COMES NATURALLY #149 (June 19, 2004)
Copyright © 2004 David Steinberg
SEXUAL PHOTOGRAPHY BEYOND THE SEX GHETTO
LOVE & LUST, photographs by Donna Ferrato, Aperture Foundation, 2004, hardbound, 144 pages, $25.
Perhaps the walls of the sex ghetto are starting to break down, at least a little. Aperture, the highly respected fine art photography publisher, has just published "Love & Lust," a groundbreaking book of images by Life/Time/New York Times Magazine photojournalist Donna Ferrato.
There are two remarkable things about "Love & Lust," aside from the specifics of Ferrato's photography. The first is that Aperture, one of the best known of the generally sex-shunning fine art photography publishers, would issue a book that is primarily a collection of sexual and sex-related photographs, some of them quite graphic. (Of the book's 125 photographs, only about 35 are not about sexual desire in some form. Furthermore, the sexual photos are mostly about distinctly unconventional sex -- the annual Lifestyles gatherings of thousands of swingers; Plato's Retreat, New York's famous, now-defunct sexual playspace; and the s/m world of The Eulenspiegel Society, also in New York.)
The second surprise is that, although "Love & Lust" is an unapologetic celebration of broad and diverse sexuality, it is, nevertheless, not essentially a sex book because it's theme and subject are much broader than sex alone.
Melissa Harris, the editor at Aperture who sequenced and provided much of the vision behind "Love & Lust," speaks warmly of the book as an affirmation of "our right to our bodies, our right to our own sexuality." But, when I praise Aperture for publishing a book of sexual photography, she quickly insists that "Love & Lust" is not a book of sexual photography at all, and certainly not a political statement about sex. Aperture is not about political statements, Harris asserts. "We always start with the artist or the work," she says, not with politics. "The questions we ask about an artist's work are: 'Is it showing me something I don't already know? Is it showing me a mood I've never experienced? Is it going to wake me up to the world in a particular way? The great thing about art is that it can take you somewhere else, allow for that moment of transcendence."
This particular book project did indeed begin with its photographer, Donna Ferrato, whose celebrated documentation of domestic violence, "Living with the Enemy," was published by Aperture in 1991. Harris had long been excited about the possibility of publishing more of Ferrato's work, and was particularly eager to publish Ferrato's photodocumentation of the swinger subculture, a world that Ferrato has been participating in and photographing for 25 years.
When Harris began to sequence Ferrato's photographs of people at Plato's Retreat and the Lifestyles conventions, however, she realized that a collection that was exclusively photos of swingers would be "something of a one-note book." She decided that a book about "the whole spectrum of love and lust would be much more interesting, more textured." And so the concept of "Love & Lust" was expanded to include photographs that would address love and lust together, as two interconnected aspects of vibrant, joyful life.
What a simple, yet radical, idea -- that a book unafraid to show photos of hard cocks, bare pussies, fucking, fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, group sex, public sex, gay sex, s/m sex, even animal sex -- could place that directly sexual material in a context that went beyond sex to celebrate passionate life more broadly, passionate life that does not separate love from lust but wraps the two together in one life-affirming, boundary-annihilating package.
What a radical, sensible idea -- that a book with a graphic image of four men simultaneously pleasuring one woman could also have an image of a young girl eating breakfast while riding on her father's shoulders; that a book with an image of five hundred couples intimately massaging one another could also have an image of a nude young child sensuously nursing and playing with nipple of his nude mother; that a book with an image of a masked man suspended upside down while his alligator-clipped penis is slapped and a man with a hard-on watches from a nearby cage could also have an image of a young boy delightedly fondling the long blond hair of his younger sister; that a book with a photo of man licking the pussy of his vinyl-clad wife in a hotel elevator could also have an image of a girl lovingly embracing her dying great-grandmother -- that all of these photos had a common message -- about the power of loving, physical connection, including but not limited to the power of sexual desire and sexual fulfillment.
American attitudes about sex are so supercharged -- so saturated with morality, guilt, fascination, titillation, attraction, and repulsion -- that most of us have become incapable of relating to sex in anything like the ways we relate to other important aspects of human existence and interaction. All the usual ways of talking and thinking about life, relationship, and human emotion tend to get thrown out the window whenever the topic of sex comes up. Sex, we have repeatedly been told, implicitly and explicitly, is a special case, different somehow from everything else in life, something that must be lifted out of every-day existence so that it can be dealt with uniquely and in isolation.
Because our culture demands that sex be treated so differently from the rest of life, most of us have learned to bifurcate our existence into two parts: the regular (presumptively non-sexual) world, and the (confused and presumptively dangerous) world of sex. We see around us regular movies and sex movies (created, distributed, and evaluated in very different ways, by very different people), regular magazines and sex magazines, regular entertainment and sexual entertainment, regular book publishers and sex publishers, regular product distributors and sex distributors, regular photographs and sex photographs, regular photographers and sex photographers.
Regardless of category, any project or endeavor that directly and unapologetically embraces sex is taken out of mainstream circulation and (although often no longer banned outright) relegated to the nether worlds of the margins, the fringes, the back rooms, the quasi-underground, the ubiquitous but carefully circumscribed sex ghetto -- where entirely different attitudes, judgments, legal restrictions, and behavioral norms apply.
