Photo Ephemera

Cult auteur Bruce LaBruce takes us through his personal photography archive
By J.L. Sirisuk | Art | 19 December 2022

Throughout his transgressive and uncompromising oeuvre, counterculture auteur Bruce LaBruce has probed sexual taboos, feminist revolutionaries and underground uprisings. Conjuring scenes of zombie coitus, incest and sacrilegious sexuality, you may well wonder how the interiors of LaBruce’s personal life could possibly look. Now we get a unique insight through LaBruce’s recent autobiographical project Photo Ephemera, a rich unfurling of images taken on a shoot-and-point digital camera. This incredible and intimate curation provides a captivating insight into LaBruce’s life, travel and work over the last two decades.

“The photos represent the kind of fixations and obsessions that run through all of my work  thematically. The idea of hustlers, male prostitutes or zombies or the idea of post-coital sex,” LaBruce shares. We see cocks, tits, blood and piss – sunsets, churches, children in school uniforms, snapshots from Russia and Cuba. Spanning two volumes, we move through personal photos of friends, lovers, trips, gay bars, and icons including Genesis P-Breyer Porridge, Kembra Pfahler, Karl Lagerfield, Beth Ditto, and Peaches. Uninterrupted moments, sweaty moments – we see scenes from LaBruce’s life captured before the rise and influence of social media, before Instagram and iPhones – a time before immediacy became so accessible and moments remained a secret, a mystery, a reflection.


J.L. Sirisuk: What are some of your earliest memories of being captivated by images, whether moving or still?
Bruce LaBruce: I grew up on a farm and it seems weird now and sort of a cliché, but we only had two TV channels. Movies were very precious because they were not as available and there was a certain randomness to your exposure to them. As a kid growing up, the midnight TV shows on the weekends or the Friday night movie that played every week were significant and when you hit on something that was an amazing piece of cinema, it was like hitting the jackpot. It was this mesmerising experience where you’re seduced by the movie or the work, and that happened to me many times as a kid in the 70s.

In the 70s, there was a permissive kind of culture in a weird way, the sexual revolution was just happening so there was full frontal nudity on Canadian television, even on mainstream Canadian television. I’d see these movies like That Cold Day in The Park, Robert Altman’s movie which I remade for my first feature, No Skin Off My Ass. They’re just very twisted and psychosexual movies that were way over my head as a young teen. I didn’t really understand the sexual psychodrama of it all. It shaped my later vision of sex and religion and the relationship between sexual and religious ecstasy.

JLS: Between Death Book (2020) and your new project Photo Ephemera, what happened that led you to put this latest photo project together?
BL: After compiling Death Book, through going through my own archives and work, I realised how many photos I’d taken. We all do now with smartphones and everything, and where do they all go? Part of it is the ephemera, like posting photos on Instagram and social media, they are meant to be disposable, they kind of come and go. It’s not something you dwell on, you’re always looking for the next image, the next new photo, the new kind of hit and it’s like a narcotic, a constant need for a new image, something different. But I realised I had this crazy digital archive of all these photos of my life, my travels, my work over the past twenty years or so that I’ve never shown before, or that sit on my external hard drive. So there’s a wealth of material there that normally I wouldn’t have thought about or accessed – it’s a part of your memory bank. Photos that I took on trips would spark memories of things I’d forgotten, it was kind of a supplement to my fading memory.

“…it’s like a narcotic, a constant need for a new image, something different.”

JLS: The photographs were taken in the early 2000s?
BL: It was that weird period between when digital took over from analogue, so I used to have a point-and-shoot camera and also a 35mm camera that I started taking photos on film. There’s that transition to digital cameras, which was somewhere in the early 2000s and before the smartphone took over, so there is a difference between taking pictures with a small point-and-shoot digital camera, and with a smartphone, because the digital camera is still kind of old school, you’re still pointing, you’re still framing, it still feels like real photography in a strange way. Whereas the smartphone seems more like you’re just capturing something. It’s not as much about the aesthetics or the framing, or even the composition, it’s more just capturing a fleeting moment and quite often directed at one’s self with the selfies. So that soft spot before the smartphone took over and after digital took over from analogue.

JLS: It was a special time before the dominance of social media in our lives. Do you think people were a little less self-conscious and more sincere in their actions when you photographed them?
BL: In the late 90s, I was hanging out with a lot of artists and photographers, filmmakers in New York. I was hanging out with Ryan McGinley, the artist Dash Snow. We were running around clubs and wherever in everyday life in New York, everyone snapping pictures. It was kind of an anticipation of what would happen eventually with everyone taking photos with cell phones. It was strange because it was the first time that I’d experienced everyone with a camera – like, the same event would be documented by all your friends from different points of view. I think that’s when people started becoming self-conscious because before that it was more about experiencing the moment without constantly reflecting on it. With cell phones you document absolutely everything and you’re constantly reviewing your life moments after you’ve already lived them, you take pictures of something you’ve done and then a minute later you’re reviewing your life, kind of like an instant replay, which adds to the self-consciousness of it. So yeah, I do think that. Some of the photos in the book were taken in Cuba and South Africa, where there’s a different mentality, some of them were in areas that seemed caught in time. In those, the subjects are less self-conscious and it’s a different kind of landscape, a different frame of mind.

