NEW YORK JOURNALIST JUST CAN'T STOP
Vince Aletti’s two-bedroom apartment in New York’s East Village is packed floor to ceiling with magazines, books, and artwork, most of them depicting handsome men of various periods, ages, and stages of undress. When he is not scouring the city’s flea markets and secondhand bookshops, Vince writes for The New Yorker and Interview, and curates shows for New York’s International Center of Photography. He was also the author of Record World magazine’s famous weekly reviews of new disco records in the ’70s, The Disco Files, which are about to be re-published this year.
Adam: What have you been particularly into lately?
Vince: Well, I’m constantly getting new stuff. All this on the desk is new — things I got in only the past two weeks.
Where did you get it?
From different sellers on eBay. But all these things over here are from the flea market. There are a lot of Russian dealers at the flea market. It doesn’t surprise me now that all these things have flooded out of different countries. When people leave places they either gather stuff up or they go back and get things that they think people might be interested in here. The Russians usually have military pictures, and that’s a lot of what I’m after these days.
What appeals to you about that kind of picture?
I like the sort of formal quality, especially all the painted backdrops and elaborate sets, even if they’re very simple things.
With the added artifice in the background, the subject of the picture seems more real.
Yeah, seeing photographers operate in small-town circumstances, or at least theappearance of that, really fascinates me — the way people present themselves. But I’ve also been buying a lot of photo-booth pictures. I like the idea of people not even dealing with the photographer. So I’m just drawn to portraiture of all sorts, whether it’s simple photo-booth pictures or old Physique Pictorial material or Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild (AMG) stuff. But I’ve really been looking more for portraits and clothed pictures recently, rather than the classic AMG nudes.
I already have so many nudes! And I love the outfits, it’s very period.
When do you realize there’s been a shift in what you’re interested in?
It’s very organic. When I started buying physique pictures, I bought the standard Bruce of Los Angeles images, and Western stuff — very clean and classic. But the more I looked, the more I started finding weirder and more unusual things. I got tired of the classic material, and I wanted to find out what other people had been doing, especially AMG, which is just the most insane studio. The sets, the costumes, the
backdrops, the over-the-top-ness of AMG was what I started focusing on.
Did you ever have any direct contact with the people from AMG?
No, not at all. I did a little bit of research when I was writing the obituary for Bob Mizer for The Village Voice, but sadly, once I started getting interested in the stuff, everybody was already dead.
How much research do you do when you buy your photographs?
It’s not the primary motivation. Sometimes I would love to know more, but I’m just too scattered. I once bought a whole run of Physique Pictorial — 75 issues! That was years before Taschen did a whole reprint of it. Amid all the models and nutty design there was real text in those things, so I reviewed it for The Village Voice’s literary supplement. A lot of times the texts ended up being about some legal problems that
different physique photographers were facing, the arrest of somebody, the jailing of somebody, or some legal decision that had been made that further opened the ability to show this material. Little bulletins
from a very inside perspective of someone who clearly was not just concerned abouthimself but was concerned about the larger community that was making physique pictures and was being subject to arrest
at that point. But it also had observations about gay life in general, without ever mentioning gayness or anything — it was very closeted, but it was also very upfront:
Mizer was talking directly to the small audience of people who were buying these magazines. It was the most revealing thing I’d ever read about that business.
I read that you started collecting photographs after you became friends with the legendary photographer Peter Hujar.
I’ve always been collecting, but I don’t think I took it as seriously until I had somebody like Peter to share it with. He was definitely an inspiration. Around that time I also started buying photos from galleries, and I would always use him as a sounding board.
So when did your collecting habit begin?
When I was a teenager, I’d always collected records; then I started collecting magazines. And then books. Books were always very important for me to have around. I remember when I was a really young teenager in Florida, I was babysitting for a sort of sophisticated couple from New York who had a little kid. They moved away and they gave me almost their entire library of really interesting novels — that was really an inspiration for me and having someone appreciate how important they were to me and pass them on was really great.
Is the collecting its own reward, or are the photos their own reward?
I remember reading Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. It’s about a flea market and collecting. One of the things that come up in the book is the fact that, as a collector, you’re not necessarily looking to buy an entire collection. If someone gave me the entire run of something, I would be very happy to have it. But in a way, it almost defeats the whole idea of collecting.