This entire system of sex segregation is challenged when a publisher of Aperture's stature releases a book like "Love & Lust." By lending its imprimatur to such an unapologetically sexual body of work, Aperture, intentionally or unintentionally, takes a big step toward legitimizing non-exploitive, respectful, visionary, fine art sexual photography -- and a stride toward tearing down the strict segregation of sexual from non-sexual artistic work. By mixing graphic photos of explicitly sexual activities with photos more diffuse in their sexual energy, and by interweaving all these sexually-charged photos with distinctly non-sexual images of physical love and affection, "Love & Lust" insists that sex does not exist in a vacuum, that sex springs from roots that blur the sex/no-sex dichotomy, that it is a fundamental distortion to isolate sexual issues, sexual feelings, sexual activities, sexual books, sexual photographs, from their "non-sexual" counterparts.
The photos in "Love & Lust" are a record not only of Donna Ferrato's perspective on the worlds of love and lust around her, but also of her very personal 30-year journey to rediscover and redefine both love and lust for herself -- after, she says frankly, "failing to be a faithful wife." In her introduction to "Love & Lust," Ferrato speaks, interestingly, less about her photography than about her expanding understanding of love and sexual desire through her progressive exploration of one sexual subculture after another -- most significantly the world of the Lifestyles swingers conventions.
Every year at Lifestyles, thousands of openly non-monogamous people (couples for the most part) come together for a gala four-day weekend of sex-related workshops, masquerade balls, sex parties, sexual art exhibits -- group sexual encounters of all sorts. With the endorsement and support of the conference organizers, Ferrato was able to photograph this joyous outpouring of sexual abundance year after year, assembling a vast collection of images that captured not only the exuberant sexual energy of her subjects, but also her own delight and amazement with the sexual world she had stumbled upon.
"I don't see swingers as freakish people," Ferrato says. "These people are loving examples, higher examples of human beings on the planet earth, people who are not trying to oppress somebody else, who are not leading double lives," who are open about their sexual feelings and desires. "I believe in love," she explains. "The whole idea [of this book] is that love and sex should be fun -- not intellectual, quantitative, or judgmental. I believe that the best way to be truly content and excited and looking forward to each day is by admitting that we are sexual people, people who need each other."
And also, as her photos implicitly declare, by having the freedom to act on those sexual feelings and desires, even when they violate some of society's most fundamental sexual taboos. "Healthy lust," she writes in her introduction," in whatever form it takes, is central to a healthy and vigorous psyche. Experimentation, passion, fun, are everyone's right.... It is crucial that each of us allow ourselves to understand the scope of our sexuality, and learn to trust our instincts." Monogamy, she believes, is unnatural, not to mention unbearably restrictive. "When you have more than two people, unexpected things happen. As a photographer, I'm drawn to the unexpected."
The photos in "Love & Lust" cover a broad range -- young people and old, fat and thin, various combinations of genders, public scenes, private encounters. The largest group of images come from Ferrato's wanderings at Lifestyles over the years. They accurately capture the freewheeling, pansexual explorative core of Lifestyles sexuality, as well as the predominant Lifestyle ethos of fun experienced from a position of some emotional distance. The bottom line at Lifestyles, as throughout most of swinger culture, is permission rather than intimacy, experimentation rather than profound interpersonal connection, and these are the predominant characteristics of Ferrato's photos of swingers as well. Two women give men blow jobs as several other people wander about the room, smiling and drinking beer. A man fucks a woman in a hanging swing while a bevy of other people walk by unnoticing. A naked woman emerges smiling, hands above her head, having just rubbed her body down a long, tight double line of equally naked touch enthusiasts.
Ferrato's photos of couples embracing in public, on the other hand, are rich with intimate connection, as are her less numerous images of couples photographed in the privacy of their homes. A young couple kisses passionately against an ancient wall in Venice as a wizened nun passes by, looking skeptically at the camera. A teenage girl wraps herself luxuriously around her boyfriend who looks up at her with a touching mix of uncertainty and fear. Two men gaze at each other with quiet love, curled up together in bed with their pet poodle.
Most of Ferrato's photos are not genitally explicit, though some are. More often than not (especially in her photos of group sex), we are shown neither genitals nor faces. It's not as if Ferrato is unwilling or afraid to show genital sex (any more than she's unwilling to show faces). But often, it seems, what matters most to her is neither genitals nor faces, but the more general exuberance of sexual desire unbridled and left alone to find its own way home. It's what's happening -- the sexual combinations and circumstances outside the box of familiar expectations -- more than the nuances of how these things are happening that most often captures Ferrato's interest and her camera.
True to the combined personal-documentary nature of her love-lust journey, Ferrato bravely includes several images of herself -- photographing her family at home, posing nude but for garter and one white glove facing the camera, gripping her husband's hair tightly as he buries his face between her legs. Indeed, much of the impact and integrity of Ferrato's photography derives from her refusal to separate herself from her photographic subjects, her refusal to observe from the safety of personal distance. Rather, she defines herself as part of the scene she is photographing, as a participant in what she's recording -- and this personal involvement is palpable in her images, whether she has joined the sexual action physically (as, she tells us, she sometimes does), or limits her participation to her work with the camera. By not imagining her subjects as "other," Ferrato achieves a distinctive respect and honesty of representation in her images. She becomes a participant-observer rather than a voyeur, an appreciator rather than a categorizer, a celebrant rather than an anthropologist.
It is Ferrato's stated goal to normalize, rather than sensationalize, the sexuality she photographs, even when that sexuality is distinctly unconventional in nature. "I'm not trying to be shocking, to be the first on the block to show anything," she explains. "I don't want to scare anybody. I really don't. I want to be as mainstream as possible." More than anything else, it is the truthfulness and sincerity of this perspective that makes "Love & Lust" a significant contribution to the growing body of fine art sexual photography.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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