Looking's half the fun 

It's a marvelous trick of marketing, but dirty pictures can be elevated to art status once bound in cloth, covered with a glossy jacket and priced at more than $50. Photo-graphs combining straight and curvy wonders become "marvelous juxtapositions"; otherwise grainy shots are elevated to "surreal explorations."

Strategic placement of such a collection of photos provides a double-dose of voyeuristic pleasure. Caught up in a state of visual stimulation, those who flip through the pages open themselves up for study. Over which pages do the eyes linger? Which images produce smiles, chuckles, wide eyes and fear? Very telling.

To find out what the world's naughtiest photographers are training their lenses upon, we checked in with Edition Stemmle (www.editionstemmle.com). The Swiss publishing house is renowned for its edgy collections, all of which widely illustrate the European openness to sexuality we Americans seem to envy.

Tony Ward's "Tableaux Vivants" (132 pages; $70) ushers in the new releases with the spontaneity of a raw spring breeze. The 60 wordlessly witty, full-page duotone photographs of sexily staged tableaux are rooted in the infinite realm of subconscious sexuality. There's no rhyme or reason in the seemingly random and many-times crude associations; see "Pupper Master," which depicts a grotesque fairy princess of sorts holding strings attached to the slippered feet of a beautiful woman who is being mounted by a midget. The introduction by Rick Wester casts such work as the continuation of an enduring fascination that was inspired both by rare 1860 photos of a French hermaphrodite taken by Felix Nadar and the lyrics to "Lola" by Ray Davies of The Kinks. ("Girls will be boys and boys will be girls/ It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world/ except for Lola.")

It's hardly the most shocking of covers, but the busty redhead corseted in red, white and blue gives a patriotic feel to "The Beauty of Fetish, Volume II" (136 pages, $59.95) by Steve Diet Goedde. As I.W. Levine observes in the preface: "In our sensation-saturated, novelty-hungry age, the visual representation of any sexualized costume or activity is routinely flagged as 'fetish,'" and Goedde's power portraits depict beautiful women in varying interpretations of the modern and commercialized ideal. Here, the striking poses are bizarre but hardly scary, with much attention given to feet, fingernails, fishnets, lips and latex.

Nowhere near as graphic are the moody black-and-white photos by PJ Bowman in "Muse: Desire & Severance" (112 pages, $60). In the accompanying text, Sarah Brown describes the artist's evocative depictions of women in shadowy moments of seclusion -- sleeping, smoking, relaxing -- and how they elicit rich emotions: "desire, melancholy, guilt, contemplation, sensuality, provocation, ecstasy, severance." From Sweden, Bowman eventually settled in New Orleans. Perhaps that city's flood of sexual permissiveness has engendered his spare style: There's little skin in favor of thoughtful studies of subtle seduction that smolder with holistic sensuality.

In his first book, "Torero: Matadors of Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Spain" (204 pages, $75), Ruven Afanador turns the world of bullfighting on its horns. His unbridled portraits are hardly macho or gory, the subjects themselves just boys on the brink of manhood. Their lithe bodies are erotically muscled and sometimes grossly scarred, but are softened by the photographer's focus on the unashamed feminine side of the pageantry in the centuries-old Latin tradition. Adorned in skin-tight pants, leather slippers, glittery capes and cocky hats, the man-boys here are also a study in androgyny (not dissimilar to, if less inspired than, the homoerotic Calvin Klein underwear ads of a few years ago). Sprinkled throughout are poems by Gloria Marìa Pardo Vargas, one of which attests to the ephemeral nature of a bullfighter's glory, much like sexuality and life itself: I want them to dress me in lights/ I want them to dress me in that gold and in that grief/ now faded, now tattered,/ now hideous Ã? but that once shone brightly/ as once passion, devotion, faith and hope/ also in me sparkled.


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