Before OnlyFans enabled the monetisation of nudes and sexual encounters for the masses, gay erotic artist Sam Morris had already launched his own website, SamMorris.me, to share his conceptualised, documentary style portraits and videos without fear of social media censorship. Asking his followers to pay for what he’d previously been offering for free on Tumblr and Instagram (where he still engages with his 193K followers) was a risk but the website was an instant success story. The slightly tongue-in-cheek NSFW preview video on Morris’ site describes what’s on offer as ‘gentle, sensual, tasteful, beautiful, romantic, gay erotica. Try something sexy and honest, try Sam Morris.’ It’s definitely not false advertising. His work is all of these things; aesthetically pleasing, brightly lit yet intimate, authentic feeling, unashamed erotica that celebrates the beauty of the male form and gay sexuality, with Morris’ background as a professional dancer frequently evident in the sculptural poses.
Morris’ first solo exhibition of his photography and film work, named after his series Other Boys & Lovers, coincided with last summer’s New York Pride celebrations. He was back in the city on December 1st 2019 to perform (in the nude naturally) at Alan Cumming’s East Village bar Club Cumming, reading his poetry and sharing his thoughts on the perceived boundaries between nudity, art and porn.
Ahead of his Club Cumming appearance The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann met with the Berlin based British erotic artist Sam Morris in Manhattan’s West Village to talk about his creative process, earning money from his body, reactions to his work, censorship, cultural attitudes towards nudity and the impact that John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus had on him as a budding artist.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You grew up in the UK, but you’ve been living in Berlin for around two years now, what initially drew you to make the move there?
“I just fell in love with the city. I fell in love with the people. I found it very laid back and no one seemed to give a fuck, which was really refreshing coming from London.”
How would you compare living in the two cities as an artist?
“I just feel like London is very much a getting in line, having a very normal career path kind of city. When you step outside of the box there people are shocked, they don’t know how to deal with it and you get met with a lot of criticism and judgment. Any kind of self-promotional activity in London people just don’t like, it’s not a very British thing. It’s easier for me to get stuff done creativity in Berlin and not to be met by any judgment. It’s very chill there. When it comes to my work, in London they are like ‘why? Why are you doing it?’ in the States it’s more like ‘when are you selling it?’ Whereas in Berlin the reaction is just ‘oh, cool’ and you just get on with it. And I like that. I try and take a little bit from all around the world honestly, but Berlin is a really nice place for me to be in because it means I’m way less stressed and it’s a great place to be as an artist because you just feel so free there, with no pressure. I think it’s an amazing city. It’s a real creative hub at the moment.”
And I know rents are rising there, but it’s still a far more affordable city than some others like London or New York isn’t it, which helps foster creativity doesn’t it?
“Oh, absolutely, it’s much more affordable to be an artist there, you can afford to live a fairly high standard life. It’s impossible to be an artist in London unless you come from money. There’s absolutely no way that you could be a successful artist there at the moment if you haven’t. I think in London you have to make sacrifices, you know ‘do you want a social life or a career?’ or ‘do you want to remain creative or earn money?’ You know, you have to pick and choose there, whereas in Berlin you can still have it all in a sense. You can have the personal freedom and time for yourself to do what you want to do in your own life outside of work which is really amazing.”
From my visits to Berlin it seems like people are pretty open minded and liberal when it comes to sex and people expressing their sexuality in their artwork.
“Yeah, when it comes to nudity and sex it’s really laidback in Berlin. In the summer you go with your friends to the lake and everyone is swimming together naked and in parks naked, it’s a very hedonist and sensual and free and open and liberated city. So if you say that you make erotica for a living it’s almost ordinary there, it’s not something that makes you the centre of attention at a dinner party when you say something like that, unlike in the UK, where it’s like a showstopper when you come out with something like that!”
Do you tend to tell people what you do if they ask?
“Normally I do now, yes. I used to be more squeamish about saying it, but now I really don’t give a fuck. I’ve got to the point where I don’t want to skirt around the edges. But sometimes I think I can’t be arsed today, so it depends what company I’m in.”
It’s a little bit like coming out in a way isn’t it?
“Yeah, it is and sometimes you’re like I don’t want to talk about this right now.”
Yeah, it’s a bit like saying ‘my boyfriend’ or ‘my husband’ to a stranger if you can feel it’s going to get a negative reaction sometimes you don’t reveal that information.
“Exactly, you adapt to different situations, but most of the time now I will just come out with it because I think it’s not my problem if you’re offended or if you’re shocked. It’s not my place to educate them either, but if I do tell them what I do then at least they’ve met one person who does that for a living. It normalises it a bit more in a way. Ordinarily I don’t get much disdain from telling people, the reaction is normally intrigue, people are normally excited by it because I think it is unusual for a lot of people to hear.”
