by Jake Block
“If a photographer says he is not a voyeur, he is an idiot.”
— Helmut Newton (1920 – 2004)
In a previous essay, I referred to myself as “an inveterate leg man,” and that’s true, but like all snapshots, just a few pixels of the entire frame of a photograph that supports the statement, although in focussing on another area of the same vision, a different conclusion might well be the truth one sees. In photography, I find expression in those off center, seemingly less important details that others might ignore, but to me are as exciting as the fragment of flesh a voyeur might glimpse as he peers through a keyhole.
I focus through my viewfinder with my left eye. By simple 50% chance, I’m already seeing things differently than my “right-eyed” colleagues, and it underscores my personal belief that photography itself is inherently a left hand path skill, art and magical exercise. The reason for this has nothing to do with one’s dominant eye, but in concepts that one considers, if one is to consider them at all as a photographer, rather than someone who just takes pictures. It is in this sense, at least, that a photographer is a voyeur, observing all, in minute detail, analyzing each movement and each position for meaning.
There is eroticism in the simple act of being human, as long as one has need and desire. One might deny this, out of cultural programming or some overly cautious sense of propriety. It is in the viewing of the sensual and sexual side of our being that we can embrace not only the darker aspects of our nature, but begin to understand the whole of it and how that darker side supports and enhances us on the levels that we decide to show to those around us. How you choose to exercise your eroticism is a personal affair, but discretely sharing it with others is pretty much necessary, if you plan on inviting them into your world.
Being a photographer, one can appreciate the voyeurism that naturally occurs when you find your eye glued to your viewfinder while practicing your art, and you’re always practicing your art. Of course, voyeurism need not always be sexual in nature, although a good photographer with a good eye and imagination will almost always find capturing that aspect of the masculine and feminine to have an appreciative audience. Voyeurism is typically thought of as sexual, but to my mind “street photography,” and photographs of strangers involved in simply living offers the well rounded voyeur an almost endless variety of stimulating and thought provoking subjects from which to choose.
Street photography, when done right, allows the photographer to be that “fly on the wall,” there, but not significantly “there enough” to influence the environment surrounding it. Often hidden in plain sight, photographer and gear blend into the scenery, where they are free to collect images and themes most would miss. It can be a fun and compelling sub-genre of photography that several famous shootists have resurrected over the years, with the most successful being Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” series. The same techniques can be applied to erotic photography as well. While the photographer is unavoidably “in the action,” the goal is to minimize the impact of that presence. A good erotic photographer is silent, for the most part, and if one must speak, it is in a whisper, so as not to break or influence the mood, and they will stay in the background as much as possible.
“Back in the day,” before digital photography, aside from an eroticist’s “go to” Polaroid camera, options for the average couple to engage in erotic photography for personal use was highly restricted. Unless one had their own darkroom set up in their home, finding someone that would print photographs with nudity was pretty much a hit and miss proposition, often governed only by the developer’s personal morality. Going to the local “photo hut” or processor at the mall weren’t the best options because quite often, those who ran these place were members of your community that you might run into in the local market, movie theater or, heaven forbid, CHURCH! So, if you were like me, and you were known to be sexually liberal, you would get a phone call from a gentleman (sometimes a lady) who would like to know if you took “personal photos.”
I was known (and still am) as a “creative freelance photographer,” and I wouldn’t hire out for just any photos. I refused to do weddings, shake and takes (awards ceremonies), kids, or any one under 20 years of age. I was known for my landscapes, abstracts and creative portraits. After a few moments of conversation, the caller might sheepishly ask, “how about personal fantasy shots, you know, boudoir and well… my wife and I have vivid imaginations.” Once I told them that I don’t judge people on their personal lifestyles, they began to relax, and often their spouse might get on the phone as well. With no worries abut being judged for their personal kinks and fetishes, the idea of having personal photos to enjoy now and in the future took on a more joyful tone.
