Jessica Yatrofsky has spent a large part of her twenties looking at naked men. Indeed, Yatrofsky has devoted much of her life to her love of the unclothed male form. And after years of criticism, academic probation and accusations of prostitution, it’s finally paying off.
Yatrofsky, 29 and heavily eye-linered, will see the publication of her first book, a collection of photography called I <3 Boy, this month. Some 40-odd pages, the book is a study of young, usually naked men—many of them photographed in the one-bedroom in Carroll Gardens that she shares with her boyfriend, Bobby Davidson.
Sitting in that apartment on a weekday afternoon, Yatrofsky discusses her work while Davidson brings me a cup of mint tea before disappearing into his closetsized office. An upright piano dominates the space, while simple framed prints flank the floor-through apartment and a curiously large flat screen TV hides stacked issues of GQ and Butt.
Startlingly skinny and mostly sans bodyhair, Yatrofsky’s models are most-often stretched out on wooden floorboards, with unmade beds—perhaps the one visible on the other end of her home—emerging from the corners of the frames. They all live in New York, mostly Downtown and in Williamsburg. She finds them through referrals from friends, or occasionally by approaching them at parties "if they have an interesting look." Generally, they’re gazing at an unseen, off-camera object and wearing a serene, almost vacant expression.
And while these images are not truly erotic, they aren’t sterile or overly stylized. Their appeal is sensual and soft—a weirdly incongruous beauty that isn’t masculine in the traditional sense, but unquestionably male. Indeed, without being fully conscious of it, Yatrofsky’s book attempts an old Greek idea: a reverence for the appeal of a youthful, pubescent male. The book’s title (read: "I heart boy") is the name of Yatrofsky’s blog. She really does heart boys, and has been shooting pictures of them, many with trou dropped and cocks swinging, since she was an undergrad studying fine arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her introduction to this sort of work began while taking photos in male strip clubs on the industrial side of the strip for Q Vegas, a local gay rag.
"In Vegas, if it’s all nude, you can’t serve alcohol. So it was like, soft drinks and dicks," she says, sipping water from a coffee mug she sets on the floor. Unlike in straight strip clubs, where taking photos is verboten, dancers—gay and straight—in the all-male clubs loved to ham it up for her camera. Yatrofsky found their candor and comfort with their bodies appealing.
In 2006, Yatrofsky moved to New York to get a masters degree in photography at Parsons. In the hopes of making extra cash with freelance photography, she posted Craigslist ads that led to shooting portraits of a guy who wanted to masturbate on camera. Being from Vegas, Yatrofsky was nonchalant and says now, "Dude, whatever he wants do in his session, as long as he understands that this isn’t a sexual exchange, and he pays his sitting fee."
What interested her was that this client didn’t want the photos, only the experience—enough that he was willing to pay for it.
"Men want to be seen naked," she explains. "And not, like, revealing themselves to someone in an illegal kind of way. I mean, like, they want to feel beautiful and be celebrated for their sexuality."
In exploring this, Yatrofsky—who now pays the bills as a commercial photographer and photo editor— filmed herself shooting pictures of these exhibitionists, who in turn were masturbating on a couch in her school studio. After showing a 30-second loop of one of these sessions in her grad school critiques in 2008, she caused an uproar resulting in faculty in-fighting and advisors suggesting she had psychological problems (one even called her a prostitute, although that misunderstanding has been rectified). Over the winter break, Yatrofsky received a certified letter from the school putting her into academic probation for allowing a man to ejaculate on a piece of school property.
"Still, I felt like I was on to something," she continues. "It was telling me that these reactions were really provocative and need to be explored." (Yatrofsky recently finished work on a film, Sun In My Mouth, using her book’s cover model, which echoes the voyeuristic performances she developed while at Parsons.)
At first glance, Yatrofky’s photos appear to be the work of a gay man. Not that the photos weren’t sexy, but the boyishness and the vacuous gaze did not come across as the typical aesthetic fantasy world of a straight woman. Part of the reason the images are so stimulating is that she captures quite succinctly the art of the gay male gaze. This kind of true-to-life work has already been seen, in a way, in queer publications like Butt and Pinups however, Yatrofsky’s models are younger, more hairless and skinnier. And her choice of model and attention to form does give her a certain edge: These slightly off-looking boys (one complete with a chest tattoo depicting an old camera) have rarely been represented nude.
Weston Bingham, an editor at the gay lifestyle website East Village Boys and the author of the introduction to I <3 Boy, finds her work to be refreshing because it "doesn’t tell you what to think." He likes that the models are not sporting hard-ons or "making their fuck face." He believes that by avoiding the mainstream clichés, "the images turn out to be a lot sexier than what we’re told is supposed to be sexy."
Others have spoken about the anonymity of her photography—indeed, none of the models are named other than en masse in the end credits (including Davidson, her boyfriend, who stands behind Yatrofsky’s vision and wants to be a part of her work).
In speaking to Yatrofsky about the model depictions, I point out that their languid forms, draped across surfaces while looking sublimely bored, reminded me of pictures of slumbering cats.
She laughs. "I like that," she says. "I can totally get that, ‘I’m not giving you anything’ [vibe] and cats are like that. It’s not about their identity, it’s about this collective idea: about male nudity and representation."