PHOTO SEX: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age
Edited by David Steinberg
Foreword by A. D. Coleman
115 duotone photographs by Michael Rosen, Paul Dahlquist, Phyllis Christopher, Michele Serchuk, Barbara Alper, Mark I. Chester, David Steinberg, Mariette Pathy Allen, Charles Gatewood, Craig Morey, Barbara Nitke, Ron Raffaelli, Geoff Manasse, Vivienne Maricevic, Tee A. Corinne, Paul Johnson, Eugene Plotsky, Jill Posener, Robert Adler, Cliff Baker, Ray Hirsch, Robert Kastler, David Lebe, Lee Ann McGuire, Will Roger, Jan Saudek, Steven Siegel, Sharon Stewart, Jessica Tanzer, Brad Wallis, and Trevor Watson
128 pages - 9" x 12"
Paperback, $35 - ISBN 0-940208-32-6
Clothbound, $60 - ISBN 0-940208-33-4
Much has been made of the politics of sex during the past decade - Supreme Court cases, presidential peccadilloes, Internet legislation, Surgeon General statements. Antisexual outcries notwithstanding, the sexual sensibilities of mainstream Americans have continued to expand in recent years, artistically as well as in personal practice and belief. Fine art photographers, in particular, are increasingly addressing sex as a complex, legitimate, and fascinating subject, producing a broad body of work that is striving to find exposure and recognition in these sexually-contested times.
David Steinberg, a noted sexual photographer with a "cutting-edge reputation for erotica" (KRON-TV, San Francisco), has assembled an elegant collection of this emerging sexual photography. Thirty-one talented photographers expand the definition of sex and the boundaries of fine art photography in 115 duotone photographs that unapologetically and unambiguously take sex as their central subject.
From the woman playfully striking a pose at the top of a stairway for her delighted friend, to the aroused man exuberantly celebrating a bonfire-lit ritual, to the woman enthusiastically masturbating at a New York erotic art gallery opening, PHOTO SEX provides a stunning sampler of the range of activities that individuals consider sexual, and a survey of the styles and perspectives that different sexual photographers bring to their work. Observers of these photos will find reassurance that others share their sexual proclivities, and encouragement for their further explorations. PHOTO SEX offers a stunning testament that all sorts of "ordinary" people are truly sexy and sexual.
What makes a photograph sexual rather than erotic? For Steinberg, the essential element is that the image directly focus on sex in some form. "The sex 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."
As Steinberg writes in his introduction to PHOTO 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."
What People Are Saying about PHOTO SEX:
"Unabashed real life lovers of all ages, shapes, and sizes having sex with dignity and spontaneity, tenderness and passion.... A breakthrough testament to a supremely collaborative, supremely liberating art form, well-balanced between sex with toys, roles, and rituals and the simple joys of physical intimacy.... Photo Sex takes a giant step toward creating the kind of world where sex and art stand side by side." -- Gary Meyer, Clean Sheets
"Photo Sex is an inspiring collection of collaborations between photographers and lovers who convey the essence of what makes them feel sexually alive. The results are erotic and spectacular!"" -- Susie Bright
"A terrific compendium of where today's photographers are taking the art of the erotic. This book is a must for fans of no-holds-barred erotic photography." -- Marilyn Jaye Lewis, Executive Director, Erotic Authors Association
"Images of sexual creativity and diversity appeared page after page until I had to take an orgasm break. Photo Sex is a much needed reminder that sexual creativity and diversity are still alive and well in America." -- Betty Dodson, Ph.D., author of Sex for One and Orgasms for Two
"David Steinberg is a genius with a unique vision. He has collected the best of the best sexual photography and serves it up as a treasure chest of photographic gems that sparkle, delight and amaze. Photo Sex goes where no other photo book has gone before. It brilliantly illustrates the diversity of human sexual experience, with a rare sensitivity. Absolutely eyegasmic!" -- Annie Sprinkle, PhD., multi-media sex artist and sexologist
"A sensuous, profoundly intelligent celebration of the body and its infinite sexual possibilities. Best of all, the bodies are real -- fat women, skinny men, gray heads, smiling faces, firm flesh here and slack flesh there.... A savory, subversive book." -- Richard Labonte, Book Marks
"Like sex, Photo Sex is vulnerable, tough, lovely, ludicrous, comforting, scary, intimate, cool, eloquent, awkward, weird, mundane, and most of all, immensely pleasurable. Look close, look again: In this book you'll find the real joy of sex." -- Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors
"The sheer range of human sexuality depicted is breathtaking: fat, skinny, old, young, queer, straight, solo, partnered, kinky, vanilla, tender, passionate -- it's all here and it's all full of palpable sexual vitality and tangible humanity.... A powerful statement and reaffirmation of sexuality and passion for all human beings." --Darklady, Playtime Magazine
"A wonderful book. Spending time with Photo Sex is like sex at its best: there's drama, triumph, challenge, humor, surprises -- and it's very, very hot." -- Marty Klein, Ph.D, sex therapist, author, and publisher of Sexual Intelligence
"The entire spectrum of erotic expression between consenting adults [is] celebrated in this vision of earthly paradise as potential pathways to deep spiritual connections and enlightenment.... Striking photos that [are] shamelessly explicit, yet in no way resemble the standard poses and exaggerated facial expressions found in commercial porn... Photo Sex will be remembered as the first real attempt to pull X-rated images out of the gutter and into the gallery." -- Dave Patrick, Spectator
"Photo Sex offers a full body orgasm, chronicling the sexual evolution of the last 25 years with a refreshing heartfulness." -- Joseph Kramer, Ph.D., founder of Body Electric
David Steinberg is the editor of Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self, as well as other titles. He writes "Comes Naturally," a monthly commentary on the culture and politics of sex, and has photographed dozens of sexually active adults. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A. D. Coleman has written extensively on photography and sexuality, censorship, and freedom of vision. His pieces have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, Artforum, and many other publications. In 1998, American Photo named Coleman one of the "100 most important people in photography."
128 pages - 9" x 12" - 115 duotone photographs
Paperbound, $35 - ISBN 0-940208-32-6
Clothbound, $60 - ISBN 0-940208-33-4
PHOTO SEX is available through your local bookstore, from Down There Press (firstname.lastname@example.org), and at Amazon.com. Autographed copies are available from David Steinberg at:
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063.
Make checks payable to David Steinberg. Include applicable sales tax, and $4 per book for shipping ($6 for priority mail).
[If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. There is no cost and your name and email address will remain strictly confidential.]
FINE ART SEXUAL PHOTOGRAPHY COMES OF AGE
Copyright (c) 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 dis tinct 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 - 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 fulfillmentâ^À^Ôare 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
EVERYBODY'S BUSINESS, AND NOBODY'S:
MAINSTREAMING THE SEXUAL UNDERGROUND
Copyright (c) 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
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