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Pages from Forms of Desire book by Doris Kloster


Envisioning Desire
Pat Califia

In Forms of Desire, Kloster refines her vision of the erotic and invites us to stroll through a gallery dedicated to female beauty and fantasy. Each photo is a little world which invites the viewer to enter and take (or receive) appropriate action.

It’s generally assumed that a photograph reveals the photographer’s intentions and some inner, essential quality of the model. But the response of the spectator is even more interesting – an integral part of the gestalt of the photographic art, even though it’s rarely considered as such in criticism of the genre. A static image is a rare event in human consciousness. We are a narrative and chronological species. We have not lost the primitive part that served us so well when we were hunters and prey. We are always tracking our environment for movement, using memory to anchor us as we endure the present, perpetually predicting the future. To us, a frozen picture symbolizes a rare moment of trauma or transcendence. For the most part, when we see a photograph, in our mind’s eye we try to turn it into a movie. We have to know what happened just before the shutter clicked, what will happen just after the film is exposed. Our imaginations automatically supply that missing information, and what we conjure up can be uncomfortably revealing.

This is, I suspect, one of the reasons why erotic photography remains more controversial and harder to get published than erotic fiction. The author of a sexy short story takes more responsibility for the reader’s response than the photographer of an explicit moment of desire. It is easier to interrupt a narrative: the book can simply be closed. Given this sort of rough treatment, the story that gave offense fades away. But once you’ve seen a photograph, you can’t erase it by closing the book. The contents of an image are too quickly assimilated to be banished by closing your eyes. Whether you feel attraction or repulsion, your response to Kloster’s work can be seen as an oracle, speaking to you of the forms of your own desire.
“Whether you feel attraction or repulsion, your response to Kloster’s work can be seen as an oracle, speaking to you of the forms of your own desire.”

Let me sketch, then, some of the choices you might make as you visually saunter through Kloster’s millefiori of feminine arousal. We’ll take a quick tour of Forms of Desire. Throughout, we have a series of portraits of perverse pinup girls and a few women who look as if they might be more likely to pin a voyeur to a nearby wall. Kloster’s nude women are regal, frequently situated in public places, and they level the viewer with a calm gaze that seems to say they could go anywhere undressed this way, with no other protection than their high heels. There is a kind of nude photograph that is coy and thus dirty. It seeks to reveal the naked woman-object while camouflaging the voyeuristic pleasure of the presumably male intruder-spectator. This accounts for the plethora of paintings, drawings, and photos of women in the bath, women changing clothes, women on the toilet, women looking at themselves in the mirror, women combing one another’s hair. But Kloster is no impresario of faux private moments. Her women know you are looking at them.

Whether the model is Danielle, who flexes a cane so that its shadow falls across her sumptuous, ample thighs, or small-waisted and well-corseted Tami, Kloster is a master at bringing out the delicious curves that signify female power and allure. The book is rich with invitations. Are you being summoned to an afternoon of pleasure with a bored young heiress? Do you want to climb up the stairs to cradle the heels of this dominatrix against your face? Or do you fancy joining her as a colleague, perhaps a sadist-in-training, ready to jointly receive your subjects? Do you want to tighten the ropes on this carefully restrained love-slave or replace her in bondage and accept the punishment that awaits her as a proxy?

Imagine anything you like, dear reader, except to cover this naked glory with your overcoat or permanently separate these aspiring submissives from their hard-won chains. Kloster’s subjects would not be thankful. It’s not easy to find the edge, much less walk it. Nobody appreciates being “protected” from risks they’ve desperately dreamed of taking, especially not women who have chosen of their own volition to enter the realm of dangerous pleasure. Who are you to turn down the thermostat on someone else’s libido? So-called cheap thrills can be the only thing that gives life any meaning. (And few things are more expensive … or less ephemeral in their aftereffects.) Kloster is one of a handful of artists who understand that sort of intensity. She is strong enough (and smart enough) to take a handful of the shadow and make cogent art out of it.

One of the differences between Kloster’s work and the bulk of sexually explicit photography is her sense of humor. Among the photos which made me giggle are Cyber Sex, in which a mannishly dressed woman with a fur coat worthy of a starlet reclines in autoerotic joy in front of her computer terminal (which you have a feeling is showing her stockmarket quotes, not virtual male strippers). Liberty deconstructs the national fetish of the same name: she holds her whip aloft like the torch which has offered a false promise of safety and freedom to so many immigrants, deconstructing America’s delusions of equality. And there’s a priceless, cognitively dissonant moment in which a faceless woman in a corset and boy’s underwear buries one of her hands in the Y-front. Hooded Bleu is obviously not cowed by her heavy collar; she sticks out her tongue in a ferocious gesture that evokes the goddess Kali, dancing on Shiva’s corpse. This last image reminds us that laughter does not simply denote the ridiculous. It also springs forth when we are terrified or moved beyond our tolerance. It is as involuntary as an orgasm, and makes us every bit as helpless.

