Sex and Fashion Photography

Above: Peter Silverton by Rankin

Sexual imagery has long been a staple ingredient within photography and filmmaking. As fetishism becomes increasingly mainstream Peter Silverton takes stock of our current fascination with sexual obsessions.

Let’s start with the bra quandary; or perhaps, with the LaChapelle problem. David LaChapelle, that is. Actually, let’s leave the bra issue aside for the moment and focus instead on the American photographer and filmmaker. I’ve got one particular picture of his in mind. It’s the second spread in his 2006 book Heaven to Hell. It comes right after a naked, fluffy-blonde nude in pink, high-heeled stacks, portrayed – played? – by Amanda Lepore; the transgendered nightclub hostess from suburban New Jersey. She’s perched on a white table and has some kind of prosthesis between her legs which is simulating a stream of pink piss; which, in turn, is drawing the outline of a heart on the Mediterranean Blue wall. The spread after the one I have in mind is of an electric chair; chrome yellow, with padded, black restraints. If it’s a play toy, it’s a serious one. Abandoned on the shiny, black floor is a pair of white, studded high heels. It’s that kind of book. Even the Icelandic pixie Björk wears high heels in LaChapelle’s world.

So to the picture I want to talk about; the one that comes between a pink pisser and a yellow, toy executioner’s chair. Made in 2001, it’s titled Death by Hamburger, and looks like it was shot on the backlot of a movie studio. Most of the image is taken up by a giant, inflatable hamburger; a cheeseburger in fact, by the look of it. Beneath it is a woman being killed by it; or rather, a fraction of a woman. All you can see sticking out from under the burger is a pair of legs. At one end of those legs are white shoes, with five-inch black, spike heels, thick metal studs and Jesus straps that reach up past the calves. At the other end there is a glimpse of what looks like a matching white and studded bikini bottom.

Then, quite naturally, as I look at that killer burger picture, I think of Guy Bourdin; the French fashion photographer who made his career from making advertising images for the shoe manufacturer Charles Jourdan – and who probably wasn’t very nice to his models. Again, there is a particular picture I have in mind. Again, it’s of a woman; or rather, again, it’s of half a woman, viewed from behind. She is tipped over an edge of some kind; it might be a giant table or it might just be the edge of a flat world that is a deep, deadened red – the gorgeous colour of congealing blood. It takes up maybe the bottom 15% of the image. The rest of the picture is yellow; the kind of multi-toned yellow made famous by West London interior designers. It’s the colour of dreams; a sitting room fantasy designed to trump the grey, grey autumnal stuff of the English sky. Red below, yellow above, with half a woman between; to sell shoes. The two colours come together – or rather bash together – as a landscape bisected by a horizon. Inevitably, but quite probably wrongly, I can’t help but bring to mind the abstract painter Mark Rothko’s late work. There, his own interior landscapes are projected, by him and via paint, on to canvases which, in turn, evoke our own secret dreamscapes. Secret, that is, from ourselves, but not Rothko. His dreamscapes, of course, are secret to him but not to us.

That is why images and imagery are so central to what it means to be human. Well, one of the reasons, anyway. The woman in Bourdin’s picture – the shoe model – occupies only a small fraction of the frame. She is dressed in black: a black leotard of some kind, black fishnets with the back seam disappearing, tantalisingly, into the leotard, and black three or four-inch stilettos, with ankle straps, and what looks like gold heels. It’s mysterious, evocative and sexy – deeply. We can’t see the model’s face, so we are never challenged by her returning gaze. Yet it doesn’t have the voyeuristic charge of some other Bourdin pictures. Perhaps because we can’t see any of the model’s flesh. It is all shielded behind clothes and the horizon. Yet there is nothing teasing about it. Clearly, it has fetishistic elements to it. Black stuff: fishnets, high heels – clichés of fetish. Yet there is nothing compromising about the image. There’s a disarming honesty to it; perhaps in the openness of its desire. Its lusts are playful but never ironic. Which, in turn, takes me back to LaChapelle’s picture and its difference from the Bourdin. It’s a matter of distance and, well, reality really; though not necessarily a conscious one.

The Bourdin is certainly part of a genuine world, even if it only exists somewhere deep in the photographer’s unconscious. It might be considered and crafted, but it’s not mediated. It is itself, not a commentary on itself. But the LaChapelle; it’s impossible to imagine that event having an existence in the real world. It is thought through: a construction; a completely ionised conception of desire. Playful but polished and, therefore, ultimately dead. The Bourdin, by contrast; well, I suppose you could make up a story about how the shoe model had dropped something over the edge of her red-earth, yellow-sky world and was reaching down to get it back, or some such nonsense. Yet, there is something deeply truthful about the image. It exists on a plane above and below simple reality. It’s a picture that knows us, better than we know ourselves. And among the ways it knows us is the ubiquity of fetishism. Male, female, young, old; we all of us place our desire in non-sexual objects.

