Art Portfolio: Matt Lambert
Dielamb, the German moniker that Matt Lambert’s thousands of Instagram followers know him by, was born in Los Angeles, though he is now more often associated with Berlin, his beloved adopted home. Loved, not only because it knows how to throw a good party, but also because it’s where the film-maker-cum-photographer finds the boys who make up his visual world.
Lambert captures these boys in moments of ecstasy and intimacy, unguarded, nude and invariably glorious. His first monograph, Keim, meaning “germ” or “seed” in German, has a cock on the cover, anonymous, mid ejaculation. Inside, boys’ bodies intertwine with one another, the photographs are double exposed, raw, urgent. Vitium, his latest zine, a collaboration with his husband, Jannis Birsner, is an all-out homage to the queer-core mags of the 1980s, a catalogue of hard-core images in photocopier-esque black and white.
Combined with a veritable flood of film-making – shorts, music videos, fashion films (including for Gucci, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs) – Lambert’s work unravels to tell a story of youth and subculture, of tender intimacy and malleable sexuality. It’s a portrait of what it means to be young, queer and in lust, making him a natural successor to Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, both of whom he counts as influences.
This, his most recent project, photographed for 10 Men, also features boys. These ones, though, are actors, German, selected from the worlds of soap, theatre and film. Some are famous in Germany, some are not. Their faces and unclothed torsos are captured in brief moments of demonstrative emotion – grimaces, tears, their muscles contracted.
To photograph them, Lambert mimicked a film set, or theatre, asking each of them to perform a monologue from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a seminal film by the equally seminal Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the Bavarian-born director who has come to define New German Cinema of the 1970s.
In the scene, Petra, eponymous protagonist and fashion designer, bemoans the loss of her ill-fated model lover, Karin, who has decided, after a short affair, to return to her husband. In an intense monologue of love, loss and ruthless obsession, Petra lies on the floor, drinking heavily, blond wig askew. It is melodramatic, over-the-top, and, as Lambert tells me, very German.
When I speak to Lambert on the phone, he’s in his studio in Berlin, where he works alongside Birsner. I begin by asking him why he chose Fassbinder as the starting point. “It was sort of about him being a gay director who was working in Berlin, one who is a very big part of Berlin film culture,” he explains. “It felt like, if I was going to do something, a Berlin story, it made a lot of sense to work with someone who was such a big part of the texture of the city.”
Lambert has long counted Fassbinder as an influence (a fact I remind him of, having read it in an obscure interview he did in 2014, assuring him that I am not, in fact, a stalker), alongside Michael Haneke, Gregg Araki, Fritz Lang, Xavier Dolan and several other prolific film-makers. Lambert still counts this medium as his primary art form.
“I’m a film-maker, really,” he says. “I think the photography work that I do really mimics the film-making process.” In the set of images here, Lambert takes this to its logical conclusion. By capturing the boys mid scene, the images are instilled with the spontaneous emotion and movement of film. Like those tears, as he is keen to tell me, they are real.
The idea came after wrapping up a music video for LGBT activist, poet and rapper Mykki Blanco, for his track High School Never Ends. It’s a kind of queer retelling of Romeo and Juliet, displaced into the town of Freyenstein, rural Germany. It was the energy of the film process that excited Lambert. Straight photography felt static.
“I’d done three fashion stories back to back,” he says. “And we were shooting the Mykki video and were like, ‘Oh right, this is what it’s like to shoot someone with genuine emotion – this buzzing energy on the film set’, and we were like, ‘Why the fuck don’t we just do this?’”
The actors threw themselves into the 10 Men shoot. They came with notes. “I mean, German theatre is all a bit camp and over-the-top, so it was fine,” says Lambert. “Everybody was well up for really getting quite dramatic.
“I shot the performance of the scene, then we picked out which emotional state of that film felt the strongest for each person and then we honed in and had them stay in that zone. I feel like you walk away with something that’s just got so much more.”
Los Angeles never really felt like home to Lambert. “I felt like I was born in the wrong place,” he says. “I just didn’t feel like I connected with the city in any way. All the work around me was soft, flat. There was no buzzing of any work there.”
Berlin, which became his home after stints in London (a place he now considers his second city) and New York, is different. There is openness in Berlin, he tells me. He describes it as a “messiness”. It’s become crucial for his work, where intimacy remains central. People have a different attitude towards sex.