And I’m sure a lot of people have a fantasy idea of doing it themselves or at the very least they’ve watched porn or erotica or read it at some point. You mentioned the attitude to nudity in Berlin and one thing I’ve found since living in the US is the puritan influence here, the idea that you can’t be naked without it equating to sex. I didn’t grow up to considering nudity as anything out of the ordinary; it’s just your body. It might’ve been my Italian heritage. In New York if you’re just getting changed in the locker room the attendants throw towels at people to cover up sometimes!
“I’ve got used to the spas in Germany now where you don’t where clothing at all and it’s so much easier and freer. You can just walk around naked, go in the sauna naked and you’re not sweating into a pair of speedos. It just makes more sense and it’s more hygienic when you’re not wearing all those clothes. It’s both women and men all together and who cares? And you often see the reaction of British or American people coming over to use spas, they look very shocked and uncomfortable. It’s a big cultural difference. There’s so much shame in nudity ingrained in our society in the UK and in America, it’s unbelievable how much shame there is and I don’t feel like people want to be ashamed, but it’s just so ingrained in them that they don’t know any different.”
“When I moved to Berlin it was the first time I’d ever really been around naked women actually. I remember going to the lake for the first time with my friends and we were all naked and and it was a real moment where I just thought ‘wow, we are all just people’. We were connecting so much easier as well, because everyone was naked so you felt like you’d gone to a base human level. Everything was just stripped back and we were having a good time. Being naked can be very spiritual in a sense in that way. It wasn’t sexual, it was far from sexual actually, but it was really very liberating, very freeing. I remember leaving that day not wanting to put my clothes on, I almost felt like I had to go back into society and conform again and it was hard because it had been a unique experience.”
You have an acting and dance background and I wondered how far you think that allows you to see your own body objectively to some degree, to see it as one of the tools to do your work with? I know you’ve described yourself as your own muse at times.
“Doing what I do I have to disassociate myself from my body in a way and I do use it as a performance piece sometimes in my work. I think I then do the same with other people’s bodies when I’m shooting them. I try to celebrate their body in a way that is performative, so I normally shoot people in a way that captures that with different angles that are more statuesque or romantic. From my dance background I have an eye for how to make things look more aesthetically pleasing. I think being a dancer never leaves you and you do have a different relationship with your body because you just know how everything moves and that ends up going into sex as well. It’s something that has followed me into my work for sure. I just couldn’t escape it I don’t think and it’s been a good thing in a way that I can separate myself from my body as a tool and the way that I work with it.”
“I don’t think I subject myself to being just my body if that makes sense, there is a clear separation for me in a way that my mind and my eye and my brain is like one thing and my body is a tool that I can use to create different things. It’s the same with the people I meet. I shoot some fascinating people, but when I’m shooting them it’s not necessarily to capture how fascinating they are, it’s more to capture them on a physical level and show the aesthetics of their body in a very pleasing way. It’s quite interesting the way I’ve captured some men and then people have said to me ‘oh my God, that person looks so beautiful and so warm, so sensual’ and then it’s funny because if they met that person they would not have thought all those things about them. It’s quite interesting how I can present people to the world because the person who I put out there is not the person who I met, but I like turning them into this idealised, more romanticised version of themselves in a way.”
You’re kind of sculpting them.
“Yes in a way and it’s performative, it’s definitely performative, I think the whole thing is. If it wasn’t it would be what it is. It has to be that.”
How do you describe yourself as an artist?
“I normally just say I’m an erotic artist. At the moment that encompasses most of the stuff that I do, which is photography work, painting, sculpture, poetry; it all involves the body or sex in some way. For me I’ve always been an artist first and foremost, but I think it just makes more sense to label it as erotic art. Ultimately I’m just an artist, but that’s just the box that I guess I would be put in now.”
Tell us about your long-running series Other Boys & Lovers, how did it begin and how has it evolved over the years?
“I was using myself as my own muse as it were for years, following myself, documenting myself. It was an on-going series that I did for a good few years on Tumblr and Instagram and then it moved on to my own website and I continued on and it was a really conceptionalised, documentary style. Then I wanted to start getting other people involved and I said ‘I’m going to start shooting other boys and my lovers’ and I was sitting with a friend who said ‘you should just call it that’ and I was like ‘yeah, I think I should’, because that’s what it was. It wasn’t a pretence, it was me just me shooting the other boys around me and my lovers who I was having encounters with. So it felt like it wasn’t just a title. I think for the people who followed it from the very beginning it makes the most sense for them, because it was just that. Now it’s become a whole thing. There was an article about me recently where it said ‘Sam Morris, who photographs 56 men a year…’ and I was like ‘woah’ because I didn’t even think about that figure. The maths was right though and I was like ‘shit, that’s crazy’. It’s a lot!”
