Michael Stephens Interviews Lee Higgs
M. Stephens: How did you get hooked up with [publisher] Goliath?
Lee Higgs: Goliath had seen my fashion work in Skin Two, and contacted me about doing a book. I had a really good feeling about them, and I think they did a fantastic job.
M. Stephens: You have said you are influenced by the “psychedelic movement”. Are you talking about LSD & the ‘60s or E & the ‘90s?
Lee Higgs: Actually, for me it was LSD in the 70’s
M. Stephens: Tell us more about the influence of psychedelics on your artistic vision. How extensively have you dabbled and what did you gain/lose from the experience?
Lee Higgs: I was influenced quite a bit by LSD, which I did several hundred times back in high school. But I was also influenced by the whole mind set of the Beats and the psychedelic movement, by Alan Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs and Bob Dylan. “Howl” and Naked Lunch are still some of The most courageous and subversive works ever written in English. It is sad how much more cowardly and predictable my generation has grown.
M. Stephens: You have no background in visual arts and only began taking pictures of women a few years ago, yet you developed almost instantly into a highly original artist. Can you explain how you got into professional photography and how you developed your style?
Lee Higgs: There was a great deal of trial and error and I shot an awful lot of film along the way. I posted my work on the web and sent film to editors. Fortunately, once I did begin to develop an original style, the response was very good.
M. Stephens: In Discipline and Punish, Foucault theorized that institutional disciplining of the body is a technique of power that produces “docile bodies”. In school, for example, we are taught to sit at desks for long periods, in preparation for the office cubicle and corporate bondage. Foucault also saw S/M, B/D and other forms of body play as ways to subvert power and liberate the body/self. Does your art and the bodily play you represent in your photographs connect to Foucault’s ideas about the body and power?
Lee Higgs: We may be covering some of the same ground, but the ideas and philosophies come after the fact. It is very limiting to try to express specific ideas through art, as if each photo were an essay with a specific point to make. But I do believe that every aspect of our relationships are suffused with power, discipline, dominance and submission, of which we are only dimly aware.
M. Stephens: The title Generation Fetish suggests that your book is a portrait of a generation, and the models here do share a certain attitude and look. But do these models represent their generation or are they just the fringe of Generation X?
Lee Higgs: I think most of my models are on the fringe, and proud to be there. If there is such a thing as Generation X, then it seems to be the triumph of commercialism and conformity over humanity and freedom. As far as I can tell, we are a nation of sheep.
M. Stephens: One reviewer talked about Generation Fetish as being “dangerous”, and said it was like, “David Cronenberg meets William Burroughs”. I get the opposite impression: more of a cool, ironic approach that deconstructs the image of fetish & B/D as being heavy, “perverted” and scary. What do you think?
Lee Higgs: If you compare my work to typical Bondage and Discipline books, then yes, I think the photos are lighthearted and hip. But I don’t come from that world, and that is not my perspective. If you compare my photos to everyday life, to our received vision of the world around us, then I hope that they are challenging, perhaps even dangerous. We invent the world around us. Most of us just lack imagination.
M. Stephens: The photographic style and the models of Generation Fetish revolutionize the look of erotic photography. It makes the typical Penthouse/Playboy/ Victoria’s Secret spread seem so last century. Was that Vaseline-lens, airbrush and bimbo style of erotica something you set out to subvert in Generation Fetish?
Lee Higgs: Subversion just comes naturally to me. All I wanted to do was photograph women, and this is how it turned out.
M. Stephens: How did you go about finding such interesting models? Lee Higgs: I’m very fortunate that so many women respond to my photographs in a positive way. It makes it easy to find models. The Internet has also been a tremendous resource. And I am very much in love with my wife Marlena, which helps because it doesn’t pay to hit on the models.
M. Stephens: Have you ever approached a stranger on the street or in a club and said, “Hi I’m Lee Higgs, fetish photographer, want to model for me?”
Lee Higgs: I have done that in clubs, and again, the Internet is an amazing place to meet people. A lot of the women in the book are friends of friends.
M. Stephens: You use a lot of extreme close-ups and odd angles. Is this an intuitive, in-the-moment thing, or do you plan the angles and distances of shots in advance?
Lee Higgs: It’s very intuitive. I shoot mostly with a Contax 15 mm lens, and I just move around until it feels right. My shoots are very improvisational, and I rarely have any idea of what I’m going to do before I start. I work alone, with no assistant, and make it up as I go along.
M. Stephens: What types of film, lighting and cameras are you using in Generation Fetish?
Lee Higgs: Most of the book was shot on a Contax RTS III camera with a Carl Zeiss 15mm lens. And I normally use an Elinchrome power pack with a single head.
