I have always thought of myself as a word person. I love words. I love language. I love the ways that carefully chosen language can communicate nuances about everything from objective logic to the most subjective of emotions.
But I have also always been fascinated by the visual world, by the eloquent power images have to communicate complicated realities that words seem doomed to distort them into jumbles. Particularly when it comes to sex, verbal description often misses what I think of as the heart of the matter. There are some photos, on the other hand, that go right to the subtleties and power of sexual connection, holding these up for all to see, ponder, and appreciate.
Thirteen years ago, I collected and published 122 such photos in a book of erotic photography and fiction, "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies." Since that time, I have been the U.S. photo representative for Cupido magazine, an intelligent erotic journal published in Norway and Denmark. Reviewing the erotic and sexual work of hundreds of photographers over the years has impressed upon me just how articulate artistic images of sex can be, and how many different perspectives on sex they can express. Even though sex has long been neglected as a subject for fine art photography, there are now dozens of skilled, perceptive photographers directing their artistic attentions to different aspects of sex and sexual behavior. Their collective work offers a wonderful range of insight into sexual experience, perspectives that fall completely outside the more familiar conventions of commercial pornography.
A year and a half ago, I decided that I wanted to try my own hand at photographing sex. Although I knew little about the technical aspects of photography, I had a strong sense of what I wanted to see in sexual photographs, and I had gotten tired of trying to persuade the sexual photographers who had become my closest friends to incorporate my sexual sensibilities into their work. (Not surprisingly, they wanted to photograph their sexual point of view, not mine.) I realized that if I wanted to see pictures that embodied what was most important to me about sex, I would have to take them myself.
I began floating the idea of photographing couples having sex among the circle of sex writers, artists, publishers, and general explorers that make up my community of fellow travelers in and around San Francisco. To my delight, one couple that I knew through the network associated with the Bay Area's Spectator magazine enthusiastically volunteered as guinea pigs. I borrowed some lights, bought lots of film, and the three of us got together at their home one Wednesday afternoon to see what we could come up with.
I couldn't have asked for a more ideal pair of subjects for my first sexual experiment behind the camera. They were full of exuberant sexual energy, totally adoring of each other, and absolutely loved having sex in front of a camera. They played and I took pictures all afternoon.
It was just about a perfect situation for me to find myself in. I've always enjoyed watching other people be sexual, and the role of photographer gave me a context to watch people being sexual with unapologetic intensity and minute attention to detail. Most of all, the challenge of translating the emotional and sexual intensity of someone's sexuality into the language of still images merged sex and creativity together in what was for me a very powerful combination.
I shuffled lights incessantly, climbed up and down my handy step ladder, searching instant by instant for the moment, the look, the angle, the touch, that would communicate most strongly what I saw going on between these two people. Fortunately, these particular people were completely comfortable having sex in front of a third person, under hot lights, and while I did everything from standing over them on their bed to holding my camera inches from their faces as they were coming to orgasm.
We went from one sexual time to another, from one set of clothes to another, for four exhilarating, overheated hours before we admitted to exhaustion and stopped for dinner. After dinner, to my complete surprise, my friends suggested they were ready for more if I was willing to continue and so we continued for two hours more. By the time the session was over, I had shot an indulgent 19 rolls of film, over 600 photos.
I went home excited by the experience of playing sexual photographer, but completely uncertain about what I had or had not managed to get on film. The next day, as I poured all the film canisters onto the counter of my friendly neighborhood photo lab, I also wondered what these people who had been developing my snapshots for years would think of the images I was giving them to develop and process. I decided it was best to openly put the sexual issue on the table.
"You should know that these are sexual pictures," I told the manager as he wrote up my order. "Is that going to be a problem?"
"Consenting adults?" he asked.
"No problem, then," he shrugged. I hadn't expected a problem, but I was palpably relieved.
"How sensible," I laughed, sending the two of us into a long mutual rant about chain store labs like Long's, Walgreens, or Costco that consistently refuse to print even sexy photos of nude individuals, not to mention photos of people actually having sex.
