Comes Naturally #126 (August 30, 2002):
God Bless America - The Photography of Charles Gatewood

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Spectator Magazine -- August 30, 2002
Copyright © 2002 David Steinberg


Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it's there and sitting down
on it.

-- e.e. cummings

"Sidetripping," photographs by Charles Gatewood with text by William S. Burroughs, Last Gasp, 2002, ISBN 0-86719-442-1, perfectbound, 64 pages, $24.95.

"Primitives: Tribal Body Art and the Left-Hand Path," photographs and text by Charles Gatewood, Last Gasp, 2002, ISBN 0-86719-527-4, perfectbound, 72 pages, $19.95.

There are certain photographs that, if you take the time to look at them for more than a second or two, have a way of drawing you in, drawing you inside, drawing you inside the world they create -- a world both familiar and unfamiliar, both like and completely different from the world of normal daily existence.

These photographs often seem simple at first -- a person's face, a group of strangers on the street, two friends walking arm in arm -- but beneath the first layer of the image, beneath the photo's most obvious story, there are others waiting to emerge more gradually, more quietly, for those who take the time to let them rise to the surface.

The story of the photograph turns out to not be as simple as it first appears. There are shadows complicating the corners of bright smiles, hints of joy and power in an otherwise troubled face. Strength and doubt, clarity and confusion, resilience and despair, bump elbows as two people pass in the night, or live side by side within a single individual.

Is this not how life really is, beneath our masks and pretenses, beneath our desire to have everything be known and knowable?

Charles Gatewood has been taking photos like these since 1966. At the age of 23, he abandoned graduate school at the University of Missouri to see what sort of adventure he could find in exotic New York. He was drawn to the strange and unusual, to scenes and circumstances that encouraged people to step beyond the limits of the normal. Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The pandemonium of New Year's Eve in Times Square. The underground sex clubs that were then thriving in Manhattan. His eye and his camera sought out people who had gone over the edge in one way or another -- people who were, at one level, radically different from mainstream Americans but who, on another level, served as a fun-house mirror, revealing by distortion precisely those aspects of mainstream America that mainstream America least wanted to see or acknowledge.

These are the photographs that Gatewood collected into his first book, "Sidetripping," published in 1975, with accompanying text by none other than William Burroughs of "Naked Lunch" fame. Now, after being out of print for 25 years, "Sidetripping" has been reissued in a slightly enlarged edition (four of Gatewood's penetrating portraits of Burroughs have been added) by Last Gasp of San Francisco. We are all fortunate to have it back.

This is a supremely appropriate time for "Sidetripping" to reappear. The self-righteousness, moral rectitude, and smug arrogance that were the social context for Gatewood's early photography -- and that set the stage for the social upheavals of the 1970s -- have returned to the collective American psyche with a vengeance. The clothes and hairstyles of Gatewood's subjects in "Sidetripping" are dated, but the issues his people and photographs raise are as current as yesterday's news. Even Burroughs's social critique, written in 1975, is right on the money.

"The lies are obvious," he insists. "The machinery is laid bare. All Americans are being shoved by the deadweight of a broken control machine right in front of each other's faces. Like it or not they cannot choose but see and hear each other."

"Go out and get the pictures," he exhorts Gatewood, and anyone else who would expose the troubling reality that lies just beneath our social patina of calm and order. "Get all the pictures ... bestial ... stupid ... exotic ... beautiful ... fearful ... fragmentary ... unreal ..."

And, indeed, as "Sidetripping" shows, Gatewood has done precisely that.

A woman has taken off her shirt and wedged a pair of dark plastic glasses between her substantial, attractive breasts. She stands with her hands on her hips, cigarette between two fingers, shoulders pulled back, laughing at the exuberance and the absurdity of the moment while no fewer than five male photographers scramble to capture her bare skin, her moment of power on film. Joy, defiance, self-consciousness, lust, anxiety, determination, freedom, and obsession are all mixed together in one instant, the combination frozen on film for all to see.

