Provocateurs Peter Berlin and Brontez Purnell on public sex, immortality, and the importance of self-authorship

For Document's Summer/Pre-Fall 2021 issue, the iconic 'photosexual' and the performer-cum-writer share stories from the vanguard of art's erotic avant-garde

The most famous story about Peter Berlin is relatively innocuous. Out cruising for sex in Paris, he suddenly became aware of a gorgeous young man walking his way; an exquisite synthesis of Rogaine-ad hair and rippling musculature who, Berlin soon realized, was his own reflection in a shop window. His real-life Narcissus moment has become a myth of its own as younger generations discover the work of an image-maker half a century ahead of his time. But, in all fairness, Berlin looked objectively godlike. The story says less about his vanity than it does about ours. Humans have been mesmerized by their own reflections since our Neolithic ancestors learned to polish lumps of obsidian—we wouldn’t have needed Greek mythology to caution against excessive self-admiration if we weren’t prone to it in the first place. In a world full of narcissists who can’t walk past a storefront without trying to check out our reflections, it only seems outrageous that Berlin didn’t recognize his.

In the early ’70s, Berlin wound up in San Francisco to find a cruising scene at its hedonistic zenith. He soon became a fixture, sewing his own pants to ensure his sex organs looked sufficiently Saran-wrapped, and squeezing into them with one goal in mind: getting laid. The self-portraits, preserving this image of a man in his virile prime, are imbued with this same candor. “I was looking in the mirror, looking good, and took a picture of it,” Berlin reflects. This routine—Berlin acting as both artist and muse—spanned decades, evolving into a staggering body of work that gay youths will be jerking off to for years to come. But there is a surprising innocence, if not purity, to Berlin’s performance for the camera; androgynous and more early Playboy than hardcore porn. (John Waters famously compared him to Jayne Mansfield.) Years after retiring the character of Peter Berlin, his image still plasters the apartment walls of his creator, who treasures them mostly for their honesty. Berlin also directed and starred in a couple of porn films, but he doesn’t recommend them and their “stupid” storylines. In fact, he never got off on porn. Orgies never appealed to him either, and he always found it boring to watch people fuck in public parks. He spends a lot of time thinking about nature, and humanity’s relationship with it outside of public sex. Specifically, he wishes we’d stop destroying it.

Brontez Purnell can’t remember where he first saw Berlin’s image. He describes it as something eternally present, a seminal part of gay history and intrinsically connected to the places where it happened. This is how many young queer people today see Purnell. By the time the writer and musician moved to the Bay Area at the age of 19, shortly after the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, Oakland was already at the tail end of its indie rock explosion—or so it thought. Purnell found a community in the scene’s punk underground, playing guitar in Seth Bogart’s Panty Raid and gaining prominence as a go-go dancer and singer at the infamous live performances of queer electroclash outfit Gravy Train!!!!. Purnell had a presence in the Oakland community before he actually moved there; he started making fanzines at the age of 14, mailing them to fellow misfits around the country from Alabama and then Tennessee. This early awareness about the importance of self-authorship, formed as a gay Black kid growing up in the South and cultivated in a punk-rock scene that can still be dangerously hostile to homosexuality, has remained a hallmark of the writing that has made Purnell an alt-lit icon. His latest book, 100 Boyfriends, shuttles the reader from anguish to drug-induced euphoria through the misadventures of queer men. Purnell’s approach to self-authorship can serve as a foil to Berlin’s photographs. His work is no less honest, but Purnell writes fiction. His characters are in fact composites, drawn not to reveal his specific experience but to give his readers a way of seeing themselves.

Meeting for the first time at Peter Berlin’s San Francisco apartment, the two era-defining gay heroes discuss our innate desire for immortality, the strange sex lives of worms, and why being able to carry our entire histories in our iPhone’s camera roll is a beautiful thing.

“I never was on stage in my life. The Peter Berlin image is only there because I connected my dressing up and feeling horny with a camera, and froze it in time.”

Brontez Purnell: When you were in Berlin, were you in some type of performance or crazy sex scene there?

