A Romantic View of Sadomasochism

It's no easy thing to capture the subtlety and complexity of s/m play in a photograph.

There are, to be sure, thousands of fetish photos and dozens of fetish photography books that seem (or claim) to have something to do with s/m -- displaying glamorous (mostly) women (mostly), clad in photogenic leather, latex, vinyl, and metal, adopting a variety of iconic poses and attitudes collected from the grand archive of stock fashion photos that have appeared in mainstream media over the last decade or two.

But these images and books, while appropriating the superficial paraphernalia and iconography of s/m in order to sell everything from clothes to cars to beer to newspapers, and also to feed the stylized sexual fantasies of viewers who have little knowledge of (or genuine interest in) sadomasochism, have precious little to do with the emotional and sexual reality that forms the basis of real BDSM play.

Few photographers have chosen (or dared) to tackle the complex task of getting something genuine about intimate s/m interaction on film. Michael Rosen's groundbreaking book, "Sexual Magic: The S/M Photographs," published in 1986 when s/m chic had barely begun to make its impact on the national media, is one noteworthy exception. Rosen's complex, grainy images of people whose involvement with s/m is deep and essential -- certainly neither a sexy little game nor a fashion statement -- offered the first extensive artful photographic vision in book form of the real interpersonal dynamics that lie at the core of s/m.

Now Barbara Nitke, a talented New York fine art photographer adds her own powerfully truthful portrayal of what she provocatively calls "a romantic view of sadomasochism" with the release of "Kiss of Fire," a brilliant first volume of her thoughtful, beautiful, transportive s/m imagery.

Nitke has been photographing the s/m scene passionately since 1994. She moved into New York's s/m world cautiously, shepherded by friends who wanted to introduce her to a world they thought would interest her photographically. She felt captivated by the depth of the personal connections she saw in people engaged in s/m play at meetings and play parties sponsored by The Eulenspiegel Society, New York's oldest s/m support, education, and social organization.

"For many months," she writes in her introduction to "Kiss of Fire," "I attended meetings without ever bringing a camera. I knew I wanted to take pictures, but I couldn't define what it was that so fascinated me. Eventually I realized that while the mechanics of sadomasochism and the other various activities and rituals were interesting, they were not my particular focus. I was drawn to the lovers. I couldn't help watching them together at parties, flying on their endorphins, lost in each other. I wanted to capture the bond between them, and also the intense energy of ritual, passionate SM. I wanted to photograph deep intimacy and trust, the two main concepts which underlie most SM practices. Gradually I got up the courage to ask some of the couples if they would allow me to photograph them. And gradually they began to agree."

Communicating the reality of s/m interaction is challenging, in part because so much of what happens in s/m runs directly counter to everything we've been taught about sex, intimacy, love, and pleasure. Tenderness experienced through whipping? Personal empowerment through submission? Intimacy through abandonment? Pleasure through pain? What strange ideas these are to people who have no personal experience with s/m, and never witnessed others in the throes of a transformative s/m scene. And yet all of these dynamics are all utterly familiar, powerfully important, and quite matter-of-factly real to anyone who has made s/m play a significant part of his or her personal and sexual life.

As one skillful and perceptive pro domme in New York once observed to me during an interview: "S/m is like the stained glass windows of a church: From the outside they don't look like much, but when you're inside, they're beautiful. But you can't know that unless you go in. It's hard to explain to someone on the outside what s/m is like because it looks so different from the outside from what it really is."

It is difficult for any photograph, or any series of photographs -- even a skillfully rendered photographic collection of the sort that appears in "Kiss of Fire" -- to convey to a viewer who has not personally entered the s/m world, the multi-layered physical sensations and the rich interpersonal dynamics that are at the heart of s/m, that draw people so powerfully to s/m. Even when a photographer of great sensitivity and skill -- and Barbara Nitke is certainly one such -- emphatically rejects the emotionally cold, glamour-ridden fetish images of mainstream media and advertising, even when a photographer directs his or her attention to the important s/m interactions of real, non-glamorous s/m devotees, the first impression that will strike any casual or careless viewer of an s/m photograph is still likely to be precisely the opposite of what's really going on.