It’s the metonymy of eroticism in which the part substitutes the whole. Desire’s synecdoche. And so my unconscious turns me to Manolo Blahnik, the great creator of the modern high heel, who said: “When I think of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, crossing her legs, with the marabou chain around her ankle… it was the ankle!” Not just the foot, or the shoe, but the ankle; and not just a chain, but a feathered one – another great particular. Fetishism is desire collapsed into specificity. Blahnik again, on the allure of the heightened heel: “I think it’s got to do with that aura of – how do you say the word? – inaccessibility; out of reach.” It’s not Blahnik’s fault that the later TV series of Sex and the City turned his shoes into an emblematic symbol of the sublimation of female desire into (finance-powered) object worship; as it also did for Christian Louboutin’s red-soled shoes, whose eroticisms were honed by the filmic devotions of David Lynch – though it is true the TV series and ensuing films have, almost certainly, done wonders for both Blahnik and Louboutin’s bank accounts.

Ah, fetishism. It is, the fashion magazines are telling me, the trend of the season. The first two spreads in the August issue of Vogue (UK) are Gucci ads. They feature voyeurism, exhibitionism, straps, semi-nakedness, black high heels and buckles in, what a client of an architect friend described glowingly, as a “lavish setting” – guiltless gilt and extremely guilty soft furnishings. To mind comes the interior decor Nazi fetishism of Visconti’s 1969 movie, The Damned. A few pages later come ads for Louis Vuitton, with girls in peaked caps and the black leather back seat of a vintage soft-top roadster; another fetish staple.

Chanel is next, with a woman dressed as a cat, in black heels, perched on the stool of that exhibitionist’s favourite; an old-style photo booth. It’s a flat, black one, of course. Fetish has long been a fashion photography staple; Helmut Newton, most obviously. An art world thing too: Allen Jones, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nobuyoshi Araki. It’s been a general fashion thing for many years; certainly since Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood renamed their Kings Road boutique, SEX. Who can erase from their memory the image of a half-clothed Chrissie Hynde, Westwood and – the boutique’s manager – Jordan, in housewife-fetish aprons and suspenders, each of them with one letter of the word ‘SEX’ spelt out on each of their bare buttocks? A couple of years after that, in 1978, the novelist J. G. Ballard was interviewed by a man who had changed his name from Sage to Savage. Ballard was talking about the contemporary relationship between society, desire and objects. “They canalise and tame and make tolerable perverse impulses that in previous societies would’ve been nipped in the bud,” he said. “I don’t know whether you’ve read a novel of mine called Crash.” The novel, that is, in which men and women have parasexual relationships with cars, car parts and car crashes. It was adapted into a film in 1996, directed by David Cronenberg and starring James Spader, whose character’s interest is in “mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that’s impossible in any other form”. Nor was that Spader’s only walk on the fetish side.

In the 2002 film, Secretary, he played a dominant to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sub. It has a happy ending; a rarity (a perversity even) in the fetish world. Back to Vogue. The editorial section of the magazine lightly points out that “fetish moods dominate at Givenchy” and features a parade of implausibly (and fetishistically) high-heeled footwear: lime green, zip-up, wedge heels; calf-high, red-strapped, spike heels; black, peep-toed, basket-weave stacks with ground-sweeping side fringes; knee-high, multi-coloured snakeskin (real I hope, but doubt), with heels that could have been designed by Frank Gehry; and a pair of round-toed, black spikes with soles cut so low that they offer an enticing glimpse of the model’s plantar fascia.

Last autumn also saw the publication of High Heels: Fashion, Femininity & Seduction, edited by Ivan Vartanian, who previously shaped Ryuichi Kaneko’s definitive collection of Japanese photography for the 2009 book Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s which – pleasingly for lovers of life’s unavoidable complexities – includes books from both the 1950s and 1980s. High Heels is, more or less, dedicated to the proposition advanced by Helmut Newton: “When I see a woman, I always look immediately at her shoes and hope they’re high, because high heels make a woman look sexy and dangerous.” (I don’t think, by the by, that I’ve ever seen a picture of Newton’s beloved wife and lifetime companion, the photographer Alice Springs, in a pair of heels.) Its introduction makes clear its intentions and stance: “A high heel not only transforms the silhouette of a foot and extends the line of the leg, it functions as a type of prosthetic to hobble the wearer to some degree. In doing so, its ulterior (and truer) function takes effect, which is to make the wearer a spectacle.” Further (and, surely, less surely): “The way in which we relate to photography has a fetishistic charge.” Among the non-footwear images is one of a woman on her back – naked, naturally – with vibrantly-rouged areolas and a giant pink-tinged gemstone stuffed in her mouth.