A day later I carried home a heavy box full of folder after folder of 4x6 prints. As I looked through them, I was delighted to find first one, then another, then another, that I thought might have some real potential. Choosing about 25 that I liked the most, I spent hours going over them with L-shaped cutouts of black paper, deciding how each image should best be cropped to bring out what was happening in the picture, and to present it with the greatest visual appeal. It was an almost magical process. Over and over again, there was one particular cropping that made all the elements of a given picture fall into place. It was like having a musical instrument come into precise tuning, like placing a picture on a wall in just the right place. Ah yes, that's it, that's it right there. In a world full of imperfection and compromise, it was remarkably satisfying to find one little thing that could be made just exactly right or, more accurately, just the way I wanted it to be.
Knowing next to nothing about darkroom technique, I sent my meticulously cropped images out to a local photo lab that had been recommended for its quality work and for being completely comfortable with this sort of sexual material. As I went over proof after proof with the woman behind the counter, I was delighted to be treated with complete respect and professionalism. And a week later, when I picked up the finished prints, I was even more surprised and delighted with what I saw.
The lab had transformed my awkward, harsh machine proofs into finished images that struck me as real and even beautiful, both emotionally and visually. Looking at them made me feel warm and happy -- happy with what I was seeing in the pictures, and happy to have somehow channeled these people's experience into static images that, it seemed, could now be seen and appreciated by other people. For the first time I felt that, despite my photographic ignorance, I might just be onto something useful. On the other hand, it occurred to me that I might very well just be projecting my delight at taking the photos onto my perception of the prints. The fact that they spoke to me didn't necessarily mean that they would say anything significant to anyone else. It was time to see what other people would make of them.
A week or so later, I nervously passed the pictures among a dozen or so people at what we call the Spectator salon, a monthly gathering of people loosely related to Spectator magazine. The response was enthusiastic. Two couples asked me on the spot if I would photograph them next. One couple wanted to buy copies of some prints to add to their collection of erotic photography. Hoping for a little positive encouragement, I came away with more response than I knew how to absorb. I'm not a photographer, I kept saying in my head; I'm a writer. But a new creative outlet was clearly rearing its seductive head, calling me in a way that I could hardly ignore.
I photographed both of the new couples who volunteered at the salon, two photo sessions that were very different from the first, but each with its own special feel and magic. Again, I was pleased with the results, as were the people who I had photographed. With an expanding portfolio to show prospective subjects, other couples turned up who also wanted to be recorded on film. Friends began recommending me to friends. Importantly, Cupido, the magazine I work for in Norway, began publishing many of my photos (they even put me on the cover of one issue), providing a way for me to finance the $500-1000 cost of each shoot. In some cases, I even managed to earn something over and above expenses.
As clichéd as it may sound, it is absolutely true that the power of any work of this kind is completely dependent on the people being photographed. It is they who choose to be real, to be vulnerable, to reveal so much of themselves to me and to the camera that it becomes possible to make worthwhile images from that raw material. I am always touched when people welcome me and the publicity of a camera into what is essentially the intensely personal, vulnerable, traditionally private world of their real sexual feelings. What I can offer them in return is the experience of the session itself and, most significantly, a set of prints that give them an opportunity to see something about themselves that really cannot be seen in any other way -- not by looking in the mirror during sex, not by setting up a camcorder to impersonally record some sexual act or encounter. Before I ever thought of taking sexual photographs myself, I had the experience of being photographed with several different partners, by several different photographers, and I know how deeply I cherish each of the images I now have that came out of those sessions.
In the last year and a half I have had the opportunity to photograph twenty different couples being sexual. Each session has been unique, but all have been remarkable experiences, both for me and for the people I have photographed. Happily, everyone I've worked with to date has been able to transcend any initial reluctance or nervousness and to thoroughly enjoy both the experience of the session and the photos that came from them. Many have said that being photographed in this way has been an important confirmation for them about both their physical appearance and their feelings about themselves as sexual people. One woman, confronting deep issues of how she felt about her body, even called the experience of the photo session one of the most important days of her life.
