John McRaeʼs Sailor Style is a series of staged “documentary” photographs recording a pocket of recent Mediterranean history, focussing on the universal theme of flirtation. In images that resemble stills from a 1950s Technicolor movie, an ambivalent fable slowly emerges. Dressed in crisp white uniforms and jaunty caps, or stripped to the waist to show off tanned muscles, McRaeʼs sailors become figures of desire. They are boldly erotic, unpredictable and slightly vulnerable. These are the mariners of Cocteau and Genet: sea-dogs on the razorʼs edge.
The atmosphere in these photographs is full of hope. There is the expectation of new freedom, a mood that was prevalent in Malta immediately after the Second World War. In the summer of 2003, having spent two months based in Valletta, the Maltese capital, McRae set up a series of photographic shoots in the city, on the piers of the Grand Harbour and at the dry docks at Marsa. Five good-looking Maltese youths wear sailorsʼ uniforms, and Lauren is transformed into a classical femme fatale, with crimson lips, a 1950s red dress and a scarlet past.
The first scenes are photographed on Strait Street, in an area known as “The Gut”, a narrow lane in Valletta where during the war, sailors would meet in the bars, dance-halls and brothels. Then, as now, it was a place for beer, cigarettes, lewdness and brawls. In McRaeʼs images, broken neon signs and stray cats provide a timeless background for the pursuit of “dangerous liaisons”. During the shoot, an old lady came up to McRae to tell him that Lauren closely resembled one of the local whores who used to work in Strait Street. Apparently, she even wore a similar red dress.
Meanwhile, McRae reinvents the myth of the sailor as the angel of free-spirited youth. His models are passionate and tender, bewitched by the legends of the island of Malta, a place where Saint Paul was shipwrecked and where Caravaggio sought temporary refuge. Posing in the ports and laneways of Malta, McRaeʼs models show that this spirit of adventure lives on.
Jonathan Turner, Rome, 2003