Objects Of Desire – on photographing sex

On representing sex and sexuality

May 10th, 1999Stephen Mayes

President Clinton’s assertion that orgasm can be achieved without having sex provokes an interesting line of thought: it looks like sex and it feels like sex, but apparently it isn’t sex. He proposes that it is possible to create an illusion of sex that is so real that we can have the experience without the inconvenience of actually doing “it”. Woody Allen dreamed of this when he invented the futuristic “orgasmatron” and photographers have been working on it for decades with their attempts to create a photographic facsimile of sex. As a medium that relies on the viewer’s imagination to create a vicarious experience, photography is ideally suited to explore the fantasies that define sexuality.

Not! Many have tried, but few succeeded.

Although many great photographers transcend the physical to express the essence, somehow sex seems to bring out the worst in everybody. All too often that strange photographic translation of reality into two-dimensional fantasy dulls the imagination and reduces experience to a desiccated surface. The object of desire is stripped of desire to become only an object. Here is the conundrum: photography is grounded in reality and literal representation blocks the imagination; skin becomes a barrier against the understanding of experience.

Take Robert Mapplethorpe’s finely sculpted emulsions: prints that ripple with sensual delight and glisten with desire. But it is the limit of his technique that Mapplethorpe cannot penetrate the surface of his coldly observed subjects (except in the most obvious way). The images are bold but devoid of passion, the subjects stripped but not intimate and it is clear that they have been subject to a long cold stare by the photographer as he (un)dressed the set and fixed the lights. It is the same stare that the viewers have for the final print: we are disinterested but fascinated, looking without engagement and we find information but no understanding. It is as though photographic technique becomes a substitute for sexual performance; but neither substitutes for the understanding that the viewer might find their sexual pleasure in a different way. Why is it so exciting to hang a man upside down in chains? Where is the pleasure? It just looks like hard work.

Helmut Newton ploughs a similar furrow. A brilliant technician who recognises pleasure when he sees it but who cannot explain its fascination, he magically transforms his subjects into objects. Like many other photographers, Mapplethorpe and Newton retreat into the photography of fetish in the hope that showing the objects associated with sex will be automatically expressive of sexuality. It is a vain attempt.

Give me passion! Showing the nuts and bolts of how people have sex brings its own pornographic fascination, but how much more exciting to talk about why they have sex. It is the difference between sex and sexuality, the visible and the invisible. After all is said and done, fantasy remains the greatest aphrodisiac and the most potent element of sex.

Fantasy should not be confused with exotic: most fantasy is pretty basic. X-ray fantasies cut to the quick and they certainly get under the skin of the subject. Dr Hessel’s ultrasound scans of couples copulating is a scientific study that brushes all artifice aside and yet sparks the imagination in unforeseen ways. More deliberately, Robin Forster & James Barrett’s x-ray examination of passion shows hard boned, grinding reality that is so weird that it becomes an abstraction. The eager grin of a face nibbling a steel nipple-ring reveals everything except the truth of a fleshy encounter which is effectively reconstructed in our minds. Sex, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Duane Michels’ raw emotional exposures take us to the heart of sexuality. Here is the real experience of lust and frustration, pleasure and pain laid bare. With a minimum of props Michels digs deep into his emotional life with explosive resonance for anyone who has savoured the delicious agonies of lust and love. These are big subjects that go beyond pleasure and engage in the most profound fabric of our emotional existence. There is little here about how sex works, but plenty that tells us why it works: it is all in the mind.

Christopher Pillitz works in pure documentary style using unadorned reality to express deeper passions in his portfolio “Brazil Incarnate”. Sexuality erupts in fleeting moments of gratification and as profound personality traits; these images engage the complementary forces of physicality and fantasy with a power that only photography can achieve.

This more sophisticated public appreciation of all things sexual surprised the decade’s most famous photographer of sexuality; Sally Mann was amazed when the whole world turned to tell her that the pictures of her children were laden with sexuality. While she insisted that the images were made without any intention (or awareness) of sexuality, the viewers see something else. It seems that the photographer’s intention is not an essential part of the cocktail and if the audience sees sex, the pictures are about sex.

The realisation that sex can be encoded without diminishing its impact is a liberation. Suddenly even mainstream sex is moving away from the coy nudge-nudge culture, and it can be as good in the popular glare as it is in the reverent shadows of art galleries and private collections. There is less of the coy knocking of foreheads that used to be a standard symbol of passion and even commercial stock libraries are getting real (certainly in Europe, while America still protects its citizens with heavy overlays of soft-focus mush). Although still dazzled by sentimentality and clichés mainstream eyes are becoming attuned to seeing in a new light.

To some this is alarming. Photography also harnesses the fear of sex in a peculiar way. The lingering confusion that photography is real simply because it looks real is the driver behind many recent attempts at prosecution for obscenity and indecency. The courts offer a barometer of social fears, and while it is now hard to imagine saucy literature being brought to the dock, photographs and photographers are up before the judge every week. It becomes boring to list the Mapplethorpe trials, but there are many other examples. Famously [in UK] Julia Somerville was arrested simply for possessing pictures of her own child without clothes; less famously and even more amazingly Tony Page was arrested for taking pictures of fully clothed children at a seashore Punch & Judy show on the assumption that he was acting indecently (eventually neither was charged). What more evidence is required that photography holds a powerful grip on the imagination as an actual substitute for reality?

The codes that break the lock on cliché are not hard to understand although they are harder to implement. It takes vision and understanding of human experience that is deeper than simply illustrating human activity. It is important to know what excites you, but the key is to understand what excites others.

So maybe the President is right, and there are ways to experience sex without getting dirty. This is good news for the rest of us not only because we might have more fun, but also because we can work better. In the communication business anything that lets us hit the viewers’ most responsive spot is a good thing. There is no need to pander to cliché; photography can take us much further into the viewers’ psyche. Understand the strengths of the medium, and you can play with fire.

Published in Creative Review, UK, 1999