A very particular kind of fetishism, I’d guess. Still, its imbalance is charming; like, say, a woman with one high heel shorter than the other, walking away from the camera – as Marilyn Monroe made her arrival, on a smoky, night-time platform in Chicago’s Union Station for her second movie with director Billy Wilder, the cross-dressing gangster comedy, Some Like It Hot. It’s a book which takes its source material seriously. There are many, many pictures of high heels; often on the feet of naked or half-naked women. Among them is the Bourdin picture of a woman slipping through a dream world horizon, as well as several more of his; all similarly erotic abstractions of femininity which, in my experience, arouse and disgust people of both sexes in fairly equal measure.

Among the book’s most direct images are those by Ellen von Unwerth, from her 2002 collection, Revenge. These include a young-looking naked girl with a blindfold strap held to her eyes and a heavily-chained and ankle-cuffed pair of legs. As ever with von Unwerth’s sexualised photographs, it’s impossible to escape (or answer) the question: What if these pictures had been made by a man? It’s a question that might also be addressed to Bettina Rheims’ photograph of a naked woman in high heels, lying with legs splayed on a bed in the kind of cheap hotel room where a dying Oscar Wilde mythically pronounced: “It’s the wallpaper or me – one of us has to go.” (I’ve stayed in that hotel and, frankly, he had a point.)

Different questions are posed by a pair of Larry Sultans, taken from his 2004 book, The Valley; images shot in the San Fernando Valley housing tracts in which he grew up, and which later became the chosen sets for sex movies. I’d always thought there was no sex or sexuality in those Sultan pictures; that was the point of them. A porn actress moves across a terrace, mostly dressed, past an empty pool, talking on the phone to… Well, I’d always thought it was someone neutral and unisexual; her agent, say, or maybe even a child. But now I’m not so sure. In a book filled with women in high heels, it’s hard to see past that. Context is, as ever, all.

High Heels features art photography. There are some Arakis; although the old Japanese roué has always been generally more taken by bondage than heels, high or low. There is also a series of Kodak Instamatic images from the 1970s, discovered in the posthumous leavings of Antonio Lopez; a Puerto Rican fashion illustrator who died of AIDS in 1987. There are faces, fishnets and high heels pressed against a man’s body; on his shoulder, in his mouth, between his buttocks. There is also a snap of a woman licking a motorcycle engine; true fetishism.

The book also includes many images from the new generation of European fashion magazines: V, Muse, S, Magnum, 125, Numéro, Pop, Purple. It’s part of a general trend in photography, of course. While portraiture has fallen from favour, the action has been in two areas: reportage and overtly sexual imagery.

And this, in particular, is where I find myself back, engaged by the same worries that the LaChapelle picture aroused in me. I hate the word ‘authenticity’; it’s rooted in snobbery and ignorance of life and desire. Yet, I have a similar struggle with ‘inauthenticity’, or perhaps ‘non-authenticity’. There is a stupidity about many of these images; a secondhand toying with the metonymies of desire. They are dead, quite unquickened by the pulse of the disturbing inconsistencies of the human unconscious. The Sunday Times Style magazine – the special fat edition for London Fashion Week – offered explanation and context: “From the moment the Marquis de Sade articulated his ideas of extreme sexual freedom, fetish and cool were forever linked.”

Bettie Page, the 1950s bondage pin-up, was the inspiration for the last Givenchy catwalk show. Louis Vuitton looked to Charlotte Rampling in the 1974 film, The Night Porter, in which she plays a death camp survivor locked into a sadomasochistic relationship with her former guard. Their wartime ‘play’ together involved her dressing up as a Nazi stripper; so the guard became aroused by her pretending to be, not a tortured woman, but a torturing woman (with bare breasts and long, black, leather gloves). Post-war, the couple’s sex play is revived, but not as a recreation of that reality; rather as a fracturing of it. It’s nasty but probably rooted in uncomfortable truth.

