The artist Kenneth Guthrie and his partner Rich are collaborators on The Way You Look at Me (2017–present)—an intricate installation of photographs of varying sizes, and a video. While the work explores the intimate relationship between Guthrie and Rich, in many ways, it began long before they met and harkens back to Guthrie’s progression toward his acceptance of his identity as a gay man. Guthrie grew up Southern Baptist, and although he was aware of his queerness at a young age, he found himself conforming to masculine expectations that came with the traditions and conventions of his church. His desire to wear his mother’s dresses remained a secret, as he went out into the world wearing plaid shirts and straight-legged jeans to signify straightness and maintain the acceptance of his family. To this day, in public, he still wears jeans and plaid, but he is increasingly comfortable expressing his true self.
Guthrie explored his sexuality through fleeting relationships with men that he met though social-media sites such as Tinder—until he met Rich. He and Rich coupled more deeply than Guthrie was accustomed to, and their relationship has blossomed. Working closely with Rich to construct portraits, still lifes, and self-portraits, Guthrie unveils the intimacy of their relationship while reorienting the representation of queer men.
Guthrie has described The Way You Look at Me as a reflection “upon notions of personal identity, gender expression, and performativity through the lens of contemporary and historical queer vernacular.” In each portrait, whether it depicts Rich or himself, Guthrie chooses to have the subject look directly into the camera, in a delicate, seductive posture. The presentation of the partners’ sexual orientation exudes a sense of pride and conviction, while the two men also convey vulnerability and assert themselves as objects of desire. Still lifes presented alongside the portraits represent beauty, sexual activity, gender expression, and the societal bias of queerness. In one of the photographs, sticks tied together in a bundle rest on a wood floor, while a video titled Slim Non-Masc Faggot Bundles Faggots (2019) shows Guthrie repetitively gathering sticks to construct a collection of faggots—a nod to the evolution of the word “faggot” to both plainly describe a bundle of sticks for burning and offensively describe a gay man. In the video, Guthrie is dramatically lit from the sides, calling attention to the delicacy of his body movements as he forms the faggots. Similar to Guthrie’s portraits, the video addresses desire and standards of beauty within the gay community.
In challenging standard representations of queer men, The Way You Look at Me casts light on narrow, established perceptions of gay life. Guthrie and Rich thus awaken us to the ways we limit our perceptions of ourselves and each other—and engender the empathy that accompanies that vital discovery.
Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago