“Pajama” is a seductive word: a staccatoed string of short, hard syllables that assure us that we can slip away from the day — with its rules, strictures, and various contractual realities — and into the languid, unconstrained space of leisure, rest, and dreams. PaJaMa, a queer photographic collective that lasted from the late 1930s into the early 1950s, derived its tongue-in-cheek moniker from the names of its founders: artist trio Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret Hoening. Still, PaJaMa’s photographs transport us to a surreal, soporific domain where escape, respite, and pleasure reign supreme. In the suspended moment of the photograph and the conditions constructed around its making, the compulsory heteronormativity of the artists’ time faded into the background, and the dark shadow cast by World War II and the Holocaust seemed to retreat.
Cadmus, French, and Hoening were enmeshed with one another romantically as well as creatively. After Cadmus and French met at the Art Students League in 1926, the two became long-term lovers. When French married Hoening, who was also an artist, in 1937, an erotic-familial-artistic triad was formed. In New York studios, or more often, while vacationing on the beaches of Fire Island, Provincetown, and Nantucket, the trio began to avail itself of Hoening’s Leica, making a number of silver gelatin prints. They staged erotically charged photographs of themselves and those in their artistic circles, many of whom were gay: close friends included writer Christopher Isherwood, painter George Tooker, and fashion photographer George Platt Lynes (who was in a ménage à trois of his own with Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler). In centering bodies, the photographs of course reflected the more homogeneous aspects of the trio’s friend group, which was largely young, white, cisgender, and male.
Most of the photos were taken in the summertime. On isolated stretches of sand, sun-drenched nude subjects drape themselves around the environment’s tactile found sculptures and architecture: driftwood, staircases, rocks, sand dunes, rope. Simple, surreal, and serene, the compositions approach abstraction without seeming overly thought out. The paintings that Cadmus, French, and Hoening executed as individuals shared a proclivity toward magical realism and erotically charged male nudes but differed in style and tone. The triad thought that their photographs, however, shared a unified aesthetic, regardless of whose eye was behind the camera. With the name PaJaMa, the artists could share authorship, too, honoring the collaborative nature of staging, taking, and posing in these photographs, which often have the feeling of private performances.
The intimate photos were never intended for a wider audience or public, which is underscored by the fact that no one held onto the negatives (all of the photographs seen today are vintage prints). Rather, they were social connective tissue made and exchanged among friends, lovers, and everything in between, their creation and dissemination providing an opportunity for connection and communion. Unabashedly, joyfully homoerotic, PaJaMa’s photos celebrate the possibilities of an alternative model of romance and kinship that the triad so embraced.
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Gerda Wegener, Keith Haring, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, JEB, and Robert Mapplethorpe, will take place on August 19, 2021.