PHOTOSEX: A New Book Ponders the Old Question: But Is It Art?
It was 13 years ago when a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at Cincinnati's
Contemporary Arts Center sparked controversy, and national headlines, with
Mapplethorpe's graphic depictions of sexuality. A national debate ensued: how to
distinguish between art and obscenity?
I wondered the same thing when I read about a new book called PHOTOSEX, Fine
Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age (Down There Press, $35). Is it just subjective:
one man's smut is anotherís revelation?
PHOTOSEX was the brainchild of David Steinberg, who assembled his own work
and that of 30 other photographers to explore sexuality in an artful way. Salon.com
called Steinberg the "Allan Freed of sexual photography," and went on to say that
"Steinberg is leading an equally daring cultural revolution in an effort to free sexual
photography from decades of wholesale dismissal as pornography and have it
taken seriously as fine art." Well, dirty pictures and art are two of my favorite things,
so the possibility of them not being mutually exclusive is something that has always
intrigued me. I had to take a look and determine for myself if this was jerk-off
material, or something that truly deserved to be well hung in a snooty loft gallery
where cultural aesthetes could bandy its merit over bad wine and Brie.
For erotic photography to have a visceral connection with the mind as well as the
genitals, it has to appeal equally to the physical, emotional, and intellectual. To
discover if PHOTOSEX had the goods, I flashed my Nightspots press badge at
Down There Press and the obliging folks, quicker than you can say "rim job,î had a
copy in my fevered little hands.
I can't deny that I couldn't keep those hands out of my pants when I came across
such delights as a photograph of the late porn star Scott O'Hara ejaculating into his
own mouth. And that whap whap whap sound you may have heard as I gazed at
Mark I. Chester's Ken and Bill was not applause (the photo depicts a hairy Daddy
wearing nothing but a hard on and riding boots being kissed by his boy, who kneels
naked at his side).
I desperately wanted PHOTOSEX to combine sex and art, to make them
inseparable. Luckily, PHOTOSEX fit the bill, with works filled with stunning
compositions, pathos, humor, and heat. Once the shock wore off from seeing
Chester's six nudes of a man unabashedly exposing his KS lesions, my breath was
taken away by both the subject's and the artist's courage. And I think Diane Arbus
would have approved of Charles Gatewood's "Marco Vassi with Doll," a loving
portrait of a happy man with his inflatable, perpetually-surprised companion. David
Steinbergís photo of a man with a shaved head and black fingernails being
penetrated from behind by a woman is hauntingly beautiful with its contrasts, and
play of light and shadow. The play of light and shadow is again at work, along with
texture one can almost touch, in Paul Dahlquist's "Power," which depicts the
powerfully muscled ass and back of a Black man as he penetrates his alabaster
PHOTOSEX titillates. It arouses. And it leaves a brand on your brain with images
fiery enough to remain with you long after you close the book. And that's what makes