I remember the first time I went to a fetish club. It was January 1994.
I had bought a basque-type top from Camden Market. No online shops back then — no internet in fact. No pvc or latex clothing was available on the high street, and I was certainly not going to kit myself out in a Soho sex shop.
So there I was, wearing, as I saw it, risqué fetish gear under a black velvet jacket, hopping it to a feminist debate with Erica Jong, Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe first, then getting a bus to the legendary (and much-missed) Paradise Club in Angel, Islington to pop my fetish cherry at Torture Garden.
My eyes were full of wonder, and right away I was longing for the day I might be allowed to take pictures in such a place.
I was amazed I had not yet been to TG, as everything in my life, from my music taste to my aesthetics, leanings and hatred for conventional ‘pick- up’ clubs made me the (almost) perfect punter.
How on earth had I not heard of this until one of my models had mentioned it to me just months earlier? People were relaxed and friendly, the music was great, the performances inspiring, the outfits outrageous. I loved it.
Towards the end of the night, just as I was beginning to think I was blending in perfectly, someone accosted me on the stairs and sweetly said: “First time, is it?” Back to the drawing board then…
The comment did not deter me. By the end of the year I would be one of a handful of photographers allowed to take pictures in the London fetish clubs, regularly documenting the scene for Skin Two magazine and building up my studio portfolio at the same time.
My background was in music photography. Having settled in London hoping to become a rock photographer, I had then been lured into the tattoo and piercing scene.
And from there, entering the fetish scene had been just a question of time.
I was still a photography student at the London College of Printing when I made my fetish debut. My final third year project was totally informed by my newly-found alma mater: I shot a series of portraits illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins using models, clothing and props from the scene.
My lecturers did not see it as a progressive piece, and to this day I feel there was a certain amount of bigotry in the air. But it did not matter; I was on my way to being a fully-fledged professional photographer despite their fettered views.
The end of the millennium and the following decade provided me with much stimulating visual material and a direct line to most of the alt/fetish models of that era. I loved the creative freedom, the printed image, the amazing models, the fabulous outfits, outrageous heels and accessories.
The exclusive club I was a part of gave me endless opportunities to explore kinky imagery and I loved it.
It was long before social media became our omnipotent master and commander, and I do not feel I would have been able to produce the kind of imagery I did, had the internet been well-established already.
I feel it was, despite the subject matter, a more innocent time. Our current obsessions with selfies and likes were not even on the horizon, and I have often thought that if these had already been in play, none of the imagery that came out of that period would have had a chance to become as special or as iconic as it did.
I remember being able to shoot (on film!) and take my time printing the images, then waiting for the right time and the right outlet to publish them.
Even when shooting for a client, the images were not frittered away in minutes. They would be used for their purpose, with no one needing hundreds of content pictures for pay sites or Facebook galleries.
A photographic image was allowed to stay special, to be a unique shot rather than one in a sequence from every angle that would end up diluting its collective power.
In more recent years, I cannot recall a shoot when I have not had to ‘reveal’ the images to the web before I had even had the time to edit my chosen ones.
Some shot — a candid image, a cheeky model selfie or a teaser — always finds its way to some social media platform, and the magic is broken.
Like I said, these are different times. People consume the photographic image differently, faster; images are liked and tagged without anyone actually looking at them in much depth.
They are smaller, they have to be enjoyed on a smartphone, they have to secure followers.
Sometimes the fetish image crosses over, its visual conventions adopted in fashion or fine art imagery. There, it is allowed to be detailed and unique, blown up and powerful.
But it is inevitably niche, and it only crosses over if adopted by already established mainstream photographers.
I produced my book Girls in 2007.
To put it into context, Facebook was launched in 2004 (and for a while it was only accessible to college students) and Instagram was unleashed in 2010.
To me the book represented the culmination of ten years’ work. I sensed things were beginning to change, although that was not my main motivation to publish.
It was more a need to draw a line under my work on the scene — to pull together all these different shoots under one cover.
I always loved books and still do. I have a good collection of photography and art books and I wanted mine to be a high quality offering of a certain size and weight, not just a poorly executed vanity project packed with outtakes and the production values of the bargain bin.
I also wanted a lot of the images to be exclusive to the book (cover shown above).
It would have been nice enough if the viewers were already familiar with the material and found it under one cover. But then it becomes just some sort of anthology, and this is why I wanted some new material to be in it.
Again, this would have been difficult to achieve in the current social media climate.
Ten years ago and more, phones did not take great pictures, and although I shot some content on a digital camera, I was thus spared the conflict of having to impose media silence.
Back then (not that long ago, in the early 2000s) I remember setting up shoots just for the pleasure of it.
Maybe a model from a faraway land happened to be in town, or you wanted to test some equipment or a certain type of film. You might do tests with hair and make-up artists, or you’d have access to a designer’s new collection.
The model would get shots for their gallery, you would use images in your portfolio, and if you managed to sell them for a feature, you’d both benefit financially — there was a time when editorial photography was actually remunerative!
I was shooting all the time. I used a professional commercial studio, but I also shot from my home studio a lot.
The cover image of Natalie for Girls — also the cover/banner image for this article — was one of those shot in my living room. It was for the J Design label, which at the time specialised in corsetry and was launching in London.
That specific picture wasn’t even used for the
J Design catalogue cover. Or for Skin Two’s, for that matter, possibly due to the publisher’s ‘cleavage allergy’ (to quote Tony Mitchell).
And while I was shooting it, I was actually told by the client to just leave it — that that shot was not going to work. I looked away from my Mamiya for a moment and said, “Just let me take it.”
What happened afterwards was no whirlwind: I took my sweet time printing the images (all of those from that shoot were unretouched as well).
I submitted them to a few magazines with the client’s blessing, and when what I call ‘the corset picture’ was used inside Skin Two, it started becoming well known, despite not being on the cover.
That picture opened and closed doors for me. Many people wowed me with “Oh, you took that one!” Others — fewer — were scared by its power, and I never worked for them.
There was never another contender for my book cover, although a few other pictures came close — so close that I did not put them in the book and kept them for a future project.
I still do studio shoots, although I initiate fewer projects than I used to, because I play the long game and, as I explained before, I do not want spoilers on the web the minute I shoot them.
Similar reasoning led me to slow down my clubbing photography. I would go home after a club and pro pictures would already be all over social media.
I started to find it really disheartening, as to my eyes it made the events, albeit exciting and visually stunning, less and less alluring.
These days I shoot more music subjects, and I have developed a wide body of work featuring abandoned buildings (‘urbex’), which I am very passionate about.
Another project, Please make up my room, shot from hotel rooms during out-of-town assignments, was rendered in 3D, and deals with issues of displaced identity and urban isolation.
Those images I left aside for another fetish book never got used. I do have enough for a book project though, and who knows, maybe one day…
Girls, published by Pictropia, is available to buy in two formats. The paperback edition, with 188 A4 pages, sells for £25 + shipping.
The numbered limited edition hardback sells for £35 + shipping. Only 100 were made and just a handful remain available.
Shipping costs depend on destination. The books are shipped by courier from London and shipping within the UK is £5.90, using sturdy unbendable packaging.
The book weighs about 1.4 kg, and shipping to places outside the UK will add about £18 for Europe and £25 or more for the rest of the world. All payments by PayPal.
UK orders received by December 18 will be dispatched by courier in time for UK customers to receive the book before Christmas.
Pre-Christmas delivery is not guaranteed for orders received from outside the UK, and shipping costs/times to Rest of World will be quoted on an individual basis.
Book orders and enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.