They came to the work from divergent places. He was a young Jewish gay man from Milwaukee who grew up fantasizing over the elaborate tortures he found in picture books on the Christian martyrs. She was a young receptionist who married the producer of The Devil in Miss Jones. He fled social restriction and disapproving parents for the sexual Eden of pre-AIDS San Francisco. She left middle-class conventions to become one of the few female set photographers working in the wonderworld of ’80s New York porn. If there’s something in their backgrounds to suggest they’d go on to become intrepid documentarians of the sociosexual margins, it’s not obvious what. Barbara Nitke and Mark I. Chester don’t have much in common, really, beyond a determination to find humanity in marginal sex.
The two were in town last week to give a slide show at the annual Leatherfest, a four-day celebration of “leather and the fetish lifestyle” staged by the local Gay Male S/M Activists with a military precision and a slightly unexpected Elks Club enthusiasm. Passion may be the last thing most people imagine when it comes to that cluster of behaviors loosely grouped under the heading of “s/m.” “You still hear people call it ‘the eroticism of hate,’ ” Nitke says. But “what got me into it was the tremendous amount of love between the players. It sounds schmaltzy, and you can certainly easily find a lot of disconnected people on the scene. But there’s also a tremendous degree of love.”
Behind all the jokey tabloid interest in whips and chains, the lookie-loo gawkers getting off on corseted cuties at La Nouvelle Justine, and the lamer efforts of such so-called sex columnists as Anka Radakovich (check December’s Details for her touristy “ABC’s of S&M”), the cultural repugnance at s/m is unabating. Nitke likes to tell a story about showing her portfolio to a woman who later inquired if people on the scene kill each other. “This was not an unsophisticated person,” Nitke explains. The woman’s reaction was not far-fetched. When Chester’s San Francisco studio was destroyed in a block-long 1981 fire, the local fire chief claimed that a temporary morgue had been set up to handle the corpses of possible victims kept enslaved in torture chambers. “We can’t write this off as a lifeless fire,” he announced. “There may have been people chained to beds.” The Folsom Street blaze, which destroyed more than 25 buildings and left 100 people homeless, was memorialized as “the world’s worst s/m fire.” There weren’t any bodies, of course. And the only
s/m connection was a photograph splashed on the cover of the local daily showing Chester’s sexual playroom, replete with such easily obtainable “torture devices” as hoods and padded restraints.
It doesn’t take much exposure to the s/m scene to see the ordinariness of what used to be called kink. It’s not insignificant that the actors in s/m are often called “players” and that their sexual encounters are known as “play.” Humans, after all, are playful creatures: it’s one of the biological inevitabilities of being large-brained. That pointy-headed elements adamantly refuse to concede the humor and pleasure in exagerrated eroticism suggests that what’s really transgressive about s/m may be its refusal to be easily categorized. “Sex radical” is surely the most inflated label used to describe some fairly banal human activities. But currently it’s the best there is. “I tend to separate myself from the terminology,” says Chester. “I don’t use leatherman because I’m not into leather. I don’t use s/m because it has this incredibly negative medical/legal baggage. It’s also not descriptive of the range of sexual behaviors that, as Pat Califia says, involves being defiant as well as being deviant. I use sex radical because there’s a useful vagueness to the phrase.”
Although Chester has been photographing since he arrived in San Francisco in 1979, he has no gallery and his work is mainly seen at college slide shows. He came to New York direct from a lecture at Duke University. He tends to be invited to address gender studies groups and not art programs. His work apparently doesn’t qualify as art; when two well-known critics sent out a call several years back for work by gay artists, Chester was told not to apply. He doesn’t make a very commercial porn photographer either, because he doesn’t “use enough pumped-up, smooth, hard-bodied, big-dicked boys.”
Nitke’s professional status is similar: no gallery, no publisher, no NEA controversies and attendant fame. After years spent working porn shoots, she achieved both a niche and a union card as the set photographer on fetish films. “Spanking, whipping, golden showers, all the majors,” she says. Federal laws tend to make fetish sets surreal places, she explains, because “there’s no sex going on.” The charge of obscenity, being hard to define, is harder to defend. “If a producer gets busted on obscenity charges for having someone tied up in a film and having sex, it can bankrupt him. So they don’t do it.”
In 1994 a friend took Nitke to a meeting of the Eulenspiegel Society, New York’s oldest s/m group. Spurred to explore the world of self-identified s/m tops and bottoms, she also happened upon a newer group of younger players who resist being pigeonholed. A recent Nitke series depicts a “typical young male-female couple, not s/m identified,” experimenting with flammable liquids at the Hellfire Club. “If they call themselves anything,” she explains, “it’d be Pagan Goth bisexual switches. But they’re really not anything specific. They’re just in that experimental twenties phase.” Despite the inherent sexual theatrics of vinyl-clad people in states of extreme excitement or pain (and the fact that they’re photographed using infrared film), Nitke’s pictures don’t look staged. They don’t have the lavish surfaces of Mapplethorpe photos. They don’t read with the flatness of most documentary. “People do these scenes alone with me,” says Nitke. “I don’t participate when I take pictures, but it becomes a three-way emotionally. People let me in.” They let us all in, as activist Pat Califia suggests in an afterword to Chester’s book, Diary of a Thought Criminal, on an “attempt to carve out a relatively safe territory where we can celebrate our lives, embroider our fantasies, and care for one another.”