Peter Berlin: No. At that time, in the ’60s, there were two gay bars, but I never was really into bars. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, so the really interesting gay life was outdoors in Berlin, in the woods, on the streets, and in train stations. That was my territory and everybody was doing the same thing. So there were hundreds of boys at night in the woods or train stations.

Brontez: When I first moved to Oakland, that’s mostly where I would have sex, in the park at Lake Merritt. And also, yeah, I would jerk off with lots of men on the train. There’s almost no BART cruising anymore. When you transformed into Peter Berlin, there were certainly many boys performing or dancing or in pornos. But there’s something that sets this persona of Peter Berlin apart.

Peter: Yeah. Because I never was a performer. I never was on stage in my life. The Peter Berlin image is only there because I connected my dressing up and feeling horny with a camera, and froze it in time. Because all the people around me were doing exactly the same, dressing up and looking good, only many of them died in the AIDS [crisis]. I clicked the camera, and there it was. So I performed as a street performer, like anybody else, but I never had the guts or the drive to be on stage. My only drive was to go out and zoom in on one person, take the person, and then have a very intimate encounter.

Brontez: So these were self-portraits? I never connected that. It’s a very distinct line, being a pinup boy—of course, Peter Berlin is very pinup boy—but also a self-authored photo gives more ownership of that image.

Peter: The difference with my pinups is they’re honest. It’s not a photographer who said, ‘Now, go here, dress this, look sexy—click.’ I only did it when I was looking in the mirror, looking good, and took a picture of it. That made the difference. It’s an honest picture. It’s not fake.

Brontez: Did you study art at university?

Peter: No, no! I didn’t study anything in my life. [Laughs] I don’t know what percentage of wasted time I would think is [spent] in universities and schools. In Germany you had to do something, so I have a degree [as a] photo technician. I learned to develop film and that helped me to do my photographs. All the black-and-white photographs are done in the dark room by myself. I never had the luxury like my good friend [Robert] Mapplethorpe, who met this very rich guy, [Sam] Wagstaff, who gave him, I don’t know, half a million dollars to have a beautiful studio. Everything in my life I did on a shoestring, with very little to nothing. At the point when I started to videotape myself with 8mm, then Hi8, and then Digital8 and all that, sometimes I would tape over something because I didn’t have enough money to buy tape. There are hundreds and hundreds of hours of my sex life. And that basically has never reached the public. The trouble with me is that I never learned to digitize things.

Brontez: We can definitely find you an archivist. Don’t worry. [Laughs] We can do that much.

Brontez Purnell photographed in San Francisco.

Peter: When I met Eric Smith, who became my best friend and functioned like an agent, my archive—the negatives and stuff—was under the bed. But the essence of Peter Berlin hasn’t been public…. Whatever is known now about Peter Berlin is just a character I played—very well, I must say. And the document is the photograph. When were you introduced to my image? Do you remember?

Brontez: I think it had to have been in my late teens, early 20s. It’s one of those things, too, where your image had always been so elemental to me. I cannot recall where I first saw it, it just felt like it had always been there.

Peter: Right. Because you were so much younger, my image was there, and at some point you came across it. But when you think of an image of me, do you see a naked person, or…?

Brontez: I see the live version of a Tom of Finland boy.

Peter: Dressed up.

Brontez: Yeah. I don’t see naked, you’re right. I see the cap, I see the very blond bob.

Peter: Exactly.

Brontez: White pants. Bulge.

Peter: There you are. You hit it right on the nose. Peter Berlin has created that head-to-toe thing. It’s a whole thing and usually completely not threatening. I’m just there. But my facial expression is always the same.

Brontez: Were you at all informed by the Tom of Finland drawings? Or do you remember when you first saw those?

Peter: That was when I was in Germany and just realizing that I’m gay.

Brontez: This is the ’60s?

Peter: That’s the ’60s. The beginning of the ’60s was the beginning of my sex life. I had one of my first sexual experiences being picked up by a boy from East Berlin. At that time, my city was divided into four sectors: the British, the American, the Russian, and [the French]. I was in the West, he was in the East. When I wanted to go back to the West, the trains were not going. It was the weekend when they started to build the [Berlin] Wall. That was in August ’61.

Brontez: What year did you come to San Francisco? And why did you stay?

