From cutting-edge fetish imagery to the beauty of queer bodies and perspective, these photographers are finding new ways to document sexuality in an era of online censorship
22April 2021TextAnastasiia Fedorova
Erotic images and BDSM art have always been a powerful part of artistic expression – but they also have an ambiguous history. Our society’s prevalent idea of the erotic is largely shaped by the white male gaze – from Renaissance paintings to covers of Playboy magazine. In the last few decades, erotic photography has both reinforced and challenged this history. The gay and queer perspective on sexuality has found its way into the art canon through the works of Robert Mapplethorpe and Catherine Opie, but a lot of names still remain much less known, including Ajamu X, or Doris Kloster. The history of the erotic imagery remains largely in the shadows, just as sex remains a topic which is taboo in our society. But the new generation of visual artists is keen to prove that documenting the erotic and the sexual is not only pleasurable but a vital part of our culture and creative expression.
For contemporary photographers and artists, working with erotic and sexual imagery poses its own challenges. In recent years, more and more mainstream social media platforms are becoming hostile towards nudity, sex work and even broader conversations involving sex – which also impacts artists, and especially queer, POC, and ones spotlighting diverse bodies. Despite the censorship, the visual language of the erotic photography is evolving to include more and more diverse perspectives. In this new world of radical erotic photography, the conventions of gender and power are flipped, the energy comes from authentic connection, kinks become a radical expression of freedom, and all kinds of bodies are given a safe space to truly shine. The work of these artists is playful, hot, authentic – and proves that sexual imagery can be about agency in expressing one’s desire.
Based in New York, Lanee Bird is one of the most prolific photographers documenting the contemporary fetish and kink community. With a background in fine art, Bird admits that her kink and queer identities are key to her visual style – as much as the extensive research into the history of erotic and fetish photography. “I collect vintage fetish magazines and books, so many of my inspirations come from 1980s-90s fetish photographers,” she says. “There was a massive resurgence of fetish art during the 1980s, which influenced pop culture and mainstream runways at the time. I am very inspired by the likes Doris Kloster, Helmut Newton, Eric Kroll, Christophe Mourthé, Guy Bourdin, Trevor Watson, Bob Carlos Clarke and Chris Bell.”
Bird pays meticulous attention to the expressive potential of light, colours and textures while exploring the notions of playfulness, identity and power. Her subjects often dominate the image with truly exquisite presence. As much as her images come from the authentic world of the kink scene, they also belong in the art context – one of her aims is to challenge the status of erotic photography as low culture.
Alexandra Kacha’s photographs are instantly recognisable through a combination of enchanting dreamy atmosphere and unapologetic sexuality. A big lover of 1980s imagery, they often use soft hues and tenderly blurred lights, as well as draped satin and silk, candles, and religious and mystical symbolism. Based in LA, they often document kinksters, queer lovers, sex workers, dominatrixes – as well as doing in person and online “boudoir shoots” with anyone who would like to be captured in their most intimate beautiful state.
For Kacha, the aesthetic is not the goal, but a way to create a space for an authentic representation of desire. Kacha started their career by taking photos of their friends who worked as dominatrixes in Austin, Texas – and have been enjoying the collaboration and empathy in photography since then. “I loved Nan Goldin when I was really young. I wanted to do the same thing but in my own queer world. I just love the voyeur aspect of it all,” they admit.
IMOGEN MAY AND INDIA JAGGON OF RUB MAGAZINE
Imogen May and India Jaggon are a couple and a creative duo behind Rub Magazine, launched this year and described as “queer DIY independent smut”. Their creative collaboration evolved alongside their romantic connection. “When we first started dating, taking photos of each other was a huge part of our relationship, especially at the beginning as I had just come out as a lesbian and was able to finally explore my desires and gaze through photography,” Imogen remembers. Images they create for Rub frequently feature themselves and their friends in London’s queer community – unapologetically owning the expression of their sexuality.
“I want to see more QBPOC bodies, gender non-conforming bodies, bigger bodies, sexualities that are kinky, complex, and fit outside of gender boxes or roles. Before we started Rub, I wanted to see myself represented sexually somewhere and I couldn’t seem to find it…” India admits. “I want the erotic imagery we wish the world could be filled with,” agrees Imogen. The first printed issue of Rub is coming this year, and the magazine is currently accepting content submissions.
THE LONDON VAGABOND
The London Vagabond duo has a near-to cult status in the kink community of London and beyond. The self-described “London-based lovers and fetishists” have been making work collaboratively for about four years. Their imagery is partly a reflection of their lifestyle – of male submissive and female dominant perspectives – but also an honest, visceral and uncensored survey of complex human sexuality. Favouring rare analogue cameras and printed books and zines over digital tools, they are not afraid to get in the thick of it when it comes to exploring the erotic and the sexual – be it parties, bodies, BDSM scenes or documenting their own lives.
“We are interested in the relationship between the lens and the erotic, whether that’s by the subject flirting with the camera with their eyes or the presence of the camera fulfilling part of a fantasy for the person involved. We are drawn to documenting exhibitionists and people that see our work and can imagine themselves inside it,” the duo comments. “The work is gritty, unapologetic, never retouched and is an honest portrayal of the subject in the image”.
Based in London, Ottilie Landmark is committed to creating a complex and nuanced portraial of queer and female subjects in both erotic and fashion imagery. She often works on the intersection of these two areas, while also combining the tools of the editorial, artistic and personal documentary photography. Inspired by the classic 20th century erotic works by Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, and Mario Testino, she is looking to subvert these refrences to reflect the queer and lesbian perspective.
“I think my images have a sinister tone to them, as well as sexual tension. That said, there are also intimate and private moments from my own life. Bringing these together I want to tell a story about female desire,” Landmark says. She has also been photographing sex workers and people from the kink community looking to challenge the existing visual stereotypes of these communities.
Vera Violette is professional dominatrix, video-maker, photographer, and a latex designer at Good Girl Latex. She has been interested both in visual culture and making things since childhood, and later studies film and photography. These interests naturally came back as she got into sex work – both designing and making latex outfits for herself and documenting her sessions and intimate experiences. Violette’s photography is a rare empathetic insight both into BDSM and its complex interactions, and queer sexuality in the world of sex work.
For 22-year-old London-based Amelia Sonsino, photography is a passion and a tool to explore contemporary queer identity – and sexuality is its integral element. “Sex is universal and therefore should be more widely accepted rather than being a taboo subject,” she says. “As a queer person I love shooting the LGBTQIA+ community to uplift and show the diversity and creativity within the people around me. My favourite things to shoot are club kids, portraits and anything weird and wonderful. I also have a thing for toilets and the colour red. I want to produce work that has a shock factor but is also endearing and memorable”.
In Amelia’s work, sexuality is something endearingly playful and creative, and completely defined by her subjects – be it dancers at Harpies strip club or young queers choosing to wear spiked collars and silver thigh-highs in their home spaces.
Anastasiia Fedorova writes about BDSM, kink ,and fetish in culture at her platform ‘Other Kinds of Pleasure’, which you can follow here