Babies, Weddings & PornographyFriday, August 07, 2009
When I decided to become a photographer and I arrived in Vancouver I told myself there were three things I was not going to do and that was to shoot weddings (and bar mitzvahs), babies and pornography. The first two self prohibitions came out of previous failures or near failures in Mexico. I had shot a couple of weddings in Mexico City and I had been plagued by bad equipment and flash connection problems. Shooting weddings was much too stressful. Re-shoots were out of the question. Someone I knew hired me to photograph his beautiful baby girl. He never told me that she was a Thalidomide baby. When I saw the child, she was missing limbs and fingers. I did not know where to begin. I have stuck to my guns since (sort of). I was ordered by Mac Parry to photograph Susan Musgrave getting married in jail for his magazine Vancouver Magazine. Joey Shithead made a request I could not refuse and I photographed his civil wedding. The only babies I have photographed, and gladly, have been my two granddaughters, Rebecca and Lauren. With pornography it gets a tad more complicated.
The only porn film I had ever seen before I arrived in Vancouver in 1975 was the inevitable Deep Throat. I had not warmed much to the experience in a movie theatre in San Francisco. I have a lingering memory of two men sitting in front of me watching it while munching on pop corn. I lost all interest in pornography. When I saw a few Penthouse centerfolds that featured women fingering sharp, colourful and shiny pudenda I saw it as pornography. It was the colour and the shine that imparted that difference that separated art and or artsy b+w nudes from these.
Sometime in the middle 80s Les Wiseman interviewed porn star Marilyn Chambers and I accompanied him to take her portrait. The excuse for the interview which was published in Vancouver Magazine was that Chambers was in town with her country & western band. When we left the Four Seasons Hotel where Chambers was staying with her manager and husband Chuck Traynor I asked Les, “Do they actually do it on film? “ Les looked at me and laughed.
It may have been at least 12 years when I visited Wiseman at his coach house near City Hall. He let me in and went to his TV console and opened its doors. He played a video and he answered my question as if it had only been posed a few seconds before, “See Alex, they really do it.”
But I have always thought that had photography in the 19th century begun with the Lumiere brothers’ photographs in colour and not Daguerre’s Daguerreotype process we would have immediately adopted photography in colour as art. And perhaps I would have looked at those Penthouse centerfolds with more of a discerning eye. There is that residual memory in those of us who are of a certain age that associate b+w nudes as art and the equivalent in colour as smut. I could prove this to the contrary with pictures that I have taken myself, in colour and in b+w but I have a self-prohibition about publishing such stuff or nudes in this blog.
I will be the first to not only admit but assert that the photography of the undraped human body is high in sexual content. The photographer who says, “I love how the human form can mimic a Sahara Desert sand dune,” is in complete delusion. If it weren’t so the photographer would be happily taking pictures of undraped dromedaries.
I have photographed many nudes in my years in Vancouver and I even teach a class at Focal Point called the Contemporary Portrait Nude. I gave it that title because to me the nude has never been about parts but about the humanity of the person posing. Sometimes the face is not there but there are ways of implying it. It is only of late where I have sensed a waning in my passion for photography of the undraped. It must have a lot to do with being as old as I am. The concept of getting into bed with a good book and a large mug of tea really is beginning to supersede any ideas of sexual frolicking.
Today I found these pictures of a woman whom I will call as J.M. It was in the middle 90s that our leading newspaper gossip columnist called me up and told me something like this, “This attractive woman I have written about wants some pictures taken of her. I have given her your name. She will call you. Don’t fret about anything as she has money.”
The woman indeed did call and she made her appointment for me to photograph her in her condo apartment. She gave me the impression she wanted me to take racy photographs. When I got there two very good looking men opened the door. J.M. was a mature woman. She was voluptuous and maybe her surgeon had improved beyond the perfect nose she had.
I tried to imagine some sort of scenario involving the two young men and J.M. but my failure was based both on shock; I had never done this sort of thing before, and my desire to make the woman look her best. Baring her breasts and whatever else she may have wanted to expose was something I didn’t think was a good idea. I failed because I was much too conservative and naïve. Looking back at these pictures I see a potential that I squandered. J.M. was having some fun (the boys were having fun, too) and wanted it on film but I was too dense to understand this. I may have injected some humour but most of it was unintended. Whatever J.M. wanted me to photograph it was not pornography.
Looking at the pictures now they seem almost silly, particularly when compared to the images that my 11 year-old granddaughter is capable of finding in the internet. She has seen just about every nude I have I taken and she has a mature adult approach to what I have shot in my past.
But as propriety and manners erode and as TV programs, films and standard on line content get racier and racier, the border between what is perceived as sexy to what is pornographic becomes that much more muddled. When I am asked what I consider pornography to be I always answer, “I vowed never to shoot babies, weddings and pornography. I have avoided the first two and tried on the third." Every time I try, I realize that to shoot pornography one must park one’s good taste. But good taste always prevails and my would-be pornography atempts descend to the realm of sexy or, as you see here, silly. I have long ago given up in punching people in the nose when they tell me, “Alex your nudes are tasteful.” Perhaps it is not too late to change what could well be my epitaph, "He was indeed tasteful".