Review of Badlands

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Spectator Magazine -- February 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg

BADLANDS: CHARLES GATEWOOD PHOTOGRAPHS (Goliath Verlagsgesellschaft, 1999, 446 pages, $37.95. Distributed in the U.S. by Last Gasp Books. Also available from Flash Productions (P.O. Box 410052, San Francisco, CA 94141, $39.95 postpaid).

"Step right up for the greatest show on earth. The biologic show. Any being you ever imagined in your wildest and dirtiest dreams is here and yours for a price. The biologic price." -- William S. Burroughs, on Charles Gatewood's photography

There are so many different sides to Charles Gatewood's photography that it's easy to go a little crazy when you look at any long succession of his images. This was true of his elegant, lean, self-published books ("Sidetripping," "Wall Street," "Forbidden Photographs," "Primitives," "Charles Gatewood Photographs") but it is even more the case with his latest, mammoth, 450-page, A-to-Z retrospective compendium, "Badlands," just released by German publisher Goliath Verlag.

As you take in a couple of dozen photographs from "Badlands," you begin to develop a sense of what Gatewood is all about. But just as you think you have gotten your bearings, he pulls the rug out from under whatever order you have imposed on him, leaving you to rethink your impression of his photographic eye, his spirit, his purpose, the nature of his craft.

It's something Gatewood relishes about both his work and his personality -- the way they cannot readily be characterized, pigeonholed, typecast or, indeed, consistently understood at all. Reality and illusion dance around and through each other like reflections in funhouse mirrors, daring us to distingfrom soul, distortion from truth, persona from person.

It is the trickster spirit of Mardi Gras, Gatewood's favorite spectacle. In Mardi Gras, excess is indulged in the name of purity, but also purely for its own sake, devoid any higher purpose whatsoever. During Carnival, there is existential truth to be discovered at the heart of deception, but on the streets there is also the simple, mean-hearted, unredemptive kind of deception -- let the naive beware.

So it is with Gatewood's work. Just when you think he is after nothing more than cheap thrills -- photos that grab you simply by being lurid or shocking -- he comes up with an image so telling that it reaches down to the core of something deep and complex. And just when you think he is being insightful and philosophical, he gives you images that mock any attempt to find in them anything more than the salacious enjoyment of a moment of exuberance, sometimes real, sometimes painfully contrived.

If there is anything consistent about Gatewood's work, it is a love of irony, an appreciation of the unexpected, a celebration of those moments and circumstances when the world we think we know turns itself inside out, when things become the inverse of what we have always thought them to be. Those transcendent times -- sometimes generated by mass public exhortations and sometimes by quiet, internal journeys -- are the circumstances that Gatewood has spent his life pursuing, celebrating, and recording with his camera. Throu gh his images we see tenderness emerge just when we would expect nothing but cruelty, subtlety sitting quietly in an ocean of gaudy excess, honesty that lives at the very center of sleaze, beauty surrounded by squalor, stupidity at the core of self-righteousness. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, Gatewood says by implication, knowing that none of us is as pure as only some pretend to be. And indeed, in a world far more complex than the easy moralizing that keeps winning headlines and elections, it is those who quickly judge others who themselves need to be scrutinized most carefully.

Gatewood is unapologetic about his manic infatuation with anything weird, bizarre, extreme, shocking, potentially offensive. "I want my pictures to SCREAM," he says in one interview. "I want my pictures to punch the viewer in the nose. I want to make pictures that people will remember as long as they live." If a viewer feels assaulted by his images, Gatewood simply shrugs. Emotion, he says implicitly, any emotion, however uncomfortable, is better than none. "You came, you looked, you felt strong emotions. The work stimulated you.... You shouldn't get upset that you got upset. That's part of the process."

A dead fetus with a heart tattooed on its chest? Yes! Photographs of people playing erotically with each others' blood in a time of AIDS? Excellent! A man jamming a hatpin under his fingernail while he looks at us dispassionately? What's the problem?

