Boys to Men: A Conversation on Fraternity Culture and Toxic Masculinity with Bill Gaskins and Andrew Moisey
For seven years, American photographer Andrew Moisey had an all-access pass to photograph Greek life inside a prominent national fraternity house where his brother was a member. One day, Moisey stumbled upon a wax-stained, sixty-year-old ritual manual abandoned on the floor. The idea for an “iIlustrated manual” was born. Moisey scanned the manual pages and then digitally inserted his contemporary pictures in them so that they appeared next to the old imagery and texts.
The resulting pages are published in The American Fraternity, (Daylight Books, October 2018), the first photo book to expose the dark, two-century-old world of fraternities. Moisey’s photographs contrast the high-minded constitution of the fraternity with its often underlying violent, misogynistic reality. Moisey writes:
As you turn the pages, you will marvel at the rituals, initiation ceremonies, historic texts, and the candid, often disturbing photographs. You will begin to understand why the college fraternity is not a passing phase, but the historical fountain of leadership for a hubristic, chauvinistic, male pleasure fortress — the modern United States.
Many of the young men depicted in The American Fraternity are the future leaders of American institutions and families. Moisey’s photographs help us understand why forty percent of American college students cast their only vote, in the year 2016, for Donald Trump. At the end of the book, Moisey lists prominent Americans in both the public and private sector who are or were in college fraternities.
Photographer and essayist Bill Gaskins sat down recently to speak with Andrew Moisey regarding his thoughts and discoveries surrounding his multi-year project The American Fraternity, which was released this fall from Daylight Books.
BG: I would like you to talk about your evolution as a photographer. How long had you been purposely making photographs before the project? How did studying the history of art and photography inform the approach you took to American Fraternity?
AM: Six months. First I did a book for my summer intro course about the laundromat I worked at. I was Pecker but wanted to be Roy DeCarava. When my brother came to Berkeley I found light in his fraternity house that looked like DeCarava’s dim fifties Harlem hallways and apartments. So, I proceeded to put young California frat dudes in intimate DeCarava-esque compositions and no one cared. You’ll laugh but I actually thought that people would be interested in college fraternity versions of “Mrs. Morton Sewing” and “Sam and Shirley Talking” and “Woman in Kitchen” and “Window and Stove.” I still like them. But anyway, I showed that early work in Jim Goldberg’s class at CCA and his confused art students were like, “Why aren’t we seeing pictures of them having sex?” I was lost.
Then I came across George de la Tour’s Musician’s Brawl at the Getty. In that painting, I saw my future as a photographer. It was group portraiture, cultural iconography, squeezed from the very rawest of instants. It was like seeing a Led Zeppelin song. Photography didn’t have anything like that, not even in Larry Fink. I wanted its bas-relief composition, which made the quick scene iconic. Frank had that bas-relief thing in Canal Street, New Orleans — one of the greatest photographs. But Frank never got in the middle of anything like that. De la Tour’s painting was intimate, vigorous, grand, dark, and iconic. It had it all. I had no idea how to make it as photograph. But I went back to the fraternity dead-set on getting it and taught myself how to bounce a flash so I would have a chance.
BG: The homage to DeCarava’s muted luminosity is notable in many of the photographs, like the candle ceremony. I suspected you were using a very diffused bounce flash. The effect of the flash fall-off where you used watt-seconds instead of foot candles really approximates the bas-relief effect of de la Tour’s painting technique in Musician’s Brawl.
What did you tell the frat brothers that led to the access you had?
AM: I told them I wanted to do an art project. I told them I wanted to do a book, which became known as my “coffee table book” around the house. What I think led to my access was the pictures. They liked seeing themselves in them and came to my first gallery show in 2004.
BG: How did you achieve the effect between the tonal depth of photogravure and what often looks like drawing?
