Bound for pleasure

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Fetish: Masterpieces of Erotic Fantasy Photography
Edited by Tony Mitchell
$27.50, 224 pp. Avalon-Thunder's Mouth Press

Spike heels, black nylons, full-length gloves and corsets, leather, latex and vinyl: Dressing for success in the private world of sexual fantasy means putting things on more than taking them off. And when it comes to fetish apparel, we’re talking "equipment" rather than "clothes."

Freud thought of the fetish as a substitute, a stand-in displacement from a site of unbearable lack to one of fascination. He described it as something like a psyche sandwich, a BLT of body, libido and trauma on toast. Or a pain-and-pleasure casserole that, more than anything else, is a feast for the eyes.

Once eyebrows have been plucked and replaced by pencil, body hair removed and the smoothness covered by nylon or rubber, nails elongated and painted, lips darkened and hair styled – once every available inch of the body has been altered by artifice – we start to appreciate the powerful way fetishism pervades our sense of the glamorous. Because an "innocent" makeover is nothing less than the transformation of body territory into a substitute presence: the fetish in all its glory.

And what more appropriate way to honor the fetishized object than to gaze at it in a photograph (or, better yet, in person): "O come let us adore her ..."

Adoration is one aspect of Fetish: Masterpieces of Erotic Fantasy Photography, a new collection edited by Tony Mitchell, who’s also editor of Skin Two magazine, a London-based journal of fetish graphics and writing. But there’s also bent imagination, kinky humor, strange practices, the agony of ecstasy and vice versa. In fact, the bottom-line link between fetishism and masochism just pours off the pages of this tome. For most of the 48 photographers represented here in 220 high-style prints, pain truly means gain.

Whether in black-and-white, duo-tone or full color, the accent in Fetish is on the unapologetically provocative, the excessively fascinating and the erotically aggressive. Sometimes things get a little silly, as in David Goldman’s documents of the catwalk activity at the annual Skin Two Rubber Ball, or in the high camp of James & James’ minidramas. But Pierre et Gilles from Paris leap off the platform of S&M dreamland into Jean Genet-inspired homoerotic tableaux and a killer, tongue-in-(ahem)-cheek portrait of German singer Nina Hagen.

Housk Randall-Goddard or Jo Hammar’s pictures are a guaranteed creep-out, with their rubber-encased sexdroids and menacing paraphernalia. And Nicholas Sinclair takes the weirdly exotic all the way from punk straps and metal to The Story of O.

But, hey, fascination is in the eye of the beholder – one meat magnet’s idea of erotoaesthetics isn’t another’s. If we wanted something safe and conventional, we shouldn’t have wiggled our way between the covers of Fetish.

However, one legitimate complaint about this book – arising like a latex dildo at a bondage bash – is related to the word "Masterpieces" in the subtitle. The real masterpieces of 20th century fetishism were produced by surrealists Hans Bellmer and Brassaï, outré fashion photographer Helmut Newton and New York art-world enfant terrible Robert Mapplethorpe. Their groundbreaking erotic visions haunt this collection through and through, with some of the more striking images here being clear reflections of their classic accomplishments. And other, less strident uses of the fetish in portraiture – such as the ultrafeminine, feminist beauty of Bettina Rheims’ work – are omitted as well.

What we do get to admire are: the no-mercy gutsiness of Richard Kern’s sluts; the high-fashion, shining elegance of Chris Bell’s isolated details (shoes, legs, gloved hands); and Günter Blum’s latex-accented nude awash in self-inflicted pleasure.

Christophe Mourthé’s decidedly Helmut Newtonesque black-and-white damsels are delicious enough to make us ignore their photo ancestors for a while. And Karo’s sheer madness dream girl, stretched out and moaning on three red plastic chairs, is one of the steamier images to come out of the fetish drawer in a while.

To Mitchell’s credit, Fetish contains far too many hot spots to mention here – and it does give us the latest feel of the fabric, so to speak, when it comes to looking at and dressing for desire in extremis.


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