How are open are people to collaborating with you and how does it usually come up? Generally when you approach potential collaborators do they already know the sort of work you do, or do you just put it out there and see what the reaction is ?
“It depends who it is. I don’t normally approach anyone, I wait for them to approach me, that’s one of my rules. I have to occasionally though for diversity purposes, because sometimes I get concerned that I’m not going to be representative enough if I just wait for the right people to approach me, but normally I wait. I don’t like to approach people myself because I feel like the balance is off from the start. If people are coming to work with me it’s normally because they’re open or they want to explore something, they have something particular in mind, or they’ve seen my work and they get it. If I’m approaching someone else and they’re not familiar with my work it can feel like it’s me coercing them into doing something and it’d be a different balance. I’m quite lucky though and I have a lot of people who want to shoot with me.”
My first phone when I was a teenager was brick with a retractable aerial. I couldn’t even text on it, so I definitely did not grow up in the age of sending nudes being the norm…
“Nudity now has become so much more normalised, particularly for younger people because of the whole nudes thing. We’re in an era of sending nudes as a social currency. To a certain extent I think it is something quite positive, though I think it does have it’s negative aspects for sure, like anything. The birth of OnlyFans has given people the opportunity to monetise their own bodies if they want to, which is something that has had so much shame attached to it for so long. If we’re going to do this capitalist thing then you’ve got to allow people to go to the nth degree of what they want to do, you’ve got to allow people to express themselves how they want to.”
Exactly, and if someone is putting up a photo of themselves on social media say in their underwear or swimwear, or coming out the shower or of their bum, it’s essentially Instagram making money from it rather than the user themselves, so why shouldn’t that person go elsewhere like OnlyFans and make money from it themselves?
“I think people have these boundaries in their head between pornography and self expression and erotica and art. The lines between them are so blurred, it’s like you show your dick and that immediately becomes porn, and then it’s like if the blood rushes to it then it’s hardcode porn. It’s all judicial shit that’s stayed in place over the years and has been used to socially construct how we should view the human body as basically an item that can be sold in different categories.”
When I first started going out on the gay London scene in the late 1990s, in the back of all the free magazines the dicks in the ads had to be soft and then law changed and they were allowed to be hard, I guess around 2000, which as you say would’ve been deemed hardcode.
“The funny thing is during the 1970s the dismantling of censorship started to happen and because of that pornography skyrocketed and ironically the anti-pornographic movement highlighted all of the inconsistencies going on within the porn industry. Because of that, the porn industry polished up its act and ended up in everybody’s home and on the stock market and it actually backfired on the anti-pornography movement who inadvertently gave birth to this new mainstream porn system. But the problem with that is that we lost all of the struggle in a sense inside that industry, whereas before it was often a lot more experimental, there was more protest in a sense and it had a lot more artists involved.”
So why did you decide to launch your own website, SamMorris.me?
“It was in around three or four years ago that I launched the site. It was before OnlyFans existed and it was a unique way to open up the boundaries of what everyone was engaging with on Instagram. That was a moment when the policies on nudity on Instagram was more liberal than it is now. It was pretty chill still and I was looking at what was going on there and I thought I should launch something that’s a little more personal, so that people can see a little bit more of me, with no boundaries, no restrictions. It was new to me and very exciting and lots of people were engaging with it, it was very cool.”
Did you have a paywall there from the beginning?
“Yes, always. It was a way to monetise what I’d been doing for free for so long because I was putting stuff up on Instagram for free for years and I couldn’t support myself with that, it was just not feasible.”
Because there’s so much sexual imagery online available for free, did you ever have any reservations about charging people for your work?
“When I first started doing it, the British person in me was almost embarrassed about charging people. I had this very socialist approach where I felt that I should be giving everything away for free. It took a few American friends of mine to say ‘don’t give this away for free, this should not be happening’ and it gave me the opportunity to really explore what I wanted to do and explore different areas as an artist, because I then had an income. The more I did it, the more I built my brand and decided what I wanted it to be and what I wanted it to stand for. And I still feel like it stands alone. I’ve had almost all of the major porn companies around the world ask me to come on board as director or producer for them. It’s standing on its own in a strong way in that industry.”
Have you considered doing that?
“No, I turned them all down.”
You’ve definitely got a very recognisable style, so why share it elsewhere in a way?