AM: Partly it was me trying to be like Roy DeCarava. In the MoMA retrospective catalog, far more than in the Sweet Flypaper of Life or The Sound I Saw, you can see his totally unique printing style, where he basically restricts the world to zones I-VI and pulls velvet contours out of his shadows. But see, I had a flash, and I decided that I had to bounce it off the ceiling to replicate the fraternity’s light. Because I lost so much light this way I had a fully open aperture — 3.5 on my Yashica A and then Mamiya 6 — which meant a shallow depth of field. That meant, in turn, that I had to try for subjects that were all the same distance from me. A lot of painters and draftsmen, especially in the era of Caravaggio, made pictures with a group all at roughly the same distance, which simplified their perspective. An action group photo with the subjects all the same distance will thus look like a painting — like de la Tour’s Musician’s Brawl. One more thing though — when my digital files were sent to become offset prints they changed again. A lot in the book aren’t dark enough, especially in the first half, for reasons I can’t understand, but that makes them look even more like drawing and photogravure than they already did.
BG: How did you maintain the line between witness and participant in making this work? What made you invisible while making each exposure?
AM: I didn’t, I crossed back and forth. I didn’t sing songs or take vows but I made close friends. There are negatives of me vomiting into trash cans. But longevity was the secret. You spend years there and people will go about their business without worrying about you.
BG: How was your view of fraternity culture and the photographs you made affected by the content of the ritual manual you found after the fraternity closed?
AM: When I first found the ritual manual I didn’t know what to do with it. I thought I might just include a picture of it in a white-page photo book. But the ritual manual wasn’t having that. It was too powerful. It slowly crept into the center of my thinking, asserting itself, and eventually changed my idea of what a photo book could be. I tried to resist it, thinking it was crazy for wanting to be illustrated — I know this sounds insane, like a Ouija board or something out of Poe, but it’s true, I really felt the old thing begging me. In my mind I kept answering, “but I don’t have pictures of what you say.” But that was why it was so insistent! It was a book of promises of how to live, and I had the pictures of the resulting life. Generations upon generations of men had vowed to have the finest reputation and as a culture they ended up with the worst. I know see them as Yin and Yang — pictures and the book are incomplete without each other.
BG: What were the circumstances that led to the closing of the fraternity?
AM: I have no idea to this day.
BG: What was the criteria that informed the visual and tactile decisions you made to give the book a foreboding quality? When did you know you achieved that quality?
AM: The criteria was that I wanted people to feel like they were holding some dark institution’s secret, a book they should never have seen. I even wanted the book to have wax stains in the ritual sections like the original manual but the creative director for the book, Ursula Damm, said we didn’t have the money and anyway it might turn out cheesy if it had too many bells and whistles of authenticity. I never knew if we had achieved that quality because I never got to see it on the press. I had to trust Ursula when she said it would be right.
BG: She really achieved that effect. The scale and weight of the book is a cross between a Gideon’s Bible and someone’s Moleskine Daily Planner. Filled with things I shouldn’t see or know about. But there is a tension between the content of the book and some of the statements you make (i.e. “the rather innocent men in it” at one extreme, and “there are some pictures in my book that go way too far.” Untie some of these Gordian Knots.
AM: This is the big philosophical difficulty, you really hit it. That Gordian Knot gets tied a lot in life we shift perspectives on the same subject with our imaginations — we “zoom in” and “zoom out” like a camera to judge human actions in various narrow and broad contexts. How much guilt by association should there be? Am I innocent just living in America? Well, yes, I’m not causing anybody any harm as we speak. But I’m living on stolen land and perpetuating the culture that stole it. Back to the fraternity: to my knowledge no one in my pictures did what Brett Kavanaugh did — they’re innocent of heinous crime. But if you want to know how we perpetuate a culture that shelters Brett Kavanaughs, well, my book might have something to tell you.
BG: How does your book help the reader to resolve the contradiction between what frat members believe and what they do?
AM: The gates to the underworld are opened by promises taken in secret. Especially group promises when everyone knows no one intends to keep them.
BG: I’m familiar with the eating club system on many elite college campuses — complete with Black people in service roles. Can you unpack the pairing of the photograph of Jim Helleman and Alice Hagans, with the title of “Cook,” in relationship to American Fraternity?
