinkles from joy, pain, and a life lived; the steady gaze both fearless and heart-meltingly warm -- all adding up to an interactive experience. I was responding to the image: I desired the man photographed, I wanted to be the man photographed, I wanted to know the man who could capture all that in a simple portrait.
His father introduced Vincent Keith to photography and the mysteries of a darkroom at a young age. In 2000, the purchase of a Hassleblad camera upped the stakes. Suddenly the right equipment became a driving force. Keith has been known to haul inordinate amounts of equipment and technology to remote locations on the chance that he will have the need. "I never once regretted it."
The sense of otherness many gay men feel as the grow up is often compounded by having or liking a body of non-commercial characteristics. Keith did not see the men he was attracted to in magazines and television. He was a consumer of vast amounts of visual media but found very few quality representations of what is commonly known as 'bears'.
Richard Bulger, who, along with his then partner Chris Nelson (1960-2006) founded Bear Magazine in 1987 lays claim to coining the term 'bear.' But other usage of the term, precedes that, such as George Mazzei's article for The Advocate in 1979, "Who's Who in the Zoo?" The articles classified gay men in stereotypes matching the animals, and of course 'bear' was one of them.
Initially, as the bear movement grew, it separated itself from more mainstream gay society. There were bear-centric bars, gatherings, contests, and even vacation resorts. But because this sub-subculture was often represented by masculine men looking much like their straight counterparts, this subdivision was swiftly picked up and utilized by straight media and entertainment. The bear is seen as a regular guy -- jolly, unselfconscious, with a healthy and lusty appetite for food, sex, and life.
That was not Vincent Keith's experience when he made his first attempts to capture the bear on film. "When I discovered bears, I felt, to paraphrase Steve Martin, These are my people! So naturally, I wanted to photograph them. Sadly, that was easier said than done. It turns out the bears tend to be shy and often can't see how beautiful they are as men."
The turning point on the plot of Keith's bear hunting story is just that: He can see the beauty of these men. Not only that, but he can catch and render it beautifully with his camera. In so doing, he mirrors back to the model his own complex beauty. So after a frustrating period of refusals from the men he petitioned -- friends, acquaintances, and men on contact sites -- he began to slowly accumulate a portfolio of his visions. Build it and they will come. The results of his work attracted more men to pose for him, and now his model base is growing exponentially.
Keith began sharing his images. Responses on platforms like Flickr told him that there was a community of creators who shared his tastes and he was inspired to create the online magazine, Mascular, and now venturing into issue number nine.
Being a curator takes a special generosity of spirit. Sometimes this can be difficult for an artist with a strong personal vision, but happily not so in this case. Mascular curates work from hundreds of contributors from all over the globe with an open-minded spirit, often in the bear realm, but much of it veering to more unique expressions, some non-figurative.
"We save the world by being alive ourselves." -- Joseph Campbell
Vincent Keith proved out Joseph Campbell by following his own instinct with determination, and in so doing created a space for others to join him and freely express themselves. Keith takes care of the world by taking care of himself. (Reprinted from the foreword to Mascular)