Chad States opens his book of photographs with an old quote from writer Edmund White: “Although people still talked about sex as ‘disgusting’ and ‘filthy,’ I thought of it as romantic.” Cruising is States’ proof that this is true, a documentation of two years he spent visiting state parks around the country not to go birdwatching or take hikes, but to photograph, quite romantically, the age-old practice of cruising for gay sex in the woods. He took thousands of pictures that are amazing enough for their subject matter alone—in a world where you can watch Kim Kardashian go to the OB-GYN on syndicated television, it feels special to access one of the few remaining undocumented private spaces left. But what’s awesome is that States is more than just an anthropologist. Bathing his subjects in soft light, the work is just as much a lovely coffee table book about nature and an affirmation of the things humans do, and have always done, quite naturally. States turns something thought of as sordid into a celebration. Check out our interview with the photographer, and go buy a copy of the book, which may just be one of the most subversive Christmas gifts we can imagine.
Where are some of these parks? How did you find them? I lived near a state park and it became a cruise park over the course of a couple months. This is something I had done in my teens and in my twenties but that I hadn’t done in forever. I know all the signs, though, of a cruise park, and I went looking for it. At this particular park, I loved how there would be these guys hanging out in their cars cruising and then there would be some family going for a walk. They were completely oblivious to this other sexual world going on around them and that’s when I thought, I need to start photographing this. It became difficult because I kept running into too many people I knew. So I started going to anonymous places where I was anonymous and behaved in a way that could get me the photographs.
Where were most of these parks? I’d prefer not to tell you specific locations, but Seattle, Syracuse, outside of Philly and Delaware are the four main places.
Were you cruising yourself, or were you there strictly as an observer? Both (laughs). I was there as a photographer, so I used the park as a way to get the photographs. But, you know, I’m playing, I’m playing to make things happen, to have my camera be accepted. I have to instigate. If I went to the park and nothing was happening, I had to use myself to make something happen. I’m the bait. There would be all these guys hovering in the area and they’re just waiting for something to happen. Like flies to honey, they’ll all come together if I instigated.
Did you ask everyone’s permission to shoot? Yes and no. I wasn’t really verbally engaged. You don’t really talk in these situations. It’s all kind of done through just looking and giving knowing glances and that’s what I’m doing with the camera too. I’ll kind of look at them and nod and make a gesture to my camera and they’ll either shake their head and push a hand at me to go away or they don’t. It’s usually quick. I’ll get one or two shots in. It’s not always a sustained consent.
It almost looks like you spent so much time setting up the frame but they’re actually really quickly taken? I’m saying this half-jokingly, but most of what I’m doing is just really trying to get it in focus. That’s how fast everything is. This camera that I’m working with has this range finder for focusing and it’s actually quite difficult to see when you’re in focus and so half the time I’m trying to capture this thing and get it in focus before it goes away. I try and compose as fast as I can. They look a little more studied then they actually are, but that’s just editing.
Is cruising kind of an endangered thing? You don’t hear about it that much, but it used to be such a huge part of gay culture. It used to be the most important way to interact and now is less so. The internet killed it, the internet is killing everything. The internet killed gay bars to a degree. I think about times when I used to go to New York twelve years ago and there were a handful of leather bars and now it’s just The Eagle. Now, instead, you just go onto a fetish website and find exactly what you want. Instead of hoping a guys going to take a shit on you, you just go directly to the Do You Want To Get Shit On? page. It takes away from activities like cruising in a park.
Who are you hoping to reach with the book? Anybody who’s not judgmental about sex. This book is a celebration. I think about how democratic these spaces are. The demographic of people at these parks is across the board. It’s such a unifier in so many ways. There’s rich bankers, broke people. And you’re not going to people’s apartments to see what they own or how nice their house is. Chemistry is everything. Sex brings people together, makes connections. That’s the best part about it.