A Reflection on Alan B. Stone’s Exhibit

The poverty of experience intrinsic to the accelerated age of modernity brings into question the politics of memory.  Alan B. Stone’s exposition at ICP Museum, Senses of Place, deracinates the notions of past, the fragility of memory and the conflicting narratives of history that inevitably come to define the present. How is it that a mere material manifestation of a light refractory so painfully and intimately captures a fleeting glimpse of time lost? Alan Stone’s work illustrates how photographs can so subtlety yet profoundly illicit a sea of feelings- uprooting thoughts consumed by the unconscious. Comprising of seventy-five black & white photographs, this collection reflects the realm of the imagination and memory as it is hijacked by the fallacy of a shared history.  It is the pathology of everyday that serves as his inspiration.  Serving as a blueprint of his experience coming of age in Montreal, Stone’s retrospective unveils through the mundane the tangled dialogue of modernity, sexuality and its social consequences. His vacant shots of empty streets in Montreal beg the question of what is lost amid the onslaught of modernity and what is gained.  As a homosexual, Stone’s life was one of persecution.  His subversive images of the male psychic, considered pornographic at the time, emerged as a silent protest of his own marginalization. Stone’s entire body of work ultimately conveys the beautiful and grotesque narrative of his own experience.

What I find most interesting about Stone’s work is the struggle and passion invested in his articulation of defining home. Torn by linguistic and racial barriers, the schizophrenic nature of Montreal’s urban identity served as his initial inspiration. Loosing his father at fifteen, he grew up with his mother and sister in a predominately Anglo-dominated barrio in Montreal[1].  The countless sub-divisions of pride served as the catalyst for social upheaval and hate. The geopolitical circumstances fueled by class and ethnic disparities emerged were meticulously documented by Stone in his early years. The image above, entitled “Lachine Canal, grain silos”, taken in 1953, depicts an edifice for grain storage along the Lachine Canal, which cut through the Old Port of Montreal to Lake Saint-Louis[2]. Although arguably a prosaic depiction of an industrial monolith, there is something haunting and inexplicably vacant cannibalizing it candid nature. Despite its commonplace content, the enigmatic compositional approach of Stone is voyeuristic, oblique and obsessive. These images of empty streets, a port in the dead of winter, a boy watching hockey alone speak of something far more significant. His photographs document Montreal before the city was usurped by pillars of steal and glass- rendering an illusory connection to the past and an uncanny recognition for what neglected. In this respect this series bemoans what was lost in the triumphed march towards industrialization and modernity.

Yet this candid and strangely haunting documentation of Montreal is far from a complete representation of Stone’s life work.  After setting up a professional studio in his mid-twenties, he was hired to photograph knots for a Boy Scouts manual.  A relationship forged on set with Billy Hill, known formerly as “Mr. Canada”, led to later commercial success when the body builder requested photographs of his physique[3].  The success of this spread subsequently situated Stone in a lucrative niche of sensually capturing the male form- Hill emerged as one of his chief models.  Thus in the 1950’s and 1960’s, his focused as artist on generating countless images of scantily clad, strapping young men.  This series, as controversial as it was at the time, emerged as his ‘claim to fame’[4].  Male body builders would actively seek him out- willing pay top dollar to have him photograph them[5].  He continued this body of work, later known as ‘beefcake’, until his death at the age of sixty-five in 1992. Due to the highly controversial genre, Stone created it behind the alias title, Mark One Studio.  This anonymity proved necessary, as years later once the nature of his work was exposed, his studio in Montreal was raided under the pretext that he was generating highly obscene ‘pornographic’ images.

Stone’s sexuality plays a great role in the construction of these images- more accurately described as male pin-ups rather than porn.  As a homosexual, Stone experienced great difficulty coming out.  To be a homosexual at this time harbored scandalous social consequences riddled with shame and the potential even of criminal charges. The hyper- conservative mentality plaguing Montreal denied the possibility of being open about one’s sexuality- especially if it deviated from the heterosexual ‘norm’.  Stone’s inclusion of newspaper article’s in his exposition shed light on the struggle and percussions endured by those of the gay community.  They serve as a testament of the pervasive persecution and harassment endured by the gay community.  Through decontextualizing these articles, Stone deracinates the deep roots of this collective prejudice. “As such, this exhibition underscores the extent to which photographic point-of-view is socially determined” [6].  His photographs, along with the articles he gathered in tandem, emerge as a blueprint of the pain integral of his past as well as a historical document of sub-divisions of pride that tore his city apart. As a marginalized citizen, Stone portrayed a view of the city that teetered outside the experience of the norm.  His perspective is unparalleled, though the story he tells through these images is not solely his own but one that speaks to a larger human experience.  It unveils the schizophrenic notion of identity and place- our connection to it and history’s role in redefining it. Photographs emerge as the sole relics of what was and constructs, like memories, what is.

