Michael A. Rosens Lust & Romance: Rated X Fine Art Photographs
September 20 - Oct. 18, 1998
848 Community Space
Michael Rosen just wants to show people having sex. Well, at least that's the approximate summary he gave few days following the opening of the show for his new book Lust & Romance: Rated X Fine Art Photographs. I had jokingly asked him to pitch the concept in a movie-style one sentence summary. That statement does accurately sum up what he's done in this new work, but truly it is an elegant look at intimacy and interaction.
Rosens fourth book is a new direction for him, yet acknowledges a return in certain aspects as well. His previous work focused more closely on SM as the subject matter. Romance is definitely in the forefront this time around. The flow of the book overall is more like his first work, Sex Magic: the S/M Photographs (1986), in that it presents a total scene. The images follow the energy of an encounter between people. Tension is built and the pictures progress from arousal, to build-up, to climax, and then afterglow. His show at San Francisco's 848 Community Space was arranged to follow the book layout as it moved around the room. The images in Lust & Romance follow an array men and women in a variety of combinations and interactions across what somehow becomes an encapsulated event.
Capturing these images brought new challenges to Rosens process. In the very beginning, even finding models was different. In his last two books, Sexual Portraits: Photographs of Radical Sexuality (1990) and Sexual Art: Photographs that Test the Limits (1994), Rosen was working more with individual expression and more directly overt images. To his amusement, he discovered models reacted more cautiously when approached with the concept of photographing lovemaking. It seems people have an easier time baring their pierced genitalia than allowing someone to photograph them interacting most intimately with their partners. Exhibitionist just want pictures of themselves, he laughed, but when you tell people that you want to take pictures of vanilla sex, they pause...and then they want to know if there's any money involved.
The shape of the pictures shifted as well. Rosen observed that kinky sex is vertical, referring to the many standing bondage positions and floggings that frequently occur in SM. For vanilla sex, people lie down...it's more comfortable, more intimate. Rosen found he couldn't position his camera the way he did before. Finding a good vantage point from which to work was solved in a most innovative manner: Rosen had a custom one-man, ski-lift chair built on a sliding track attached to the ceiling of his photo studio. With minimal padding and floor drapes forming the background, Rosen took up a position looking straight down on much of the action. The results of this unique vantage point are intense close-ups that hover right on top of the lovers, and intricate geometric forms made as bodies intertwine. The final image in the book gives a glimpse of the process. The blurred form in the extreme foreground is Rosens leg.
The newest part of the photographic process for Rosen this time around was in his use of a computer. The show flyer carried the sub-heading Wholesome images of explicit sex -- digitally enhanced, but not falsified. In the past, Rosen has worked only with print photographic processes. Rosen described his use of the computer as super darkroom and clean-up. Film images were developed and then scanned. By using an average graphic scanner, the images became softer as part of their digital conversion. The super-saturation contrasts and control of focus used here, qualities that can only be achieved digitally are something that Rosen says will keep him using computers for future work. The computer clean-up that the images experienced varied from none at all to as much as Rosen felt necessary. His use of the computer on models echoes his studio philosophy: eliminate distraction. Much as his sets and backgrounds don't allow anything to distract from the human forms, he only made cosmetic changes that he felt removed distractions. Backgrounds were smoothed or blended; errant lighting stands removed. A few models asked for cosmetic adjustments (i.e. removing a scar), others alterations were artistic license done with the models consent, like removing a tattoo that drew too much focus and dominated an image.
Outputting the digital results also presented a new technical challenge for Rosen. He was discontented with the quality of digital print processes and the complete absence of archival quality digital printing. He tried several processes with labs in the Bay Area before finding a new option that satisfied him. At the Photo Impact labs in Hollywood a laser was used to burn his digital images onto special copy film, usually used for rephotographing old images. This process retranslated the digital images back into film negatives. Rosen was then able to use conventional photo print processes to produce archival prints
While he was producing the collection, Rosen said he wanted to focus more on the concept of prints. Although there is a time line, and mini story lines as some couples are featured repeatedly, all of the images can still stand alone as a single expression.
One of the most interesting aspects of Lust & Romance is how much people are still shocked by vanilla sex. The book does have its outré elements. Golden showers make an appearance, as does an image that combines sex with bondage, the latest . Primarily though, there are no toys, no camera-aware poses. It is a birds-eye-view of sex, with nothing to distract you, just like Michael Rosen wants it to be.