BOOKS FROM THE TOP SHELF IV – LaChapelle, Heaven to Hell

It’s been a while since I posted something for this series, so I turned to my bookshelf and a David LaChapelle tome that I’ve had for a couple of years, Heaven to Hell. It’s the third part of Taschen’s trilogy chronicling the photographer’s colour-drenched, totally nuts work. It’s one of my prize possessions, obviously, so I thought I’d give it a quick write-up. Here we go:

When I first got hold of Heaven to Hell it left me with some burning questions, like why have I never heard of this Ryan Phillippe guy before? Is Courtney Love ever not naked? and why is a fat lady in a pig costume beating up Pamela Anderson? These days it reminds me that no amount of plastic surgery is too much plastic surgery, everybody should be a little more like Amanda Lepore, and you just can’t have enough clashing colours in one photo EVER. It’s family fun for all occasions, and with my journalist hat on I’d say that it’s a razor-sharp critique-come-caricature of Hollywood culture, but I’m wearing my blogging-to-cure-boredom hat right now, so forget that part.

When I transfered these photos onto my laptop I thought ‘shit, I better take them again, in focus this time’, but fuck that, because you should all buy the book and see how amazing it is in person. There’s so much photographical meat to sink your teeth into. It’s the visual equivalent of eating a super-sized big mac meal with gold leaf on the bread and viagra in the coke, whilst naked and listening to a Crystal Castles remix of this. Don’t try and tell me you don’t want to do that.


Just in case you want to get all serious about this, here’s the introduction found on the inside of the cover sleeve:

“David Lachapelle. Controversial. Explosive. Thought-provoking. Arguably the world’s most famous living photographer, he has been breaking all the rules for over twenty years. ‘LaChapelle Heaven to Hell’ is the last chapter in a trilogy that started with the New York Times best-seller ‘LaChapelle Land’ (1996) and continued with ‘Hotel LaChapelle’ (1999), one of the most sought after and collected photography books of all time.

Celebrated as the Fellini of photography, LaChapelle has photographed personalities as diverse as Tupac Shakur, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Amanda Lepore, Lance Armstrong, Eminem, Pamela Anderson, Elizabeth Taylor, David Beckham, Lil’ Kim, Hilary Clinton, Philip Johnson, Paris Hilton, Leonardo DiCaprio, Uma Thurman, Kanye West, and Britney Spears, to name just a few.

While referencing and acknowledging such diverse sources as Renaissance art, cinema, the Bible, pornography, and the new globalized pop culture, LaChapelle has fashioned a deeply personal and epoch-defining visual language that holds a mirror to the face of our times, reflecting back both the sacred and the profane.”

Thanks for that, Taschen. You’ve saved me a lot of unnecessary paraphrasing.

The moral of the story is that Dave LaChapelle is pretty much god if you’re in the right mood for his ultra-confrontational style. Now, who better to sing me out than one of his leading ladies? (Okay, so this might be an excuse for another gratuitous dose of Courtney Love, but who’s going to stop me?).

BOOKS FROM THE TOP SHELF III – The Forty-Deuce

The Forty-Deuce‘ is a collection of photographs by Bill Butterworth that documents life in Times Square before it was scrubbed clean and thrown to the tourists. When I first opened the book, freshly ripped from its Amazon packaging, its pages peeled from eachother as if the sweat from their just-had-sex subjects were somehow permeating the paper. Excuse me, I couldn’t resist getting that gush of pretentiousness out of my system before I begin properly. By the way, the pages really did need peeling; it was weird. I also debated telling you that I could smell the sweat, but I think that’s just me. It’s humid today. Anyway, I saw a feature on the book over at Leisure a couple of weeks ago and bought it pretty soon after, simply out of curiosity, and because I’ve just moved into a new room and its shelves need some fleshing out.

I haven’t been anywhere near New York, and all I know about Times Square is that it’s a bit like Picadilly and everyone seems to want to go there. Carlo McCormick’s introduction to ‘The Forty-Deuce’, then, was pretty enlightening. Apparently, 42nd Street gained a reputation for the ‘naughty, bawdy [and] tawdry’ from the early days, and its seediness culminated in Butterworth’s 1980s. McCormick writes that ‘sex and drugs did not simply descend on Times Square, but grew there’. He confronts the ‘neither very white nor affluent’ statuses of Butterworth’s subjects, and blames ‘the role of race and class in America’s hypocritical measure of criminality’ for shaping ‘Slime Square’ into a territory both seedy and ethnically diverse, simultaneously.

“Times Square is a construction of America’s binary impulses: a puritanical state of tremendous punitive intolerance and a society of nearly unprecedented freedoms. Repression and tolerance played an equal hand in making the Forty-Deuce what it was.”

