Possibilities? You’re not kidding! I could hardly contain my excitement as, back in August, I read the e-mail from Bélier Press publisher JB Rund, announcing his plan to release the ultimate collection of photography by the great John Willie in time for Christmas!
Willie — the pseudonym of John Alexander Scott Coutts (1902–1962) — is best known today as editor/publisher of the groundbreaking Bizarre magazine of the 1940s and ’50s, and as creator of cartoon bondage heroine Gwendoline.
But as Rund asserts — and the book’s 1,360-plus photographs spread across 472 pages surely confirm — Coutts was also the true pioneer of the entire bondage photography genre.
In Rund’s undoubtedly expert opinion, only Irving Klaw (the man who made Bettie Page into a bondage star and published a lot of Willie’s work) could perhaps share that credit — although Klaw’s talents were more in promoting and selling such content than in its actual creation.
Rund’s dedication to Coutts’ oeuvre has been a virtually lifelong affair. As he reveals in the fascinating 15-page autobiography at the end of Possibilities, he discovered ‘John Willie’ after he began frequenting the “wondrous” Times Square bookstores he had discovered as a young teenager in the mid-1950s.
(Although they’re long gone now, when I got my first trip to New York as a music journalist on Sounds in the late ’70s, many of those stores between 7th and 8th Avenues were still trading. As indeed was Movie Star News, Irving Klaw’s photo business at 212 East 14th Street, then run by his sister Paula Klaw Kramer.)
From the start of his adult life, Rund, a native of New York City, worked for or had associations with various publishing companies. Finally, in 1972, he was offered the chance by Grove Press to realise his long-held ambition to curate a collection of his hero’s work for a book, The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline.
Unfortunately, Grove pulled out. But Rund managed to find a lawyer partner who helped him set up his own publishing business to produce the book. He wanted to call it Aries Press after his birth sign (though he insists: “I don’t believe in any of that crap”). But that name was taken so he settled on the French word for ram: bélier. And so in late 1972, Bélier Press was born.
In early 1973, with $500 borrowed from a friend, Rund was able to purchase the assets, including copyrights and trademarks, of John Coutts’ Bizarre Publish Company from Coutts’ successor, identified only as ‘R.E.B.’.
(This naming style, used throughout Possibilities, is a carry-over from Coutts’ own convention for protecting the identities of various kinky associates and customers.)
“At the time,” says Rund, “I didn’t realise the significance of that acquisition; it turned out to be the best investment I ever made.”
Indeed, down the years, it has allowed him not only to publish much of Willie’s oeuvre but also to take successful actions against various other publishers who have infringed Bélier’s copyright or otherwise taken liberties with the great man’s work.
Still seeking a publisher for Gwendoline, Rund was introduced in 1974 to a German interested in publishing a German-language edition of the project. This offered the opportunity to co-print German and American editions in Germany (albeit sans photos that would have got the book into trouble with US Customs), so Rund took it.
Rund borrowed more money to pay for the American edition to be shipped to him, and suddenly he was a publisher in his own right, with a stock of books to sell.
“Gwendoline turned out to be a bigger success than I could ever have imagined,” he says.
The first American edition, published on December 9, 1974 (Coutts’ birthday) went through four printings and eventually sold over 26,000 copies.
It was translated into French, German and Italian and, as Rund can’t resist telling us in his non-word-mincing style, “in 1984 was made into a very bad motion picture — The Perils of Gwendoline, directed by Juste Jaeckin”.
This first Gwendoline book was, I’m sure, many a (then) younger perv’s introduction to the art of John Willie — myself included. The copy I acquired was the softback French edition published by famous graphic novel specialists Les Humanoïdes Associés.
I found it in the late ’70s in a comic shop in Bristol where, once again, my music journo work had taken me on an assignment. (Never let it be said that I did not exploit the opportunities created by that job!)
“I can see they’ve been tied up,” he said, of Gwendoline and her various compromised companions. “But what happens next?”
For me, his question crystallised the essence of my own pervery and what I felt made fans of bondage imagery different from other folk. The image of the helpless, scantily clad ‘damsel in distress’ (I remember explaining) was an end in itself. No further narrative required.
Like knowing who Bettie Page was before she became a household name in the ’90s, knowing about Gwendoline and John Willie back then was like knowing a secret password or masonic handshake. And meeting someone now who owns that book still puts a smile on my face.
Two months ago I visited Jeroen Van Der Klis at his BizarreDesign studio in Amsterdam. Many people familiar with Jeroen’s amazing corsets and other restrictive garments may realise he has been heavily influenced by the art of John Willie.
But to actually see the German edition of that original Gwendoline book on his bookshelves — well I still got a little frisson from knowing I was in the presence of a kindred soul.
After settling various copyright infringement actions against publishers including Taschen and Glittering Images during the 1990s, JB Rund felt the way was now clear for him to begin work on a new, revised and enlarged second Gwendoline edition.
It was published on December 9, 1999, exactly 25 years after the first edition and once again on the anniversary of Coutts’ birthday.
The new edition of The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline was massive at 368 pages and was made available in a Trade edition (currently $50 + p&p), and a Deluxe limited edition ($100 + p&p) with numerous extras, all packaged in a cloth-bound slip case.
But the sales of this new edition were disappointing. “I had printed 10,000 copies and still have about a third of them as this is being written”, Rund confesses in Possibilities.
Fortunately for John Willie fans, the Gwendoline experience did not deter Rund from setting out to produce what, in Possibilities, is essentially Gwendoline’s perfect companion volume.
Whereas Gwendoline was all about the art of John Willie, Possibiliities is, as its subtitle unequi- vocally indicates, all about his photography.
For many years Coutts’ photography was undertaken not as a revenue earner in itself, but for other reasons such as promoting a (doomed) mail-order fetish footwear business in Australia, or creating reference images on which to base his cartoon illustrations.
He was not particularly technically adept as a photographer, although one can see from the broadly chronological ordering of his output in Possibilities that he did become more proficient as he acquired more experience.
But once he got into his stride as a photographer (after the rather bland shoe fetish images, produced under the name Achilles, that kick off this book’s Australian section), for me it’s the content of the images — the choice of models and the styling of the clothes and bondage poses — that makes his work so important.
Possibilities is divided into three large sections dedicated to the work Coutts produced in the three main places where he lived between the early 1930s and the start of the 1960s: Australia (Sydney and Brisbane), New York City and Los Angeles.
The book actually starts with a foreword by Rund which, essentially a biography of his hero, sets the style for all the other Possibilities’ texts. Right at the beginning, he proposes that the book is actually the work of two people: John Alexander Scott Coutts from c1937 to c1945, then John Willie from c1945 onwards.
Scholarly and forensic in its attention to detail, this foreword/bio might seem a bit heavy-going to those with short attention spans or only a passing interest in the person behind the work. But for John Willie fans, its seven pages of text followed by a further four pages of footnotes brim with important facts and fascinating minutiae.
Each photography section has its own introduction of at least two pages followed by at least two further pages of footnotes. These intros reiterate some of the information first mentioned in the foreword, before going into more detail about the work Coutts produced while in that particular part of the world.READ MORE QUICK LINK:
Click previews for images from the Australia, New York and Los Angeles sections of Possibilities.
Click on any individual thumbnail in each gallery to begin a slideshow of all full-size images
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