Benjamin Fredrickson’s ‘Wedgies’ turn schoolyard antics into ass-up uncanniness

Document joins the New York-based artist for a sweaty rooftop shoot ahead of the release of his latest photo book

Paul sinks to his knees, and his shadow sprawls out across the rooftop. Just moments earlier, he swapped out his Champion basketball shorts for a pair of tighty-whities about two sizes too big. Now he kneels on all fours, his back arched and his butt cheeks hiked high in the air like two floating orbs. Soot crunches underfoot, soiling his lower legs. Benjamin Frederickson, towering above him, grabs the waistband of Paul’s loose underwear and pulls it so that the cotton stretches tautly over his sweat-soaked torso. The fabric tears with an ugly screech, breaking the soft shush of cars snaking up and down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Then a Nikon FM2 camera comes out.

Fredrickson is shooting pictures of his friend Paul, who closely straddles the divide between otter and bear. The mid-May sun beats down on the flat roof of Paul’s apartment, Frederickson’s studio for the day. The session is one of the hundreds that the New York-based photographer has carried out over the last four years. The photos make up a series Fredrickson titles Wedgies, which is also the name of his debut photo book—out this month from British publisher Baron Books. Its cover features a headless hunk giving himself a wedgie on the backseat of a car. No essay accompanies the remarkable catalog, the omission of prescriptive words liberating one to get off to the photos should the thrust of lust take over. And, like hardcore porn, Wedgies appears sexual but not precisely sexy. Colossal thighs and curved buttocks throughout the 90 pages bloat past the point of gym-ripped perfection and take off into almost automaton-like uncanniness. And let’s not forget the wedgies. Not infrequently aided by ropes and clotheslines and harnesses, the contraptions must have hurt. But the book revels in their extreme beauty as a fetish object more than in their bully-and-victim overtone; their painful pleasure derives from the taboo allure of masochism rather than from the fixation’s psychosexual violence.

In a way, Fredrickson’s perspective typically bodes more rectitude than its smutty facade might suggest. He has spent much of his photography career trying to dredge the dark sides of gay sexual culture out from the shadows, as opposed to frolicking at the depths of their great perversity. His pictures, even at their darkest, reflect a sense of pride that often comes from the post-sexual-revolution, post-Stonewall model of resistance to bourgeois respectability. That kind of earnestness has largely gone out of style. The rise of irony, and a certain cerebral aloofness, has effectively rendered most artist-activists corny if they echo, however quietly, rainbow-flag-flying positivity. Wedgies is sincerely celebratory. But Fredrickson pushes the series with enough vulgarity to capture what once made alternative sexuality an insolent subject. His ass-up Adonises feel naughty.

Left: Atomic Wedgie Pull (Self Portrait), 2022. Right: Basement Wedgie, 2020.

You’re just a Google search away from pictures of Fredrickson himself in various combinations of undress and arousal. For all his mischievous exhibitionism, though, the 43-year-old photographer exudes a rather endearing mousiness in person. Friends and colleagues unanimously describe him as sweet and shy, but also agreeably naïve and coltish. Fredrickson peacocked more frequently a decade ago, his fashion Hedi Slimane-skinny and early Tom Ford-glam. Now he wears a nearly unvarying uniform of black t-shirts, light wash Levi’s 501s, and slightly scuffed Nike Air Force 1s; an elegantly sober buzzcut circles his forehead like the crisply cuffed knit caps that had every other guy on the L train in a chokehold five years ago. He did show some leg at Folsom Street East this past June, even though his cargo shorts still covered more than the leather festival’s many thongs and jockstraps. His mellowed-out maturity extends to the way he talks about the past, often chuckling knowingly like a much older man who can no longer take his younger self too seriously.

Fredrickson grew up in the suburb of Minnetonka, Minnesota, with a brother six years older. His father was a railroad conductor, and his mother an art director. They weren’t entirely whatever-makes-you-happy parents, according to Frederickson, but they did grant his wish to attend Perpich Arts High School, where he took up photography. There, Fredrickson kept to himself. He spent hours in the darkroom each week, partly to print, but mostly to hide from the other kids. “I have always loved people,” he says. “I just didn’t know how to communicate.” The friends he did have were all girls. Outside of class, he drove with them aimlessly into the night, or roamed porn shops alone, or rented low-budget horror and exploitation movies, namely the Italian director Joe D’Amato’s. And this was the 1990s when VHS tapes cost something, so “you had to be more intentional about what turned you on,” he remembers.

After high school, Fredrickson enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to further his photography. He bought a sewing machine and made little costumes to embellish portraits of his then-boyfriend, calling on George Platt Lynes’s near-surreal pictures. Local gay bookstores like the now-closed A Brother’s Touch introduced Fredrickson to the perforated pageantry of Bob Mizer’s iron-pumpers and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s street-walkers; the hedonistic tenderness of Peter Hujar’s sadboys and Tom Bianchi’s sunbathers; and the stylized devilry of Jimmy DeSana’s mummies and Robert Mapplethorpe’s Mr. 10 ½. Almost always, first came arousal, then inspiration. “I love their glamor,” Fredrickson says. “That could be a David Hurles photograph of a guy with a hard-on in front of a neon sign. Didn’t have to be anything but skin.” A cheeky self-portrait from his college days shows a reporter pointing a microphone at a twinky, floppy-haired Fredrickson, who is stroking his erect penis.

