Photo Sex-Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age
edited by David Steinberg
foreword by A.D. Coleman
Everybody's Business, and Nobody's:
Mainstreaming the Sexual Underground
Copyright © 2003 A. D. Coleman
To call this a country of contradictions has always meant putting it mildly.
Consider that, as I write this in the early months of 2003, a Republican Party dominated by Christian fundamentalists has begun to put in place unprecedented surveillance of the general population, intensified censorship systems, and judicial appointments that promise to return us to the laws and mores of the nineteenth century. Yet, at the very same time, increasingly large segments of the citizenry engage both privately and openly in the libidinal explorations encompassed by this provocative survey of what its editor (and one of its many contributors), David Steinberg, calls "photo sex."
This means not only that people here in the United States manifest a wide variety of sexual behaviors (probably a perennial truth), but also that they pursue in growing numbers what I call "the photo-erotic." By photo-erotic I mean the specific act of putting erotic behaviors on the visual record, playing them out in front of a lensed instrument loaded with light-sensitive materials, registering on film our erotic inclinations - not just for our private delectation but also for wide distribution, so that complete strangers in another time and place can ponder, savor, and on a certain level partake in our most tender and intimate depravities. I also mean the act of photographing such activity, at the request of others, not only for one's own enjoyment and the photographer's, but as a communicative act intended for an audience. And the act of looking at those images, as you're about to do.
It seems especially important to state, at the outset, that the book in your hands is not just another volume of loosely defined "erotic" photography in which formal nude studies and elaborately staged but fictional sexual scenarios predominate. These are photographs of everyday people - not hired models or professional sex workers - engaged in real sex, pictures made by photographers intent on describing the ways in which we live our quotidian sexual lives, images of people who feel entitled to allow photographers the privilege of observing such intimacies. The fact that there's so much work like this produced nowadays (the generous sampling in "Photo Sex" represents only the tip of this iceberg ) is one significant facet of this compendium's underlying message.
As Steinberg's distinctive cross-section of recent work in this form demonstrates, engaging in photo sex is not limited to any specific part of this country, or of the world. The photographers included here, and their subjects, come from all over the States, as well as from parts of Europe. Nor are either the photographers or their subjects drawn from a particular race, or gender, or gender preference, or sexual inclination, or body type, or social class. Older people, hefty people, skinny people, people with disabilities - these and more mingle here, linked principally by their acknowledgment of their sexuality as central to their lives and by their participation in these acts of photo sex.
What's most striking about this photo-erotic activity, overall, is the atmosphere of normalcy that emanates from it. Increasingly, as this volume indicates, photographic imagery explicitly depicting people having sex not only gets made but also achieves wide distribution through channels both legal and reputable- via exhibitions in museums, galleries, and other spaces; publication in books and magazines; and, of course, presentation on the internet. Which means that these images are seen and absorbed by an ever-widening audience that considers images of people engaged in sex to be a reasonable component of contemporary photographic practice. In short, what not too long ago existed in an underground environment has turned undeniably over-the-counter and mainstream.
Numerous facets of this movement toward legitimized sexual image-making are worth considering. One of these is that this movement is inherently political.
By its very existence, the range of sexual images being produced opposes the core right-wing dictate that sexual activity should properly be restricted to heterosexual interaction between husbands and wives, without accouterments and with procreation foremost in mind - and that sexual activity should never involve shameless public display. These photographs, the people involved in making them, and even you, as an audience for them, propose just the contrary: that sex is a territory of free play between consenting adults, that as a form of theater and experiment it may well involve costumes and props, that whatever gives pleasure and does no harm is permissible, that sexual expression and procreation are separable activities, that one is free to choose one's sexual partners from any gender or gender preference - and that participating in the project of photographing sexual behavior, on either side of the lens, stems logically from those assumptions, as does viewing the results.
