The first picture American photographer Chad States ever took was of a flower. These days, however, he’ll only shoot nature scenery if two anonymous guys happen to be having sex in the foreground. He depicts these stolen moments in such a weirdly romantic way that we felt compelled to publish some of his pictures in our recent SPOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKY ISSUE. We also had a chat with him about his experiences prowling around cruising parks with a camera hunting pictures for his upcoming book, Cruising.
VICE: Hey Chad, how long did you spend lurking behind trees before you had enough pictures for the book?
Chad States: I spent four years shooting it, but I’ve basically scrapped all the images from the first couple of years.
Really? What were those images like?
They were mainly pictures of lonely guys sitting around waiting in their cars. They only went into the park if they hooked up with someone. I’d sit around in the parking lot too, and pull out my camera occasionally and hope they wouldn’t notice me. It’s funny, because the more discreet I tried to be, the more scared people were. At times, someone would walk over to my car and be like, “What the hell’s going on?” and start beating on my window.
So people would get mad when you tried to take their picture?
There have been a couple of occasions when people have got pissed off, especially in the beginning. When that happened, I’d drive off and when I got back home my partner Andrew was like, “What were you thinking? Of course that guy’s going to flip out on you.” I was always exhausted when I came back because I was constantly on edge, as I never knew how things were going to turn out.
What was the turning point?
I discovered that if I just put myself out in the open, people accepted me more and I was able to get in. I guess I wasn’t interacting properly in the beginning.
How much interaction are we talking?
I kind of had to make myself a part of the scene. Whenever guys would approach me about hooking up, I’d play around to the extent that they’d accept me.
So even though the photos look as though they were taken in secret, a lot of the cruisers actually agreed to have their picture taken?
They agreed but it was a fleeting agreement. They’d kind of look at me and I’d nod at them and take the picture. Most of the time they were willing to do like, two shots, and then they’d freak out. I’d only get a couple of seconds to get a good shot, then they’d wave me off and I’d go away.
In many pictures you can hardly see the cruisers for all the trees. Was that extra layer of voyeurism a conscious aesthetic decision or could you just not get close enough?
Actually, those pictures were the hardest ones to get. I hadn’t interacted with those guys and my presence hadn’t been OK'd; I just sort of turned around and taken the picture. If they’d have seen me with a camera to my face, they’d have been gone the next second.
Did people start recognising you after a while, seeing as you hung out in these places for four years?
Yeah [laughs], some of them did. I kept seeing familiar faces but I’m not sure how successful they were in hooking up. I have one image of a guy walking down a trail through the park with his back facing the camera. When I tried to photograph him a year later he dragged me into the bushes and I thought, “Oh great, he wants me to take his picture” and I kind of held up my camera and he was like, “No! What are you doing?” and was like, “I thought that’s why you called me over?” but he hadn’t even noticed that I had a camera. I had my shirt off and the camera around my neck, so it wasn’t like I was trying to hide anything. It put me in this ethical conundrum, because I didn’t know whether or not I could use the picture I had taken of him before.
I guess that’s a risk you have to take.
Yeah. I can’t start thinking about those things now, after having spent over four years shooting it.
The people in the pictures look pretty anonymous so I’m sure it’s fine. What first made you want to take photos of guys having sex in the woods?
It’s something I used to do as a teenager. Making images of it was my way back to that scene, without actually truly participating in it. Another reason was that there’s a park that became a cruising spot overnight a couple of blocks from my house in Delaware. I was curious and wanted to approach it photographically, and then I started to seek out other cruising parks. It was sort of sexually exciting and fun; I love watching it go down and seeing the social interaction and the coded language.
Yeah, you know, people nod, hold their gazes or stroke their crotch to let them know that they're interested. I like that game, that kind of sexual tension. It’s very fun.
How come you chose parks as your scenery and not other spots, like public bathrooms?
I tried that at first, going into toilets and whatnot, but the parks are just so beautiful. If you’re going to spend hours every day doing this you might as well be in a beautiful spot. The book is shot in four different parks, but I made sure the landscapes all looked similar to make them more anonymous.
Was it difficult to find a publisher for a book about guys hooking up in the woods?
I was very lucky; powerHouse contacted me after Alec Soth had written about a book dummy I had made on his blog. It’s different when it comes to galleries, though. They’re worried my work is “too much” and hard to sell.
What would you say defines your work? Is there a common denominator?
I think sex is always interesting and it’s something I want to use in my work. I always try to create scenarios in which I have an experience and walk away with a photograph. If I’m not creating an experience for myself, I’m not that interested. There’s something very exciting about having an intimate moment with a subject, taking the portrait and then walking away. I guess having been in a relationship for almost seven years now, my work is my way of having these experiences without actually having sex.
How did you get into photography?
I went to art school to paint and used photographs as source references for my paintings. Eventually, I took a photo class to learn how to take better pictures for my paintings and had a “wow” experience when my teacher introduced me to Cindy Sherman and Katherine Opie and a lot of identity politics stuff. I realised that photography was so much more than what I had initially thought, so I abandoned painting altogether and started taking photographs instead.
Do you have a favourite photographer?
I’m a big fan of Katie Grannan. Her work feels very cruel and very tender at the same time and I love that idea of exploitation, of power dynamics. It makes the images exciting. I try to make work that creates a discussion about exploitation. I find the idea of, “How much am I exploiting the subject here?” very interesting.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a project where I sort of utilise this sexual power I have, which I discovered whilst shooting Cruising. They’re portraits of guys stripping for me, which they do out of desire because, basically, they want to have sex with me. And I try to make it as beautiful as possible.
Cruising will be out on November 8 through powerhouse Books. Chad wants you to come to his book release party on November 3 at The powerHouse Arena, 37 Main Street, Brooklyn, between 7-9PM.
WORDS: MILENE LARSSON
PHOTOS: CHAD STATES