What Is Normal?

Charles Gatewood is the pervert next door

The kinky photographer is in the kitchen washing the breakfast dishes when I arrive. (He'd made a smoothie, because his nutritionist had told him to eat more fruits and vegetables.) Charles Gatewood is wearing what looks like a yoga outfit (black T-shirt, soft black pants, black socks); his trademark black leather jacket hangs from a peg. On the white walls are examples of his work -- the first thing I see when I walk in is an enormous framed print of an enormous nude woman, followed by a huge image of pierced labia. The floors are carpeted in beige and covered, in a strategic spot, with a red patterned area rug. A low table holds numerous books, including one among several he's reading now: Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion. An off-white leather chair sits next to a wall of north-facing windows, from which I can see a balcony strewn with blooming flowerpots and, beyond that, the downtown skyline. The day is overcast, but the light is sharp.

In this warm, comfortable Bernal Heights apartment, which he has rented for 14 years, Gatewood takes many of the pictures that appear in his more recent books, among them True Blood, Badlands, and Messy Girls. Now he has a new title out, and it's different from all the others. Photography for Perverts isn't primarily a showcase for his images of people who enjoy tattoos, piercings, scarification, radical sex, pagan rituals, "blood play," and other alternative activities. Rather, it's a how-to -- a sincere, perky guide to taking your own "deviant" pictures, the first of its kind.

Like Perverts, Gatewood isn't what you'd expect. He's 61, and though he looks his age, he doesn't come across as a dirty old man. Standing about 5 feet 7 inches in stocking feet, with a lean, gym-toned frame and wide, delighted eyes, he's not threatening in the least. His voice is soft, almost Southern-inflected, with a slight wobble, as if from age. He often covers his thinning, graying hair with a black leather cap. That and his salt-and-pepper goatee make him look more like a Beat poet than a man who displays his own erect penis in the first image in the book. He has one tattoo -- a poppy on his butt (I didn't ask to see it). He was pierced once (temporarily, in the chest), in a ritual performed by Fakir Musafar, the Silicon Valley businessman-turned-shaman who, with Gatewood's assistance, helped start the piercing craze. He is "polyamorous," but has a (female) "significant other." He doesn't drink, smoke tobacco (he makes this careful distinction), or go to wild parties. "I live a pretty quiet life," he says. "A lot of days I don't leave the house."

Make Love to the Camera: Charles 
Gatewood at home.
Paul Trapani
Make Love to the Camera: Charles Gatewood at home.
Gatewood is no devil-child.
Paul Trapani
Gatewood is no devil-child.

Gatewood has discussed how he got started in kinky photography several times -- in lectures, of which he has given many; in Forbidden Photographs: The Life and Work of Charles Gatewood, a documentary film about him released last fall; and in the introduction to Photography for Perverts. Here's the short version: He was born in Chicago and studied anthropology at the University of Missouri. While he was in grad school, a friend introduced him to photography. He lived in Stockholm for two years to avoid serving in Vietnam, and there he learned to shoot professionally. Back in New York in 1966, he fell in with the underground set; after moving to San Francisco in 1990, he continued his exploration. He never tires of it. "It's taking me to new places," he explains. "There are always different layers of the onion."

In Perverts he suggests that budding shutterbugs write a list called "Why I Photograph." When I ask him why he does it, his answers are at first mundane: beauty, art, social commentary, reporting. But then he goes on. "It's like Zen -- you make something out of nothing." Also, "I didn't want to get a job." And, not surprisingly, it turns him on. Finally, he mentions his parents, whom he calls "drunks," and his stepfather, who was "extremely abusive." (In Forbidden Photographs, he says his mother "heard radio signals in her head.") "I've got their genes in me," he explains. "I'm expressing them in a more socially acceptable way." When I demur at the term "socially acceptable," he asks, "Which is worse, to drive drunk at 100 miles per hour or to take pictures of a naked fetish girl?" It's a trick question; they're both freaky.

A conversation with Gatewood could leave you thinking that what he does for a living is no big deal. He was sued once, but nothing came of it. He was mugged once while on location, but got his camera back. He's had "bumps in the road" -- physical and verbal assaults -- but he has a way of "grinning and shuffling" to defuse the situation. "I'm not harmless," he says, "but I know how to act harmless." In truth, he is harmless. Photography for Perverts proves it.

The book, despite its title, is sweet. It's full of aw-shucks earnestness, friendly encouragement, and lots of exclamation points. There's a fair amount of touchy-feely sentiment -- he uses phrases like "following your bliss" and quotes Starhawk -- but it feels genuine.

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