In the August 2011 issue of ELLE, which has an ultra-demurely dressed Lily Allen as its cover girl, The Night Porter is described as “one of fashion’s favourite films”. This is in a feature with the standfirst: “From handcuffs to dominatrix boots, designers are obsessed with fetish. Is this autumn/winter’s new power dressing?” On the contents page the reader is advised that it is “time to consider how to work a seam of sexiness into your wardrobe”, beneath a rearview image of a woman in a see-through, black dress and gilded handcuffs. Right through the magazine there is, again, a selection of implausibly-heeled footwear: black rubber boots, accessorised with a gilded metal mask; six-inchers with studded cuffs and welts; yellow-soled boots with red-and-black-spotted legs; triple-buckled green and cerulean neoprene spike heels.

The story itself is illustrated with a naked and headless (or at least her head is cropped from the photo) model in side-laced, high-heel boots and a gorgeous pair of handcuffs (silver-chained, by the look of it). Not, I should imagine, the kind of power dressing that would advance a woman’s career in, say, corporate litigation or MBO financing. The picture is by Dutch-born, Paris-based photographer, Jan Welters. It’s not his only picture of a handcuffed model. ELLE finds fetishism “on the rampage” right through the fashion season: “At Marc Jacobs in New York; all that rubber, thanks to the London fetish wear maker House of Harlot.” House of Harlot was founded in the early 1990s by husband and wife team, Robin and Michelle Archer. Among many, many other things, they made the archetypal piece of modern meta-fetishistic clothing: the 1940s, blue-on-blue, rubber bikini sailor girl uniform worn by Christina Aguilera in the video for her 2006 swing revival hit, Candyman.

Back to ELLE, which also found fetish in London; clothes created by “designers almost half Jacobs’ age, who played with body con and harness straps.” Body con, by the way, is fashion shorthand for ‘body conscious’ clothing. Conscious, that is, in the reliably sharp and wonderful words of The Guardian’s sardonic fashion watcher, Hadley Freeman, “in the sense that you can’t eat lunch without busting a seam,” in reference to “skin-tight mini-dresses, tight high-waisted trousers and basically any other garment that makes you, as the name suggests, very conscious of your body.”

If anything, last fashion year’s Parisian fetishisms were more powerful and imbued with a much darker eroticism. From Haider Ackermann’s ethereal night stalkers and Alexander McQueen’s snow queens encased in corsetry and bondage straps, to Mugler’s black patent rubber wear and the Ungaro models who all but twirled whips. Mugler took its lead from Lady Gaga’s look for its seasonal offerings: latex bras, second-skin bodies, black patent, white rubber suspender belts. Ungaro replaced the previous year’s chiffons and tweeds with black leather neck brace corsets and black lace body stockings that, in ELLE’s tired old words, “left absolutely nothing to the imagination”. The aesthetic even began to leak into real life; well, the life of fashion ateliers. Behind the scenes at Marc Jacobs, the team became so taken with the fetish look they began to wear it themselves. Jacobs favoured a Prada pencil skirt. In a backstage interview he said: “Fetish has a positive side. It’s an inexplicable sort of concentration or obsession with something.

I think that also means commitment; it means discipline. You can talk about sexual fetish, but you can also talk about the fetish of dying to have a bag, or a woman who loves to have new shoes, or a new dress. Instead of thinking of it as a dirty thing, it’s really a very beautiful thing.” In his 1972 film, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Woody Allen posed the question: “Is sex dirty?” And replied: “Only if it’s done right.” And I guess that’s what I find missing from fashion’s new fashion for fetish.

Real fetishism, though; that exists, not in smooth images, but where you can find it – or, perhaps where it finds you. An example: typewriters; or, rather, the erotics of typists and typing. There is a book of this stuff: Sexy Legs and Typewriters, by Paul Robert. I can’t remember how I came across it. It’s not my taste but I can see what they are getting at. In general terms, it’s a catalogue of the unconscious potentials evoked by the early 20th-century arrival of women in the public arena of the business workplace, and its newfound possibilities for evoking heterosexual eroticisms. It’s a recent collection; tongue-in-cheek, too. So the captions are amusingly careful to detail the make and model of the machine that shares the image with a half-clothed or naked woman. And there is something cheerily amusing in the fact that the smiling woman – naked but for high heels, of course – working in a 1960s wood-panelled LA architect’s office, has a close relationship with an IBM Model B Standard. (Launched in 1954, that IBM, even in its basic form, came with ‘electric ribbon rewind’ and a price tag of $395 – a lot of money back then. This is the eroticism of high-end machinery.)

