One of fetish photography’s seminal figures returns to London this October for the first time in 35 years — to host his first solo exhibition here, called Pictures That Kill.
Charles Gatewood, the man known as ‘the anthopologist of the forbidden’, has been documenting America’s sexual underground and alternative subcultures since the 1960s. And though his name may not be that familiar to some younger pervs whose knowledge of fetish history is not that broad, the chances are that even these people will instantly recognise some of his best known images.
For many people on the UK scene, awareness of Gatewood’s work can be traced back to photographs that appeared in the late ’80s ReSearch publication Modern Primitives, the seminal work on body modification cults and characters which introduced the original Modern Primitive, San Francisco’s Fakir Musafar, to a much wider audience.
Of the book’s many arresting images of Musafar, perhaps the most memorable is the Sundance picture, in which Fakir is shown suspended from a tree by flesh hooks through his chest, performing a Native American O-Kee-Pa ceremony. This photograph is an image of Fakir Musafar that everyone knows, and consequently it’s also a photograph by Charles Gatewood that everyone knows, even if they don’t realise it.
However, this famous image is barely a scratch on the surface of Gatewood’s amazing oeuvre. Since the mid-’60s he has faithfully and lovingly documented American subcultures with the eye of the enthusiastic explorer and the social anthropologist. Always ahead of his time, his work has repeatedly been proven prophetic and pioneering.
Like photographers Arbus, Friedlander and Frank, Gatewood records extreme examples of America's cultural consciousness, from dark visions of Wall Street to the bounty of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, via the deeply underground sex clubs of New York in the 1970s. In The Body and Beyond, he writes: "Are there still areas of the behavioral map marked UNKNOWN? If so, book my passage at once, for it is on these mysteriously familiar journeys that I feel most alive. In these dark worlds I sense no limits. In these forbidden worlds I taste the infinite."
Much of the activity that Gatewood documented on the margins of society in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s is now part of contemporary youth culture. Today tattooing is commonplace and pop stars regularly appear in SM-influenced attire. As sexual and body modification practices once seen as radical and taboo become increasingly accepted by the mainstream consciousness, Gatewood's photography can be seen as showing the way.
Gatewood's work has been exhibited widely in the States since the ’70s, often resulting in considerable controversy — including images spray-painted by members of the public, visits to exhibitions from members of the vice squad and exhibitions banned. He has published 15 books to date, including Sidetripping (1975 — with William S Burroughs), Pushing Ink (1979 — with Spider Webb), Forbidden Photographs (1981), Primitives (1992), Charles Gatewood Photographs: the Body and Beyond (1993), True Blood (1997), Badlands (1999), Messy Girls (2203) and Photography for Perverts (2003).
As sexual and body mod practices once seen as radical and taboo become increasingly accepted, Gatewood's photography can be seen as showing the way
His work has been supported by three fellowships from the New York State Arts Council, and he has received awards from the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Art Directors' Club. His book Wall Street was awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence for Outstanding Humanistic Photojournalism.
Pictures That Kill, Gatewood’s first British solo exhibition, is open from October 2nd to 24th at Gallery 32 in Shoreditch. The exhibition is the inaugural project of À Rebours, a new art space dedicated to the presentation of innovative contemporary art in all its forms. À Rebours — which translates as ‘Against The Grain’ — is working in partnership with performance company Switch to bring Gatewood’s work to the British market.
Switch, which specialises in the creation and sale of live art and experimental theatre both in and outside the fetish scene, was responsible for bringing Gatewood’s most famous fetish icon, Fakir Musafar, to the UK last year for his celebrated Spirit + Flesh tour. Fakir’s first appearance in the UK for 12 years in May 2007 coincided with the UK launch of The Fetishistas and saw Musafar and his entourage arriving as surprise special guests at our London launch party.
The Gatewood exhibition in October provides another happy example of synchronicity for The Fetishistas. We have hooked up with À Rebours and Switch to bring Charles to the Xpo Barbican on the first weekend of his London exhibition. On the afternoon of Saturday October 4 (the second day of The Xpo), Gatewood will take over the fashion stage at the Barbican for an hour or so to give an illustrated talk describing his journey through America's counter-cultures during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
For anyone with a sense of fetish history or an interest in fetish celebrity, this promises to be a real highlight of the weekend. As well as making beautiful work, Gatewood is a compelling and charming raconteur, with some fantastic stories to share, spanning his encounters with legendary figures from contemporary music and writing as well as the sexual underground.
Whether he is describing how he begged for a chance to report on Bob Dylan's tour and ended up capturing an iconic image of the folk-rock legend, rapping about meeting William Burroughs in London in 1972 when he was covering the writer’s visit for Rolling Stone, or describing how Annie Sprinkle came to be photographed by him and ended up fucking him all night, he speaks with eloquence, wit and charm. His constant curiosity and never-ending lust for life mean that he remains young and vibrant even at 65.
The photographer has just one other scheduled appearance during London Fetish Weekend — as guest photographer at Saturday’s Torture Garden party, which will also feature a slide installation of his work.
The Pictures That Kill exhibition at Gallery 32 will include 40 silver gelatin prints, and feature rare images of Bob Dylan, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Annie Sprinkle, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page — plus vintage prints of work previously published in Gatewood's photographic books, and ten original collages.
Charles Gatewood will attend the exhibition's opening, and will host several other events during his two-week visit, including Performances That Kill on October 8 — an evening of Live Art and happenings in the gallery space created in response to the collection by Switch Theatre. Charles will also be guest photographer at the Bizarre Ball on October 10.
These appearances (see full programme in the panel, above right), offers us Brits a rare chance to encounter this legendary figure in the flesh, and perhaps even become part of his unique documenting of fetish culture.
Gatewood will take over the Xpo’s fashion stage to give an illustrated talk describing his journey through America's counter-cultures during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s