M. Stephens: How do you achieve the amazing color effects? Is a lot of what you do done in the developing room?
Lee Higgs: There is no retouching of any kind on any of the photos. It’s all in the lens, the lights, and the film. I shoot slides, and that is exactly how they come out of the camera.
M. Stephens: The women in your pictures have so much expression, intelligence and attitude. The models really come across vividly as personalities. How do you get that, when most women in erotic photographs look so bland and submissive?
Lee Higgs: I keep shooting until I get that. That is what I am looking for when I shoot. That is what I see in these women in the first place. It’s a very emotional thing for me. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any point for me.
M. Stephens: Yellow lipstick, lots of red and ivory skin. Is this a look you invented or discovered in your models?
Lee Higgs: I discovered it accidentally, by using infrared film.
M. Stephens: There is a lot of bondage and domination in Generation Fetish, but, to me, it never appears humiliating to the women in the submissive role. In fact, just the opposite: the models in bondage look totally self-possessed and in-charge. How did you achieve that paradox?
Lee Higgs: I feel that there is serenity and power in submission. Sometimes it is a challenge, like “I’m tied up over here, but are you man enough to do something about it?”
M. Stephens: What explains the erotic appeal of constriction: corsets, ropes, chains, straps, tight latex and high heels. Is it all about men putting women in clothes that restrict their movements so they can’t run away, or what?
Lee Higgs: It always helps when they can’t run away. But it’s enough for me to photograph it - I don’t pretend to understand it.
M. Stephens: Tattoos and piercing are central to the representation of “fetish” in Generation Fetish. What interests you about body modification?
Lee Higgs: For me, body modification is an act of subversion. It makes a statement that the person does not fit into the mainstream. That is just my personal view. It is also an act of exhibitionism, which appeals to my voyeuristic instinct as a photographer. A lot of my friends and models are involved with Body Modification Ezine.
M. Stephens: The women in Generation Fetish seem to be taking possession of fetish fashion for its power, and as a form of identity-transformation and self-empowerment. Am I off base?
Lee Higgs: The women definitely use fetish as fashion, which is power. I believe that the origins of clothing are in ancient magic rituals, that when we dress we are putting on costumes to achieve magical powers. This is all the more obvious with fetish clothing. The women in my book have a great deal to say about what they wear in the photos. I show them as I see them, and as they wish to be seen.
M. Stephens: Please say more about fashion and power and the magic of costume and appearance.
Lee Higgs: Fashion and clothing have their roots in ritual magic. This is the only explanation that makes sense to me. By putting on certain types of clothing we are giving ourselves magical powers, in the same way that an ancient shaman took on the powers of a wolf or a bear by donning its skin. Naked, we feel defenseless and vulnerable. By clothing ourselves we take on different powers and personalities, like warriors and kings and queens. I mean this quite literally; we are much more primitive and superstitious than we realize.
M. Stephens: Freud said fetishism is a sexual tendency created in childhood, when the male child catches a glimpse of mom’s vagina and substitutes some nearby object (high heels, stockings) for the missing penis so as to overcome his castration anxiety. In your opinion was Freud doing too much coke or what?
Lee Higgs: By his own admission, Freud was very hot for his own mother. Which may account for the coke. Take it from a guy who thinks too much - sometimes it doesn’t pay to think too much.
M. Stephens: Is photography an act of love?
Lee Higgs: Yes. For me it is an act of love. I look through my lens and search until I find something powerful and meaningful, somthing which I do love.
M. Stephens: Is photography an act of possession?
Lee Higgs: Yes. I often succeed to the extent that I become lost in my subject. Once I have picked up my camera and taken on the challenge of finding the best possible photographs, then I often become somewhat possessed. You might say that I become distracted or completely absorbed. A photo shoot is like an intense puzzle to be solved.
M. Stephens: Is photography an act of dominance?
Lee Higgs: Photography is very much an act of dominance. And in my case I am often physically restraining my subjects with ropes and chains and handcuffs, which makes it all the more obvious. But even without the ropes, the photographer exercises control over their subject, which is an act of domination.
M. Stephens: Is photography an act of submission?
Lee Higgs: To take a photo is also an act of submission. At least in my case, I hope that my subject will like my photo. I also want to please them, so that the shoot will be pleasant and they will enjoy the experience. And then I want you to like the results too. There is something very plaintive and submissive about the whole experience.
In a BDSM scene, the power relationships are often more complex and subtle than they first appear. One person has tied the other up, but then it becomes their job to attend to their body, their senses and their desires. The master becomes a servant to the needs of the slave and the slave is like a pampered master. In the same way there is a great deal of complexity in the relationship between photographer and subject. Too bad Foucault never wrote about that.