Comes Naturally #84 (June 4, 1999):
Naked Libido

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June 4, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


Marianna Beck and Jack Hafferkamp, my good friends at Libido magazine, have just published their first book of photographs, a collection of both black-and-white and color work they have winkingly titled Naked Libido. Edited by Marianna, Naked Libido offers three very different and unique photographic portfolios, each the work of one of Libido's most erstwhile contributors. The photographers -- Eugene Zakusilo, Trevor Watson, and Ralph Steinmeier -- are so different from each other in their photographic styles, in what specific erotic and sexual subjects they address, and implicitly in how they feel about sex itself, that the book as a whole makes an important statement about sexual variety, diversity, and individuality. In contrast to most commercial pornography, in which the work of one photographer is barely distinguishable from the work of the next, Naked Libido encourages us to think of sex, sexual fantasy, and sexual desirability in multiple, more individual, more creative ways.

One thing that has always bothered me about commercial pornography is that by prepackaging sexual fantasy in such visually effective and monotonous ways it encourages people to substitute mass market imagery for their own individual quirks and tastes. it is the same problem as with all mass media: watch enough of it and pretty soon individuality starts to go out the door. Everybody wants to look the same, act the same, think the same. Given how intensely personal and diverse sexual desire is, the homogenization of all that diversity into one model -- whether it be the narrow, basically antisexual model of social propriety or the almost as narrow glamorized model of commercial porn -- strikes me as a travesty.

If we are to be more happy in how we develop and express our sexuality, it seems to me, we need more encouragement to be ourselves, to acknowledge and celebrate our personal sexual tastes, even when those may be different or even in conflict with what we know of the tastes of the people around us. While commercial pornography should be appreciated for promoting active sexuality in a sex-fearing culture, for the most part its images of sex and sexual desirability are pitifully kitsch. With commercial porn a permanent part of the national landscape despite the best repressive efforts of horrified erotophobes, what we need now is something more varied and complex, something that could be taken seriously as real erotic and sexual art. And that means erotic and sexual art in which the individual artists have something they want to say about sex and desire through their work.

The significance of the photographer's point of view in erotic and sexual photography was recently brought home to me in a conversation I had with photography critic A.D. Coleman. Coleman, a well-known and long-time commentator on erotic and sexual photography, was talking about how sex has become a legitimate subject for serious photographers over the past thirty years or so. When I asked him what made certain erotic and sexual photos work for him, in contrast to others that fell flat, he turned immediately to the issue of the photographer's point of view.

"I'm not particularly interested in the simple pointing effect of photography," he said. "Look at that amazing mountain! Look at that amazing nipple! I look for a point of vision, a sensibility -- the imprint, the filtering function, of the person who made the photo. Most commercial sexually explicit imagery is made by hacks who aren't really hired to, or involved in, putting their vision into their photography. Their job is to get that close up, get that money shot, get this, get that. What's provoking about that imagery is the shock of permission, of watching somebody 'really doing it.' But there's not anything particularly individual about the seeing of how those people are 'doing it.'

"In bed, I want the tangible imagination of my partner, and in a photographic engagement with the sexual, I want a tangible sense of involvement, not only with the people being portrayed, but also with the person who's basically serving as my eyes, as my access into that scene. I want to feel the photographer's presence in the picture."

Commercial pornography is intended, rather simply, as masturbatory material, and directed toward an audience that is presumed to be decidedly male. Its conventions are well-established and largely unchanging over time, emphasizing glamour, youth, an unbounded and uncomplicated continuous desire for sexual excess, and a sense of sex as sport that is unencumbered by emotional intimacy, tenderness, or vulnerability. Commercial pornography is successful not despite its predictability, but because of it. The attitudes, poses, sexual activities, facial expressions, and bodies of its models become icons that we associate with sexual arousal and desirability, and that we can then tap reflexively whenever we want to get turned on and (presumably) get off.

The photos in Naked Libido have a very different purpose, and therefore reach out to us in quite a different way. While many of the photos in this book are definitely arousing, they arouse us differently from commercial porn. The appeal and power of these photos suggest that sex and sexual desire are -- or can be -- more complicated, more subtle, more multifaceted than responding automatically to codified images of socially defined beauty and sexual heat. The diversity of images in this book also reminds us how much sex and sexual perspective differ as we move from one individual to another.

Of the three (unfortunately all male) points of view included in Naked Libido, the most striking and original is that of Eugene Zakusilo, a Russian neurologist who has recently emigrated both to Chicago and to photography as a profession. Zakusilo's perspective on eroticism, sexuality, and the physical beauty of male and female bodies is delightfully unique and refreshingly lighthearted. He repeatedly accomplishes the difficult double task of capturing and revering the emotional power of sensual/sexual experience while at the same time stepping back from that experience just far enough to also see it from the outside. In Zakusilo's case, this means regarding sexual desire and behavior with a delightfully ironic and humorous eye. Zakusilo reminds us not to take sex, or the viewing of sexy photographs, too seriously -- to remember that as impactful as sex and sexual photography may be, they are also decidedly about simple enjoyment of life and, given the confused context in which sex is culturally framed, often downright absurd. For Zakusilo, these cultural sexual contradictions are the material of whimsy rather than angst.

