Comes Naturally #89 (October 22, 1999):
Sexual Photography Comes of Age

By continuing to browse this web site you are certifying your agreement to its terms of use; please read them if you have not done so already.

October 22, 1999
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


There is a quiet little revolution brewing in the world of art photography: People are starting to make photos -- imaginative, artful, complex, perceptive photos -- of sex. Unlike other photos that have long been part of the art photography world, these are not photos where sex tiptoes around the edges, or makes its presence known only by hint and innuendo. These are photos with sex as their central and unapologetic subject matter -- photos that invite and even compel us to acknowledge and think about sex outside our customary attitude of mixed horror and titillation. These are photos that represent sex as the subtle, paradoxical, ironic, profound, humorous, often mystical phenomenon that it really is.

There was a time, not too many years ago, when the matter of creating photographic images of sex was left entirely to the renegade subculture of commercial pornography -- that interdependent and self-contained world made up of porn producers, photographers, publishers, models, and distributors. It was a classic example of one particular form of work being considered to be beneath the dignity of proper folks, and therefore relegated to outcasts -- people who couldn't care less about social propriety, or who positively delighted in the freedom of flouting established social norms.

As in many such instances, the work that had been designated unfit for human contact proved to be quite lucrative. By a classic process of social alchemy, garbage (as defined by those with the social clout to do the defining) was turned into gold, to the triumphant delight of the spurned garbagemeisters. Of course, those who put great store in preserving at least the facade of impeccably clean hands, were left fuming in a mix of moralistic outrage and economic resentment.

There have been photographs of sex for almost as long as there have been photographs of anything else. Until recently, however, the let's-be-naughty context for the production and distribution of these images has largely defined, distorted, and severely limited the range and style of the images being produced. Want to see some dirty pictures? I have some postcards here, recently smuggled into the country from France. Strictly illegal, but for you and a price, bucky, we can always bend the rules. Look here: naked ladies. Entirely naked ladies. Naked ladies doing the dirty deed with naked men. Doing the deed with other naked ladies. Look, here's one where she has him in her mouth! Can you believe that? And here's one where he's in her derrière....

While censorship campaigns and the vigilance of countless customs and postal inspectors have never successfully eliminated the existence of sexual images, they have been able to keep photos of sex from being socially recognized as legitimate art. Without the possibility of being seen as art, sexual photos have instead resorted to rebellion and exaggeration for their appeal. In the realm of the naughty, the more outrageous an image is, the stronger its impact will be. The power of the forbidden sexual photograph, after all, lies in the nasty shock of exposing what society wants to keep hidden or private. The more forbidden the act, the more powerful the thrill of getting to see it performed. The more graphic and lurid the photographic depiction, the more complete the violation of the taboo of wanting to see.

But lately something different has begun to emerge in the world of sexual photography. Starting in the late 1970s, but gathering momentum only in the last five or ten years, dozens of skilled and thoughtful photographers have begun to turn their art and attention to sex in a spirit that is very much outside the exaggerated rebelliousness of the pornographic tradition. For these photographers, the power and impact of a sexual image need not have anything to do with violating taboos, or showing bodies and sexual acts with unrestrained graphic emphasis. Collectively these photographers insist that there are things to be said about sex through photography that go far beyond the loudly trumpeted announcement of its very existence.

Sex is beginning to be seen as a legitimate subject for serious, artistic photographic exploration and, in that emerging photographic sensibility, sexual issues are beginning to be investigated and explored with the subtlety, complexity, diversity, and care that have always been brought to other, more traditionally accepted, subjects of artistic expression. The resulting, rapidly expanding, body of photographic work has become increasingly imaginative and diverse -- work as far removed from the conventions and limitations of commercial pornography as it is from the conventions and limitations of desexualized photography. Unlike commercial pornography, the approach of one sexual photographer is as different from the approach of another as Picasso is different from Monet.

As more and more of the new sexual photography is being produced, and as photographers get to see, discuss, and learn from each other's work, sexual photography has begun to take on the character of a real photographic genre -- a collection of work that coalesces a cohesive subculture of interests and forms. Photographers who are doing specifically sexual work, once isolated from one another by social and artistic ostracism, are beginning to learn of each others' existence, see each others' work, gain inspiration and insight from each others' photographic experiments and explorations. As both the volume and the quality of sexual work being produced increases, photographers are becoming more willing to admit and celebrate their fascination with sexual matters, and to show work that they had previously kept almost entirely to themselves.

Individual and group photographic shows displaying sexual -- not merely sensual or erotic -- work, such as Mark I. Chester's "Sexart" shows in San Francisco, and the now-defunct Neikrug Gallery's annual "Rated X" shows in New York, are giving sexual photographers venues where their work can be respectfully exhibited, discussed, compared, and critically evaluated. Magazines such as Libido in the U.S. and Cupido in Norway and Denmark provide opportunities for photographers who are creating sexual images to publish (and in some cases be paid significant fees for) their work. Books of artistic, imaginative sexual photographs, such as Michael Rosen's recently published "Lust and Romance," and my own in-process photographic anthology, "Sex Is," are becoming available to the general public for the first time. Even the elite world of established art museums is beginning to show exhibitions that include sexual photography, such as the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at New York's celebrated Whitney Museum in 1989, and the politically explosive Mapplethorpe show that was subsequently seen by tens of thousands at major museums in Cincinnati, Boston, and Berkeley.

Of course, sexual photography -- even when produced and shown within the auspices and respected conventions of the fine art world -- remains highly controversial, and presents photographer, subject, and viewer alike with a complex of issues and dilemmas directly related to its sexual focus. Within our culture that designates sex for pleasure as private at best and immoral at worst, the mere act of witnessing other people being sexual -- whether the witness be the photographer or the viewer -- involves transgressing one of society's most strictly enforced boundaries.

How does a photographer interact with subjects who are not professional sex performers in ways that allow those subjects to be sexual in front of the camera without embarrassment and self-consciousness? Is it possible to expose to both the camera and the public such a quintessentially private act without so compromising the act itself that any honest statement about sexual experience becomes impossible?

What role do photographer and viewer as inevitable voyeurs play in the process of creating sexual images? Should sexual photographs acknowledge and include awareness of the photographer's, and ultimately the viewer's, presence? Or should the photographer and viewer try to remain invisible as possible, protecting the illusion that the image was taken as if the subjects were existentially alone?

Given the controversial and conflicted nature of sex in this culture, what is the photographer's relationship to the likely discomfort of viewers when they are shown images with sexual content? Does the photographer emphasize and make use of the viewer's inherent conflict (wanting to see/not wanting to see) for increased emotional impact? Or does s/he take steps to put viewers more at ease with the sexuality of the material, perhaps softening or even disguising its existence?

To what extent does the photographer direct or invent the sexual scenario being photographed, or use the subjects to enact his/her sexual vision? To what extent does s/he allow the subjects to define the moment and simply record the sex of the interaction they produce? Must the sex in a photograph be spontaneous, rather than directed or contrived, for the photograph to be honest or meaningful? How much does the photographer reveal about his/her own sexual perspective in the process of ostensibly photographing someone else's sexuality? Is the photographer's purpose to introduce the viewer to perspectives on sex that the viewer has never considered before? To challenge viewers' sexual attitudes and assumptions? Or does s/he seek to offer the viewer a depiction of sex that resonates with and confirms the sexual reality and preference that the viewer brings to the moment of viewing?

Over and above all other considerations, what is most important, noteworthy, interesting, perplexing, confusing, exciting, and disturbing about sex anyway? How does a photographer use lighting, setting, focus, grain, color, and contrast to best get something about that on film? What balance does a photographer choose between subtlety and blatant proclamation? Softness and harshness? Intimacy and distance?

As with any other truly artistic genre (in contrast to kitsch, or to the pornography that is arguably the sexual counterpart of kitsch), the various women and men who are now in the process of developing and defining their sex-photographic perspectives and styles answer these questions in a wide variety of ways. New York photographer Michele Serchuk uses a softness of tone and feeling to convey a quiet sense of intimacy, tending to work with women subjects, alone and together, in addition to working with heterosexual couples. Portland photographer Paul Dahlquist's large body of sexual work has a similarly subtle and gentle quality, often emphasizing line and body form, though his subjects tend to be men as much as Serchuk's tend to be women.

Michael Rosen's sexual work, by contrast, is direct, brightly lit, and outspoken, often focusing on radical and confrontative sexual acts. Eugene Zakusilo's imagery, carefully posed and constructed, is rich with humor and imagination. Barbara Nitke uses close friends as subjects in order to create stunningly beautiful, highly crafted images that are full of a warmth and intimacy that would be far more difficult to get from more casual acquaintances or strangers.

Some sexual photographers are highly stylized, using specific photographic techniques or manipulations to create emotional or visual effects. Will Roger uses long exposure times to create diffuse, almost mystical images, blurry with motion. Ray Horsch uses computer manipulation to extensively alter his images, often combining photographic elements that were never present in the same room at the same time. Ron Raffaelli uses bright illumination and infrared film to produce images suffused with the gentleness of grainy texture mixed with soft light.

Other photographers emphasize content over photographic style, focusing on the documentation of particular sexual subcultures, and bringing both deep respect and the integrity of an insider's perspective to sexual scenes all too easily dismissed by outside observers with no understanding of the real emotion and complexity before them. Mark I. Chester's photos of radical gay sex, frequently emphasizing boots and ropes, portray a wide range of sexual emotion ranging from sharp intensity to easy humor, from proud bravado to intimate warmth. Mariette Pathy Allen's photographs display rich human warmth and tenderness in images of sex among transsexuals and crossdressers. Vivienne Maricevic documents the world of New York's increasing outlawed peep and lap-dancing shows, revealing the rich, human side of a world better known for its harshness and alienation. Barbara Alper turns her photojournalistic camera to New York's sex clubs, recording scenes of group and public sex with a sympathetic combination of humor and insight. Charles Gatewood's startling images depict aspects of San Francisco's sexual underground in a distinctively confrontative and iconic style. Paul Dahlquist, Cliff Baker and Geoff Manasse capture a wide range of sexual emotion among gay men while Jill Posener, Phyllis Christopher, and Honey Lee Cottrell offer rich images of sex among lesbian women.

As with love, death and other fundamental aspects of being alive, art has things to teach us about sex that cannot be learned from how-to manuals, scientific studies, therapeutic consultations, or political and ethical debates. A picture can be worth a thousand words because it can capture multiple levels of a complex reality, and show us how the various subtleties and facets combine to produce the unified whole that is one rich moment of human existence, fully experienced.

Who we are as sexual people, and how we conceive of sex and its role in our lives, is much the product of what we see and hear around us. Art has a unique and important role to play in helping us understand and relate to our sexual feelings and desires with all the respect and attention they deserve. The emergence of a genre of artistically sophisticated sexual photography that refuses to reduce sex to a trivialized shadow of itself has the potential of encouraging all of us to appreciate sex more fully and openly, and thus be happier and more deeply fulfilled in the sexual aspects of our lives. Hopefully what is now happening in sexual photography will be only the beginning of what will develop in the future.

[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
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

This document is in the following section of this site: Main Documents > Contributing Authors > David Steinberg

If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.