Stephen Milner, an artist based in the sun-drenched land of California, has been known to turn his lens on his cloudless surroundings. Whether it’s photography, sculpture, video or installation, each project is as radiant as the next, and each looks towards the representation of masculinity and identity.
Before deciphering a career in the arts, Stephen first picked up a camera while in high school after his skateboarding friends voted him “the worst in the group”, and therefore the one who would film and photograph their antics. As a self-taught photographer, he took a couple of art classes with a teacher he admired, “but never really learned about the history of photography or contemporary art.” Until, one day, an older friend in his college photography course gave him a copy of Larry Clark’s Tulsa – “I remember it having a profound effect on me and my understanding of how photography can be used to influence narratives.” He also remembers having to hide it in his bedroom, afraid that his parents might find it; a moment in time that is in some ways symbolic of his creative process, but also of his experiences of hiding his gay identity during his adolescence.
His most recent project, A Spiritual Good Time, is paramount to his stance as an artist. Presenting sunlit imagery sourced from archival surfing and pornographic magazines that pre-date the 1990s, the series is awash with sea salt, erotic details, sweaty skin, sensitive moments and deeper undertones that run throughout. “Before I officially started the project, I bounced around a few ideas where I was using my large-format camera and also a small underwater film camera to try and convey the psychological undertones of surfing and gay identity,” Stephen tells It’s Nice That. However, he soon turned towards found imagery, as he saw the process of his own photography as rather limiting. “The more I photographed, the more I felt like I was just confining myself into the hyper-masculine culture and editorial tropes that I had trouble relating to in surfing magazines.”
“Funnily enough,” he continues, “when I was in high school I used to hide cutouts from gay porn magazines inside old stacks of surfing magazines. I was confident that no one would want to move the stack and look through them.” Growing up in a small farming town, Stephen spent much of his time trying to shield his identity as a gay male and turned to sports as the answer. “While in grad school, I started to look back into my past and recognised that maybe I started surfing because I was attracted to the macho male surf culture and the community it provided,” he says. “I was interested in investigating that space of confusion, plus the hyper/toxic masculinity versus homophobia in the sport.”
Utilising his mixed-media approach as the catalyst and vehicle for addressing these issues, Stephen aims to uncover a dialogue between surfing communities and gay culture, as well as reckon with his own personal investigation of gay identity. “This is where I started to become interested in archives and the parallel histories of gay liberation and the growth of surfing in America.” Thus, in each image from his series, you’re greeted with cut out editorials, a vintage, grainy effect, as well as a detailed narrative that’s been completely subverted from the original context. “All the images I appropriate are collected from mass-produced magazines published before I was born,” says Stephen. “When you view the prints you can see details that make it clear that they are far from the original negatives.”
Typically, much of the editorial found in surf magazines – and, of course in porn – struggles to look at male and female identity devoid of sex appeal. Instead of avoiding this sexualised entity entirely, Stephen’s work forms a response. “I am bored with the male and female gaze of these magazines and the tendency for men to relate surfing to sex,” he explains. “My interest is to subvert this narrative and, as a gay male, find new meaningful and poetic moments of the male-on-male gaze, intimacy and romanticism in the history of surfing."