That's a political stance, if only because many in this country, if they had their druthers, would prevent you from seeing these pictures and from buying this book. They would, in fact, punish all those involved - punish you for buying or owning it, punish the publisher for issuing it, punish the photographers for making the images, punish their subjects for posing, punish some of the subjects for even engaging in the specific acts they're performing. Remember that we are a nation founded in part by Puritans, and that the religious freedom they sought in coming to the New World was the freedom to punish severely those people who believed it permissible, among other things, to have fun on Sundays. There's no separating the content of "Photo Sex" from the political context of the U.S. at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
There's also an important cultural component to this imagery and to this book that's worth considering, a sociological aspect. Surely it tells us something about our times and our mores that so many people from so many backgrounds participate willingly, even eagerly, in the production and consumption of sexually explicit imagery - as subjects, as photographers, and as viewers. I suspect that, for almost anyone over the age of 40, finding a book like this on their parents' coffee table would be unimaginable, regardless of their parents' level of sexual sophistication. But it would not be surprising to find it in the home of someone under that age, in their parents' homes, or on the shelves of a bookstore - and not only those in a major city.
Thus "Photo Sex" represents a generational shift in the socially acceptable level of frankness and disclosure about individual sexuality and in the appropriate representation thereof. It offers tangible evidence that the current administration in Washington in no way represents a clear majority of this country's electorate, who would, given a fair chance, reject at the polls the cultural neoconservatism of opportunistic politicians. It shows us that attitudes in the States have changed radically in regard to matters sexual, and changed, most probably, for the long term.
This doesn't mean that sexuality has turned into a cause for all who practice the manifold present-day alternatives. We have few public demonstrations on behalf of sexual freedom as a general principle, no protest marches by fellators and cunnilinguists. In part this is because we don't need them - at least not yet. The thought police may have begun to harass individuals, but they're not yet rounding up everyone into oral pleasure or leather or rubber or B&D or water sports or same-sex coupling. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that day, no matter how much the new Comstockians bluster. Too many of us, throughout the country, have too much to lose that we consider crucial to our lives to allow that to happen.
So one curious sociological aspect of the current climate of sexual liberation is that it manifests itself not in outrageous public behavior - no sudden outbreaks of people making love on trains and planes, or in the parks, or the supermarkets - but rather in such realms as fashion (where leather, chains, piercings, and tattoos have become trendy ways to accessorize), art and entertainment (where these themes are increasingly foregrounded), and in our private spheres - in the ways we live our personal erotic lives, in what we do with (and to) our lovers.
Indeed, one of the seeming contradictions in the attitudes and actions of those who have become comfortable with all this is that we act as if sexuality is, at the same time, everybody's business and no one's. This seems indicative of nothing more convoluted than the inevitable balancing act between unfettered self-expression and respect for our neighbors' sensibilities. It's also a way of preserving some of the real yet underrated pleasures of secrecy: the delicious frisson generated by the contrast between maintaining everyday decorum in the context of one's community and then doing whatever one wants to in the seclusion of the garden or behind a curtained window. Much contemporary material in the arts, including the contents of this book, constitutes a complex communication system through which those actively concerned with sexual matters and engaged in diverse sexual behaviors signal to each other and participate in a culture-wide discourse about human sexuality and our repertoire of sexual practices.
Artistic communication of this sort is quite different from the coarsened version of that discourse found in shock-jock talk radio and daytime TV, venues that have sensationalized sexual discussion almost beyond recognition even while helping to open it up. One can enjoy, let's say, cross-dressing in one's private life, or even in public, without feeling an obligation to go on the Jerry Springer Show to defend one's taste before a bottom-feeding studio audience on national television. At their best, such presentations do inform the mainstream and help normalize alternatives while gathering first-hand testimony about experiences of sexual difference, but they remain, necessarily, in the realm of talk- judgmental, trivializing talk at that.
Pictures don't talk, they show- and photographs, in the minds of many, prove. Photographs have their own rhetorical strategies, and their own capacity for eloquence. They evoke our responses on a sensory level (the root of the word "aesthetic" relates to sensation). All of which depends on the craft skills and level of insight of the photographer and, in situations such as those depicted here, on the cooperation and active collaboration of the subjects.
