2019 Portfolio Prize Winner: Mark McKnight

Mark McKnight’s black-and-white images of bodies and landscapes challenge Eurocentric ideas about male beauty—and aim to make “straight” photography a little less straight.

Mark McKnight is a modern-day modernist. His black-and-white photographs of skin and sand, brick and tar, with their rich tones and sparkling light, are redolent of twentieth-century masterworks, those pictures by men like Edward Weston who cast the world in silver-gelatin. Weston once said the camera should be used for recording the “quintessence of the thing itself, whether polished steel or palpitating flesh.” But for McKnight, who was born in Los Angeles to a New Mexican, Hispana-identified mother, something was missing from Weston’s vision. Something that would ignite a flame of recognition in a young queer man with ideas about male beauty more expansive than the Eurocentric standard. Something that would make “straight” photography a little less straight.

McKnight began to photograph hirsute, softer-bodied men, often people of color, deliberately obscuring their identities so as to render them as “armatures for concepts of loss, desire, vulnerability, and entropy.” His subjects are people he knows intimately, partners or close friends. In his photographs, the body, the physical world, and the built environment begin to merge. “I like when the body starts to look like another thing, when it transcends itself. When it becomes undone,” McKnight says. By overprinting his images, he buries certain details while accentuating others. It’s a strategy “for making the body look less like a body, whether it’s concrete or metal.”

“The flame started first by amazement over subject matter, that flame which only a great artist can have,” Edward Weston wrote back in 1930. For McKnight, the choice of queer bodies as an ongoing subject—the flame itself—is simply about photographing men he found beautiful, and who looked more like himself. “I wanted to represent these subjects with the grace that Weston would have afforded,” he says. McKnight didn’t set out intending to “right some art historical wrong,” but he admits he couldn’t find the subjects of his desire represented in the history of photography. Until now.

Mark McKnight, Decreation, 2018
Mark McKnight, if water forgets how to play mirror, 2018
Mark McKnight, Burned Map (or: Body), 2018
Mark McKnight, Earthskin, 2018
All photographs from the series Decreation. Courtesy the artist.

Mark McKnight (born in Los Angeles, 1984) was born to a New Mexican mother who struggled with their Southwestern, diasporic roots. In turn, McKnight grappled with reconciling his own identity, both as a mixed-race person of color and as a gay man—particularly one who neither exemplified nor desired the idealized, Eurocentric cultural standard of male beauty that is perpetuated even within gay culture. Since McKnight was raised in an environment that privileges white, heterosexual masculinity, his work operates as a site of resistance to those values. McKnight completed a Fulbright Scholarship in Finland in 2009, and he has also completed artist residencies at Storm King Art Center (2017) and Light Work (2019). In 2018 McKnight gave the first in a series of public lectures titled “Queer Eye,” in which he confronted the shortsighted legacy of “straight,” modernist photographic practice while proposing a queered historical revision; that same year he held two solo exhibitions that received favorable national reviews. His work was the subject of both a two-person gallery exhibition at Roger’s Office in Los Angeles and a multi-museum survey and catalogue. His most recent group exhibition, Close to Home (Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles, 2019), dealt with the themes of identity and abstract narrative. His work is currently represented by James Harris, Seattle.