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Three books of fetish photography, each quite different, offer seductive glimpses into the realms of fetish photography, fetish fashion and alternative sexuality.
Generation Fetish: Tattooed Love Girls
Lee Higgs’s Generation Fetish, a hardback with 330 photographs, is at $37.95 easily the best value of the books reviewed here. Higgs’s publisher, Goliath, produces swank volumes of erotic photography, including Higgs’s book; Charles Gatewood’s Badlands; Peter Gorman’s Naked in Apartment 7; and a new series of amateur photography that I will review in future columns. Goliath books are nice objects: small (Higgs’s book is 5.5” x 7.5”), stocky and satisfyingly heavy. The models, often shot in extreme close up and semi-dressed in knock-your-eye-out reds, yellows and blacks, fill the pages to bursting point. The confining effect of the book’s size accentuates the themes of erotic constraint in the images.
Higgs has assembled a group of gothic twenty-to-thirty-something models who combine radical looks with a strong sense of tribal/generational identity. The theme of Generation Fetish is that these women represent the sexual identity of their generation or at least its pierced and tattooed fringes: a generation that has made a mix of fetish fashion, piercing, tattooing, bondage, Gothicism, bisexuality and jeux-sans-frontieres fantasy its characteristic style.
These images offer a dramatic break from old-school soft-core images of women as man-pleasing Bunnies and lingerie fillers: submissive, idealized, interchangeable receptacles of male lust. The women imaged in Generation Fetish make the airbrush-and-hairspray bimbos of Playboy and Victoria’s Secret, with their long tresses, manipulative submissiveness, and hypocritical, come-hither poses look as over as Hugh Hefner’s, ahem, pipe. The Generation Fetish women take their visual personas to extremes: heavy lidded tattooed vixens, shaven headed punks, gothic dominas and ice-cold femmes. In and out of bondage, these women stare fearlessly into the camera, or ignore the viewer utterly in cool self-contemplation.
The heavily featured cover model is a case in point. Petite and pale as ivory in her blood-orange vegetable-dyed hair, huge blue-black eyes, and lemon yellow lips, her tiny body is marked by three asymmetrically placed tattoos. A large Celtic cross adorns her shaved pubis. Her tattoos indicate a life beyond the photograph, and her nakedness does not make her the viewer’s possession. Spread on a bare white stone floor drenched in blue shadows, her full breasts and pierced nipples exposed, her dark-lidded eyes closed, she is an overpoweringly sensual, yet thoroughly remote and self-possessed image of 21st Century womanhood.
The camera is never used as a transparent peephole for voyeurs. Rather the models enter into a dramatic relationship with the camera and the photographer is a strong, if invisible presence within every scene.
Bondage is represented in many images, but as an adornment and an enhancement rather than as a means of subjection and degradation. Kenneth Tynan, the English theatre critic, and a lifelong devotee of bondage and sado-masochism, remarked that pain is not, as Freud assumed, the masochist’s source of pleasure: it is the unpleasant but necessary side effect of fully embodying a masochistic fantasy. In Generation Fetish bondage is presented in the spirit of laying claim to all the possibilities of sexual identity, rather than of forcing others to submit to neurotic fantasies of empowerment-through-degradation. The women in the submissive position in these images are always fully in command of themselves and are obviously consensual participants in role-playing games, not habitual victims acting out a lack of self esteem.
This sense of a generation of women liberated enough to play with the theatrics of fetishism for their own amusement and pleasure is central to Higgs’s vision in Generation Fetish. This is a fetishism that has fully shaken off the term’s negative, Freudian associations and released itself into the realm of sex-positive diversity.
Higgs appears respectful of the models’ identities. His work is not about capturing and possessing women. Traditionally, fetish models dressed to embody the (male) fetishist’s fantasy, but the women in Generation Fetish make fetishes of themselves. Their tattoos, piercing and bondage are part of a process of bodily self-repossession, empowerment and generational bonding. The adornments are worn and displayed primarily for themselves and one another, and only secondarily for the viewer. This combination of bold sexual display and self-ownership makes the women in Generation Fetish genuinely radical images of desire.
The Beauty of Fetish II: Latex Ice Queens
The Beauty of Fetish II is more austere, more traditionally “fetishist” than Generation Fetish. Its effect, if not as immediate and dramatic, is more subtly totemic and psychological. Steve Diet Goedde reinvents images from the classic fetish repertoire: impossibly high heels, curves outlined in shiny latex, scooped breasts spilling out of conical black corsets. There is often a retro feel to the settings, clothes, makeup, hairstyles and the visual personae of models like Belle, Gina Velour and Yvette that places fetishism in the context of nostalgia: the attempt to recapture a lost image of desire. Where Lee Higgs explores fetish as a sign of social subversion and alternative community, Steve Diet Goedde represents fetish in psychological terms as the isolated pursuit of a remote and tantalizing erotic perfection.
The major differences between The Beauty of Fetish and The Beauty of Fetish II are the inclusion of more color shots and the change of scenery from Mid-West bleak to LA sleek. The first volume of The Beauty of Fetish was shot mainly in black and white, and the downbeat urban and industrial Chicago exteriors increased the retro/noir feel of the images. Volume II blossoms into color every few pages and the contrast with the black and white is startling. There is a tendency at first to seek out the color and pass over the black and white, but as the color’s visceral jolt wears off, the book reveals itself as a study in the contrasting possibilities of black and white and color.
