MOMMA TRIED: CONCEPTUAL NUDIE MAG ARRIVES

OVER A YEAR AGO, NEW ORLEANS ARTISTS THEO ELIEZER AND MICAH LEARNED devised a new art and literary magazine that would take its inspiration from men’s lifestyle magazines from the 60’s and 70’s, but distill the classically cool and intuitively interesting from the schlock and dated stereotypes.  The result is Momma Tried, a “conceptual nudie mag” that is about to run off the print rollers and onto your naked coffee table.  Eliezer and Learned’s goal is to present art and writing that is inclusive and descriptive of the vast sexual landscape that exists between the binary poles of pinup porno and lecture hall dissections of libido.  In addition, Momma Tried has a non-heteronormative editorial stance, which means that its ideal reader can aspire to the level of coolness contained inside no matter their gender, sexual status, or smoking jacket size.  

Ryan Sparks interviewed the two founders earlier this year.  He followed up with them recently after the printer they initially had formed a relationship rejected the magazine after seeing the final product.  After a long search for a new printer that would accept the magazine--and its liberal nudity--issue #1 is finally here.

Cover, photo by Alana Pryor Ackerman

What essence of 60's and 70's mags did you most want to emulate?  Which were you eager to avoid?

Micah: The late 1960’s and 1970’s were the heyday for modern magazines. A number of publications were taking risks with their content and art direction at that time. George Louis and Jean-Paul Goude, two of the best art directors to work in the medium, held positions at Esquire back-to-back. From covers like ‘The Passion of Muhammad Ali’ to ‘Andy Warhol Drowns in his Own Soup’ to “Oh my God - we hit a little girl.”, George Lois’ covers often operated as both celebrations and subversions of the medium. Jean-Paul Goude was also really quite experimental, especially in his development of what came to be known as the ‘French Correction,’ a sort of pre-Photoshop manipulation of the body. And Harold Hayes, as editor of Esquire, was helping to revolutionize journalism with a stable of writers from Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote to Gay Telese. They introduced and legitimized New Journalism to a mainstream audience.  

At the same time, Playboy was publishing all these experimental, often leftist, and previously blacklisted, authors and combining these perspectives with somewhat revolutionarily open portrayals of sexuality. It was the first and possibly only coffee-table nudie mag in America. “I only read Playboy for the articles,” may be a cliche and a bit tongue in-cheek but, in many cases, it was also true.

I think with a brief overview of these magazines its clear why they continue to be influential, and a major source of inspiration and appropriation; however, they always were and are increasingly problematic. From the advertisements to the comic corners, there was a pervasive misogyny at the core of these magazines. They were incessantly straight. And, in the case of Playboy, they steadily contributed to an unrealistic ideal for female beauty which has had lasting negative impacts upon women’s body image and men’s expectations.

Does Momma Tried function as a comment (implicitly or explicitly) on today's pornographic and lifestyle magazines, or is it more about just taking those concepts down a different alley?

Theo: Momma Tried isn’t a direct commentary on pornography or lifestyle magazines, though there are some aspects of both that we are specifically addressing, such as the lack of diversity, unrealistic standards of beauty, and heteronormative portrayals of relationships and sexuality that are outdated and alienating to lots of people.

We’ve talked a lot with each other about the experience of having a tangible publication in-hand; the feel and smell of the paper, the weight of it, how a book or magazine can be an object that’s carried through daily life for a period of time--all of those things factor into the concept of what we’re creating.  So, even if someone’s just reading a trashy magazine, the experience is often more immersive and memorable than viewing content of equal quality on the internet.

I think it has to do with the relationships we form with physical objects; some magazines, like books, become part of our personal history, and if one sticks around long enough, it becomes a source of nostalgia. I still have the very first porn mag I ever bought which was during the summer after 7th grade when I was trying to be super cool in front of my friends who were all skater boys. Even though it’s just a shitty old copy of Penthouse from the 90’s that I bought in a corner store, for me it’s now a sentimental object tied to a particular phase of my life.

Issue #1, Table of Contents

Where does Momma Tried fall on the continuum between titillating and obscene?  

Theo: We’re definitely creating a work that is on the titillating end of the spectrum, where the nudity supports creative concepts instead of being specifically a tool for arousal. The photos are sexy, but because they’re photographs of our friends and peers in our community, there’s a lot more to the images than dudes being heartthrobs or women making sexy-face at the camera.

In addition to the visuals, what type of articles will be in the first issue?

Micah: From the outset I wanted the writing featured in Momma Tried to run the gamut from science writing and cultural essays to short fiction, poetry, and genre-defying experimental works. The main criteria for the writing we accepted was for it to be both entertaining and worth returning to, so I didn’t necessarily think we’d get to publish such a scope of material with this first issue, but we are. As a result, the selection of writing in this issue is fairly broad, ranging from Ben Ewen-Campen’s interview with Dr. Vincent Lynch, in which they dissect the ‘science’ of the female orgasm (it turns out there fundamentally aren’t any sound scientific theories, just patriarchal ones), to  Kate Durbin’s “Wives Shows,” which is essentially a transcription of five different Real Housewives-type reality shows, resulting in an eerie yet humorous cultural criticism. 