The photographs are a sort of time capsule, documenting a place in which sex was attainable in every corner and in every form, thriving right alongside mainstream living. Peep-shows, porn shops, prostitutes and pleasure-junkies abound, and all are captured with amiable tenderness. This is street photography at it’s raw best, and it has somehow made me nostalgic for a place and time which I never knew (which is easy for me to say from my detached 3-bedroom house).

I’ll leave you with the afterwords provided by the books editors: Hilton Ariel Ruiz and Beatriz Ruiz. P.S. I’ve transcribed them exactly, and I think some of the spelling and grammar is a little questionable. It pains me to admit that, since I’m enjoying the book so much. Still, don’t hold me to that statement since my use of commas and hyphenated adjectives is pretty extravagant, I’m told.

You only heard the stories that after time had became whispers in the air of those who experienced this place 25 years ago–what we now call the Forty-Deuce. What about these photos of how New York used to look gives us such an eerie feeling? Is it the fact that we know, at one time, Times Square was where we could take our pleasures through hidden doors; a place to hangout where there were no rules? I like to call it “the Original Sin City,” with its bright neon lights and oversize billboards and the entertainments that came along with it. These photos show a time when credit cards weren’t offered and car leases weren’t even a choice but what you did have was a unique style–just your boom box and your kicks. Through the lens of Mr. Butterworth’s camera, we see a place that he says was the only area of New York and maybe the entire United States where it didn’t matter what color, race, gender, or religion you were. It was a place everybody felt equal. Butterworth’s photos take us on a surreal journey through the flashing lights of the theater marquees, early hip hop style, kung fu shops, and the women and pimps, etc., that created this never to be replicated place. Bill Butterworth saw what the Forty-Deuce was all about.

-Hilton Ariel Ruiz.

When we say Times Square, we think neon, shopping, and restaurants. But this neighborhood has not always been what it is today. Just 25 years ago, Times Square was a place where notorious drugs, prostitution, and pimping were wreaking havoc. The area was known to house many peep shows and pornographic theaters. A study by local scientists at City University of New York estimated that the weekly gross of a single peep show ranged from $74,000 to $106,000, amounting to 5 million a year, and that was only the licit portion of the profits. In the Times Square of the seventies and eighties, sex was explicit everywhere and in just about every form and for any taste. Many still flocked to the area for other attractions, however. Broadway theater, always financially volatile, still had some fine years as well as some nosedives. In those days it was still possible to see a play or eat a greasy steak and baked potatoes at Tad’s Steak House, for five dollars. Second-run movie houses catered to New York’s thousands of college students with all-night showings of B-movies for a dollar. But the real entertainment was sought for free by the addicts, pickpockets, and other hustlers roaming the streets. During this period, various activities began to arise combining the glitz and glamour with the street life. One of the best examples was the birth of b-boy (Hip Hop) culture. Bill Butterworth’s photos highlight the kind of lavish and gritty culture that developed in New York during this dark period. The pictures are visual time capsules delivering concentrated bursts of historical information about what life was like in Times Square or as we called it, the Forty-Deuce.

-Beatriz Ruiz

BOOKS FROM THE TOP SHELF II – Erotica Universalis

I’ve interrupted a very important viewing of the latest episode of Girls to start writing this post, because what else would I be doing but blogging and watching TV? Researching for my impending job interview? No. Finding another erotic book to write about for the second installment of Books From the Top Shelf is a priority right now.

Just a few spines down from Araki’s weighty retrospective (see this earlier post), sits Gilles Néret’s Erotica Universalis, another book printed by Taschen, this time chronicling erotic art ‘from Pompeii to Picasso’. 573 pages in length, it’s thorough to say the least. It’s also fascinating, and when I forget the fact that my dad actually made the conscious decision to go to a bookshop and buy it, it’s pretty cool. There are some really exquisite works of art in it too. A lot of the featured artists have taken classical stories, like Jupiter and Europa, and explored their erotic overtones in a way that History lessons taught us to be pretty out of character for those fusty old people of yore. I’m glad to discover that in matters of the flesh, fusty is one thing that they definitely were not.

And who would have known that all this kink was going on in the 1930s? Colour me impressed (if a little disturbed).

Bernard Montorgueil

Eric Stanton did a whole series dedicated to face-sitting in the 70s. What’s not to love?

Eric Stanton

I’d like to end this post with some grand, sweeping statement about life and society and sexual freedom, but I think you can think up your own, because the book really speaks for itself. I’ll leave you with a little extract from the introduction:

“There is only one real antidote to the anguish engendered in humanity by its awareness of inevitable death: erotic joy.”

p.s. forgive the poor quality photos. I managed to strand myself on this little island without my beloved DSLR.

