Photo Sex-Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age
edited by David Steinberg

 

Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age 
Copyright 2003 by David Steinberg

Think of this book as both an announcement and an invitation. 

It is an announcement that sex has come to be recognized by growing numbers of skilled and thoughtful photographers as an aspect of life fully deserving the attention and nuanced perspectives of fine art. 

And it is an invitation to you, the viewer of these photographs, to experience some of the work that has been generated by that intersection of sexual awareness, artful insight, and photographic technique - an experience that may change what you think of both sex and photography, perhaps even what you think of yourself.

Given that more and more people see sex as an important and complex celebration of what it means to be fully alive, it's hardly surprising that increasing numbers of artists - photographers, perhaps, foremost among them- want to say something significant about that kind of sex through their art. If sex is about something much larger than a bunch of nerve endings in pursuit of physical release, if sex is not some devilish force threatening to overturn moral decency and social propriety, then sex begins to look like precisely the sort of profound human experience that has always been the subject of true artistic exploration, the sort of human experience that, indeed, needs the language and insight of artistic reflection to help us better understand both life and ourselves.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but gathering real momentum only in the 1990s, dozens of skilled and perceptive photographers have been producing a wide diversity of magnificent images of people engaged in sexual activity. These are images that have nothing to do with the repetitive, cliched formulas of commercial pornography. Rather they are images that invite us to look at sex with wonder, laughter, passion, and tears, from a place of deep appreciation and respect.

That so little is known about this growing body of work is a testament to the sexual phobias of American culture in general, and the political, cultural, and sexual conservatism of gallery owners, book and magazine publishers, and museum curators in particular. Photographers whose work addresses sex respectfully are spurned by mainstream art venues for their sexual focus even as they are equally rejected by the sexual marketplace for their emotional and aesthetic depth. 

Until recently, these sex art photographers have been largely isolated from one another - one of the unfortunate side-effects of social and artistic ostracism. But recently so many different photographers have begun to produce a wealth of thoughtful sexual imagery that they have begun to breach the barriers of social opprobrium, to view each others' work, and to gain inspiration and insight from each others' photographic experiments and explorations. Indeed, the growing body of sex-photographic work has already taken on the character of a distinct and significant new genre - work that builds and defines its own subculture of cohesive interests, styles, mannerisms, and photographic forms.

To be sure, there's nothing new or noteworthy about the simple act of taking photos of sex, or about publishing sexual images per se. Explicit images of sex have been popular and lucrative contraband from the very first days of photography, and these days it seems the entire world is positively abuzz over the abundance of sexual imagery available to one and all - children as well as adults, fundamentalists as well as unabashed hedonists, villagers in third-world countries as well as big-city cosmopolitans - at literally tens of thousands of unfathomably popular, hopelessly boilerplate, sex websites.

But fine art sexual photography is something else again, as unfamiliar an idea as the idea of pornography is commonplace. "Sex photos as fine art?" you may ask. "What could that possibly mean?" Or, perhaps, less politely: "You've got to be kidding!"

We so completely associate sexual photography with "adult" media that we have trouble even imagining that sexual photography can exist outside pornography's glitzy, titillating, rebellious glare. The idea that the thoughtful, complex sensibilities we associate with truly fine art can be directed unapologetically toward sex, through as dramatic and powerful a medium as photography, is alien enough to throw most of us into veritable fits of cognitive dissonance.

After all, art is high; sex is low. Art is subtle; sex is blatant. Art is refined; sex is crude. Art is public; sex is private. Art is beautiful; sex is, well... embarrassing. Or so we've been told by the cultural and moral gatekeepers of our society - a social order as frightened and confused by sex as it is obsessed and intrigued with it. 

But over the last thirty years or so, the powerful antisexual subtext of our peculiarly pleasure-fearing U.S. worldview has been challenged, both publicly and privately, by literally tens of millions of increasingly explorative and outspoken everyday people- people whose sexual attitudes and experiences are noticeably more positive and friendly than those of the dour traditionalists. 

While the antisexualists continue to think of sex predominantly as an arena fraught with danger, shame, trauma, and disease, for more and more of us, sex is, first and foremost, a source of pleasure, joy, intimacy, tenderness, personal discovery, beauty, self-realization, wonder, and even transcendence. The old Calvinist notion that righteousness belongs to those who reject pleasure in favor of sacrifice, hard work, and reward in the Hereafter may be alive and well among the extremists of the Religious Right, but among mainstream Americans, this stern view of life has generally been displaced by the psychologically more sensible, more intuitively verifiable, philosophy that the truly Good Life welcomes and honors pleasure rather than pushing it aside- welcomes and honors, specifically, the pleasures of the body - welcomes and honors, more specifically yet, the deeply fulfilling pleasures of untrivialized sex.