In addition to the submissions by visual artists, you conceived your own spreads.  How did you chose your themes?

Theo: My process for coming up with ideas for this first issue involved identifying what tropes are most common in print magazines and thinking of ways to deconstruct them. There is still such a lack of diversity in mainstream publications that by simply embracing the diversity of our community and friend group, each one of our three editorials is in some way a re-positioning of how people are typically portrayed. The industry’s representations of gender, ethnicity, body type, and orientation are so monotonous that it’s not too difficult to branch out from those very rigid norms.

Does the magazine have much of a focus on New Orleans, or is it more of a product that is "made in NOLA?"

Micah: We want to celebrate and publicize the intellectual life of the south, and we want Momma Tried to be a living document of the current climate and culture in New Orleans, which is both spectacular and precarious.

Theo: We’re very invested in creating a platform for local artists and writers to gain visibility, and we decided early on that the best way to achieve that would be to distribute the magazine internationally so that the work of our contributors could be seen around the world. In addition to showcasing the work of our local collaborators, we have many contributing writers and artists that live around the country and some abroad, which is something that we’re really happy about, because everyone involved in one way or another is contributing to a project that is inspired by our local identity.

 

WIDE SPREADS

Theo Eliezer runs down the photo editorials of issue #1

Earthly Delights (detail) by Daniel Ford

The three nude editorials that we created for our first issue are Earthly Delights, Crystal Visions, and Paper Dolls.

Earthly Delights was inspired by the films of Kenneth Anger, and the beautiful and grotesque scenes of the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. I’m a big fan of the fashion photographers Mert Atlas and Marcus Piggott, and their style definitely influenced what I envisioned for this shoot, which is one of the reasons we sought out Daniel Ford to be our photographer, since he captures drama and glamour in a similar way, with a brilliant eye for candid moments and composition.

Crystal Visions, which was photographed by Aubrey Edwards, was initially inspired by the music and style of Stevie Nicks, and became a sort of non-linear story about a character I took to calling the Dream Walker. I envisioned this character appearing to people with symbolic messages between sleep and waking, so it’s full of dreamy early-morning light, washes of color, and 1970’s prismatic effects meant to reference the Dream Walker’s place in the subconscious.

Paper Dolls is a playful exploration of how our outward appearances influence what others assume about us, and what judgments about lifestyle and economic status are projected as a result. With photographs of our models (shot by Alana Pryor Ackerman) we recreated the format of classic paper doll pages, which typically look like a doll in nondescript undergarments surrounded by different outfits that have foldable tabs on them so the clothes can be worn. Each doll character is a sort of blank canvas in white underwear, and next to them are outfits that represent divergent aspects of themselves expressed through clothing, each one potentially indicating something different about the culture, status, or identity of that doll when worn.

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After a successful Kickstarter campaign, it seemed like issue #1 would be out in no time, but the printing company Micah & Theo had originally been working with declined their business after seeing the final product.  They went through another round of finding a printer, and, after several rejections, found a company in Iceland who was willing to print the magazine.

Was the original printer's objection to the visual content only, or with some of the written content as well?

Theo: We didn’t have any sort of conflict with them other than them suddenly refusing to print the magazine. All in all we had a great experience working with their reps, and thought we were all on the same page about the nature of our project, which is one of the reasons we were so shocked by that turn of events. We never actually saw a written policy, but we were told that the images in Momma Tried are “clearly meant to cause arousal,” and that’s what they took issue with. As far as we know, they didn’t read any of the written content, but they explained that they never print nudity outside of a medical context, which would have been good to know from the start.

Micah: Frankly, it doesn’t seem like our prospective printers could see the art, or literature, for that matter, past the penises or nipples. In the initial ‘refusal to print’ email we received from them, our contact with the company wrote that for months her understanding had been “that the magazine fell within the art and literary realm.” It does, of course. Still, that statement stung a good deal. We’ve always known the magazine wasn’t for everyone and that we’d potentially feel a lot of push back, but to say that it didn’t fall within an art or literary realm initially made me very defensive with regards to the work of our contributors. Then I realized that the printers had fixated so entirely on the literal anatomy contained within our editorials and other images, that they were blinded to everything else.

A.L.I.C.E by Janani Sreenivasan with collage by Kazia Pe

Do you know if the printer's motive in turning down projects with sexually explicit content is based only their business policy, or are there some locations where printing something  like your magazine could be potentially risky in a legal sense?

Theo: As far as I know, printers base their policies regarding nudity on their own feelings about the material. This was made particularly clear during the second round of looking for printers, as there seemed to be no pattern as to where our rejections were coming from. We actually received more acceptance letters from printers in the South than in areas of the country that are more commonly regarded as liberal defenders of art and freedom of expression.

