“The whole nudity thing is me exploring my sexuality, which goes back to being from West Texas,” Mr. Mooney said. “It was very much, like, ‘You’re gay, you’re bad, sex is not until marriage.’ Had I seen images of queer men being proud of their bodies, I think that would have made growing up a bit easier.”
His own images, with their nostalgically washed-out colors and carefully cropped bare body parts, often suggest something mischievous or macabre happening just beyond the prints’ chaste white borders. They feature scruff, torn tank tops and other accouterments of a nascent fashion trend that some in the industry call “sleazecore.”
So it wasn’t surprising when these images began spreading across the internet during the first lockdowns of the pandemic, particularly among other scared, horny, isolated gay men, many of whom started DMing the photographer to volunteer to have their own portraits taken.
Once it was safer to meet in person, Mr. Mooney began refining his aesthetic by capturing other (often fit, often tattooed) men in New York, making a few close friends along the way.
“A lot of my pictures are me going to somebody’s house, hanging out, drinking, smoking a little bit — and if they want to take their shirts off, that’s cool,” he said. “The intimacy of a Polaroid photograph is what makes it sexy, but it had become this kind of Urban Outfitters kid’s toy. A lot of people forget it’s a legitimate medium.”
Of course, there is a long artistic tradition, particularly in New York, of hot gay photographers chronicling their hot pals on Polaroid film, going back to Andy Warhol and his 1960s-era Superstars; Robert Mapplethorpe, with his S-and-M-suffused monochrome prints of the 1970s; Don Rodan, an influential photographer of the queer community in the same era; Peter Hujar, who chronicled the gritty East Village scene before dying, in 1987, from an AIDS-related illness, during a different pandemic; and Tom Bianchi, who for five decades has caught his beefcake buddies stripping down and canoodling in Manhattan, the Pines, Palm Springs and elsewhere.