On the westernmost white wall of the Yale School of Art Gallery, adjacent to pieces built of flashing lights and feathers, hangs a 40 by 30 inch photographic self-portrait, printed on simple metallic paper. A man’s naked back fills the center of the frame, boxers around his knees, bare legs facing the viewer. Though he commands the foreground, his body fails to mask the second, more imposing figure, made immediately visible by the black-and-yellow machinery of his wheelchair. Robert Andy Coombs ART ’20 lies diagonally in the chair, clothes on, both of the first man’s hands supporting his head. Coombs stares directly at the camera; it’s easy to read the smirk in his eyes. He’s giving his partner a blowjob.
Coombs chose this photograph for his first showing at the School of Art, a calculated decision meant to assert his creative ethos: confronting stereotypes of sexless disability and staking a claim for his own very present sexuality within an able-bodied queer community. Though he largely shoots self-portraits, not all are so explicit; a series of three feature the necks of Coombs and a faceless partner, and another focuses on Coombs’ tattooed torso, stretched out across olive-green grass. The piece in the gallery answers questions about disabled sexuality before the viewer can ask them. It’s meant to startle.
As I looked at it, a single frame of an ongoing sexual act, I could feel Coombs watching me, waiting for a reaction. We were the only ones in the locked gallery. I mustered a “wow” before he wheeled backward, saying, in a burst of frustration, that he wished the photograph had been hung at his eye level. Now when he looks at it, his likeness appears above him, each staring directly ahead and missing the other by degrees.
“I hate when people look down on me, especially with a bird’s eye view, photographing down,” he said. “It’s showing me in a submissive way … which I’m not at all.”
The whole time I was with him, sitting in his stark-white School of Art studio, Coombs didn’t break eye contact, except to blink. I sat in a small folding chair, adrift in the empty professional space — Coombs produces most of his work in his bedroom, a logistical necessity given the dual need for accessibility and intimacy. His service dog lay on the ground of the studio. Coombs was the highest point in the room, and I had to look up.
After a trampoline accident in 2009, Coombs — then an undergraduate at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan — became a C4-C5 quadriplegic, paralyzed in his legs, torso and hands. Because he can’t hold a camera and relies on a wheelchair, his photographic process is slow, a juggling act of disparate connections. He uses a medium-format digital camera tethered to a computer monitor and triggered by a joystick, which he controls with his mouth. An assistant physically moves the camera, but Coombs dictates the click of an image, even when he lies within the frame.
Coombs is currently working on a series about disability and queer sexual life, the fully realized counterpart to “Disability and Sexuality,” a series he began in the years immediately following his accident. Those images depicted queer disabled people, naked and framed by sharp, harsh light, edging out their faces. Coombs’ newer series, “CripFag,” focuses on his own sex life — “the ins and outs and all abouts,” he said coyly. The series, and its often explicit nature, responds to what Coombs sees as public ignorance about queer disabled sexuality.
“People would ask me, even to this day, does your dick work?” he said.
A native of Norway, Michigan, Coombs discovered photography and gay identity during adolescence. His early crushes on boys coincided with an ease and delight in male nakedness — he and his friends would often skinny dip in the summer. There was nothing to do in what he viewed as “the middle of fucking nowhere,” so he documented each moment of that nothing religiously, from landscapes to high school parties. He submerged himself in sports, theater and multimedia classes, determined to both mirror and reject every TV stereotype. Everyone knew he was gay — like his wheelchair now, he couldn’t hide it. But he could subvert and control it.
When Coombs began his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Kendall College, he was creating beautiful images for the sake of themselves, intensely concerned with aesthetics and their curation; the images reflected and magnified this intent. In one, Coombs poses in front of a white wall, hand outstretched, “Creation of Adam”-style. His torso is bare; he is backlit in blue, and the glare stretches across his abdomen, outlining each muscle.
He planned to become a fashion photographer, the rare photographic job with a stable income. After the accident, his parents mourned a lost career. But Coombs had no plans to stop working. His art had always reflected his life. His life looked different after the accident, so the work would bend and adapt, as Coombs blended politics with aesthetics.
“I actually had something to say for the first time in my life … Something really fucking important,” he said.
His transition into his current photographic focus was inspired by the realities of his disabled existence. After the accident, he inhabited a body he needed help to understand. The older nurses in his rehabilitation facility couldn’t tell him what his sex life would look like, whether he could be penetrated, whether he could ejaculate. Coombs did his own research online, but his paralysis necessitated partnership, which he sought on dating apps. He found himself attempting to prove his own sexual worth, to articulate a narrative of disability with which the gay community was unfamiliar.
“We’re in this culture where everyone’s so focused on making sure that they just get their rocks off and then leave … You can’t really do that when you have a disability like mine. It’s a little slower. I need help undressing,” he said. “Make that sexy! It’s all in your mindset to make it fucking work.”
In many ways, Coombs is fighting a losing battle. He grew into his disability during an “insta-gay” era, where images of able-bodied naked men pervade and define whole segments of social media. It’s the kind of unabashed and uncomplicated vanity that Coombs would have revelled in before his accident, and it’s the kind that excludes him now; the images fail to represent disabled sexuality in their celebration of muscled bodies, beautiful and homogeneous homosexuality. It would be easy enough to relinquish his space in the world of oiled abs and strategically-placed coffee cups, but Coombs sees his work as “sexy Instagram pics” under fastidious control.
Ultimately, all sexually stimulating images are about this struggle for visual power: how much is on display, where the line is drawn. Coombs makes eye contact with his viewer because he wants them to know that the bodies in his pieces are “meant to be seen,” lest art become voyeurism. But because he can’t often view his own body, the work is for him, too — a form of power over not only how he’s seen, but also how he sees himself.
“Before my accident, I loved looking at every part of my body — my back, my ass, my feet,” he said. Now that Coombs doesn’t need to look in a mirror to perform daily tasks, like brushing his teeth, he can go days without needing to scrutinize his features. In many ways, he said, this self-alienation is freeing. He can’t hide the wheelchair, he can’t curate the body, but he alone determines how they’re viewed, each an extension of the other. He has a camera, after all. He has metallic paper, a gallery and an audience, watching him watch them.
If you stop at the bulletin boards on Elm Street, you’ll see a flier posted by Coombs: “MALE MODELS NEEDED” for photographs of an “intimate encounter, whether that be cuddling naked or something more sexual.” If anyone contacts him, he’ll ask for a full-body nude, though anonymity is freely granted. He stipulated that he needs to be attracted to his models; anything else would feel like falsification, so the search for multiple candidates is standard. The fliers, however, are an experiment — usually, potential models find him via dating apps, Craigslist or word of mouth. So far, no one has responded to the old-fashioned advertisement, reminiscent of a world before images and their digitization held dominion.
Yet tear sheets, which list his website, are missing from each rain-soaked piece of paper. People are interested. Coombs doesn’t blame them. The work, he said, is a “slap in the face … It fills some curiosity that needs to be filled.”