“There’s an effortlessness to intimacy here that people allow themselves, and there’s a comfort that people have with sexuality,” he says. It’s a mood that he has sought to replicate in his work, an intimacy not premeditated by where you live or how much cash you have in your pocket. Instead, it’s about bodily pleasure – “the subtle nuances of body language, of what someone feels like and how casual they can be when they’re just hanging out naked”.
It’s something that Lambert achieves through the trust he elicits from those he photographs. Most are friends, people he hangs out with. The relationship between photographer and subject is important. It should feel natural, a collaboration. He compares it with mainstream fashion photography, which he sees as exploitative.
“It’s like, ‘Let’s get some straight boys and make them do sexy things they can’t really wrap their heads around,’” he says. “I would rather shoot two incredibly adjusted intelligent and open-minded gay men being sexually intimate with each other, than have some straight boy pull down a boxer short and expose a butt cheek.”
It results in photographs, or films, that feel authentic. And even when his boys (and occasional girls) are kissing, or nude, or fucking, there’s no shame to it. “I think you see a sense of trust in the body language and in the eyes of the people I’m shooting. Or, at least, I hope that comes across.”
It’s an attitude that’s easy to find in Berlin, but it’s not confined to there alone. Instagram, where, at the time of writing, Lambert has 34,000 followers, also helps him find boys to shoot. Boys with stories. He loves hearing stories. And telling them. “It’s usually gay men who I shoot, so to be able to be in, say, Texas and sit and have a conversation with someone who can tell me what it’s like to be gay and 22 and living in Austin is fascinating for me.”
Initially, he found these tales in Berlin’s famed after-hours world. “It’s the best in the world times 10,” he says of the city’s gay scene. “Nobody judges each other and there’s such a level of desire for adventure,”
he says. He’s referring to nights such as Herrensauna or Ficken 3000, held in underground cruise clubs. For gay men and women throughout history, the nightclub is a sacred refuge, a place of liberation.
It comes at a time when, elsewhere, gay life seems to be experiencing something of a shutdown. In the past couple of years, London has lost the Joiners Arms – the gay bar on Hackney Road, east London, where I myself spent many a Friday night – Camden’s Black Cap, Shoreditch’s The George and Dragon, and at the end of last year, the sauna Chariots, once the heart of London’s scene. Queer spaces are dying out. Where are we meant to get our rocks off?
“It’s just really boring,” Lambert says of the city he once lived in. “Going out in London it’s like… fuck! Everyone’s high on mephedrone, everyone’s in a corner, pretending they’re having fun, and they’re all concerned about what people think of them. I don’t know, I lived in London seven years ago, and right now it just feels… It’s a bit dark.” New York, he tells me, is even worse. And Los Angeles, his hometown? “It feels like a parody of what Tina Fey from 30 Rock looks like in a club.”
The importance of gay spaces was recently given added potency when, on June 12, Omar Mateen walked into Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 partygoers inside. Viewing Lambert’s work after this lends his photos an electrifying importance. On his Instagram the day after the shooting, he posted a photograph of two men kissing, passionate, eyes shut, tongues touching – “sacrifice / unity / love /// out of the closets and into the streets” the caption read. A few days later, he posted a similar image, taken from Vitium. Underneath: “we are faggots and we are full of love”.
His work, then, is defiant, a celebration of that unsettling power found when you stand outside of society’s norms. A declaration of: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
So does he consider himself a radical? Not really. He’s not Slava Mogutin or Bruce LaBruce, transgressive gay artists he deeply admires. “I’m not trying to be shocking,” he says. “I’m trying to normalise imagery that’s maybe intimidating to some people. It’s more like… How do you take an image that would be really abrasive and would be really intense and give it a bit of a soul?”
Photographer: Matt Lambert
Hair: Philippe Baligan using Aveda
Make-up: Cynthia Baligan using MAC
Talent: Til Schindler, Lukas Till Berglund, Langston Uibel, Leon Romeike, Damian Hardung, Patrick Koltermann, Felix Mayr, Emanuel Schiller and Roman Bindert
Photographer’s assistant, digital operator and lighting: Nicolas Schwaiger
Lighting assistant: Lukas Keuchel
Casting: Jannis Birsner
Production: Made in German and Iconoclast Image
Production assistant: Josefa Knippers
Shot at Chaussee 36 Berlin