Peter: In 1970 I came to America, and we had a layover in New York. I went to a gay bar, and I met a guy. He said, ‘You can stay with me.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ My friends left, and I stayed in New York. That guy I met, I was so stupid and naïve, he got all these phone calls, always with the phone. Then I realized one day, ‘Oh my God, he’s a callboy.’ I met one of the clients of the callboy who lived in San Jose. He asked if I would like to live in California. I went to San Jose with him… and every night I took his Cadillac to San Francisco. I met a guy in San Francisco who lived on Filbert Street, and I moved into his apartment.

“I had thousands of [men] over the period of my long life. I never had one woman…. For me, it would be sort of, like, if you want to have sex with a coffee table. I never would think of having sex with a coffee table.”

Brontez: This was a boyfriend?

Peter: No, no. I never called any one of my guys ‘boyfriend.’ I had sex partners, and I had thousands of them over the period of my long life. Thousands of only men. I never had one woman. That’s sort of different, too, because everybody has told me they tried it and they had experiences with women. For me, it would be sort of, like, if you want to have sex with a coffee table. I never would think of having sex with a coffee table.

Brontez: It’s funny to me that you said you never really called anyone ‘boyfriend.’ My last book is called 100 Boyfriends.

Peter: It’s a matter of semantics, right? For me, the idea of a boyfriend would mean a friend you have sex with. I had a boyfriend for maybe one or two days, but we didn’t have time to say, ‘Oh, now you’re my boyfriend.’ There’s a kind of possessive feeling of, ‘You’re my boyfriend.’ I remember the first time when it became known that men and gay men and gay women were marrying. I felt like it’s strange, because I feel that straight people should not be allowed to marry either. Marriage is something, some human creation, that I think has made so many people unhappy. And then, in that relation, you invite the lawyers when you get divorced. This is one of the points in the human endeavor where I said, ‘I would change that if I could.’ Because I would change a lot.

Brontez: Do you think that gay male culture is too youth obsessed?

Peter: I am youth obsessed, right? For me, young people are just more beautiful than old people. [Laughs] I never looked for an older man. I always looked for my age and younger. But then there are people who look for their daddy. So we are all different, right? But when you’re asking if there is an obsession with youth…I wouldn’t call it obsession. There is something I agree with, that, yes, we all look better when we are young, and we do whatever we can to look more on that end rather than on the other end. I think this is completely natural. The creator has really done something where I think it’s the biggest flaw in the creation. And cruel, you know? To start young, beautiful, and healthy, and then you go to that long, long—now, with vitamins and medicine—age, going over 100 years.

Brontez: I feel like I am starting to become middle-aged, and that I don’t like—I will like pictures of myself when I was younger—but I don’t ever remember being happy when I was younger. And also, the age I am now—I ran with a couple of party boys, and they died young. I didn’t think, for whatever reason, I would be this old. Not that I thought I would die, but I just never saw a whole lot of examples for it. When I was 25, I started dating a man that was 40 years older than me. That really taught me a lot. He had more vigor than me, he went exercising, hiking. Then he would tell me about the friends that he lost and life really beginning for him, in some ways, as he got older. That really changed my perspective.

Peter: You see, there is not a formula of right or wrong. When I came to America, when I was young with all my friends, we all had a ball. And I suddenly heard about these troubled youths because of discrimination. My first friend James was living in Texas and had long hair, and the only thing he could think of was, ‘I have to get out of Texas and go to California!’ Because of the impossible living among the rednecks, you know, who would look at you. I didn’t have that experience in Germany. It was after the war, people were busy working and doing, and there was no talk about ‘gay.’ Gay was sort of underground. Yeah, there were gay people, but I wasn’t living that world. But in my childhood, as poor as we were, I felt protected. I had a brother and a sister and my grandmother and mother, you know, it was a nice unit. When I got outed, I left the house and lived my life. So the ’50s I remember being nice, as a child. The ’60s, sexuality had about, what, 50 years? Of a great, great time. [Laughs] So I’m blessed in that sense. I’m grateful. The only thing that I’m dealing with now is old age. And not only being old, but being old at that time where now I’m aware that I’m part of that human race, the most awful species. We are criminals. We are greedy. This is not life, it’s the way we made it. And we made it a horrifying, terrible thing where now nature is starting to fight back. The virus is one thing.