Among the unifying threads connecting the images in this book, I find a consistent ease with the camera as a component of the sexual act, and thus, implicitly, with the photographer's presence in the sexual situation. Even when an image is a self-portrait made by one of those depicted, we need to recognize that the introduction of a camera into any social situation in and of itself affects the way that people behave, a dynamic most acutely at work in situations where sex is involved. So while the candidness that permeates this volume begins with the human subjects of these photographs, it is also a result of the unselfconscious attitude that the current generation of photographers brings to the psychological and artistic challenge of addressing sex directly and unambiguously.
Because the images that Steinberg has assembled here were made, almost without exception, with the knowledge and permission of the subjects, by photographers who did not otherwise take part in the lovemaking, the photographers' presence in the scenes they describe inevitably has a profound psychological effect on the behavior of the participants, as does the knowledge that these images will circulate and be seen by others. In all of these images there are - once we factor in the photographer - at least two people involved. So we need to consider these as team efforts in the visual documentation and expression of sexuality in the U.S. and Europe at the turn of the new century, and to recognize that establishing the trust implicit in the subjects' permission to make such photographs is as significant an artistic accomplishment as the consequent production of stirring images.
Steinberg has elected to sample the work of many photographers; hence none is represented in sufficient depth to allow for specific commentary on his or her body of work. But certain generalizations emerge. The first and most obvious is that the photographers represented in "Photo Sex" demonstrate as acute a concern with the crafting of remarkable images as do their counterparts in other areas of documentary and fine-art photography. It's possible (even commonplace) to make bad images of good sex, boring images of sexual heat. The depth of response these pictures evoke stems as much from the photographers' interpretive skills- their talent for structuring depictions that convey the intensity and complexity of erotic intimacy - as it does from the photos' subject matter.
In part, that's because the photographers regularly come closer to the sexual act - literally - than any preceding generation has done. These photographers' physical distance from their subjects varies from one picture to the next, but collectively they don't hesitate to move themselves - and, through their eyes, the viewer - into what sociologist Edward T. Hall defined as "intimate distance": the range between arm's-length and skin-to-skin. This shifts how we read the images, casting us as vicarious participants rather than as voyeurs, thus implicating us psychologically even more deeply in the situations portrayed.
No less importantly, what is striking about this collection is its diversity of style and mood, its attention to the sensuous and tactile, and its insistence on encompassing not only a wide range of sexual behaviors but also a full spectrum of sexual moods. "Photo Sex" suggests that this generation of photographers has its eyes out for a wide range of revelations about sex, not just our moments of unbridled lust. Along with the edgy and rough, "Photo Sex" offers us glimpses of the playful, the tender, the intimate, the affectionate, the delicate, the humorful, even the goofy - sex in all its delicious, constantly shifting intricacy. This collective accomplishment unquestionably denotes a raising of the bar for what Steinberg calls "sexual photography."
As a curatorial and/or editorial statement (which is how a book such as this must be interpreted), Steinberg wants us to understand our sexual selves from all these emotional perspectives. No surprise there for anyone who's read "Comes Naturally," his long-running, eminently level-headed commentary on matters libidinal. But his embrace of the true complexity of sex is a significant perspective that separates this book from others that purport to address the intersection of sex and photography.
Some of these pictures will no doubt affect you more than others, in which case you may want to seek out the further achievements of this or that contributor. Behind most of these brief tastings of the visions of dozens of individual photographers are extended bodies of work that address sex in one way or another. Some of these photographers devote themselves exclusively to sexual themes; others return to them recurrently. The contributors included in "Photo Sex" represent a much larger network of photographers in the U.S. and abroad exploring human sexuality in our time, just as their particular human subjects stand for many others among us who have participated in our own acts of photo sex - including those who, from time to time, in the great American do-it-yourself tradition, take their still or video cameras to bed, set up a webcam on a screened-off back porch, or otherwise make a lensed instrument into an aphrodisiac and a sex toy.
This cat's out of the bag, in other words, and it seems unlikely that anyone will manage to persuade it - or even push it - back in.
Staten Island, New York