In 2003, he moved back in with his parents after graduation and worked day shifts at a grocery store. Bored and broke, Fredrickson turned to alcohol, a decade-long partner he would come to regret. Around 2006, a friend sold him on sex work, but that he never lamented. “I enjoyed getting to have sex and getting paid,” he says. “I would, you know, fist someone, show up at work the next morning and handle some organic lettuce. Yes, I washed my hands, but I remember thinking, Oh, these people don’t know half of what I did last night.” The personal nature of sex work pried his introversion open. “I don’t know if I was ever really good with boundaries,” he recalls. “I got to know people maybe more than I should have. I mean, I fucked and then never saw many of them again. Still, it wasn’t always transactional.”

Left: Outdoor Atomic Wedgie, 2020. Right: Pull-up Bar Wedgie, 2022. Images are Courtesy of the artist and Baron Books.

Between 2005 and 2010, Fredrickson obsessively took Polaroids of friends and lovers, who often look listless and lonely, occasionally with semen running in rivulets down their bodies. Subsequently, he started bringing his Polaroid camera to paid hookups so as to not scare clients with anything more official. And he relished “the intimacy of a smaller object, the sort of sexy picture you store away in a shoebox under your bed.” Mike, a john with thin wire-rimmed glasses and big doe eyes, was rare in that he allowed Fredrickson to photograph not only his body but also his face. In one picture, Fredrickson sits on Mike’s lap, his arm around Mike’s head, Mike’s arms around his waist—both naked. They met after Fredrickson had tested positive for HIV in 2009. He was looking to other HIV-positive men like Mike for something to help confront his own confusion. When he didn’t find relief, he got scared.

But that fear drove Fredrickson to move to New York in 2010, the leap he’d always wanted to take. Two bags, two suitcases, two cameras—his Pentax 67 and Polaroid 600SE. “I had just turned 30,” he says. “Most people come to New York and start sex work, whereas I came to quit.” He eventually quit drinking, too, and found a job at a clothing warehouse, later working at Opening Ceremony as a salesperson while pitching his Minnesota Polaroids to publishers. To his delight, BUTT agreed to publish a couple of the photos. The pink-hued magazine also included Fredrickson in its now cult-status 2012 calendar—which as fate had it—his then-employer Opening Ceremony stocked. “It was a double-exposed picture of me sucking a cock,” he laughs. “I didn’t want my coworkers to see it, so when nobody was looking, I ripped out my pages and threw them out.” Over the next few years, Fredrickson built his photography career, now contributing regularly to Fantastic Man, Gayletter, Apartamento, Interview, and Kink Magazine, among others.

Another breakthrough happened in 2014, when Daniel Cooney found his name on the artist registry of the organization Visual AIDS. The dealer put Fredrickson in a group show at his Chelsea gallery alongside photographers Bear Kirkpatrick and Rachel Stern. The Polaroids sold well, so Cooney proceeded with Fredrickson’s first solo show the following year. The photographer spent the money he earned on an 8-by-10 camera and began shooting paper negatives. Here were scantily clad Herculeses who make a drama out of alpha-aggressive hypermasculinity. The black-and-white format retains his Polaroids’ womb-like warmth while smoothing his image-making into a romantic formality. By 2019, he had exhibited the series in numerous group shows and a second solo at Daniel Cooney Fine Art.

Self Portrait, July 2024.

Also that year, during a photo session, Fredrickson saw his model adjusting their underwear and immediately asked if they could pull it away from their body—then wider and tighter. The model happily obliged, and the idea for Wedgies emerged. (The elastic tension reminded him of the jersey tube Martha Graham wore in her mind-bending 1930 solo Lamentation). After that day, Fredrickson ordered different briefs and explored different ways to manipulate the body wearing them. The atomic wedgies generally obscure his subjects’ faces, drawing all the more attention to their cupped testicles and the humble strips of cloth rammed up their ass cracks. His setups get as elaborate as pulley systems that yank the underwear in all directions. But sometimes it only takes an over-the-door hook to hang pounds and pounds of glutes. No matter, the pictures always invite a frisson of erotic possibility. When Fredrickson posted them on Instagram, they got so popular that soon his inbox flooded with messages from people around the world requesting him to photograph their wedgies. Some had a fetish for it. Others enjoyed the attention their promiscuity attracted. That was how Fredrickson met Paul. They first chatted online right before the pandemic, but not until today did they find the time to shoot.

Thirty minutes have passed since Fredrickson and Paul got up on the roof. The heat has only intensified, though both seem too polite to make it an issue. One minute Fredrickson is spewing his sorrys and excuse-mes. The next he is smearing baby oil on Paul’s bottom and smacking it for effect. All four of Paul’s cheeks quickly turn the color of raw chicken. When Fredrickson pauses to reload the film, Paul drops his hips and squints into the near distance, through his neighbors’ floor-to-ceiling windows. They’re watching basketball. The Indiana Pacers have just scored against the Knicks. Paul turns his head and arches his back again. “That’s hot,” Fredrickson says, and his camera clicks away.