After The Moment | My Photograph at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati

Twenty-five years ago, the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment” and was immediately met with controversy. Nine of the first people through the door were a grand jury who looked at the 175 images and deemed seven of them to not only be offensive but criminal because of their explicit sexual content. The grand jury indicted not only the museum but also the director Dennis Barrie on charges of obscenity. In the trial that ensued, art vs. pornography, first amendment vs. censorship were brought to the fore. But much to everyone’s surprise, once the testimony concluded, the jury came back with a verdict in less than two hours: Not guilty. Art had won the day.

25 years later, the Contemporary Arts Center is now hosting “After the Moment,” an exhibit reflecting on the legacy of that Mapplethorpe exhibit. As part of this exhibit, an open call was placed to artists working today. It was Tom, one of my grooms from a wedding in 2014, who saw the call for submissions and encouraged me to enter a photograph from his and Neil’s wedding. I almost didn’t submit, thinking the photograph wouldn’t be enough to live up to such a legacy. Amidst all the explicit, dark, challenging material, it was just a wedding photograph. A beautiful moment, sure. But was it compelling enough? But Tom had written such a beautiful statement, I figured that was enough to send in with the image, and to my delight and surprise, it was accepted.

We were all going to be in the museum exhibit!

Though I grew up in Cincinnati, I no longer live there. So what came next was a frenzy of figuring out how I wanted to have my image printed, seeing if I could fly to Cincinnati for the gallery opening, and telling everyone I knew in Cincinnati to come join me there.

It was all a bit surreal, but on Friday, November 6, I got to see it all unfold in person.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

The CAC is located in downtown Cincinnati, with its awesome building designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

The night began with a cocktail reception at 6pm for members and invitees and an artist’s talk at 7pm by Andres Serrano, who was also in the middle of the arts & censorship controversies of the 1990s. I spy my name on the screen!

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

At 8pm, it was time to go up into the galleries for the first time. Note the ban on photography in the exhibit… I gave myself a pass on photographing my own work, but I avoided photographing the rest of the gallery, especially the Mapplethorpes. To see the rest, you’ll have to go there yourself.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

I was pretty surprised to find out that my photograph was basically the first one in the exhibit of over 40 works. But here it is, right on the other side of this corner with the exhibit’s intro text.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

Here is my full artist’s statement accompanying the photograph:

Title: Twenty-Three Years

Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She grew up in Cincinnati and graduated with Distinction from Duke University with a self-designed major in Asian American studies and documentary studies. She has always been fascinated by photography’s capacity to illuminate that which is easily overlooked. 

In 2014, Anna was connected with Tom and Neil by a mutual friend from Cincinnati. Their story was incredibly compelling, not only because of the homophobia and discrimination they had overcome as a gay couple in 1990s Ohio, but because of the optimism and determination with which they continued to move forward. By the time of their wedding in the spring of 2014, they had been together for twenty-three years. Their wedding was a small daytime celebration in New York City. Though much of the day felt very light and casual, the full weight of the day broke through in this singular moment during the ceremony. 

From subject Tom Owen to Anna:

“Twenty-five years ago, Robert Mapplethorpe’s show, the Perfect Moment, shocked and scandalized Cincinnati when it opened at the CAC: everything from gorgeous flowers to interracial gay couples standing side by side to sadomasochistic sexual expressions–an incredible exhibition reflecting the full range of his work. I was at the opening, overwhelmed, feeling a palpable vibration, thinking that it was a watershed moment…for art, for sexual and gender identity, a moment that shifted consciousness.

When I read through the description/call to artists from the CAC, I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful photographs you took of Neil and me at our wedding–particularly the one of me crying during the ceremony. In that moment of pure emotion, you captured how the world has changed and how consciousness has shifted precisely because that picture is both universal and personal (and that why I love it). Twenty-five years ago, Neil and I would never have been able to stand there and you could never have taken that picture.”

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

Thank you to alphabetical order for landing my name right above where it says “Robert Mapplethorpe!” I also got to meet CAC director Raphaela Platow and curator Steven Matijcio who selected my photo and speak with them briefly (not pictured). It was pretty incredible to hear Steven talk about how beautiful my photograph was and how it brought a bit of joy to what was otherwise a very heavy exhibit.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

It was so great to see the image with Neil and Tom. And I must thank my friend Maki for connecting us in the first place, when I photographed them as part of a giveaway. As Maki recently said to me, their wedding is the gift that keeps on giving, which is absolutely true.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

My mom was my +1 for the night!

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

My photograph was placed right in this narrow hallway, so I saw people hovering in that area all night, whether it was because they were interested or just stuck in the bottleneck. The whole place was packed though!

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

One of the best things about this night was that I had invited everyone all my friends in Cincinnati to come to the show, and that resulted in a smattering of great friends from all different parts of my life. Talya, one of my best friends from college, has been singing at CCM for the last couple years. She was the first one to arrive and find my photo in the exhibit.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

Next, I saw Lauren and her boyfriend Joe standing by my photo too. Lauren is one of my best friends from high school.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

And then, in the middle of the gallery, I found Karen walking around. I know Karen from TAF, and I also photographed Sam and her wedding in Columbus two years ago.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

I wandered around the gallery a bit and checked out the other exhibits too. Here’s Pia Camil’s Skins in the adjacent room, with an interactive component that Talya could get on board with.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

Opening night was a pretty incredible experience. It turns out that almost 1000 people came to opening night, and this exhibit has been drawing larger-than-usual crowds all around for the CAC. Even though I tried to walk around and see the whole gallery while saying hi to all my friends, it was really quite overwhelming (in a good way, of course). But I decided to go back to the CAC again on Monday to see it again without all the commotion.

It was a completely different experience the second time, as I got to see all of the other artists’ works in a much more empty space, with it being nearly silent, except for the periodic chimes from the music machines in the Myopia gallery upstairs. I also watched as a girl took quite a bit of time to read my entire statement and to look at my photograph, and then turn to her friend to say, “Wow. That’s Beautiful.”

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

Down in the lobby, I flipped through the exhibit pamphlet and found my photo there too. Pretty wonderful to see my work honored like that.

After The Moment, Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe at the CAC

Thank you to Neil and Tom for allowing me to be a part of your wedding, and especially to Tom for your beautiful statement and the encouragement to submit my photograph. Of course, none of this would have happened without Maki’s encouragement for you to submit your story to me, so really, it’s your love story that pulls through time and again!

Thank you to my mom, Talya, Lauren, Joe, Karen & Sam for coming to the exhibit! It’s so cool to see people from all parts of your life in one room. This must be what weddings are like for my couples, times twenty or thirty.

And of course, thank you to the CAC for hosting this exhibit and to Steven Matijcio for selecting my photograph. Never would I think my name would get mentioned in the same sentence as Robert Mapplethorpe’s. It’s truly an honor to be a part of this legacy.

After the Moment” is on exhibit at the CAC in Cincinnati from now until March 13, 2016.

For more background on the 1990 controversy and trial over “The Perfect Moment,” this Cincinnati.com article is a great read: Pornography or Art? Cincinnati Decided.

Anna Wu is a wedding and portrait photographer from Cincinnati, now based in San Francisco, and often traveling the world. She combines a fine-art aesthetic with photojournalism to capture fleeting moments. Follow her @annawuphoto on facebook or instagram for more of her daily adventures. 

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