Where a photo is showing love, an inattentive viewer may see cruelty. Where intimacy and attention are the heart of the matter, a closed-minded viewer may only see abuse. Where the liberation of trusting surrender is being depicted, a viewer projecting his or her own personal material may see nothing more than pathetic powerlessness. The more significant, more complex, more interesting, and certainly more compelling emotional realities often lie below the surface of an s/m photograph, requiring more than a moment's glance, and more than a fearfully dismissive eye, to be perceived.

Speaking truthfully and mysteriously about the emotional and sexual dynamics of s/m is precisely the complicated task that Barbara Nitke undertakes in "Kiss of Fire" -- for the benefit of s/m innocents and s/m enthusiasts alike. The subtitle of her book, "a romantic view of sadomasochism," throws down the gauntlet of confronting common misconceptions about s/m in no uncertain terms. Romance in sadomasochism? Let the uninitiated be warned: Whatever stereotyping thoughts about s/m you may have in your head from years of exposure to mainstream media foolishness are about to be challenged by the images in this book. Prepare for the unexpected, and be ready to take time to absorb these images in depth if you want to expose yourself to the powerful emotional forces and enigmas they contain. To those who live inside the church, Nitke brings a parallel, though entirely different core message: Here are photographs that you can trust to understand, appreciate, celebrate, and confirm the radiance of light as seen through beautiful, carefully constructed windows of multi-colored glass.

Nitke's photographs, taken with infrared film "because it renders skin in an otherworldly white tone" and has a graininess to "enhance the [photos'] romantic effect," address a broad range of emotional facets common in s/m play. There is power, intensity, intimacy, tenderness, unconventional beauty, and even humor here -- all bearing witness to the rich connections that animate the variously kinky sexual play of her subjects.

In "Antonia in Heaven," we watch as a mistress focuses her precise attention on the exact spot where her flashing cane meets the exposed, clothespinned skin of her subject's bare butt, the pursed lips of the woman wielding the cane showing every bit as much intensity as the open-mouthed shout of the woman receiving the blow.

In "Neville and Sarah," a man watches his partner's face with the complete attention demanded by the fact that his hand is pressed firmly into her throat, completely controlling when and whether she will breathe again.

In a series of three photographs, "April and Monica at the Hotel 17," a cross-dressed man first flogs, then spanks, then lovingly embraces and envelops the body and energy of his ecstatic partner.

In "Madame and mine," a delicately small-boned woman cradles the head of her bound and gagged lover against her nude body, looking down into his streaming eyes with exquisite tenderness and love.

In "Horse Farm," a man and woman engage in "pony play" -- him riding on her back in an open field while directing her with the bit she holds in her mouth -- while both of them are questioningly observed by a more conventional horse that stands only a foot or two away, appearing to wonder what on earth these strange humans are up to.

The 61 photos in "Kiss of Fire" present a stunning, complex and uncompromisingly truthful panorama of s/m sexual play and interaction. Nitke's supplemental notes about the photographs at the end of the book -- telling some of the stories of what was happening behind-the-scenes and why, give readers an opportunity for further perspective and understanding of the images.

This is a book for all who would move beyond misconceptions and stereotypes to gain an understanding of a sexual preference and lifestyle all too commonly vilified and subjected to personal, legal, and political attack -- and also a treasure for those who have made s/m play a significant part of their lives and are hungry for artful recognition and reflection.

[Autographed copies of "Kiss of Fire," as well as photo galleries, biographical information, and background on her work, are available from Barbara Nitke at her website, .]

© 2008 David Steinberg  

Other Sexuality Issues, Books, Resources

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The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer. - Havelock Ellis

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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 Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives": .


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