JLS: Your images are like snapshots of a larger film and we get to jump into parts of your life. Some moments do seem quieter than others – there’s an image that jumped out at me of kids in school uniforms. What can you share about that image?
BL: That was in Havana. There are several images with children, who are always interesting subjects because they also have that kind of non-self-consciousness. There’s another one where these little girls are playing with a fountain, and it’s a fountain of a boy peeing and the girl has their hand in the pee stream of the fountain in a very playful way and there’s nothing weird about it. There’s another one with kids playing on two tanks facing each other, which was taken in Kyiv in 2011. It’s a grim reminder of what’s happening now with the war. But you have these kids playing on tanks from a previous war, and again, there’s no way these kids would have known they’re playing on these tanks and in ten years there would be real tanks going through their cities. I have that in my movies too, I often have children in movies that are quite harsh and have very adult themes. It’s important to acknowledge that we were all children once and that we had a certain innocence, that’s kind of what we want to get back to or never forget amidst all the craziness, violence and horrors of the world.

JLS: It makes me think about innocence, childhood, and puberty. Becoming sexual is such a normal part of life, why do you think sexuality evokes discomfort in people?
BL: It’s a real pet peeve of mine in terms of this idea. So many Netflix TV series are predicated in the first episode on some sort of mutilated female body, or some kind of dismemberment or ritualistic killing and it’s quite often a female body. Yet you can’t show a female body having explicit sexual pleasure on these platforms, which sends a very strange message. You can show the most horrific kind of dismemberment or cannibalism, but you can’t show simple explicit pleasure. As a culture, that’s a question we should keep asking ourselves. In European cinema, especially Eastern European cinema, there’s a lot of casual nudity. There’s this amazing film Radu Jude made called I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians. It’s an amazing film with a female lead character – the point is there’s very casual nudity in the film where she’s naked; when she’s at home with her boyfriend or husband, they’re having conversations, they’re nude, it’s very natural. That’s true of more European cinema than in the US and Canada, which has always had some weird double standard and prudishness about nakedness. When it does happen, it’s completely sensationalised and everyone gets very tantalised and stimulated by it because it’s such a taboo. I’ve made three of my last films in Quebec, the French speaking province of Canada. Between French Canada and the rest of English-speaking Canada, culturally there’s a difference between the cinema and how sex and nudity is treated. For me, I like that frankness of just having a nude body without any sexual aspect to it.

You can show the most horrific kind of dismemberment or cannibalism, but you can’t show simple explicit pleasure.”

JLS: Returning to your recent project, I loved jumping into your world – how did you determine which photos to include across the two volumes?
BL: I guess there’s a certain randomness to it, which is part of the ephemera thing. They were taken with a point-and-shoot which is more of a discipline, and even though the photos might have been taken in a very casual setting, like travelling, there’s still an attention to aesthetics, composition, framing and lighting. For me, it has to work as a photo aesthetically. That’s part of the criteria but otherwise, it’s also about choosing photos that represent the kind of fixations and obsessions that run through all my work thematically. The idea of hustlers, male prostitutes, zombies, or the idea of post-coital sex. There are several photos of my ex-husband sleeping – he would fall asleep in unusual places. Some of them are very autobiographical in that way, just aspects of my life that were interesting to me. There are personalities as well, people like Christopherson [Peter], the late member of Throbbing Gristle, my friend Dash Snow who passed away of a drug overdose, and the living, like Beth Ditto and Peaches, some concert or backstage photos of my friends who are in bands or are performers.

I like that frankness of just having a nude body without any sexual aspect to it.”

JLS: You mentioned people taking photos in this digital age like it’s a narcotic. Throughout your career and different projects, what keeps you going – what gives you that high?
BL: It’s a narcotic and it’s a mirror as well, it’s reflected back at people. The narcissistic urge is really an inversion of what the camera usually does. It shows what you’re looking at, and then the smartphone has reversed it – it shows you looking at things. It’s a strange narcissistic inversion of the original intent of the camera. I think they should discontinue that function on the camera phone where it turns on you, they should stop that for a while.

I’ve always been a photographer from the very early part of my education. I started out making my early work on film, so it was again processing the film and editing with strips of film rather than on digital. It’s something that goes way back with me – the process, being immersed in it as a tradition of photography. There’s a continuity there that has never stopped, and then the other aspect of it is more lucid: what motivates you? What’s your creative mojo? Like a lot of artists, I do go through periods where I’m not very inspired and I’m blocked, but it’s a process of constantly asking yourself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing, and why am I creating? How am I contributing to the world?” These days, the world makes you drop your hands and question whether you want to even participate, but there’s always something – it’s like a mojo that usually someone will come along and re-stimulate, a muse, mentor or someone.

Photo Ephemera is now out via Baron Books
Follow Bruce LaBruce on Instagram.


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