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Interview: Walt Cessna on photography, substance abuse and New York City, Part 1

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Walt Cessna has become a big internet personality. As an already popular queer photographer with an expansive back catalogue, Cessna took over [[Facebook]] and [[Tumblr (NSFW)]] where his images have been shared and re-posted thousands of times. He has joined the ranks of the artists who flaunt their creative process through social media. Outside of finished photographic projects, and the book [[Fukt 2 Start With: Short Stories & Broken Werd]] ([[Amazon]]), his social space includes trips, his relationships, his collaborators, and the sordid energy which encompasses his erotic and substance tendencies.

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Fukt was published two years ago, and brings Walt back to his origins. He told Queerty when the book was published 'That’s what I started out doing. I was writing before I was taking pictures. I started writing professionally when I was 17. I was writing for the original Details, for Annie Flanders and Stephen Saban. I had a column. I started working for The East Village Eye and I was working for another free publication, New York Talk. Then I became an editor at The Village Voice when I turned 18. I was working for Interview. I mean, I had a really major publishing career at an extremely young age. Working with major editors. I was writing for Vanity Fair before I was 25'.

Cessna has a mysterious air about him. He is present, his flesh often becomes the spotlight of his sensual and hyper-erotic portraiture, and his online persona is effervescent. But he is not always available. Outside of his stints in rehab and hospitals in the past few years, Cessna does not abide by the rules of communication. Perhaps he is the poster artist of the times, but messages can be idle before he attends them, and he has voiced his disdain for the telephone. In fact, he prefers face to face interactions.

Walt Cessna is abrupt over the telephone. His voice is blank and distant. I found pleasure in having him tell me he prefers to meet in person and retains a certain disgust for the machine. I came up to Manhattan and after having him buzz me, walked up two flights of stairs to his level. He was on the telephone as he stood in the doorway. 'Okay, I love you...hi, dude!' He said extending his upper body out of the apartment and kissing me on the cheek with certain comfort. I walked through the sunny kitchen and saw colorful fabrics and angles previously made familiar in his photographs. We walked through a small room which led to another; the bedroom. Eventually we sat and Walter began sharing his world.

'Things are messy and I am too lazy to take care of things' he discusses his current pieces and projects. 'I do not have an assistant to help me and I am lazy.' After asking why he does not seek assistance he replies 'kids these days do not want to work for nothing. I am not credited, so when they work for me they get no credits. It is just for the fun of it. These days they have to do these unpaid internships and they are resentful. It is not like when we were young and had hunger in our eyes.'

Cessna is kind even when he is dismissive. His exterior, pierced and tattooed, is matched by his demeanor as he discusses money, disease, drugs and mixing sex with creativity. 'I went out this Friday (NYC Pride weekend), which is not something I usually do. When it happens people see me and ask 'what are you doing here?'' He laughs 'having fun!'

'But I just hung out with the DJ (a friend) and sat next to the booth, dancing on my own. I came home early. I can't stay out all night with these kids. You see all these kids blatantly on drugs. I can't handle messy people. Because, and it makes me awful, I can easily go into manipulating that to my benefit.'

Cessna has become a celebrity of sorts, especially in the NYC scene. He may not have a night-life presence, but he is quite visible through the internet. Many people contact him for the thrill of a familiar face. Although now the familiar face may be up to the individuals he photographs. More and more visibility means that the air of celebrity can be breathed by just about anybody, with the right tools and enthusiasm. According to him, vanity is on the rise. 'No, it is not the same [as in the past]. People did not care about how they looked, it was the thrill of being photographed. I do not use photoshop; my gift is great, natural light.

'All these individuals pay me to take their facebook profile photographs. They do not do it enough, if you ask me, I could use the money. I am a starving artist. But a lot of people do come up to me and I do not think of selling out. Usually, these are individuals I would not photograph. So it is like pushing myself to do something I would not do otherwise.

'There is a certain attraction that is present for me to photograph individuals. These dudes I photograph, they may not give me a hardon all the time, but there is a lighton.'

This leads him to discuss more personal stories. Like his writing and photography, he discusses his relationship with sex, drugs and the period when he was being paid for sex. 'We called it hooking and rolling. I would find a John, make sure he was in a hotel room (meaning, that it was likely he was passing through town, which minimized the changes of awkward encounters in the future), have him pay up front and then make a quick getaway with designer underwear, a watch or even his wallet.' He drinks from a reddish mug, and extends on a wooden chair with his legs toward me. 'I have instances when people recognize me and are either upset, or call me by my hooker name and I just sit there' he makes a face.

Before long, Robert, one of Walt's current muses, arrives and sits to my right. He is tall, slinky, with thick, flowing hair, a British accent, and a curios linear tattoo of a deer on his left shoulder. After sitting, we shake hands. They are to work on their fifteenth session together. The two erupt in chatter that involves corporate pride, anti-pride parties, Suzanne Barch, kids with money, gay husbands, Scooter LaForge, and sex.

Robert looks inside his bag asking 'is there any tobacco here I can smoke?' Walt suggests the corner store and gives him the keys to enter the building on his return. Robert take the keys and still rummaging through his bag says 'I should not. I am trying to quit'. After I tell him he is doing a good job with my sarcastic twang he quips 'do not judge me, you just met me' and the banter carries on.

The two friends discuss their respective art. Walter has exhibits throughout the summer, and Robert will be part of an auction with his paintings. Robert plays with a crown prop, as Walter extends his legs on the wooden chair. They are an interesting family. They are off the grid vocally, and they live like artists do in most minds (many ideas floating about, art all over the walls, and feeling excluded from those with more money), yet, they are their own caste. They are the cool kids who may struggle, but have the official credibility to back not only their craft, but their existence.

Once Robert departs, Walt makes a quick entrance to the kitchen, but not before he offers me more water. After I decline, he returns with a different cup and takes sips between bursts of information.

After a few minutes pass, a buzzing sound comes from the kitchen. Walter stands and shaking his head murmurs 'Robert probably forgot I gave him my keys' and lets him into the building.

Chatter fills the air as stories from the busy NYC weekend are shared amongst the two. 'I was with this famous actor, who shall remain nameless' says Robert. As they story carries on he adds 'you know the type' his voice is coarse and his eyes roll slightly. 'Do not judge' says Walter behind his large, brown mug. 'Whatever' scoffs Robert. 'I'm British, it is part of who we are'.

With model and photographer in the room, the air is camp and full of familiarity. The magic is about to happen.

See images of Robert on the second part of this article...

More photography: Eddie Christie, John Carrasco, YogaBear, Bryan Nevin with Christopher Van Etten.

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