A classic still life shows two objects sitting on a small table: a full glass of milk and a woman's breast sitting heavily in a puddle of spilled milk. A dapper man stands, fully dressed, grinning with mock wickedness at the camera while he lifts the ankles of a naked woman, passive and distant, who stretches upside down before him on an upholstered chair. A naked woman bends over on a pedestal so that all we can see are her ass, her legs, and the soles of her shoes. She reaches back, holding a magnifying glass to her pubic area. In it, instead of her vaginal lips, we see the vertical lips of her mouth, grinning broadly around brilliantly white teeth.

Poking fun at the objectification of the body beautiful, and thus at erotic photography itself, is one of Zakusilo's most persistent and effective themes. A beautiful woman with closed eyes offers her breasts with both hands in a typical porn pose, but on her head is a large, round wire bird cage. An Asian woman stands naked to the waist, hand provocatively posed on her hip, her lower torso still wrapped with bubble pack as she emerges from a cardboard box as large as she is, prominently stamped "Made in China." A woman with large soft breasts lowers them onto a classically Hellenic pedestal, while sunglasses and the woman's disdainful sideward glance catapult the scene from the world of traditional museum art to the mundane, decidedly artless world of contemporary fashion. Prisoners of the objectifying gaze? Aren't we all.

Other of Zakusilo's photos are disarmingly simple, yet effectively sensual. A closeup of a woman's face shows only her lower face, her tongue reaching longingly toward a drop of water that sits swollen on the tip of her raised finger. It is a pregnant moment that is surprisingly powerful and somehow sexually familiar as well. Another closeup shows a shadowed breast with full round nipple brushed softly by the wayward tips of the woman's long dark hair. Again, nothing that hasn't been done before, and yet the photo is powerfully tactile. A naked man and woman sit facing each other on a bed, the woman's head tucked under his arm, the man's arms and furry legs enclosing her while he looks, softly and unflinchingly, right into our eyes. Here are photos we feel as much as see, photos that tap into fundamental sensual and sexual feeling even though they are not directly or explicitly sexual.

The images of British photographer Trevor Watson, Naked Libido's second portfolio, make more conventional use of beauty and glamour, but often include enough genuine sexual heat to cut through the chilly distance and unattainability that are hallmarks of this particular style of photography. A pretty woman in heels kneels behind a standing man, pulling his hard penis fiercely to her nipple as her tongue reaches for the curve of his butt. Two women in high makeup and lingerie cavort on a black leather couch with just a hint of smiling engagement that rescues the photo from what would otherwise be a cliché. A man lies comfortably in bed, looking up at a woman in black stockings and panties who stands temptingly over him. His soft, smiling appreciation of her teasing warms what would otherwise be a pose of distance and alienation into one of playful amusement.

In Watson's photography, the simple beauty of visual form is often as important as the sexual or emotional content of what is being portrayed. In this way his work is similar to more conventional erotic photography, and yet the visual pictures he draws are interesting and compelling enough to distinguish themselves from the mediocre. Two photos on facing pages show a woman standing naked behind a naked man, pressing into him from behind, her long-nailed fingers holding his body while his erect penis juts forward. On the left page the man and woman face left, on the right page they face right. The two photos combine into a dazzling unified spray of lines, limbs, and angles whose appeal, at one level, has nothing at all to do with the sexuality being portrayed. A beautiful woman hides her lower face behind dark lace panties, showing in Arabian fashion only her riveting eyes, heavily shadowed with makeup. The triangular shape of the panties is echoed by the manicured triangle of the woman's pubic hair and again by the triangular form of her shaved labia, creating an almost a totemic effect. A pubic closeup becomes a delicate and effective still life as the symmetry of shaved labia is neatly framed by a white satin teddy above, stretched white garters on the sides, and the parallel curved lines of black stockings below.

The final portfolio in Naked Libido, by Chicago photographer Ralph Steinmeier, is the most directly sexual work in the book. Steinmeier makes effective use of a grainy, shadowed style that brings a soft sensuality to moments of high sexual passion. Unfortunately, the photos collected here are remarkably uniform, both in emotional energy and photographic style, even as the subjects shift from heterosexual couples, to women together, to women alone. Again and again we see a woman's face, mouth open, head thrown back, in supposed sexual ecstasy. While Steinmeier's skill with shadow and lighting distinguish his images from their commercial porn counterparts, it is difficult to really feel -- or even believe -- the sexual passion of woman after woman whose mouth falls open into the icon of simulated sexual heat that is one of the most questionable, if long-standing, conventions of commercial porn over the years. Perhaps inclusion of some of Steinmeier's earlier work, which includes a wider and more understated range of emotions, would have added to the power of the portfolio.

Still, there are moments of more complex and subtle sexual presence in some of Steinmeier's photos, as when a woman looks down intently at the erect penis she grips tightly in her hand, or when another woman, straddling the face of her male partner, drifts off into a world of deep and believable internal pleasure. Significantly, the inclusion of Steinmeier's portfolio shows an admirable and courageous commitment on the part of Beck as editor, and Libido as publisher, to include more than just a hint of explicit sexual activity (genital touching and oral sex) in their book.

Naked Libido is just a beginning -- one photographic book out of dozens that deserve to be published, bringing the various perspectives of dozens of serious sexual photographers into public awareness. Its diversity, and the photographic skill of its contributors, make it an important addition to the growing list of available books in which sex is addressed without apology as a legitimate and fascinating subject for serious photography.

Naked Libido is available from bookstores for $35 (you may have to have it specially ordered). It can also be purchased directly from Libido, Box 146721, Chicago, IL 60614, (800) 495-1988, for the special price of $29.95 postpaid.

[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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Santa Cruz, CA 95063
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