“Heaven is a Prison” book review
Eugénie Shinkle considers the ways Mark McKnight turns the distance of pornographic and landscape photography back on itself, grounding the gaze in the fleshy material of the body.
Earth and sky – and in between them, a horizon, suggested but not seen. The first two photographs in Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison, published by Loose Joints, sketch out a landscape in elemental form, drawing the gaze skyward and then down again, to the ragged outline of a fallen tree against a backdrop of distant hills. In the third photograph, two figures occupy the middle distance, their bodies locked in an embrace, their skin smooth against the parched vegetation. The camera moves closer, glancing towards this intimate scene and looking away again in a steady rhythm that feels choreographed – the slow circling of a voyeur creeping through the grass. Set against the expanse of the surrounding landscape, the pair of figures seem almost incidental.
Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that these two male bodies, engaged in a raw act of lovemaking, are the subject of this work. As the camera draws nearer, the viewer is transformed from voyeur to participant, close enough to make out sweat and spit, hair and marks on the skin. But the faces of the two men are partially obscured, and their anonymity only serves to strengthen the intensity of the encounter. Is primal too strong a word? Maybe not. There’s something monumental about these two bodies, a vitality that they share with the landscape itself.
In the accompanying essay, poet and critic Garth Greenwell describes the landscape in McKnight’s photographs as a metaphor or an index of time passing, a backdrop for what is essentially a human drama. It is all of these things, but it’s also much more. The landscape is an insistent presence in Heaven is a Prison. Shots of clouds and rolling hills punctuate the story again and again: they are more than tangential, more than just a setting for the minor transgression of al fresco sex. In Western culture, a landscape view – not the ground, rock or water itself, but the pictorial order we impose upon it – is a manifestation of power. When we look out over a landscape, we do so, implicitly, from a place of safety: here, the place where I stand, is always set out in relation to the over there of the horizon. This distance privileges the rational eye and gives a known form to the shapelessness of unaltered nature.
It’s in his images of landscape that McKnight’s much-vaunted debt to photographic Modernism is most clearly felt: Frederick Sommer, Minor White, Ansel Adams – each put their own distinct spin on the Modernist archetype, and each has left a trace on McKnight’s practice. For Adams especially, the landscape was a theatrical space on which to stage the heroic expression of the self. Through his views – their classical structure bound to the Western landscape tradition – the rational gaze dominates space. McKnight’s landscapes hint at this ideal form, except for the fact that the horizon – the eye’s guarantee of detachment – is nearly always absent. For the viewer, this refusal of distance plays out as a kind of vulnerability: I can’t see, I can’t know, I can’t find myself.
Along with this loss of perspective comes an invitation – or perhaps an imperative – to surrender to sensation. There’s no shyness in McKnight’s depiction of sex, and the forthrightness of his photographs requires the viewer to navigate a powerful series of affects. There are moments of real tenderness in Heaven is a Prison, but there’s also hard fucking, chains and piss play – not glimpsed from a distance, but often, confrontationally close. The viscous stream of saliva running from one man’s mouth into his partner’s is exciting and disgusting in equal measure. It’s visceral stuff, and the exact nature of the sensations that we experience – shock, arousal, joy – is less important than the fact that they are so clearly summoned.
As viewers, we do not observe McKnight’s photographs from a place of safety. Instead, they meet the eye with acts so fiercely intimate that we are left with a stark choice: to be drawn in, or to look away. And if the earth, sky and empty pages interleaved with the more explicit scenes hint at a reprieve, what they really offer is a different kind of seduction – a slow, deliberate rhythm that lends these acts the solemnity of ritual. Looking through Heaven is a Prison is like witnessing an act of communion: earth, flesh and sky, merging into one another.
It’s telling that McKnight lists Sommer and White amongst his most significant influences. Both utilised elements of landscape in their work, but abandoned its spatial conventions in favour of something less secure, less easily knowable. Sommer’s Arizona Landscapes have no foreground or middle distance or horizon – nothing against which the viewing subject can measure themselves. For White, the abstract forms of water, clouds and other natural elements were ways of evoking a state of resonance or unity with the cosmos that surpassed rational knowledge. Both can be understood as invitations to unmake the self. McKnight’s work shares this sense of transport, this euphoric dissolution of boundaries – between one body and another, between the body and the landscape, between the look and its object.
Heaven is a Prison is a book about lust, desire and sadomasochistic sex, but it would be a mistake to label these photographs pornographic, just as it would be a mistake to label this a book of landscape photographs. As genres, pornography and landscape are crude articulations of a power that relies on distance – the privilege of a bodiless eye. McKnight’s photographs turn this distance back on itself, grounding the gaze in the fleshy material of the body. And if his work challenges archetypal images of queer bodies, it also touches on themes that are more ecumenical and potentially utopian: the idea that distance can coexist with closeness; that pain can be an avenue to pleasure and deeper intimacy; and that transcendence is a horizon that may only be approached by leaving a place of safety.
Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer and writer living in East London. She is co-editor (with Callum Beaney) of the photography platform C4 Journal.