Taco Smit was biking through Amsterdam when he spotted a woman on a yellow bicycle, carrying so many flowers she looked like she was riding on a flying garden.
He raced over to her and asked if he could borrow the bike and the flowers; and that’s how, a few days later, he created what would become an award-winning image of a gruff leatherman in shiny fetish gear pushing a floral bike down a brick-paved alley.
The image is weird, it’s arresting, and to the judges of the WeFetish kink photography contest, it was irresistibly sexy with its pairing of an outrageously brawny man and an outrageously frilly bike.
The effect of Taco’s image isn’t altogether unusual in fetish photography: it’s fairly common for kinky photos to confuse as they arouse. Successful kink photographers aren’t just artists and technicians; they’re also psychologists, studying the erotic impulses in our brains so that they can trigger a viewer’s libido—in some cases, without the viewer fully understanding why.
Taco now runs a competition known as Morepixx, an unofficial successor to the WeFetish contest he won. Morepixx just concluded its voting phase for 2017, with winners to be announced on February 19 at an exhibition in Antwerp. Among the top contenders were photos that showed a boy’s throat gripped by gauntleted arms; another with two packs of pups passing in a misty forest that looks like a fairy tale; in another featuring two men poised for invasive battle in a medical setting.
What is it about these scenarios that’s so sexy to some—and completely baffling to others? And can a study of fetish photography help us better understand our desires?
For many photographers, kink provides a conduit for exploring themselves and other individuals. Seattle party promoter Kevin Kauer has been photographing nightlife for years, and is now expanding his repertoire to push at the boundaries of sex. “Pup play has crawled into my life in a big way,” he said. At one of his recent parties, attendees were given poster-sized images that he shot of models in various submissive puppy poses.
"Brandon" by Kevin Kauer
Kevin’s found that his most successful images are like visual confessions. “I tried so hard most of my life to fit into the typical gay man mold,” he said but “the sexiest part of a person is what would normally be seen as a ‘flaw,’ the traits that make people shy away and become insecure.” Rather than hide blemishes, Kevin’s candid shots provide an intimacy that airbrushing and perfectionism would destroy.
“I needed to explore the weak aspects of man,” said Alejandro Caspe, a Mexico-based artist. “I play the role of psychologist, to understand what people feel and think. I enter into their mind and try to be in their place.”
Alejandro’s approach, he explained, is to “crumble the subject,” to break down the kinks that he depicts into their fundamental components.
"I interview them first and ask them what they like, and try to get into their heads,” Taco said, a process that he compares to baking. “Like making bread dough, you have to let it rise, go up and go down,” he said. “Mix a little bit, add some, take some off.”
One of his favorite images shows a leather couple, Nelson and Kevin, in a tender embrace that defies the defensive leather armour that they wear. Another shows a man in fearsome biker garb sipping from a dainty teacup; in a third, a businessman is shown seated in a restroom, slyly gazing at the camera in a moment that should be—but no longer is—private.
When his subjects see themselves, Taco says, “most of the time they're very surprised: ‘hey is that me? I didn't know I was looking that way.’ You look in the mirror, and you see something different than you see in the print. People don't realize it, they're always having a different image of themselves than what's printed.”
In that regard, print can provide a more honest reflection than a mirror. But what are viewers seeing reflected in those images? Generally speaking, it’s inner power—either an excess of it, or a renunciation. That’s a motivating aesthetic behind the work of Sly Hands, a British photographer whose work shows bondage-tinged lederhosen, men turned into furniture and a victim suspended from glowing neon ropes.
A successful fetish photo unlocks something both in the model and the audience, Sly said. "A lot of policemen are very submissive when they want to play.” Conversely: “I've met people who are shy unassuming office-types, and suddenly they go off to some scene and they're sadistic and want to hurt people.”
Kevin suggested that maybe some of the plays on power and control behind closed doors is them creating a balance. “If you’re acting as a problem-solving boss during your career life, maybe you just need someone to spit on you, and put you in their control in the bedroom to help you feel alive," he said. "They say it’s lonely at the top, so it’s important to be on the bottom, too.”
The most compelling fetish photos expose something beyond just physical appearance. Naked flesh is all very nice, but fetish photos allow us to expose qualities that we might otherwise hold back due to shame, shyness or taboos. Images like those in the WeFetish and Morepixx contests reveal aspects that many people find difficult to verbalize. But in the context of art, photographers and their models demolish the barriers that hold their subjects and audiences back.
“From all the aspects that in one way or another turn out to be prohibited or taboo,” Alejandro said, his subjects “expose their weaknesses before the public through my work, release themselves from repression.”
He added, “I like to take people to limits that they themselves do not know, and are surprised to know that they have weaknesses and tastes for.”
Exposure, vulnerability, honesty—some people are fortunate enough to have absolutely no problem baring their souls. For others, sex remains forbidden, secretive or mysterious. When we can’t express in words what our libidos demand, a well-crafted image can provide an erotic focus beyond speech.
For his part, Taco hopes to continue the Morepixx contest long into the future, and to continue helping people explore their desires for control and surrender.
"I don't have secrets,” he said. “Everybody knows I'm into fetish. I left shame behind me a long time ago."