In the black and white images, Diet Goedde echoes the look of ‘50’s and ‘60’s glamour photography, often placing the models in unadorned, everyday domestic settings, by sinks, refrigerators and radiators. These out of focus, fuzzily familiar settings intensify the sharp, stylized images of the women and their outfits. The viewer is positioned in relation to a mythical past and confronted with erotically charged images, a representational technique that evokes those childhood moments when early libidinal stirrings focus on a specific object and the image of desire erupts from the pre-sexual sameness like Venus from the ocean. The black and white pictures conjure the past but never function simply as pastiche. Contemporary clues like the snake tattoo that curls around the model Yvette’s upper arm, intrude anachronistically to disturb the nostalgia and temporally disorient the viewer.
In the color images, the alien splendor of the outfits (a metallic turquoise latex dress detailed with peacock feathers at the bust) emerges and accentuates the models’ distance from ordinary social reality and conventional relationships. This effect is heightened by the color, which allows the otherworldliness of the models’ appearances to achieve maximum intensity.
Domiana turns her blank, perfectly oval, eye-brow-less mask of a face to the camera, framed in poker straight black hair and slashed by red closed lips. The whole surface of her eyes is whitened by contact lenses that hide the irises and leave only tiny black pupils. These dots and the red of her mouth are the only relief in the snowy emptiness of her face. Her right upper arm is decorated with a red, gold, green and yellow tattoo depicting waves and a spiral of fire. Her tiny waist is cinched in a black and red vinyl corset that blossoms out to enclose full breasts. The exaggerated voluptuousness of her body clashes with the mask-like face: a combination of android, zombie, doll and Kabuki mask. Her attention is both seductive and alienating, and the image manifests, in a moment of dream-like reality suspension, the charisma and danger of the object of desire.
Fetish Diva Midori sits on a gold patterned sofa, wearing a tight, full-length emerald green vinyl dress, a shiny black coat, pearls and black leather gloves. The camera is positioned slightly above and behind her to the left, so that only her ear, high cheekbone, the curve of an eyebrow and the fullness of her breasts appear beneath her lustrous, swept-back hair. Her face is turned away from the viewer, her eyes and mouth hidden. She withholds her attention, leaving the viewer to admire her back. Her attitude and the coat and gloves suggest one about to leave. This is an entrancing, Proustian image of the cold, withholding object of desire arrayed in all the cruel magnificence that the neglected lover can project on the beloved.
Psychologically complex images like these raise the question of why artists like Steve Diet Goedde must fight for their legitimate status against a sex-negative artistic establishment that automatically associates “fetish” with pornography. If we compare The Beauty of Fetish II to a collection of erotic “art” photographs like the first of the Graphis series Nudes, it becomes clear that what constitutes the artistic character of a great deal of “serious” nude photography is its mimicry of high art sculptural forms and portrait conventions. Herb Ritts’s, Ania Walisiewicz’s and Dennis Manarchy’s statuesque male nudes, Ron Norton’s gauze-draped females, Fabrizio Ferri’s realist black and white portraits and Francois Gillet’s naturalistic, painterly color shots are all highly derivative of sculpted and painted nudes in the various stylistic genres of Western art. It seems odd that this very derivativeness is part of what constitutes these pictures as “art”. Despite the photographers’ mastery of technique and their successful manipulation of aesthetic conventions, none of the images in Nudes possesses the dark emotional expressiveness and psychological density of the best of Diet Goedde’s work. It is time for Steve Diet Goedde to be recognized by the major critics as the powerful and original artist that he is.
Secret Space: The Art of Fetish Photography: Ritual Intimacy
John Gillan’s book is the coziest of these interpretations of fetish. Whereas Diet Goedde’s chilly divas and Lee Higgs’s community of tattooed vixens may scare off the average consumer, the majority of Gillan’s images depict attractive, normal-looking models in couples or trios engaged in the enactment of “erotic ritual”. Most of the photographs in Secret Space were taken with a home made pinhole camera, which gives a dim, candle-lit, intimate feel to the mainly black and white images.
Gillan uses the term “fetish” in its broadest and most inclusive sense, and many pictures depict bondage play and mild S/M rather than latex and rubber. The emphasis is on fetish and kink as shared secrets and intimacy enhancers for sexually adventurous couples. Gillan uses full nudity in almost all his pictures, a sure indicator of a more vanilla interpretation of fetish than will be found in Diet Goedde, for example. Secret Space is about good looking female and male bodies decorated with corsets and stiletto heels, leather and rope, in tasteful, comfy looking and nicely lit home-dungeons.
Even when whips, clamps and hot wax are being applied, there is a reassuring sense of safety and trust in Secret Space. Tenderness, respect and an almost devotional attitude to the body emanate from these pictures. For those attracted to the world of fetish but scared by the scene’s harder edges, Gillan’s book is a genuinely erotic but gentle introduction.
Photographer: Lee Higgs
August 2001, 368 pages, $37.95
The Beauty of Fetish Vol II
Photographer: Steve Diet Goedde
August 2001, 136 pages, $59.95
Secret Space: The Art of Fetish Photography
Photographer: John Gillan
Long Wind Publishing
July 2001, 84 pages, $45.00