It’s all about the hunt?
Yeah…little by little, putting it all together. Once I have it all, I tend to move on. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of it, but I start thinking: ‘Okay, what’s next?’ The other big thing for me is sharing it with people,
or even publishing it, if possible. I’m not somebody who just wants to put something away in a drawer, although that’s ultimately what happens with most of them. But I actually really want to show it to people — it’s a major show-and-tell.
Do you have any friends who are completely uninterested in your collection?
I don’t think I would stay good friends with them for very long. There are definitely people whom I don’t show stuff to, because I know they wouldn’t be interested. But with the people who are, we just end up
sitting and looking at every new book and magazine and piles of pictures, and that for me is something I really enjoy doing.
How do you organize this collection?
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, so this is particularly fascinating to me. Well, I do and I don’t. These piles, for instance, will remain on this table until other things come in to replace them.
So most of the piles of books around are formed according to when they came into my apartment. Others are a little more organized. I also have areas where things are alphabetized and organized by years, and then others are completely chaotic.
Do you have a cleaning lady?
How do you keep everything clean and neat?
I don’t. It appears clean and orderly, but I wouldn’t want you to go around and do a finger test. Don’t even try. I don’t have a cleaning lady, and I wouldn’t want anybody to roll around on my floor.
How long have you lived here on Second Avenue?
I moved here in 1976 from an apartment on Avenue A, also on the corner of 12th street, so I’ve always been in the East Village. Peter Hujar lived directly across the street from me. When I moved in here I had very little. But things accumulate very quickly.
What is your daily routine? You strike me as someone who has one.
I don’t. There’s not really anything I do everyday, except eating and going to bed. I don’t even write every day. But a lot of my work is not about writing anymore, anyway. I’m curating at the International Center of Photography, so my days are mostly meetings about shows. It’s great.
Do you have any current romantic relationships?
No. My last one was a while ago, with a guy who Peter Hujar photographed, and now he exists for me mainly as Peter’s picture. And that was not somebody who I would even seriously consider a boyfriend — he was more of a fuck buddy, somebody that became a really close friend.
You seem very contented though.
I am. Ideally it would be great to have somebody to share my life with, but Iwould never have somebody move into this apartment…there are so many restrictions in my mind. It’s probably a little late to think about those things.
What kind of guys have you been attracted to over the years?
Hmm. Let me think of a way to answer that diplomatically. I like guys who are very different from me. Mostly black and Latin, mostly somewhat younger, although that often seems to be accidental. I’d love to meet somebody my own age.
This is the $64,000 question: Do you masturbate to your collection?
No. Almost never.
No. Even if the collection is erotic for me on some level, I don’t collect things because they turn me on. I probably would not buy most of these pictures if I didn’t find the men in them attractive, but it doesn’t become a masturbatory focus.
Do you collect regular pornography?
Sometimes. Magazines that are more of a throwaway, certainly they can be stimulating.And old Physique Pictorials can be stimulating in different ways, but it’s really not the prime reason that I have them. Most of my masturbatory ideas are just replaying sex that I’ve had.
I know you went out a lot during the disco days, so I am wondering: What were your sexual habits in the ’70s?
Very counter to those of almost everybody else I knew. I was probably one of the only people who had sex in their own bed. I wasnnever comfortable going out and cruising. I don’t drink, I didn’t go to bars, and I
still don’t go to bars. In all the times I was going out to the clubs, I don’t think I ever met anyone. But that was also never the reason I went out. I went out to dance. I went out to see my friends…I realize this is
kind of boring.
Not at all. I totally understand that attitude.
Instead of sleeping around, I tended to get really caught up with people, even if I couldn’t call it a romantic relationship. I did see guys for years, until I met somebody else. It wasn’t always just one person
at a time, but there would always be a special connection.
You talked about the thrill of being on the hunt earlier — is there a connection to your pursuit of guys? But if you’d been with those guys for as long as you just said you’d been, that’s clearly not the case.
When a relationship was really working out, I wasn’t looking around. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I was always looking around. I mean, New York is a really sexy city and I don’t think there’s a day when I don’t see somebody, or ten people, that I would love to fuck. But if I’m seeing somebody I’m happy to be focused on that person. And like I said: ‘Even if I can’t pretend it’s romance, at least it’s sex.’
Originally published in BUTT 26