Charles Gatewood interview

My Life with a Thrill Kill Photographer
San Francisco Photographer comes to New York
Charles Gatewood Interview
by Alexander Laurence
Photography by Terrence Miele

I met Charles Gatewood early this summer when I was in San Francisco. I went to his studio and his house to watch him in action. When I arrived he spent an hour shooting some photos of Ivy, a model, who is featured in many of his videos. He was preparing for a retrospective in September at Williamsburg Art Center. Gatewood's photography documents the sexual underground, the bizarre, and fetishes. His recent photography involves the taboo subjects of cutting flesh and drinking blood. He has also produced several video for Flash Video about these subjects as well as about piercing and tattooing. His work is distinct as is bound to disturb.

Alexander Laurence: You have a new book, True Blood, which is more graphic and harder than your past work. It is mainly concerned with people who are into cutting and blood play. How did this book come together?

Charles Gatewood: Most of my work is about body modification, body art, and body play. Cutting is the latest thing in body modification. A lot of people are playing with blood and doing blood rituals. A lot of this is going on in San Francisco right now.

AL: Is San Francisco the center of cutting flesh and blood rituals?

CG: To my knowledge. Ron Athey is in LA. There's a big radical sex community here in San Francisco and they cut themselves. There's a big Goth scene, Goth people and vampires, who play with blood and drink blood. The lesbians have been into S/M and may be the first who were cutting themselves. The Goth people have always been into blood on a fantasy level, or an Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite level, or a Dracula or Hollywood level. It's only natural for some of those kids to do cutting real. Danielle Willis, the writer and performer, invited me to video and photograph her and her friends who really are real-life vampires. They played with blood and drank each other's blood. That got me involved in the blood scene. The pictures and the video were really good I thought and I knew that there was a book here. There's a story here to be told.

AL: You submitted the movie "Bloodbath" to the San Francisco Film Festival, but they rejected it for some reason. Do you think that they were chickenshit to play something that controversial?

CG: They have a board of reviewers who decide what gets in. They make notes on their cards when they vote. You can ask them to send the cards to see their comments. I asked them, and their comments were "Ugh, disgusting," "revolting," "pornographic," "yuck," and needless to say it didn't get in to that film festival. But it has been shown at many underground film festivals. It rocked the house at the New York Underground Film Festival and Chicago Underground Film Festival. It's showing now in LA. It does have an audience.

Original publication Cups Magazine 1998

AL: Why do you think that this sort of film makes people queasy when they see blood or cutting or piercings? Is this the edge of film?

CG: Some people faint. Yeah, they're queasy. It is a scene that is growing and booming. There's a lot of interest in blood these days but no one has connected all the dots. I think that it's an extension of the Modern Primitive movement. The bottom line is that people are exploring their bodies and trying to wake up their numb bodies back to life. A lot of young people feel numb, and cutting yourself is one way to feel something.

AL: David Aaron Clark is a very well-known writer. He wrote several novels, and wrote for Screw and now writes for The Spectator. He wrote the introduction to the new book. What was it like working with him?

CG: He's a great writer. Some people think he's the new Burroughs. He's an amazing guy. I think he's a genius. We have worked together for a long time. We strike some hot sparks when we work together. I was working on a book called Players about two years ago about the S/M scene and the radical sex community. The book wasn't focused enough. The strongest pictures I was getting were the ones about blood play and blood ritual. After a while I said to myself that the real book here was about blood. I've only been shooting the blood ritual stuff for about three years.

AL: Do you encourage people to push the envelope and go further into what we haven't seen?

CG: I encourage people to play with their bodies and take control of their bodies. In one sense this is to tell Big Brother on Madison Avenue to get lost, and saying "My body belongs to me, and I can do whatever I want to do with it." I did the video "True Blood" with Dharma where she cuts her wrist and her throat and it goes on from there. Dharma basically directed the video. I just turned on the camera. Same with Danielle Willis. They claim that they have all been tested but who knows what is in blood these days. Maybe there's things in blood that we don't know about. One of my models passed out in a taxi from shock I guess. Another woman who I was photographing was drawing blood from her hand and her hand swelled up like a grapefruit, and we almost had to go to the hospital.

AL: A lot of people who used to be into tattoos, piercing, S/M and other things are now getting into cutting flesh and blood play. Where do you think it will be going from there?

