GODFATHER OF AMERICAN FETISH ART
Richard Pérez Seves
(self-published, softcover, $9.99/£7.68)
Reviewed by Tony Mitchell
Charles Guyette is a name that you might have seen mentioned in passing in books about the ‘golden age’ of American fetish imagery — the period from the mid 1930s to early ’60s associated with the publishing work of Irving Klaw, John Willie, Robert Harrison and Leonard Burtman among others.
But the chances are, these were indeed only passing mentions.
If New York collector, writer and fetish historian Richard Pérez Seves had not decided to assemble what he knew about Charles Guyette (along with a substantial selection of images) into this paperback, this influential forerunner of the genre’s better known exponents would have continued a lot longer as the great unsung hero of American fetish art.
Seves decided to produce this book after learning that the release of his major upcoming work Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground would be delayed by his publisher, Schiffer, until next year.
But while such a hold-up must be frustrating for the author, his decision to put the hiatus to good use has resulted in much valuable light being cast on a deserving but neglected fetish pioneer.
With its 180 pages measuring 190 x 240mm (roughly midway between A4 and A5), Seves’ print-on-demand, black-and-white tome combines thorough research and an easily digestible style with an almost ‘punk’ publishing ethos reminiscent of various famed underground imprints of the 1970s.
The majority of the book’s pages are devoted to reproduction of images which, with the exception of one reprinted by John Willie, were unattributed to Charles Guyette. Seves argues that this lack of crediting partly accounts for his obscurity.
But there were also other contributing factors. One may have been that Guyette was not, as far as is known, the actual photographer of his material.
He certainly did provide the ‘deviant’ artistic vision for the pictures, as well as making the costumes and probably many of the props. But according to Seves, he was essentially “a wheeler and dealer, an entrepreneur who… inspired fantasy and creativity”.
In this respect, explains the author, Guyette “would serve as the model for Irving Klaw, his obvious
In 1935, the year Klaw took over the Manhattan bookstore that would later become Movie Star News, Guyette — by then already well established in mail order and also a frequent contributor to legendary pre-war fetish publication London Life — was sent to prison for a year for ‘misusing the US Mail system’.
Upon release he did not relinquish his ‘illegal’ activities, but he did, prudently, cease performing them under his own name. While publicly trading as a burlesque costumier (he became known as ‘King of the G-Strings’) he continued his fetish publishing work under an endless variety of pseudonyms.
Given how many aliases he employed to avoid further trouble with the law, it is perhaps not surprising that so little of his work was ever properly credited — either by Guyette himself or others who published it. And as Seves implies, this must surely help to explain his relative obscurity.
The author reveals that aside from the more obvious types of fetish imagery, Guyette also fetishised female boxers and wrestlers (pre-empting and perhaps even influencing Stanton, whose later photographic work featured much wrestling and face-sitting imagery).
We learn that by the late 1940s Guyette was acting as costumier on many Klaw shoots, especially those involving extreme fetish boots.
When John Willie (John Alexander Scott Coutts) arrived in America from Canada in 1946, Guyette introduced him to key US fetish people. They included Robert Harrison, who started publishing Willie’s Sweet Gwendoline cartoon serial in 1947, and collector ‘Little John’, “who inspired/sponsored Klaw’s full-blown entry into the fetish art business in 1948”.
Guyette also collaborated with Leonard Burtman, whose launch in the mid’50s of Exotique magazine made him into a major fetish player. Burtman, says Seves, made extensive use of (mostly uncredited) Guyette photographs not only for his magazine, but also for everything from costume catalogues to (fake) personal ads.
Seves reckons that 1960 was the last year Guyette’s advertisements appeared in publications of any kind, and that sometime in that same decade he switched to dealing in exotic animals.
Shortly before his death in 1976 he was interviewed by Bélier Press publisher JB Rund, the man behind last December’s fetish publishing tour de force, Possibilities: The Photographs of John Willie.
Charles Guyette’s work featured in several of the mag-book style publications put out by Bélier during that decade’s enthusiast revival of imagery from the ‘vintage’ years. Rund was also one of the few author/publishers attempting to credit the true source of the material.
But those Bélier originals are like gold dust today, so it’s wonderful that the arrival of Richard Pérez Seves’ book finally puts the record straight on Charles Guyette for our modern times. It’s not hard to support his contention that without Guyette “the fetish world would not exist as it does today”.
And with this book’s ridiculously low price of $9.99 (CreateSpace) or £7.68 (Amazon UK), I doubt any important gap in fetish art history has ever been filled more affordably!
BELOW: Spreads from Richard Pérez Seves’ book Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art
Published August 25, 2017