“It’s not that I’m prejudiced against that, it’s just not where I want my work to go, it’s not what I do. I’m not being snobby about it. To me it just seems like completely different work. The way that porn companies run their businesses, the way they run a film and shoot a film and the castings, the way they hire models; it’s just not how I do business, it’s just not my line of work. My process is very collaborative, an artist’s endeavour between me and the person that I’m shooting. It’s not anything like what it is on a porn set. I know that from many of my friends who are porn stars. We talk about work and it’s very interesting because we are essentially under the same umbrella, in the same industry, but we have completely different experiences. With my work there’s no pressure, it’s not like ‘we need a money shot’, or injecting dicks to get them hard or choreographing four hours of sex. One of my friends told me that he had to do a four-hour photoshoot of all the sexual positions that he was going to do, then they all broke for lunch and then they come back and they shoot the positions in the order of the photos that they’ve shot beforehand. That’s not what I do, I can’t relate to that. It’s more of an experience between me and the person involved.”
One thing I find off-putting about a lot of contemporary porn online is not so much the scenes themselves, but the scenarios that are created by the way they are labelled, the aggressive language. Your work is very different from that.
“It’s very soft and sensitive, I’m appealing to a different audience I think or to a different side of a person. For me, my stuff is more voyeuristic and it’s trying to make you look at the body in a different way to that and the sex that you would see in my work is very organic, it happens naturally, it’s not acting and it’s not anything particularly extreme. It’s more every day than the stuff than you would see on extreme porn sites.”
How open are you about your work with family members?
“All of my family know what I do, it’s very open. I’m in a lucky situation because I’m from a very liberal family so they’re really supportive and often laugh about it in a way, because it’s so funny sometimes to them when they’re trying to explain it to other family members or to their neighbours. They are very supportive. I’ve showed my mum my work, we’ve looked at it together and she’s like ‘oh, this is so beautiful’. I don’t feel ashamed by it. I mean, I wouldn’t show her a video of me getting fucked or something like that, but pictures or soft nudity in a film that I’ve done with someone. I often show her my stuff. I don’t know if it would ever change. My mum always says ‘as long as you are not hurting your body then I’ll support you in whatever you do.’ I don’t know if it would be the same situation if I was in the mainstream porn industry. I think my mum would probably be more concerned by that, but what I do is so different to that. I don’t really have any issues with judgement in my family.”
What advice would you have for anyone who wants to take a good nude self-portrait?
“It’s lighting, good lighting is key. That’s the first thing you should think about before anything else, even before getting the phone ready. Look at the light and see if it’s in your favour. It depends on the individual how the light will be in your favour. For me, I prefer down lighting, but some people would be better off with side lighting. Light is your best friend. If the lighting is off, it can make you look terrible. It’s the first and only thing to think about really.”
What kind of impact would you like you work to have on the world?
“I’m an artist, so I’m my own worst enemy. Opinions on my work vary, but sometimes people will say ‘thank you so much for doing what you’re doing, it’s so important’ and I can’t really see it like that myself, from their point of view, and that’s because I’m just doing what I’m doing and staying in my own shell most of the time. So it’s up to everyone else when I die I guess, it’s their decision if it’s worth anything or not. I won’t care, because I’ll be six feet under. I do what I do and I try to do the best I can. Everyone I work with, I try to give them the best experience that they can have and just try to create an all-round pleasant experience for everyone involved in creating it and everyone engaging in it as well.”
Do you have a favourite LGBTQ+ movie, book, play, artwork or piece of music?
“Let’s go with film. My favourite ever movie is Shortbus. It completely changed my life when I saw that movie. I watched it for the first time when I was about 17 or 18. I bought it on DVD and watched it like ten times. I actually messaged John Cameron Mitchell last year and said ‘I have to let you know that Shortbus changed my life and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for that film.’ I said ‘I don’t think you’d be able to make that film now, because censorship has got even worse, it would just not be distributed.’ Shortbus was proof to me that you can put sex and nudity into something and it not damage the narrative and it not turn it into porn. I was fascinated by the fact that I was watching basically full on gay sex and I didn’t feel any less for those characters, I was still connected to them, I was still engaged in the narrative, it didn’t cheapen it or feel like a porno. Honestly, I still feel like that film is a masterpiece, it’s probably my favourite film of all-time.”
I can clearly remember seeing it at the cinema, at the now demolished Odeon Panton Street in London, and being blown away by it too. Also, it introduced me to so many great New York artists like Mx Justin Vivian Bond and to the actor and singer Jay Brannan.
“Yes, Jay Brannan, I was obsessed with him afterwards for a while. The portrayal of gay loneliness in that film was really hard-hitting too and it’s something that’s always haunted me. Even when I watch that film now and I know it inside out, I can still feel the darkness wash over me. It’s legendary. The music, the score is unbelievable; I listen to it a lot even now. When he comes on the Pollock painting it’s genius. The film whole film is genius.”