Matthew Morrocco is living evidence that refutes Oscar Wilde’s adage that “youth is wasted on the young.” Morrocco knows the power of his youth and doesn’t take it for granted. For an insightful and moving series titled “Complicit,” he photographs himself with men of earlier generations, often with one or both of them nude. The men Morrocco met for this work are survivors of the AIDS crisis, and their bodies, identities, and sexuality are extraordinary affirmations of life and monuments of resilience. The photographer’s self-possession may trigger assumptions about power dynamics between a young man and his older admirers, but Morrocco isn’t Bosie to these men’s Wilde—his palpable empathy and connection with his partners undercuts any stereotypic thinking. The emotional openness of the photographs—which he began as one of my students at NYU Steinhardt in Berlin and which are now collected in a new volume by Matte Editions, also titled Complicit—evokes associations with Katy Grannan, Nan Goldin, and Wolfgang Tillmans, but they have a maturity, grace, sophistication, and innocence entirely their own.
ARTnews: How did you pick the men in the photographs?
Matthew Morrocco: I mostly let them come to me. There was no serious selection process, I mostly just wanted to photograph people of a certain age.
Many of the men you photographed are survivors of the AIDS crisis in the West. How did the legacy of AIDS shape your sexual identity and worldview?
It made me scared to be gay because that meant being associated with disease. It made me nervous to have sex. But mostly it made me aware of my own mortality, and allowed me to access life in a different way that has turned into something mostly positive and healthy, but also sometimes scary and not healthy. For many of us still considering this legacy, there is a serious push for kindness and caretaking, and I take this responsibility very seriously in my interactions with other queer people.
Do you remember that when my mother saw Kissing Rolf, she was incredibly moved and said she loved the mystery of whether you were lovers or you were his younger self? Do you see yourself in the men you present in your images? Do they, as your friends, discuss seeing their past embodied in you?
I don’t think that’s happened explicitly that I can recall. I think I used to see my potential future in these men. In a similar way, I used to see my potential future in my parents. But the truth is that my life so far has been so vastly different than what I used to believe it could be. The older I get, the less clearly I see the prescribed written narrative of my life. I think this is a good thing.
Why name the book Complicit?
Complicit has become such a complicated word. I wanted to challenge people to think beyond this accusational dynamic we seem to be living in which paints one side as good and another as bad. When I first started making pictures my goal was to make vulnerable, emotional portraits of people responsibly, ethically, and in earnest. Yet I found myself complicit in many of the actions I sought to negate. More importantly, though, my work has an important function of representing the rich emotional lives of older men. It has become increasingly clear within a mainstream context that men are complicit in creating a world that specifically exists only for them to thrive in. I wanted to call attention to that. In my opinion, as a result of their lust for power, accessing their emotional lives is difficult for many men, especially men of a certain age. I wanted to make portraits that accessed those emotions so that we all might get a better sense of what will be possible in the future.
What does ethical portraiture mean to you?
Only that the photographer is ready and willing to take responsibility for what is in the photograph. A lot of artists like to shirk that responsibility. To ensure that the legacy and story of the work is told properly and clearly.
What references or factors influenced the classical, dreamlike, aesthetic of your portraits and imagery?
I was looking at a lot of older paintings—Velázquez’s Las Meninas, in terms of perception and placement of viewer, subject, and artist, and 19th-century French painters like Courbet, Ingres, and Géricault—to consider how languid posing and dramatic lighting can portray intimacy and sexuality in a nuanced way, and Lucian Freud for his complicated and layered portraits of sexual partners and families that were, in my opinion, more about love and emotional intimacy than sexual intimacy.
How have the encounters in these images shaped your understanding of intimacy?
Emotional vulnerability is necessary to be intimate with someone. If you are not emotionally self-aware or vulnerable with yourself, it’s nearly impossible to get to know someone intimately. You’ll try forever but never see them. As well, physical intimacy is important—hugging, touching, or looking someone in the eye. These are forms of interacting that are important.
Has doing this series affected your perception or projection of aging? Do you think this series will enlighten your own aging process for you?
Yes, definitely. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up. I think many people of that generation, age 60 and above, are very shut off from their internal lives and therefore shut off from the world and from each other so that when they enter old age, they do so with some difficulty. My goal has always been to understand why this occurs and how to maintain dignity and self-respect as I age. I’ve learned a lot about that.
Have any of these men shared thoughts or insights about aging that resonate with you and you’d feel comfortable sharing with us?
Mostly that it’s hard but not impossible. That being old is more about acceptance and transition rather than just demise, decay, and death. It’s not an endpoint.