BOOKS FROM THE TOP SHELF I – Araki

I’m writing this post from my father’s Victorian house on the Isle of Wight (for those that don’t know, that’s an island off the South coast of England, widely believed to be populated by inbreds with poor dental care). It’s peaceful and spacious here, and I have the whole place to myself for three days, so naturally I’m celebrating by chain-drinking green tea, playing Björk at full blast and leafing through photographs of Japanese women in bondage. You know how it is, right?

Actually I’m reading Taschen’s beautiful homage to the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. He’s one of the most prolific artists of all time, having released somewhere around 450 photo books, sometimes 20 a year. I’ve been familiar with his unflinching and intimate documentation of  Japanese life since the book appeared on my father’s bookshelf when I was about thirteen.

I read this brilliantly weird interview with the photographer on Vice today, which starts out as a sort of fight between interviewer and interviewee. When the sparring is over, and Araki has decided that Tomokazu Kosuga is worthy of his time, he goes on to discuss the transition from erotic photography to “happiness photography”. I suggest you read the whole thing, but here are a couple of my favourite moments just in case you don’t get round to it:

Well, let’s talk about your book Kofuku Shashin [“Happiness Photographs”]. Compared to your old photographs, these were more reminiscent of keepsake portrait pictures that fathers take of their families. It seemed to me like they are crossing a line that was almost taboo in your former photographs. What made you shift your perception so drastically?

So you noticed that, eh? You’re not so clueless after all. [laughs] It’s probably because right now, I believe that “happiness is the best state.” That’s all. Rather than shooting something that looks like a professional photograph, I want my work to feel intimate, like someone in the subject’s inner circle shot them. Now that I’m older, I can finally say that happiness is truly the best state to be in. It’s so cheesy, right? When you’re young you try to keep a distance from your subject and be really cool about everything, but eventually this is what you come to feel. I also noticed that both professional and amateur photographers have stopped shooting these kinds of photos. So I tried doing it myself, and guess what? It’s way more difficult than shooting stuff like EROTOS. With EROTOS you just try to be as horny as possible and it works, but with Kofuku Shashin it’s all about creating a relationship with your subject. It’s just not the same.

You once said that “a camera is a penis,” and your stance was all about unleashing that tool onto your subjects. 

Sure. But now it’s become a cunt, the exact opposite. Now I’m the one that accepts and embraces, just like a vagina.

So, any interesting things happen to you lately? What else is new?

Everything is always interesting to me. One thing that comes to mind is that I’m currently doing an exhibition in Berlin called Kinbaku [“Bondage”], consisting of 101 black-and-white photographs. We held an opening party and everybody went crazy. People overseas are so fascinating—there are so many weirdos. Even TV interviews are different. They’d be like, “I brought a rope, please tie me up,” and they’d conduct the rest of the interview tied up in rope. The camera’s still going and everything, you know? There was another incident—obviously I can’t speak the language so I don’t exactly know what was going on—where this huge fan of mine suddenly took all her clothes off in the middle of the venue and began grinding her hips. I was like, “What the fuck?” and then she suddenly pulled out a tampon from her slit and came toward me swinging the damn thing above her head!

Whoa.

She was utterly crazy. It was unreal! [laughs] So yeah, those kinds of things are interesting to me, little incidents like that.

All of Araki’s images  (be they girls lit like hollywood stars and tied up like joints of meat, or suggestive orchids aswarm with insects) are seductive and disturbing in equal measure. They’ve got me thinking about the increasing difficulty in pinning down what ‘sex’ really is. The word has become applicable to everything; food is sex, music is sex, art is sex. Physical contact is just the tip of a very complex, indecipherable iceberg, and sometimes it’s nothing  compared to the elaborate striptease that is daily life. For me, Araki’s photographs say this effortlessly (though he’d probably disagree if the Vice interview is anything to go by). I’m almost sure that I’m over-romanticizing the whole thing, but forgive me, because the closest thing I’ve come to sex in the last 8 months was eating a mug full of melted chocolate with a spoon whilst ogling Leonardo Di Caprio in Romeo and Juliet. Actually, that was probably better than sex.

Anyway, it’s well past midnight and I have doors to lock and corridors to run through, because as beautiful as they can be in the daylight, big old houses scare the fuck out of me at night. On top of that, I just watched two episodes from The Killing boxset, and Sarah Lund’s woolly jumpers just aren’t soft and warm enough to distract from that chilling murder stuff anymore.