The Complex Intimacy of Marc Martin’s “Public Toilets, Private Affairs”

September 19, 2020

The Complex Intimacy of Marc Martin’s “Public Toilets, Private Affairs”

Martin’s striking photography juxtaposes the private in public, and explores the shared sexual history of Paris’ vespasiennes.

In his photo series “Public Toilets, Private Affairs”, French photographer Marc Martin shares photos from Parisian ‘tearooms’, and brings us into the often overlooked, but intricately vibrant underground universe of sex and intimacy between men in these semi-public spaces.

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These public urinals originated in Paris in the mid-19th century as a response to the Parisian public’s call for hygiene and cleanliness on a larger scale. They hold many names: vespasienne, urinoir, pissoir, pissotière, ginette, tasse; this last giving way to the phrase “faire les tasses” referring to the act of engaging in sexual acts in one of these public spaces.

Pissotieres were often dirty, and occupied a particularly sordid place in the public consciousness. As often happens in places on the periphery of the public eye, queer men repurposed the space to fulfill their own needs both sexually and personally.

As Martin writes, “So many encounters defying social norms have taken place in public conveniences that looked totally ordinary to outsiders. As far as the history of tearooming is concerned, remembering it always seems to be tinged with a great deal of pessimism. I do not wish to embellish the truth - neither do I claim to impose a positive image that would preclude other possible interpretations. Collected testimonies coupled with my own experience enticed me to shed new light on the matter.”

Martin’s photos provide a perspective at once intimate, voyeuristic, and broadly public - an intersection both rare and inherently queer in it’s position. More than a subliminally shared queer experience, though, this series highlights a subversive and subtle language of glances and body contact, and the simmering and electric eroticism of cruising in a public space.

“Public Toilets, Private Affairs” will be on display at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in 2021