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What Is Normal? 

Charles Gatewood is the pervert next door

Wednesday, Apr 28 2004
The kinky photographer is in the kitchen washing the breakfast dishes when I arrive. (He'd made a smoothie, because his nutritionist had told him to eat more fruits and vegetables.) Charles Gatewood is wearing what looks like a yoga outfit (black T-shirt, soft black pants, black socks); his trademark black leather jacket hangs from a peg. On the white walls are examples of his work -- the first thing I see when I walk in is an enormous framed print of an enormous nude woman, followed by a huge image of pierced labia. The floors are carpeted in beige and covered, in a strategic spot, with a red patterned area rug. A low table holds numerous books, including one among several he's reading now: Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. An off-white leather chair sits next to a wall of north-facing windows, from which I can see a balcony strewn with blooming flowerpots and, beyond that, the downtown skyline. The day is overcast, but the light is sharp.

In this warm, comfortable Bernal Heights apartment, which he has rented for 14 years, Gatewood takes many of the pictures that appear in his more recent books, among them True Blood, Badlands, and Messy Girls. Now he has a new title out, and it's different from all the others. Photography for Perverts isn't primarily a showcase for his images of people who enjoy tattoos, piercings, scarification, radical sex, pagan rituals, "blood play," and other alternative activities. Rather, it's a how-to -- a sincere, perky guide to taking your own "deviant" pictures, the first of its kind.

Like Perverts, Gatewood isn't what you'd expect. He's 61, and though he looks his age, he doesn't come across as a dirty old man. Standing about 5 feet 7 inches in stocking feet, with a lean, gym-toned frame and wide, delighted eyes, he's not threatening in the least. His voice is soft, almost Southern-inflected, with a slight wobble, as if from age. He often covers his thinning, graying hair with a black leather cap. That and his salt-and-pepper goatee make him look more like a Beat poet than a man who displays his own erect penis in the first image in the book. He has one tattoo -- a poppy on his butt (I didn't ask to see it). He was pierced once (temporarily, in the chest), in a ritual performed by Fakir Musafar, the Silicon Valley businessman-turned-shaman who, with Gatewood's assistance, helped start the piercing craze. He is "polyamorous," but has a (female) "significant other." He doesn't drink, smoke tobacco (he makes this careful distinction), or go to wild parties. "I live a pretty quiet life," he says. "A lot of days I don't leave the house."

Gatewood has discussed how he got started in kinky photography several times -- in lectures, of which he has given many; in Forbidden Photographs: The Life and Work of Charles Gatewood, a documentary film about him released last fall; and in the introduction to Photography for Perverts. Here's the short version: He was born in Chicago and studied anthropology at the University of Missouri. While he was in grad school, a friend introduced him to photography. He lived in Stockholm for two years to avoid serving in Vietnam, and there he learned to shoot professionally. Back in New York in 1966, he fell in with the underground set; after moving to San Francisco in 1990, he continued his exploration. He never tires of it. "It's taking me to new places," he explains. "There are always different layers of the onion."

In Perverts he suggests that budding shutterbugs write a list called "Why I Photograph." When I ask him why he does it, his answers are at first mundane: beauty, art, social commentary, reporting. But then he goes on. "It's like Zen -- you make something out of nothing." Also, "I didn't want to get a job." And, not surprisingly, it turns him on. Finally, he mentions his parents, whom he calls "drunks," and his stepfather, who was "extremely abusive." (In Forbidden Photographs, he says his mother "heard radio signals in her head.") "I've got their genes in me," he explains. "I'm expressing them in a more socially acceptable way." When I demur at the term "socially acceptable," he asks, "Which is worse, to drive drunk at 100 miles per hour or to take pictures of a naked fetish girl?" It's a trick question; they're both freaky.

A conversation with Gatewood could leave you thinking that what he does for a living is no big deal. He was sued once, but nothing came of it. He was mugged once while on location, but got his camera back. He's had "bumps in the road" -- physical and verbal assaults -- but he has a way of "grinning and shuffling" to defuse the situation. "I'm not harmless," he says, "but I know how to act harmless." In truth, he is harmless. Photography for Perverts proves it.

The book, despite its title, is sweet. It's full of aw-shucks earnestness, friendly encouragement, and lots of exclamation points. There's a fair amount of touchy-feely sentiment -- he uses phrases like "following your bliss" and quotes Starhawk -- but it feels genuine.

Some of the early parts seem inappropriate for a title on photography, even one for "perverts" (a term Gatewood says radical sex practitioners have reclaimed, as blacks have taken back "nigger"). For example, in a short section on "toxic deviance," he mentions a few examples ("rapist, child molester, or public flasher") and their consequences ("a poisonous world of guilt, fear, shame and self-loathing"), then utters this pronouncement: "Yuck." One segment is called "Overcoming Addictions" (Gatewood has been sober for 17 years); another, "Psychological Counseling." To me, such material would be better suited to a general self-help book on kinkiness. (And Perverts could have used an index.)

But when he gets into the nuts and bolts of photography, Gatewood is eminently professional. He discusses how to find a personal style and how to get in with a particular group (including a handy guide to "SM scene etiquette," such as: "Many dominants prefer that you speak with them, not with their slaves or submissives"). Chapters on meeting and working with models, negotiating shoots, setting up a studio, working on location, and generating publicity are enlightening and full of practical suggestions. I do worry a little about the sections on ethical and legal questions, which seem to lean too heavily on the idea that if you're simply "righteous" (one of Gatewood's favorite words), everything will be OK.

Even the photographs in this book are pretty tame, by Gatewood standards. Sure, there's lots of standard clothespins-on-the-boobs and such, but most of the images are in black-and-white, which tones them down. And because the pages aren't glossy, even some of the richer black-and-whites seem a little fuzzy, which is unfortunate, because Gatewood's pictures can be riveting (no pun intended).

Though some critics have dismissed his oeuvre as repugnant -- his sister doesn't even acknowledge his work -- Gatewood insists it's "important," and his recent visibility may confirm that notion. In addition to the new book, he has images included in a current show called "Street Credibility" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A., which explores the artists who influenced Diane Arbus (like August Sander and Weegee) and those she influenced in turn (among them Gatewood, Sally Mann, and Larry Clark). Forbidden Photographs was released widely, and though many reviewers noted (rightly) that the film itself is pretty miserable (bad production, lame analyses, stiff interviews), they had good things to say about the art: The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Gatewood's own photographs ... have an elegant matter-of-factness," and described his images as "extremely articulate." Models call him all the time, begging to be photographed; strangers from across the country ask him to speak at their events; a DVD called Mondo Gatewood is expected next year.

It's about time he got some recognition. He's been shooting challenging, often stunning pictures for 40 years -- he was photographing '60s freaks in New York at the same time as Arbus, though he points out that he wasn't living uptown and benefiting from "bourgeois" connections like she was. He has published at least 14 books, with more on the way (including Dirty, which could be out by Christmas; Wet Dreams, due next spring; and his in-progress "erotic memoirs"). He dreams of a solo show at New York's MOMA. "You need some validation once in a while," he says. The apparent irony of a kinky photographer craving approval from the "establishment" doesn't bother him in the least. "There's irony everywhere."

Nor is he concerned with the contradictions inherent in a late-middle-aged man shooting photos of young naked women (or, as he describes an upcoming trip, "20 nubile girls in a hot tub in Portland"). "I like young energy," he explains. And he needs it, too: Though he used to go to all-night parties, now when he spends two hours at the Folsom Street Fair, "My feet hurt, and I have to go to the bathroom." Still, "It beats going to the office."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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