AM: When there was nothing happening, I would go around and peruse the fraternity “composites” which went back to the seventies. They’re formal portraits of individual members of a group arranged in a grid. And Jim Helleman and Alice Hagans were next to each other in one from the early 80s. That felt far too late for these guys to be having a “Mamy.” Both embodied stereotypes in their portraits and their pairing was an enduring, brutal image of American history proudly displayed. It felt like the people in Robert Frank’s shot of the black woman holding the white baby all grown up and still the same. I thought that shot would help people see that our college fraternities are not some passing phase, an exception in American culture, but a group exercise in preserving the rule.
BG: In what ways is this “secret” society “our” society?
AM: So first, there are tons of fraternity men in America and so many become prominent leaders, shaping American culture with decisions informed by their formative college years. I don’t think it’s hard to see American society in my book.
America is so much about promising to be perfect and then doing whatever we want, about capitalizing on our privilege. That’s partly what fraternity culture is about — capitalizing on the privileges of belonging to a special, exceptional society — and for too many Americans that’s what America is about.
College fraternities and America aren’t good for the whole world, they’re mostly just good for the people enfranchised in them.
BG: What was the criteria you used to include and reject photographs in your editing process? Are there any photographs that should have been included?
If I could imagine a picture or a pairing being powerful and clarifying decades or centuries from now, I included it. But I also had too much at first, and Ursula helped me get rid of things that needed to go. There are probably photographs that should have been included but since I never really think about any maybe there aren’t. But there must be.
BG: Talk about the final image and the responses to the photographs by the members of the fraternity. Were there any most memorable responses?
AM: I’d lay out my work prints on the dining room table every once in a while. There were mostly laughs. When I had a show of about half the project in 2004 they came and some did keg stands in front of the pictures. It was a different time.
BG: The essays by Cynthia Robinson and Nicholas Syreet theorize two of the most contradictory aspects of frat culture, the homoerotic dimensions of the initiation rituals, and the participation of women in their objectification by frat members. Both essays bring some trenchant points to these aspects of the American Fraternity. How did you rationalize these aspects as a student and in your role as visual storyteller?
AM: I just figured that a group of guys can do whatever homoerotic things they want and not be bothered by it so long as they believe everyone is after girls in the end. But also, this was Berkeley — I don’t think many were homophobic, but I also think they didn’t see any homoeroticism in their bonding rituals, definitely none they took seriously. As a photographer, I found this contradiction crazy exciting. What other project would have allowed me to switch viewpoints so many times, from the fraternity members, to the girls, to the distant seat of judgment? The whole project is about stringing together many perspectives because there isn’t one “right and final” one and because being in a fraternity is partly about performing different roles in different group occasions.
BG: Brett Kavanaugh was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon at Yale. DKE was infamously known for an incident where their first-year pledges chanted “No means yes, yes means anal” in a public space at Yale. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was a member of Phi Kappa Tau and listed as a member of PKT Hall of Fame on their website. What signs of fraternity group-think, “the principal of secrecy” and the pledge to protect fraternity culture were on display during his confirmation process in your view?
AM: Here’s what struck me: the Republicans are a college fraternity. Democrats are too, of course, but the Republicans are on another level. The meaninglessness of their oaths of office could not have been better displayed; they just protected their own gang for the good of no one but themselves. They protected a man who fully embodies an arrogance and aggressiveness that has no proper place in anyone’s judiciary. That was fraternity culture at work in government.
Finally, the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (often nicknamed “FratPAC”) was founded in 2005 “to build a positive presence in Washington that helps to protect the fraternal experience we offer to our members.” Moreover, according to their website, “a logical extension of those efforts is the Fraternity and Sorority PAC, which seeks to provide financial aid to the campaigns of federal office candidates (House, Senate, and President) who support the objectives of fraternity life.” Given the gender and racial segregation of most Greek fraternities, what are the implications of this organization’s agenda, on the perennial call for reforming Greek life in higher education and dismantling the structural barriers to liberty and justice for all in the United States?