Brontez: You described your family unit in Germany, where was your father?

Peter: My father died in the war. He was called into the war, fighting for Hitler. My father thought, like many other people, ‘Oh, they are fighting for the fatherland.’ The last letters my mother got from my father was when he started to doubt. He got shot in the last days of the war. So I never met my father consciously. I was born in ’42, and he died in ’45. So I grew up without a father. I sort of thought, ‘If the war hadn’t been there, would I have become Peter Berlin?’ I don’t think so. I would be in a family unit, with a father, who maybe wouldn’t have liked…. But that’s speculation, you don’t know.

Brontez: I think there’s a definite theme of fatherless boys having to be more self-determining in the world, and having to really assert their masculinity. I feel that way as a fatherless boy.

Peter: Oh, so you grew up fatherless?

Brontez: I had a stepfather for a while, but my parents were never married. I was a lovechild.

Peter: Do you feel there’s something lacking because of that?

Brontez: Maybe when I was younger I felt there was something lacking. Then one day I noticed that when I came to San Francisco, for a lot of years, my only male role models were other men my age. I felt like I was in a perpetual kind of youth of young boys raising young boys. My one friend says, ‘I would never have children, because I’m too busy raising my friends.’

“I ran with a couple of party boys, and they died young. I didn’t think, for whatever reason, I would be this old. Not that I thought I would die, but I just never saw a whole lot of examples for it.”

Peter: One can’t really paint a very definite picture of anything. It’s all sort of fluid. I never had a role model in my life. I always felt that I didn’t deserve anything in life. I always felt, as a child, that I was too stupid, and didn’t feel like being part of it. That was before realizing [I was] gay. When I realized I was gay, I loved it! I loved it from the first minute. When I started to look in the mirror, I liked what I saw. When people, psychiatrists, tell you, ‘You have to learn to love yourself,’ I said, ‘I love myself.’ Sex was sort of over when Peter Berlin left the room, and he left the room a long time ago. I’m now dealing with me. I’m living by myself, and I am not part of anything anymore. It was such a great time, when one was looking for sex. I think that is the greatest thing nature—because in a way, it could have been without sex. There are some animals, they don’t have sex. They just multiply somehow. When you cut a worm, then one part lives and the other part, you know? Whoever came up with that concept of ecstasy—ugh, God. I developed a very good sense of staying there. That’s another thing I’m really good at, and I could teach somewhere. Maybe in the university where they waste their time studying, I would come and say, ‘You people, what is more important for you than learning this and that and another thing?’

Brontez: You said that there was a point where you felt like Peter started to leave the room. When exactly was that, and why did you feel like Peter needed to leave the room?

Peter: In a way, my sex life was always connected with the world of drugs. That word has such a bad connotation. I say, ‘Yeah, some people drink.’ I never drank alcohol. I took drugs. At some point, my body started to say, ‘No.’ I had to stop the drugs, and sex was out. That enhancement—I can have sex now, no problem to get a hard-on, jack off. But I don’t have the desire, and that was the essence of Peter Berlin. How long can you be Peter Berlin? Give me a break, I’m nearly 80 years old. [Laughs] Thank God I’m not running around and trying. In that sense, it gives me peace, but I miss him. He was something else. And I’m glad that I caught it on camera. Now, you see, with the technology—the young kids, they all have their history in their computer, in their iPhone. This is beautiful.

Brontez: How would you hope the persona of Peter Berlin be remembered? Or how would you want it to live on?

Peter: I couldn’t care less. Whatever happens, happens. My whole creation of Peter was never that I want to be remembered. It was happening, and there’s a document, right? My image will jump—like it already has—generation to generation, and one day my photographs will be in the museums. But that’s where I differ from my good friend Mapplethorpe. He wanted to be rich and famous, so he became rich and famous. I wanted to get laid. If you put my name into Wikipedia, there you see my image. It will be there for thousands of years, if the planet doesn’t explode or nature [doesn’t] kill us all off. Straight people have that thing in their children. I will die, my image will be there, and that’s the end of that.