A young woman, dressed in sackcloth with a yoke of wood hanging around her neck, stares into the sky. She holds a tall walking stick and displays an open Bible to the camera. Behind her, a stern mustached man is dressed identically, holds an identical walking staff. We see only the smallest fragments of the printed sign between them. It cries out, "Warning... confusion... our eyes toward... nations... mighty... him." The girl's face is compellingly beautiful, vulnerable, overflowing with longing, faith, concern, peace, quiet desperation. The crowd of passers-by ignores her and the man behind her. Only the camera sees them and all they represent. Are they like us or different from us? Admirable or pathetic? Yes and yes. Yes and yes.

A naked woman lies, spread-legged, on a waterbed, masturbating. A crowd of onlookers stands around the bed, looking down at the woman with a combination of fascination and detached disinterest. There is a man in a striped suit and loosened necktie, holding a drink in a paper cup, smiling ever so slightly. There is a black minister wearing a clerical collar, lost in thought. There is a woman with her handbag slung casually over her arm, completely impassive. From the looks on their faces, from their various physical postures, these people could be watching anything -- a juggling act, a demonstration of the latest technique in microsurgery, a slide show about tribal customs in Borneo. What they are watching is a woman, her head thrown back in pleasure, one hand on her breast, one hand rubbing her pussy. Two women are not watching at all. They are smiling at whatever it is one has just said to the other. We are all watched; we are all invisible to each other. We engage but we don't engage. Even during the most intimate of acts we are often little more than objects, held at a distance. We wonder why we are lonely.

A patriotic parade, all male, makes its way down a city street. Flags, hard hats, and confetti abound. A man in denim overalls holds a hand-lettered sign stapled to a wooden stick that proclaims "God Bless America." Another spreads a small American flag across his t-shirt. Everyone is shouting, or maybe they're chanting, or maybe they're singing. Maybe they're singing God Bless America. There is joy, pride, anger, strength, determination, and a disturbing undercurrent of violence in the sea of open-mouthed faces. It is 1970. It is 2002. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. Who are we -- all of us, together? Where are we going?

These are the kinds of questions "Sidetripping" asks and, wisely, does not pretend to answer. Food for the soul in an increasingly soulless time, you might say.

Coincident with reissuing "Sidetripping," Last Gasp has also brought back a more recent collection of Gatewood's photography, "Primitives." Originally published by Gatewood's R. Mutt Press in 1992, "Primitives" is Gatewood's homage to tattooing, piercing, and body modification -- to the tribal body art and the "left-handed path" of the modern primitive subculture.

Gatewood has been photographing body art and body modification since the 1960s. His fascination with tattooing and piercing began long before these once-fringe avenues for expressing self and reclaiming body were discovered by mainstream culture and reduced to imitative fad and fashion.

"Neo-tribal body adornment," Gatewood says, "has not only changed my consciousness and lifestyle, but indeed my entire being." For Gatewood and the people he photographs, body art and body modification are opportunities to explore the "twilight" world that joins the physical and the psychic, light and darkness, the rational, right-handed left hemisphere of the brain with its intuitive, right-hemisphered, left-handed counterpart. It is an opportunity to reconnect with the worlds of ritual and the sacred that have all but been obliterated by our cultural rush toward reason, science, and the wonders of technological possibility.

In "Primitives," Gatewood's subjects reveal not only their tattoos, their piercings, and their altered bodies, but also the shining, inquisitive demeanors of those who have chosen to step beyond what is considered socially acceptable to express some fundamental aspect of their personal natures. A pregnant woman, naked but for mesh panty hose, her nose, navel, and dark swollen nipples all pierced, holds both a cluster of calla lilies and her immensely swollen belly while smiling gloriously toward the camera. A man with a huge ring in his nose, grins at the camera as the water from a shower runs down his body. The front of his body is tattooed from shoulders to waist in the form of body-plate armor, so much so that it's hard to remember that he is in fact naked. The face of a young woman with shaved head positively radiates as she peers at the camera and extends her tongue to show its four piercings -- three balls of declining diameter, plus a ring at the tip.

"Body art," Gatewood notes, "can be dark and dangerous. Friends, family, employers may not approve or understand." What then? "Do you hear the music? he asks seductively. "Will you join the dance?"

"Sidetripping" and "Primitives" are both available from Last Gasp of San Francisco, P.O. Box 410067, San Francisco, CA 94141, 415-824-6636,, and from Gatewood's Flash Productions, P.O. Box 410052, San Francisco, CA 94141, 415-824-4514,

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at 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
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
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