Micah: Right, it doesn’t seem like the content of Momma Tried was rejected for legal reasons. Precedent for what is “fit to print” has long been set by the findings of courts in cases concerning much more explicit magazines then us, like Hustler. The sort of passive censorship we experienced was cultural, and we think it largely speaks towards our content specifically. In other words, to tread lightly, we don’t think we would’ve been rejected from our original printers had the nudity in Momma Tried been exclusively decorative images of women.

Do you think our constant exposure to "normalized" sexuality used to market, advertise, or just generally stir up controversy has inured us to its presence?  Why does something like Momma Tried jar our sensibilities out of that mindset?  

Theo: I think that constant exposure to sexually charged images has desensitized us, but only to the extent that we now have normalized the appearance of particular bodies in a particular context, and there is a huge swath of experience and expression that fits outside of those lines. Momma Tried exists outside of the socially sanctioned “normal” portrayals of bodies and sexuality, not because we’ve done something outrageously unique, but just because what is “normal” excludes so much of reality. That said, although our intention is not to shock or offend, if viewers expect to see a very particular sort of gender expression or only want to see images of people who look just like them, they might find our content more shocking or challenging than we believe it is.  

Our content does stand in opposition to the typical media paradigm, but I think it does so in a way that’s not angry or reactionary. If our readers come away with a sense that diverse portrayals of sexuality and the human body do belong with art and literature and that these aspects of ourselves and others aren’t something to attribute shame to, then that’s absolutely wonderful. If people just read Momma Tried for the articles, that’s totally fine too.

In the online world, anyone can post sexually explicit images--whether artistic, humorous, erotic, or otherwise--without so much as a second thought and maybe a "NSFW" tag.  Whoever is hosting the website or your files won't get involved unless something drastic happens or someone is breaking the law.  Obviously, in the print world and even on television, things are different.  Do you think our interactions with online media are still so far apart from print and television that this distinction is valid?  

Theo: Just from an observational standpoint, I think that the distinctions of what is considered decent and what is obscene in the mediums of print, television, and the internet has very much to do with the standards of the era that each had the most influence in. We’re undoubtedly living in the era of digital media, so our present cultural expectations seem to dictate what content is suitable for that medium. Print seems more and more like the medium of not just our parents, but more so our grandparents, and the prevailing standards of decency seem to be coming from the norms of that generation as well.

Do you think Momma Tried will make more of an impact as a tactile magazine than an electronic version? 

Theo: Creating a magazine that is print-only was an aspect of Micah’s original concept for this project, partially because experiencing something first-hand in a tangible form is significantly different from taking in content on the internet and then having it almost immediately replaced by new images or information. This applies to everything we consume digitally, from news to social media, but it’s particularly relevant for us in thinking about art and literature.

Having art in one’s home, even just a reproduction in print, is a completely different experience than seeing a painting or photograph once online. When we allow anything to cohabitate with us we’re making it a part of our lives day after day, and often it is visible to others as well, taking images and ideas out of the realm of a strictly solitary experience. The potential of our concepts occupying physical space is why we think the impact of Momma Tried as a print publication will be more significant than an electronic magazine - it will be present in people’s homes and lives in a way that internet content can not achieve.

Will Momma Tried need a protective wrapper at all like traditional graphic magazines? Are you worried now that someone could raise a stink about its content being out in the open for anyone to flip through (including minors)?  

Theo: While the cover does include nudity, I don’t see it as graphic, and don’t think we’ll need a protective wrapper. I certainly don’t want to tell people what’s best for their children, but in my opinion, if minors do happen to flip through our magazine I think that seeing a variety of thoughtful and diverse portrayals of nudity in an artistic content can’t do any harm to their developing minds. At this point we’ll just have to wait and see what happens once we’re in stores, but I have faith that the content and our purpose will be understood.

Micah: In some ways the aspects of sexuality, especially the nudity, in Momma Tried is very much presented with our own formative experiences in mind. I grew up with easy access to magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, whether they were at my grandfather’s home or stolen from a Books-A-Million or ‘donated.’ However I found them then, I’m now aware that the images I saw within fucked me up for a while and likely still do. I think seeing some non-augmented, un-photoshopped, regular people naked could do us all a lot of good. 

Have you finalized all the places MT will be distributed yet?

Not yet. Our plan for distribution includes national and international shops in addition to our New Orleans locations, so we’re still working on finalizing that list. That said, we have found some outstanding local businesses to partner with, so in town people will be able to find Momma Tried at Gnome, Bon Castor, Friend, the Defend New Orleans store, and online. Also, we're going to be announcing our open submissions call for Issue 2 and the dates of our launch party soon on facebook and twitter.

Ryan Sparks didn't turn 21 in prison because his momma tried to steer him right.  As long as you're adopting early to young publications, won't you sign up for the Southern Glossary weekly newsletter