Now, there are some photographers that will tell you that they don’t have time to notice the sensuality of their subject, or anything that is being done on film, or digitally because they are too busy with the technical aspects of photography. I would be the last person to tell you that erotic photography isn’t a stressful format for any photographer, because by it’s very nature, it demands that you get the shot in camera the first time, as your clients can be very unforgiving if you become known for screwing up a shot and needing to ask the client to resit for their photographs. That said, neither would I tell you that it isn’t a pleasurable and stimulating genre. You’re working with people who are at their most attractive and most often, most physically aware, sensually. They’re dressed (or undressed) to impress, and you’re there to document and, if possible, elevate these moments from mere picture taking to “art.” Of course, at that moment, the photographer is a voyeur, and happily so!
I could make the argument that erotic photography can, in varying degrees, run the gamut from joyful to dark, but always a slice of life for those being photographed, in which one chooses to document themselves are they are at some significant moment or age within their span or years on this planet. People are almost never this or that, good nor evil, light nor dark. They might choose to present themselves as such, using photography as the medium for their propagandized image, and I will readily admit to this, myself. Over the decades that I have produced “selfies,” as we now know them, I have always edged mine left of center by degrees, depending on what I would project to the world. Self voyeurism is certainly ego-driven, and planned to provide only a thin slice of one’s whole, and daring the viewer to look without blinking to imagine the rest that is there, but unseen.
Things can be photographed with bias as well. I’ve taken shots around the world that were just shot for memories of some of the good times I’ve had, and then I have taken shots to capture the “atmosphere” of a darker moment, as well. I once saw a shot that someone had taken of a large drainage pipe coming out of a grassy hillside, and emptying into a small stream. It was a bucolic setting that brought to mind walks in the countryside as a kid, the smell of warm grass and the buzzing of insects as I walked in the summer heat. And then, I saw the same shot with a minor modification that totally changed its “feel.” Someone had spray painted the words, “Free Hugs,” in a rough scrawl, with an arrow pointing toward the darkness inside the drain pipe. Now it became darker, with an ominous feel that had a disturbing edge.
Two photographers can take a shot of the same basic scene at the same time and produce pictures with two distinctly different photographs, using only things that are relative to the equipment being used, and hot having to resort to the “tricks” of computer gimmick programs like Photoshop or some other boxed product. Long before digital cameras made cheats possible to the masses, any photographer worth his salt knew how to strategically darken or lighten parts of a photograph in the darkroom for atmosphere, or use filtration to manipulate light, and what the camera’s F stops and varying aperture settings were for. You could do so much with minor manipulations to black and white and color emulsions. And then there were the specialty films that worked with different spectrums of light, other than the “ROY G. BIV spectrum” that we think of as what we can see… visible light. The eerie quality of infrared and ultraviolet films could be used to shock the senses of the viewer to the dark side of photography. There is a reason why I still use them today!
The ease of digital photography and availability of photo processing software has taken much of the art of photography away and turned it into a point and click option for those who are used to the instant gratification of today’s world, rather than the effort of spending hours crafting a shot in the dark room, to make it yours and yours alone. And the sad part is that many “photographers” of the day don’t know the difference. I’ve had some of them ask me what “presets” I use in Photoshop to give my photos a particular quality, and then refuse to believe me when I tell them that I neither own Photoshop, nor have any idea how to use it.
This isn’t to say that there is no place in the world for cell phone photographs and photoshopped images. Some of the cell phone optics are quite good, and can put a lot of creative power into the hands of those who need it, and can’t afford or have no access to higher end cameras and the capabilities that they can provide. But I mourn the loss of the types of photographs that “legitimate photographers” produced of old, especially in the darker and more erotic edges of the photographic world. I’m forever nostalgic for the time when one focused through the camera’s view finder, rather than the “little TV screen” of live view. My Nikons have selective live view, but like the utilitarian toilets on a plane or a burger from Mickey D’s, other than in an emergency, I’m afraid they’re things that I can just do without!
From my left-eyed view of the world, things are always a bit darker, and that’s the way it should be.