CG: I have been hearing a lot about implants. You can get titanium balls implanted in your penis, to make a nice bumpy decorative surface. Some people have been getting horns implanted into their heads. I've talked to some guy in LA who wants to get marbles implanted into his arms, connected to a pacemaker battery, so they will light up at night. I think that Stellarc makes the connection between the Cyber and the body, because he's doing interactive work now with robots. He has a mechanical arm that's programmed to be independent of him while still attached to him. He has a little robot that he swallows and that runs around in his stomach and does things. He's a really smart conscious person, and he's really taking that union of man and machine to new places. I'm really interested in Stellarc's work. Fakir and Stellarc are the two main players in this field. Fakir is doing his work in a more ritual context and Stellarc more in a performance context.

AL: How did you meet Fakir Mustafar?

CG: Annie Sprinkle introduced me to him in New York around 1980. I heard about him before because he was associated with PFIQ and Jim Ward. I read a number of articles about him and I knew that I had to meet him. At the time he was still in the closet about his Modern Primitive rituals. He ran an advertising agency in Silicon Valley. He was very private about his activities because he thought that it might affect his business. Mark and Dan Jury made a film about my work called Dances Sacred and Profane. Fakir decided to be in that film. During the making of that film, I introduced Fakir to the editors of RE/Search Magazine, and that was the spark for the Modern Primitives book. So between this film and that book, these underground ideas started to go out into the mainstream, and changed the thinking and behavior of people all over the world. That's probably been the most significant thing my work has ever done.

AL: Can you talk about your relation to Marco Vassi and R. Mutt Press?

CG: I lived in Woodstock in the late 1970s. We had a group based in Woodstock and New York called R. Mutt Press. It was me, Annie Sprinkle, Marco Vassi, Spider Webb, Michael Perkins, Mam'selle Victoire. We influenced each other, and worked together, and helped each other. I was hugely influenced by Marco Vassi. It was an exciting group and an exciting time because all these ideas were about to explode into the straight world. I wrote a novel at that time that was very influenced by Vassi, Michael Perkins, but also by Bukowski. In the writing in Forbidden Photographs you can see a very strong Bukowski influence.

AL: There this show in Williamsburg during September and October. What's that going to be like?

CG: It's at the Williamsburg Art Center which is right under the Williamsburg Bridge. It's a new and exciting art center. They are giving me a whole floor of building for a retrospective of my favorite photographs of body play. It's called "Charles Gatewood: The Body and Beyond." It will be fifty master prints, both black & white and color, plus some big silk screens. It will run for five weeks. The opening will be a scene. It will be a zoo. I have had shows of eight silk screens at Morphos Gallery and a thousand people came to the opening.

AL: How do you describe your own photography style?

CG: Elegant perversion. Classical decadence. I like to do portraits. My early work is mostly candid shots. These days I do mostly portraits. I do a little street photography, but not as much as I used to. I like working closely with people, one to one, like we just did. I don't use any lights. I use natural lights and like to take pictures of people with window light. I shoot in the day. I like working with models, like Ivy, again and again over time.

AL: What do you think of some other photographers whose work may be compared with you?

CG: Ken Miller is a good photographer. He photographs dancers and junkies and street people. He gets out there and lives with the people who he's photographing. He not a dilettante. He's the opposite of that. He's out there for hours and days. When he was photographing people living in Golden Gate Park he was living in his van. Eric Kroll does nice pictures of the fetish world. His work has its own style and he's probably documenting the fetish world as well as anyone. I've known Ralph Gibson for twenty-five years or more. His work is cold and dry for my taste. It's very formal. It's fine for what it is. But I prefer work that has life and soul. The work of Elmer Bathers doesn't move me like the work of Joel-Peter Witkin or Andre Serrano. Richard Kern is good. His work is original, sexy, fresh. Kern made a film of Kembra Pfahler sewing her pussy shut. I'm jealous. I wish that I made that film. We have a friendly rivalry. We photograph the same models. Kroll did a book called Fetish Girls. Kern did New York Girls. So I have to do a book called West Coast Girls. This week's title is Hungry Women. I have been working on such a book and it's almost done.

Write to Charles Gatewood to get a catalogue about his films:
Flash Video
PO Box 410052

San Francisco CA 94141