But if the book and its original images weren’t tapping into something, it wouldn’t have been published, let alone bought. At its most direct it’s typewriter porn; and all the healthier for it, too. I’m sure if I looked, I’d find similar extreme specificities of mediated desire, via tractors, tool sheds and Tellytubbies, probably, just to perform a T taste test. I’ve no doubt, of course, that a favourite T in lust’s encyclopedia is traction; women in traction, that is.

But that is all ‘real’ fetishism. This Vogue and ELLE stuff is something different. It’s to fetishism as Marie Antoinette’s mucking about as milkmaid in her pretend farmhouse, Le Petit Trianon. This current, smooth fetishising doesn’t depend on the grubbiness of life and desire; unlike, for example, the image in Sexy Legs and Typewriters, of a half-clothed woman sitting back in her typing chair with one leg either side of her typing table, with her typing machine sat between her legs. Not so much an object of obscure desire, but an object that obscures desire. (It’s an Underwood; though, sadly, we’re not told the model name or number.)

This new fetishising is about the perfected, polished image; a full Brazilian of imagery. It is a groomed fetishism. A fetishised fetishism, if you like. Or, even to step lightly, carefully, high-heeledly even, into academia, it’s a meta-fetishism, where the object being represented is itself a representation of the object being represented; as is so well shown by the meaning of high heels for the Pedro Almodóvar movie of that name. In High Heels (Tacones lejanos), the significance of this most archetypal object is the sound they make as they clack and click across the floor, which reminds the TV newscaster heroine of her torch singer mother who, when the film starts, she hasn’t seen since she was a child.

The point of the high heel is that it is not really footwear at all. It’s something that is not itself, but more than itself. It is not just a symbol, but a symboliser. If the first high heels were practical – a way to elevate precious feet from the mud of the street – that practicality soon evolved into a representation of that capacity. Only the rich could afford to construct footwear which would raise them above the lower depths. So, in turn, that footwear became a symbol of that elevation. To wear high heels in the middle of the 18th century, whether male or female, was to assert higher social status. It probably didn’t hurt either that you couldn’t walk too far in them. It’s also true that, in Venice, chopines – as such shoes were known – were worn by courtesans; an early association with the libidinal world. At their height, Venetian chopines reached two feet. To wear them was to be unable to walk without help.

The incapacitated woman is, of course, another fetish staple. (See ‘traction’, above.) Fetishism, of course, is always a thought – or perhaps a feeling – in search of an object; never the other way around. It can find a locus for its desire just about anywhere. In July, a Chinese critic laid into the new building created in Beijing for the national TV station, CCTV, by Dutch architect and theoriser, Rem Koolhaas. The building has two thick towers set apart from each other, which are then joined together at a higher level. This leaves a large space between the two towers which, it is true, could be seen as legs. The writer claimed – or, perhaps, asserted – that the building didn’t just evoke the idea of legs and torso, it actually was a representation of a woman, naked, on hands and knees. There was a fuss, of course, and Koolhaas even had to issue a denial.

As someone once said, “There is no such thing as images, only projections.” Maybe it was me. Oh, and the bra quandary? It’s this: Why do modern women all have sex with their bras on? Or rather: Why do nearly all modern actresses keep their bras on in mainstream movie sex scenes? For a long time I assumed that it was because the movie makers wanted a family-friendly certificate, or the actresses had no-nudity clauses in their contracts. Then I became less sure. In most ways the world has, since, say, the 1970s, generally become easier going about public and semi-public nudity (or, at least, nakedness). Yet movie actresses have seemingly become more coy; far more coy. Just look at a few grown-up movies from the 1960s to 1980s.

If there is a sex scene, the woman’s breasts are generally shown, in a very natural way, generally; or rather, in a naturalistic way. Creating an illusion of reality has always been one of movies’ main tasks, and that was particularly so in that period. Charlotte Rampling’s bared breasts in The Night Porter, for example. While accessorised with Nazi cap, braces and leather gloves, they are quite natural; sexual perhaps, rather than sexualised. And there is the solution to the bra quandary.

Like fashion fetishism, like a full Brazilian, it is an escape from reality; an illusion which denies, rather than plays with, the unconscious realities on which it ultimately depends. The illusion being created in movies has changed, and that makes it impossible for young, modern, movie actresses to show their breasts in sex scenes. It’s an unintended result of the invention of the Wonderbra, I guess. The Wonderbra’s success rested on its capacity for creating the illusion that there were ‘Wonderbreasts’ within it. Life and bodies being what they are, even actresses don’t, by and large, have ‘Wonderbreasts’. But to acknowledge that would snap the strap of a modern illusion. So they keep their bras on.

© Peter Silverton 2012

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