Forbidden Photographs

“As one of his subjects enthusiastically puts it, ‘Charlie’s work reaches out and grabs you by the fucking balls.’ Pity the documentary about him doesn’t do the same.”


Shooting To Thrill

Documentary explores the career of fetish photographer Charles Gatewood

Chances are, you’ve encountered a portrait by photographer Charles Gatewood at some point, even if you didn’t realize it. Known as the “Family Photographer of the Underground,” Gatewood’s work has been featured in galleries across the country, as well as in several books, the most famous of them a tome of spellbinding and shocking photos of heavily tattooed, pierced and scarred subjects entitled “Modern Primitives.”

In Forbidden Photographs: The Life and Work of Charles Gatewood, documentarian Bill Macdonald turns the camera around in order to chronicle the curious career of the man considered the foremost photographer of American subculture. Interviews with Gatewood and various adoring friends, colleagues and subjects are combined with montages of Gatewood’s work to serve as a cinematic retrospective. Unfortunately, the resulting ho-hum film, complete with inferior production values and a truly awful musical soundtrack, doesn’t match its extraordinary subject.

Gatewood began as a photojournalist and celebrity photographer in the 1960’s. Even then, he was drawn toward society’s fringe; early subjects included the likes of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. As the counter-culture movement took off, Gatewood found he’d rather document the radical changes taking place around him than work as a newsgathering hack, and thus a career was borne.

From the start, Gatewood approached his profession from more than just an aesthetic point of view. “I wanted to see how much punch I could pack into my pictures,” he says. The word “anthropologist” pops up repeatedly throughout Forbidden Photographs, and with good reason: before turning his attention to photography, Gatewood studied anthropology at the University of San Francisco.

His passion was for shooting behavior and relationships, and whether his subjects were flower children, beatniks or garden-variety nudists, his genius lay in his ability to inject social commentary into his photographs. Always approaching his subjects with compassion and interest, rather than with freakish curiosity, Gatewood continued documenting underground culture, even as it took on a darker, almost sinister mood throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.

As someone who knew nothing, really, about Gatewood before seeing this film, I found the earlier of his works on display here much more compelling than what he’s doing today. The older photos – black and white candids, mostly, of tuned-in, turned-on and dropped-out peaceniks, have a cinema verite quality missing in the vivid, in-your-face color portraits of radical sex pagans, Satanists, vampires and other sundry “modern primitives” that make up his current repertoire.

Perhaps part of the problem is the state of “underground” culture itself. As explained here, Gatewood’s earlier subjects explored body manipulation as a means of seeking spiritual enlightenment. Now, piercings, tattoos and other body mutilations have become somewhat commonplace, if not the norm.

Consequently, the people Gatewood photographs today come across more as trend-following hipsters than bona fide cultural pioneers. True, there are still some shockers among them, like the man who split the head of his own penis in half with a razor blade, or the fellow who fashioned a huge flap of skin on his abdomen by piercing the area between his chest and stomach (“we worried whether or not this was going to remain vascularly viable,” he calmly explains). But, for the most part, Gatewood’s current subjects seem like little more than post-adolescent thrill-seekers.

So it’s a shame that the last third of the film is less about Gatewood than it is a voyeuristic peek at the various subcultures he currently photographs. Extended segments on fetishists and BDSM practitioners filmed in underground clubs, San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, and Nevada’s Burning Man Celebration seem contrary to the spirit of Gatewood, offering little insight into the bizarre rites and rituals of those involved.

There’s no denying the striking power of Gatewood’s best work, and those with an interest in Gatewood or his subjects will find something to like here. But, as one of his subjects enthusiastically puts it, “Charlie’s work reaches out and grabs you by the fucking balls.” Pity the documentary about him doesn’t do the same.

(Appeared in Gay City News)