These days, most photography books covering fetish and BDSM subject matter tend to go straight for the fashion-glamour jugular.
After almost three decades of modern fetish subculture, the appeal of pretty girls in rubber needs no explanation, and those who photograph, compile or publish books of fetish imagery now tend to provide little in the way of accompanying texts: usually just a short introduction to set the scene for the visual feast to follow.
It wasn‘t always so. In the earlier days of the scene, it was much more common for photographers who had the opportunity to publish their pervy work in a book to adopt a rather more academic, even anthropological approach.
Inspired by the desire to provide meaningful commentary on the rise of a new subculture, their photography would often focus on “real pervs” (rather than “models”) as subjects.
And in a genuine attempt to show what made such fetish folk tick, the pictures would often be accompanied either by individual interviews or by some running text of a suitably serious nature.
Perhaps such books are rarer today because after nearly 30 years of private examination and public exposure, pervery is not the mystery or the threat it once was. And if the outside world today is more understanding and more accepting of kink, that is surely a good thing.
But on the other hand, it would be a shame if today’s familiarity with fetish were achieved at the expense of all artistic curiosity.
Behind the Whip: Dominatrix by Vancouver-based photographer Maria Coletsis suggests that such curiosity is still alive.
A series of portrait shoots and interviews conducted on location in the home cities and dungeons of more than a dozen well known prodommes around the world, this book offers an intimate look at the women, their words and their workplaces.
They discuss why they chose domination and who their clients are; what services they provide and how those services uniquely represent the city in which they work.
Very much in the style of the earlier tomes mentioned above, Behind the Whip begins with a weighty introduction — supplied by Canadian writer and translator Evan Whyte.
Today’s typical perv may not demand such intellectualising of the subject, but if it helps less confident souls to justify their interest in the book then it’s 2,000 words well spent.
The book begins its look at dominatrixes with London’s Mistress Vanessa, whom the photographer credits (along with Kim of Club Rub) for connecting her to the world she documents here.
The other mistresses featured are Scarlet (Glasgow), Silvia (Berlin), Erzuile (Montreal), Ginger (New York), Benio (Tokyo), Diane (Paris), Decima (Hong Kong), Ice Queen (Las Vegas), Midori (Bangkok), Minax (San Francisco), Servalen (Sydney) and Nicolette (Los Angeles).
There is also an afterword by famous San Francisco lifestyler and sometime prodomme Cléo Dubois (partner of Fakir Musafar).
And, on the accompanying DVD of video clips filmed at each photo shoot, there’s a bonus interview with Amrita (London/Tokyo/world) that didn’t make it into the book, and a mission statement by the photographer herself.
The task the author set herself was to document how the contemporary dominatrix is seen by her clients as, among other things, a power re-balancer, a kind of therapist and an extreme “sport” provider.
‘I had a good idea what cities to visit and would then spend time researching the various dominatrix sites and contact a selected dominatrix’ – Maria
For those outside the scene as well as many insiders, these women’s words will no doubt provide a fascinating background to the appeal of domination, while the photographs reinforce the idea of prodommes as more than mere providers of glamorous erotic fantasy.
Knowing as I do how tight publishing budgets usually are, I was intrigued to discover how Maria was able to travel so extensively to do the shoots and interviews.
By e-mail, I asked her whether other work had taken her to the various locations and enabled her to pick subjects there, or whether she had started out with a specific “hitlist” of subjects that she was determined to cover.
“I specifically travelled to each city to meet and photograph each mistress,” she replied. “Any of my free time and money was set aside to arrange travel and dates to accomplish this.
“I had a good idea what cities to visit and would then spend time researching the various dominatrix sites and would contact a selected dominatrix.
“Sometimes my interest in a particular dominatrix would take me to a city I hadn't planned on visiting (Glasgow, Bangkok) but their personalities would compel me. After confirming participation, I would try to fit it in my life and budget.”
Most fetish photography books tend to focus very much on the “glamour” of the fetish world, whereas Maria’s subjects seem to have been chosen more for their authenticity as BDSM practitioners. How conscious was that theme in her approach, and what, in fact, were her criteria for including her chosen subjects?
“It was very important to me that the women included in this book be authentic and live a dominant lifestyle. After viewing many websites, I realised there was a difference between mistresses who did this as a job and a woman who lived and breathed as a professional dominatrix.
“I was very conscious of that in my selection process.”
To me, Behind The Whip is as much an example of photo-journalism as it is of the art of the portrait photographer. How important, I wondered, did the journalistic aspect of the project come to be to Maria? Could she have envisaged the same book with portraits but no texts?
“This was a very new way for me to work. My background is in fine art photography and I know visual language. Incorporating the subject's words and intimate thoughts added a whole new dimension to the work.
“Initially, I envisioned a book of photographs but the words became important to the image and the work as a whole, developed many more layers.”
Why did she decide to shoot video footage and include it on an accompanying DVD?
“The book came first and the film later,” explained the photographer. “Just before my first departure, I thought it would be a good idea to film a bit from every dungeon and shoot, as a recorded journal.
“This footage took on a life of its own and developed into much more than a personal documentary. I realised another layer had been added to further understand this subject matter.”
Finally, Maria declares a particular affection in her introduction for Mistress Vanessa, who seems to have triggered her curiosity and inspired her voyage of discovery. Aside from Vanessa, which domme was her favourite interview/shoot, and why?
“I found Mistress Scarlet of Glasgow incredibly honest, insightful and dramatic. I had no plans to go to Scotland but I thought her philosophy was very articulate and inspired my curiosity.
“I was not disappointed — the portraits came out as some of my favourites. Mistress Scarlet is very photogenic and took on diverse personas but maintained her strong identity as a dominatrix.”
‘I found Mistress Scarlet of Glasgow incredibly honest, insightful and dramatic. The portraits came out as some of my favourites’ – Maria