At first glance, many of Gatewood's photos seem to be doing nothing more than shocking the viewer for the easy purpose of making some sort of strong impression. But, after the initial jolt, a good number of his images put the viewer in touch with something deeper -- perhaps something touchingly true or painfully ironic about what it means to be a full, complex human being in a complex and contradictory world.

A nude child, maybe three years old, peeks around the corner at a couple having intercourse on a bed. We are shocked at the juxtaposition (and at the fact that we are watching through the eye of the camera), and yet the feel of the photo is one of tenderness, not transgression. Indeed, conventional sensibilities aside, what could be more heartwarmingly innocent than a child's unpolluted curiosity about adults being sexual?

A 400-pound woman's overabundant flesh lies prone, propped on one elbow in a standard pose of pin-up seductiveness, the loveliest of smiles on her face. Grotesque, you say, and yet what is grotesque aside from our inability to transcend standards of beauty to appreciate the open presence of the woman inside the mountain of flesh?

On a street outside a New Orleans bar, an elderly man bends forward to suck the bared breast of an unglamorous, middle-aged woman, while the woman and another man laugh nonchalantly at the fact that they are being photographed by a stranger. The photo exudes the spirit of good-natured, sexy fun that is the very best of Mardi Gras. What could be more wholesome?

A man hangs in midair, suspended from a metal rack by a series of hooks that go deep into the flesh of his back and the backs of his legs. We wince at the thought of a live body strung up like dead meat, and yet the man is totally relaxed and smiling, his arms crossed as casually as if he were hanging from a parachute. Clearly there is something about the nature of pain that this man understands and we do not. What might that be?

Other of Gatewood's photos more simply document various underground cultures that Gatewood has visited -- tattooing, piercing, s/m and fetish play, erotic blood play, New York's public sex clubs of the 1970's. Many of these images hold our interest simply because they record worlds well outside the realm of most people's personal experience. Still other images in this collection are, most simply of all, photos of exotic, attractive young women being -- well -- exotic, attractive, and young.

But even in photos as basic as these, Gatewood's eye for the significant moment often lift his images beyond simple countercultural documentation or repetitive paeans to young, thin feminine beauty. In one photo, it's the sadness in the eyes of the person posing for the portrait. In another, it's the intensity of the passion or the affection between two people, conveyed by a look or a touch. In yet another, it's a whole complex of emotions in a group of people standing on the street, in a tattoo parlor, or at an art show opening.

Again and again, something is revealed that usually remains hidden; something is noted that usually passes unobserved. Often these are the littlest of things, but universes can be contained in the smallest of gestures, if we only take the time to notice what is going on. Happily, in dozens of instances, we have Gatewood's attentive eye to notice for us, and his camera to freeze forever a fleeting moment in time.

"Badlands" is by no means an elegant presentation of Gatewood's work. The pages are small (5-1/2" x 7-1/2"), as is the style with popular German books, and the photos are reproduced as halftones rather than as the more subtle (and more expensive to produce) duotones of fine art photography books. To make fullest use of what space is available, most of the photos have been printed full page (without margins), and photos on facing pages often merge into eachother in a way that makes it difficult to look at one image without being distracted by the other. Sometimes it even takes a moment to decipher whether a two-page spread is one photo or two. This kind of book design presents Gatewood as more of a photojournalist than a fine art photographer, and while the tradition of photojournalism is as deserving of respect as that of fine art, a larger format edition in the fine art mode would give many of Gatewood's images both more impact and more subtlety.

The benefit of the current edition is that this massive collection of close to 400 images, which would otherwise have to sell for well over $100, is available for under $40. And it is a treat to be able to follow the development of Gatewood's work from his earliest images (including photos of his parents and college buddies) to his most recent in a single volume. An excellent introduction by John Held, jr., "Pictures that Kill," gives thoughtful perspective on Gatewood's work, as do an interview with Gatewood by Paul Benchley, and a selection from Gatewood's introduction to his earlier book, "Forbidden Photographs."

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see 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 Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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