There are people who get super involved in their fraternity and sorority. It means the world to them because they made the best friends of their life there. Most probably never saw anything bad enough to believe that Greek life should be scrutinized in lieu of other pressing problems. I imagine those are the people who work for this PAC. But none have an answer to the fundamental question: if fraternities are so good, why the secrecy?
You don’t need a secret society in a nation that already gives you the right to speech and assembly; in fact it’s counterproductive for an open democracy to have them. Besides, if fraternities were all about charity and openness they’d just be like every other college group on campus, and hundreds of thousands of college students are not lining up to rush Amnesty International.
BG: This book will be like Homecoming for most of the fraternity members who see this book — and they will. But American Fraternity could be a horror show for those who didn’t get beyond the rush week, or for those women with less than pleasant memories of that one frat party. Consider those First Nation, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Queer students walking past fraternity houses on this campus as we speak — knowing these are aggressively heteronormative, white, and, male social spaces. How could the perspectives these students have on fraternity life account for the lack of an answer to the fundamental question you’ve raised about secrecy?
AM: You could very well be right about The American Fraternity being a homecoming and horror show. Although it could be the other way around — a horror show for fraternity members, because the photographs and the text reveal much of what has for generations been a secret, and a homecoming, a confirmation, for students who have traditionally been excluded or damaged by fraternities. Let’s remember that the defining rule of fraternities is not whiteness and heteronormativity — that’s the historical pattern you see performed on page 85, which is from the year 1899. In the West and Northeast at least, membership among men of color and now openly gay men is almost common.
BG: There was no statement about segregation by race or sexual orientation in the founding documents of Greek letter fraternities. But like the United States Constitution, this was essentially segregation by omission as prelude to segregation by commission. “Men” only meant white and heterosexual in the membership requirements. There may be Black and gay members in white majority fraternities in the country, but, these frats don’t represent the majority. We need not ignore the racial segregation of American fraternity life “even at fully integrated universities” that the book’s afterword by Nicholas Syrett reminds the reader of. The legacy of segregation by omission account for the history of Black Greek organizations on most American campuses.
AM: Yes, I agree completely! That’s the historical fact of the matter.
College fraternities are officially sanctioned male gangs. They don’t do drive-bys, they mostly drink and have parties and play video games, and the damage they do is usually more collateral than direct. But they’re still a gang.
They have created a safe space to be unsafe, to enjoy and damage each other in like-minded ways, and to protect their own from justice, regardless of political identity, when there’s collateral damage or worse. I wonder if The American Fraternity could throw a wrench into all of that. Because now the anyone who’s seen The American Fraternity will associate any fraternity man they meet with it. Which means there is, for the first time in the history of college fraternities, no secrecy from a public image of their traditions. Young men entering will have to decide whether they want to be associated with my book because by simply pledging, they will be.
As an artist and essayist, Bill Gaskins intrepidly explores the possibilities of portraiture in photography and cinema from an interdisciplinary foundation that includes journalism, the history of photography and art, and American and African American Studies. An important entry point for Gaskins’s work is his interest in representations of African American life in visual and popular culture. He is presently an Associate Professor in the Department of Art with a faculty appointment in the American Studies Program at Cornell University.
He is the author of his breakthrough monograph, Good & Bad Hair. Aperture Magazine marked the 20th anniversary of this book in its “Elements of Style” issue. He is also a faculty member in the American Studies Program at Cornell. Gaskins earned his B.F.A. from the Tyler School of Art, an M.A. from The Ohio State University, and his M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Bill Gaskins is also the co-chair for the 2019 Society for Photographic Education’s annual conference The Myths of Photography and the American Dream, to be held in Cleveland, Ohio on March 7–10th, 2019.
Andrew Moisey is an award-winning photographer and educator. He is Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Studies, a Rosevear Faculty Fellow at Cornell University. He received his Ph.D. in Film and Media Studies (May 2014) at the University of California, Berkeley.
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