It is from the soil of this positive, embracing relationship to sex that the new explosion of fine art sexual photography has sprung.

"Photo Sex" was conceived as a forum to bring some of this new sexual photography out of seclusion - to offer contemporary sexual photographers a respectful and appropriate venue through which to present their work to the world at large. By collecting a substantial sampling of fine art sexual imagery into a single volume, I wanted to call attention to both the existence and the quality of this new photographic form, to argue for the legitimacy and value of directly sexual art photography, and to challenge the cultural proscription that explicit photographic depiction of sex be restricted to, and constrained by, the unfortunate biases that dominate and distort the underground sexual marketplace. 

The basic premise of this book is simple: that each of its images is a photo of sex in one form or another - a sexual photograph, rather than one that is more generally erotic or sensual. The sex in a given image may involve a single person, a couple, or a group; it may show kissing, dancing, touching, or sexual intercourse; it may be graphic or muted, passionate, tender, or humorous. But it is a photo of sex first and foremost, without obfuscation and without apology. 

A second criterion for inclusion in this volume was that each photograph have something meaningful to say about sex, something more than simply documenting the fact that sex is happening and that we, as viewers, get to watch. Each photographer brings his or her own critical eye and sexual sensibility to the task of deciding what of sex to try to capture on film, and how that task should be accomplished. The intent and style of the 31 photographers represented here differ as dramatically from each other as Picasso differs from Monet. But they each have a point of view, something they want to say about the sexual moment they are freezing in time, even if that point of view might be difficult (or impossible) to put into words.

The final basic demand of each photograph included here was that the image have strong aesthetic impact- that the visual aspect of the image be significant and effective, aside from the image's sexual and emotional content.

I have made a point of having the images in "Photo Sex," collectively, be as inclusive and diverse as possible - both in the range of the people who are their subjects, and in the range of sexualities and sexual tastes they portray. 

The 115 images include images of middle-aged and older people as well as youth, heavy people as well as thin, disabled people as well as able-bodied, people representing a broad range of ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and sexual interests. In general, I have avoided glamorized images in favor of photographs that show unpretentious people being sexual in genuine ways.

I think of these photographs as a testament to the fact that all sorts of "ordinary" people are truly sexy and sexual, not just the designated sexual icons of television, Hollywood, and commercial advertising, whose subliminal purpose is to convince the rest of us that we are not sexually adequate just the way we are. I hope these photos document, as well, the frequently-denied reality that the ways people choose to express their sexual natures - what gives them pleasure, what arouses them, what brings them joy and personal fulfillment - are as diverse as people themselves, a diversity that should be cause for celebration rather than fear.

Hopefully you will be able to identify with many of the subjects of these images, to see them as people who are, in many ways, very much like yourself, even if the ways they express themselves sexually may be quite different from your own sexual preferences and practices. Some of the images in this book will undoubtedly affect you more strongly than others. Some may confront or even offend you. It is not my intent to shock anyone with images of sexual practices that may be unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable to view. On the other hand, I could not, with any sense of sexual or intellectual integrity, restrict the content of this book to images that everyone could view without any danger of discomfort - as if, in this culture, there's ever emotional safety in looking at photos of sex.

How we think of sex, and how we think of ourselves as sexual people, is shaped to no small degree by the images of sex and sexual attractiveness we see around us. Images that trivialize sex encourage us to relate to sex in simplistic ways. Images that portray sex as naughty and forbidden encourage us to think of sexual desire as inherently suspect and dangerous. Images that portray sex as joyous, loving, intimate, and ecstatic encourage us to think of sex as a source of warmth, pleasure, and emotional satisfaction. Images that portray sex as complex, intimate, profound, and mysterious encourage us to open ourselves to sex in all its depth and power.

Hopefully, the images collected here fall into the latter categories, calling us to respect, honor, and appreciate the very best of our own sexual selves, the potentially quite different sexual expressions of the people around us, and the almost unfathomable wonder and delight available to all of us when we embrace and celebrate our core sexual natures.

Santa Cruz, California
April 2003