For the second year in a row, Ron Amato, respected New York photographer and professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) was named in the Advocate‘s annual Best in Photography issue. He was celebrated for his photography series The Box, a multi-year project now being produced by esteemed publisher Bruno Gmuender in a 112-page photo book. The book includes 108 color and black and white photographs of nude men in and out and on and around boxes individually and with others.
Amato began making photographs in his childhood right here in his native New York City. In the 1990s and 2000s, he photographed for fitness and sports magazines including Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Sports Illustrated. In 2004 he began teaching in the department of photography at the FIT.
His adult work has consistently explored sexuality, the male figure, and his own attraction to men and The Box falls in line with that exploration. We caught up with him on the verge of the photo book’s release to learn more about his vision for The Box, why such a project now in his life, and what it was like for the models to be boxed in.
This project uses boxes as vehicles for expressing different stages of your life as a gay man. Where in the stages of your life would you say you are now and why at this stage in your life was this project important to undertake?
I believe part of the human condition is that we are in a constant state of flux. That’s what makes life interesting, right? That said, I am in the most settled place I’ve ever been, both personally and professionally. My sexuality is a resolved issue. At least within myself. The only conflict now comes from external sources. As far as my personal well-being and psyche, I am in a very good place. It took years of hard work and for much of my young adulthood, I thought I would never get here. That’s why a project like The Box could only happen now. It is a reflective project, whereas I think much of my work up to this point has been reactive.
The Box is a wonderful concept for this project. In our everyday language, we have so many sayings such as “think outside the box” and “don’t box yourself in.” How did your vision for the box concept come about?
I’ve been teaching photography at the university level for 14 years. In the studios at my current institution (FIT, NYC), there are many wooden boxes. They are meant as supports for platforms or tables, or for models to stand on if they need to get higher. They are not meant as props to be photographed. I hate seeing studio equipment in photographs. All my time teaching I have told my students I don’t want to see the boxes in photographs unless there is a conceptual reason for them to be there. That got me thinking, “What would be a conceptual reason to see the boxes?” That was the germ of the idea.
At first, I was just dealing with “empowerment” – the boxes as pedestals. I started to realize all the ways a box can be a metaphor. I had the large boxes made so I could fit men inside and the project just exploded. Emotionally, the prop is rich with suggestion. The 8 themes started to rise up and take shape. Once I identified them, I was able to communicate them to the models and achieve exactly what I was looking for.
The diversity of the 30 models is terrific. What was your vision for selecting the models and how did the process unfold for The Box?
Social media has been a very powerful casting tool. For a previous project, Armor, I mostly used Facebook to cast. That brought me a reputation among certain circles of gay men for making images that are sexy and thought-provoking. After that, I had many solicitations from men who wanted to pose for me. I always have a list of men who I want to photograph. That list just keeps growing!
Selecting the specific men is a little bit of an enigma. Obviously, the world is filled with beautiful people. Attraction is definitely a component of casting but for me, there needs to be something deeper. I have turned down many men who have wanted me to photograph them because, even though they were beautiful, there was something missing for me. I need to see something beneath the beautiful surface. I never know what that is and it is different for each individual. I guess the best word for it is intrigue. I need to be intrigued by someone.
Once I identified men I wanted to photograph for the project, I started to look at combinations. I make spreadsheets with photographs and the men’s heights so I can look them next to each other. I was looking for interesting combinations. Sometimes that meant they were very similar, sometimes that meant they were very different. For instance, the shoot with Rowan, Jimmy, and Justin, I pursued them because I was looking for a group of younger men with more narrow physiques. They look more like I did when I was young.
On the other hand, when casting Patrick, Elle, and Jack, I was looking for diversity, both racial and age. I think a unique aspect of the gay community is that we interface between ages and races more than some other subsets of society. That is probably because our sexuality bonds us together in stronger ways due to marginalization and discrimination.
Practically speaking, the boxes must have been a challenge to get into and out of. Are there any funny or awkward moments to share?
I don’t think “funny” would be a word the guys would use to describe the experience! Awkward, painful, sexy, sweaty, intimate – these might be words they would use. With a few exceptions, these guys were strangers. They would come into the room, take off their clothes and get in a very tight space with each other. The awkwardness and titillation were all part of what makes these photographs so rich and intriguing. Things were happening in those boxes I was not privy to and only heard bits of afterward. I didn’t want to know and didn’t want my presence to change whatever dynamic was happening.
I think many of the men were in extreme pain while also having a heightened sense of the sexual implications of the situation. Quite a few got aroused during the process but I never called attention to it or exploited it for the photographs. There was a kind of a primalness to it all and, I think, everyone felt comfortable and natural about it. There was never really any embarrassment.
What will be the most memorable moment of photographing the men on this collaboration?
God, there are so many memorable moments about these shoots. For me, this project has been enriching and life altering. Much of that has to do with how I feel about these men. Honestly, I don’t really hang out with any of them but they will forever be a part of my life. They are my avatars.
Without giving any short shrift, here are some of the highlights. Bryan and Tony were the first to go into the big boxes and really showed me what was possible. I think they helped accelerate the project.
Nicolaas and Larid were so open-hearted in the way they approached the shoot. They had great chemistry and it shows in the photographs. That shoot is a highlight for me (below).
The shoot with Brad, Chris and Marco stands out to me as memorable, mostly because Brad and Chris are probably closest to who I am now. They are a long-term married couple who have achieved a certain amount of success in their careers. Chris has talked about the shoot and being involved in the project as a watershed moment for him as he approached his 50th birthday. I love that it was meaningful for him on a personal level. I related to that feeling very much. Also, Marco is a very thoughtful man who hadn’t done anything like this before. I think the shoot marked a turning point in his life as well. The best part is that the three of them have become good friends and still see each other socially. I love that.
As a final question, we ask all our interviewees our signature one. What is something you have done that would be considered edgy, unconventional, or tight-lipped?
Well, strictly professionally, there were and are a few projects some people might consider edgy. In 2000 I had a solo exhibition at Richard Anderson Fine Arts in NYC that was photographs of me having sex with other men. Don’t bother googling, you won’t find those images. The show was a big part of my coming out process. I put the photographs up on the wall as a way of telling the world I was proud of who I am. The ways in which I have sex are at the very core of that. In many ways that project was a precursor to The Box project. That was the public declaration of who I was and The Box is a pictorial autobiography. I have spent the time in between on a visual journey exploring my sexuality.
I have a current project called Members Only. The project is comprised of close up images of penises. I find the penis such a curious part of the human anatomy. I started making these photographs on a whim but it has turned into a quest. I am fascinated by the mystic around the penis. The power, the vulnerability, the attraction to it; it is an enigma. Doing the project I realized penises are very much like fingerprints; no two are the same. Again this is an attempt to understand my attraction to men, as is most my work.
All Photographs © Ron Amato. Learn more about Ron Amato.