The bottom line of a successful sexual photo session, I believe, is that the people in it somehow come to feel comfortable with me and comfortable with the idea of being photographed while they are having sex. Only then can they possibly feel free to be their real sexual selves in front of the camera. Toward that end, I always meet with people, separate from the photo session, so that we can get to know each other, talk about what the session might be like, and go over any questions people may have that will help put them at ease. I ask people to let go of any notions they have about sexual performance, about whether or not they are conventionally attractive, about anything remotely related to glamour. What I'm looking for is not some preconceived notion of beauty or "sexiness" but a sense of real connection between lovers.
I make a point of acknowledging without apology that taking sexual photos is a sexually exciting experience for me. But I also make very clear that I there is no way I would ever try to insinuate my sexual feelings into a photo session in any way. I want the people I am working with to feel safe, sexually and emotionally, to know that they will be able to set whatever boundaries they want as the session proceeds. I encourage people to tell me immediately if I do anything that makes them uncomfortable, if I get closer to them than they want me to be, if they want me to stop taking pictures for a while, even if they want me to leave them completely alone for some time. I ask everyone, myself included, to try to leave all expectations at the door, to treat the session as a complete experiment, a venture into the unknown and the unknowable. Most of all, I put out he hope that we are all going to simply have fun with the entire experience.
Some sessions have been warm and cuddly, some hot and passionate. Some have wandered all over the emotional map. Sessions have lasted all day, or been as short as 45 minutes. Some people are openly exhibitionistic and find the presence of the camera to be an instant turn-on rather than an inhibition they have to overcome. Others begin feeling shy and awkward, unsure where or how to begin -- although even the most tentative people I've worked with have very quickly gotten past their uncertainty once we get started. Some people go into the cocoon their sexual world and ignore me almost completely. Others remain highly conscious of the camera and openly interact with me throughout the session. Half the fun for me is seeing how each session finds its own rhythm and spirit and watching how that energy shifts and changes over time.
In general, I prefer to follow the energy of the people I'm photographing rather than trying to lead or direct it. Sometimes I ask people to shift position so I can see them better; sometimes I suggest that they do something new. But mostly I try to leave people alone so they can show me who they are rather than having them try to fulfill any notion they may have of who they think I want them to be.
I'm constantly amazed at how intimate people are willing to be in my presence and in the presence of the camera. It's not just that they're willing to have sex in front of me, but that they're willing to be sexual in such open, honest, unpretentious, and unprotected ways. I've watched people show love for each other in ways that never happen in social gatherings, even among the best of friends. I've seen people with their masks off, their public personas completely dissolved. I've heard them unselfconsciously call each other and their body parts the most personal pet names. Each time people do this, they are trusting me to understand, honor, and honestly represent aspects of themselves that would be easy for an outsider to distort, manipulate, or misinterpret. I find this level of trust humbling, to say the least, and do my best to respond with respect for each person's precious individuality.
What started as a casual experiment with sexual photography has now become as central to my work of affirming and speaking honestly about sex as my writing has been for many years. I have photographed people ranging in age from 25 to 65, heavy as well as thin, disabled as well as able-bodied. I almost exclusively work with people who are in loving, long-term relationships, and photograph them in the familiarity of their own homes. I am always looking for new subjects -- people of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and sexual tastes. I feel fortunate to have found this work that is fun, exciting, creative, and performs a useful function in the world, and am eager to see where this path will lead from here.
For photo samples, see www.sexuality.org/l/davids/12-107-14.jpg, www.sexuality.org/l/davids/13-901-13.jpg, www.sexuality.org/l/davids/9-295-6.jpg, www.sexuality.org/l/davids/9-31-34.jpg David Steinberg, P.O. Box 2992, Santa Cruz, CA 95063 or 831.426.7082 or fax to 831.425.8825 or firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2010, David Steinberg
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This column is written by long-term activist David Steinberg. David is a photographer, author, editor, and publisher. His previous books include Photo Sex: Fine art sexual photography comes of age; Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self and his most recent book Divas of San Francisco: Portraits of transsexual women. He is currently working on two books of couples photography, This Thing We Call Sex, and Sex and Disability. He lives in San Francisco. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": www.sexuality.org/davids.html .
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