The fundamental truth lacing each photograph is such: the past is present in different localities, even if these localities are abstract fragments of the past.  The politics of memory grow increasingly complicated when one admits the tendency of history’s re-writing. The photographic medium harbors the ability to force one to remember what has long been forgotten.  Alan Stone’s body of work acknowledges, with regret, our neglect for the mundane moments now lost to time. It subverts notions of sexuality in the vein of a monocracy, teasing the intolerant with a parody of their blind insecurity. What Stone’s work offers is a narrative of loss, of history, of persecution, of what could have been and what was. Photography is a medium that harbors a narrative regardless of the intent of the artist[7]. These photographs speak of the vacant moments loss, sexual oppression expressed. “ The absence at the heart of every photograph has a generative effect, one that recalls the theory of narrative according to which a secret of an absence (of narrative information) enables a story to continue to unfold. Once that secret is divulged, once that absence is filled, narrative ceases[8]” His images solicit a recognition of the collective experience of varying degrees of alienation.

Images, particularly photographs, have the facility to transport the mind to a place lost in the folds of one’s memory, long forgotten yet nonetheless a part of the present. In the words of Susan Sontag, photography emerges as an “inexhaustible invention to deduction, speculation and fantasy”[9].  In delineating the lived experience of one, Stone unveils the collective memory of many- a testimony to the indisputable shared struggles, losses and joys of humanity. This body of work articulates how photography complicates how we internalize our past and understand ourselves in relation to others. It speaks not to an isolated experience but rather a larger human pathology. In his images, we are not only confronted with the impulse to cling nostalgically to past moments, but we are struck with the realization that we have blindly allowed these moments to pass by unacknowledged.  Whereas, his work with the male form forces us to acknowledge, through subversive means, the struggle many face due their alleged deviations from the hegemonic social ‘norm’.


[1] David Deitcher. “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place.” Undated in “Alan B. Stone: A Sense of Place.” International Center of Photography, New York, New York (January 29, 2010—May 9, 2010) http://www.icp.org/atf/cf/%7Ba0b4ee7b-5a90-46ab-af37-7115a2d48f94%7D/alanbstone_david_deitcher.PDF (accessed February 9, 2010.

[2] “Lachine, Quebec”. 2006. February 22 2010. <http://www.bookrags.com/wiki/Lachine,_Quebec&gt;.

[3] [3] David Deitcher. “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place.” Undated in “Alan B. Stone: A Sense of Place.” International Center of Photography, New York, New York (January 29, 2010—May 9, 2010) http://www.icp.org/atf/cf/%7Ba0b4ee7b-5a90-46ab-af37-7115a2d48f94%7D/alanbstone_david_deitcher.PDF (accessed February 9, 2010)

[4] David Deitcher. “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place.” Undated in “Alan B. Stone: A Sense of Place.” International Center of Photography, New York, New York (January 29, 2010—May 9, 2010) http://www.icp.org/atf/cf/%7Ba0b4ee7b-5a90-46ab-af37-7115a2d48f94%7D/alanbstone_david_deitcher.PDF (accessed February 9, 2010)

[5] On the sexism and homophobia that are endemic to the prejudice against the sentimental, which dates back to the dawn of modernist culture, see: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1990), esp. pp. 91-130.

[6]David Deitcher. “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place.” Undated in “Alan B. Stone: A Sense of Place.” International Center of Photography, New York, New York (January 29, 2010—May 9, 2010) http://www.icp.org/atf/cf/%7Ba0b4ee7b-5a90-46ab-af37-7115a2d48f94%7D/alanbstone_david_deitcher.PDF (accessed February 9, 2010)

[7] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, Basic Books, 2001).

[8] David Deitcher. “Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place.” Undated in “Alan B. Stone: A Sense of Place.” International Center of Photography, New York, New York (January 29, 2010—May 9, 2010) http://www.icp.org/atf/cf/%7Ba0b4ee7b-5a90-46ab-af37-7115a2d48f94%7D/alanbstone_david_deitcher.PDF (accessed February 9, 2010).

[9] Susan Sontag, ““In Plato’’s Cave,”” On Photography (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), p. 23.

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