Airship Ambassador: Hi Evan, thanks for joining us!
Evan Butterfield: It’s a pleasure.
AA: What is Gentlemen of Steampunk about?
EB: Well, “about” could get a little complicated, because it’s not a story with a plotline, but let’s give it a try. I’ll do a short answer and a long one, and you can sort it out.
The short answer is that it’s a collection of photos of attractive, athletic men wearing Steampunk clothing, who seem to have forgotten to put on their shirts.
The long answer is a little more complicated. It’s about a few things. The first is part of my ongoing world-building effort. I have this Steampunk world in my head that is a little bit unpleasant in some ways, and a little bit better than ours in others, and in this book and other work I’m sort of dropping assorted scattered clues about it. Each of the men in Gentlemen of Steampunk is a character in that world, with a short biography written in a kind of arch-Victorian novelist style—very judgmental in some ways, very fawning in others. The bios have a lot to say about the world these men live in. And the photos are lovingly manipulated to look old and tired and worn, as if the photos as well as their subjects are artifacts of this strange place in my head. So there’s that.
Of course the obvious thing it’s about is showing photographs of attractive, muscular men wearing a minimal amount of Steampunk costumery and props. That’s probably mostly what it’s about.
The other thing it’s about, though, is it’s a sort of political statement about Steampunk, and the role of women, particularly in Steampunk art. That may be a little surprising, since there are exactly zero women in the Gentlemen of Steampunk collection, but it was really the absence of men in Steampunk photography—at least men treated the same way as women—that got this started.
AA: That’s an interesting and creative approach to gender and role equality. Much of steampunk seeks to address the balance and imbalance among people, who they are, and what they do. Now, your work addresses another expression of imbalance. What was the motivation for creating Gentlemen? How did the idea first come about?
EB: Well, like I said, I noticed that a lot of Steampunk art that depicted people depicted busty women in tight corsets who seem to have forgotten to put on skirts, and I had a bit of a negative reaction to that. Honestly, the negative reaction isn’t altogether something I’m proud of: I mean, it was partly feminist outrage, but mostly it was that I prefer to look at scantily-clad men myself, and I wasn’t finding that. I figured that those two elements came together nicely though, since there were probably a lot of women who would share my preference, not to mention other gentlemen of a, shall we say, more “Wilde-ean” inclination. The response to the photos has tended to support that assumption.
AA: In describing this book on your website, you said “Specifically, in the world of steampunk photography, it has quickly become obvious to me that the preferred aesthetic is comprised of upper-class white men with fantastical firearms and busty upper-class white women in corsets and not much else.” and “In short, much of steampunk art that depicts persons tends to depict persons in a thoroughly stereotypical, traditional gender-roled, male-centered manner.” How does your work and this book take all of that to task?
EB: <laughs> You make me sound like such an old scold! But I guess I did write that, so it’s my own fault.
So yeah, I was mindful of that when I did the shoots for the book. The models are purposefully diverse, at least ethnically—there haven’t been a lot of gentlemen of colour portrayed, either. I’ve gotten a little grief for them being so damn attractive, and for overlooking fat-hairy-old-unpleasant men. Maybe for the second volume. And while most of the gentlemen in the book are titled, the peerage in that particular alternate reality is focused on merit and intellect, so there’s some leveling there.
AA: What kind of research and prep work went into creating Gentlemen?
EB: I’m embarrassed to say not a lot. As I’ve mentioned, the images are reflective of the steam-driven, slightly magical (in the sense that alchemy is considered a natural science), generally polluted and vaguely mad steampunk world in my head, my job was to translate that from electrical impulses between troubled neurons into something visual and capturable.
AA: What was the photo shoot design process like and how long did it take? Was there a central theme?
EB: For Gentlemen of Steampunk, I was pretty clear with my models that the focus was on a “steampunk beefcake” (as opposed to photographic “cheesecake” images), and that they’d be engaging in various sorts of cosplay. For the first book, we tried various props with each of the models: gadgets I’d built, rusty old tools, fantasy firearms, etc. The way the models interacted with those, and with their costumes, is really what drove the stories behind the characters.
That contrasts with the design process for my second book, Aether & Rhyme, which is a collection of traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes re-told in Steampunk style, with an abundance of (hopefully) humorous, full-of-itself scholarly footnotes that provide backstory and history and more glimpses into my alternate reality. For that book, the models had specific characters to portray, and I gave them little write-ups ahead of time, along with a fairly detailed shot list.
So in Gentlemen, the photos really drove the “story” such as it is. For Aether & Rhyme, it was the other way around.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in this interview, so we’ll pause here.
Keep up to date with Evan Butterfield’s latest news on his website.