There are two strategies for creating a photograph that embodies a sadomasochistic fantasy or fetishism. One possibility is to arrange a tableaux in which flesh-and-blood comes as close as possible to mimicking a pure product of the mind. This is no mean feat. Leather and latex are only drab approximations of the slick black wonder that fetishists dream of. Mere ropes and chains cannot convey the tension and joy of the ideal of total restraint if the subject is to survive their embrace. As signs of unattainable states of ecstasy, fetishes exist in a realm where there is no dust, no fingerprints, no cellulite, no zippers, no need for oxygen or sleep; a realm where the way something looks and the way it feels are perfectly in sync, unlike the jury-rigged fumbling of actual players in real dungeons. This is why the most extreme sadomasochistic art is all in the form of drawings.

The second strategy for rendering sadomasochistic fantasy visible exists as a reaction to this older, more repressed trend. It is to document the behavior of real people expressing their longing for conjunction, extreme sensation, body modification, and transcendence. This second trend has become more popular as the leather community grows in size and complexity. Fetish art will always have its masturbatory uses, but more and more it is also being asked to send a clear message about what sort of radical sexuality exists in the real world and chart the possibilities and achievements of actual adventurers and pioneers. This newer sort of fetish art tends to involve more couples interacting. It is about perverse relationship rather than perilous isolation.

Although Kloster’s work is difficult to categorize, it seems to fit more comfortably into the second category. She is a sexual-minority documentarian. Certainly her first book generated considerable ire on this account. She photographed dominatrixes and their clients straight up, without hiding any of the sleaze or the pathos of New York’s commercial S/M scene. Perhaps because she is a woman, in this book, the women she photographs do not come across as dolls or puppets even though they often meet the highest standards of traditional beauty. There are no contorted postures that make the viewer wince or try to figure out how much money had to be paid to persuade a model to hold it for hours. If one of Kloster’s women bends over, you know it’s because she fancies it that way. Kloster defies cultural proscriptions of feminine passivity and feminist prescription of female sexual aggression. Her women are allowed to be both warriors and courtesans.

The most challenging section of the book is “Divine Androgyne,” genderfuck photography. Kloster seems especially captivated by the idea of disrupting an otherwise perfectly feminine image with something incongruously male, whether that’s a mustache, a dildo, or just a pair of men’s underpants. This sly and subversive misuse of gender signs startles the viewer. It’s a powerful reminder of the way our eyes and consciousness tend to “fill in” the sex-linked details our culture leads us to expect. Do we find that our appreciation of a lovely pair of breasts is diminished by a goateed chin? Are we disappointed when our eyes travel up from an apparently well-packed jockstrap, only to be confronted with a torso that reads as female? Or do we perhaps find that both aspects of an image, the male and the female, combine to create a third gender which has its own power to captivate us?

Kloster also includes a few images of female-bodied drag kings. Nicole is featured in two portraits that could, in a different context, be taken for pictures of a young man. And is Trash a boy, a girl, a transsexual? These people seem relieved to appear in all their masculine and feminine ambiguity. It is the viewer, not the subject, who is most likely to demand clear-cut answers and identities. And so Kloster makes us ask ourselves, why do we have to know the gender of these people? Hopefully, at least a few readers will also go further and question their relationship with their own gender. What is it that we give up when we become “men” or “women”? Are we perhaps jealous of the secret pleasures, the fluid nature, of the androgyne?

Kloster really shines when capturing the subtle flow of lush between two women. Many of the hottest moments in Forms of Desire are positioned in the last chapter, “Ecstatic Theater.” Especially fetching are Amy and Patti. The whip that connects them can be seen as a lifeline, a communications cable through which information travels at high speed, as well as a tool for imposing control or demarcating different sexual stations. In Oshan Spanking Maria, Kloster captures the spanker’s hand in midair, and you hold your breath, expecting to see it descend and hear a sharp crack as it connects. There’s more than one tender image of women worshiping one another’s shoes or feet.

Whether engrossed in vanilla sex or dominant/submissive role-playing, Kloster’s paired women do not seem to be waiting for a man to intrude upon their scene and “complete” it. They are complete unto themselves, lost in sapphic bliss. Unlike photographers who produce “lesbian” scenes for heterosexual male consumption, Kloster does not restrict herself to femme-on-femme interludes. She includes most other configurations. Among other images, there’s a cute butch bottom in a sailor suit groveling for a bitch goddess in a rubber cape. The closest thing to butch-on-butch desire is the image of two women in uniform embracing, one of them butch enough to pass as a boy. The eager electric contact between these women’s tongues and lips is transforming, so much more exciting than the tired bisexual pantomime of Hollywood pornography in which reluctant bottle blondes can’t bring themselves to actually kiss.

There are a handful of images scattered throughout the book that are guaranteed to shock and disturb. “Sadean Women” includes a photo of a scantily clad woman with one leg in a cast, walking with a crutch. Her injury and the angry tension in her body create a confusing mix of pity, anxiety, and aggression in the viewer. “Ritual Love” has a woman in high heels and a dildo harness squatting to piss. It also features Lolita, whose corset clearly outlines an adult body, despite the fact that she is sucking her thumb and standing with her legs akimbo like a bad little girl about to throw a hell of a tantrum. Lolita’s stubborn rejection of adulthood, her conscious regression, is even more shocking than the lust of a pedophile for an actual child. And near the books’ end, in Iexa, a woman in leather shorts and hip boots reclines on the front steps of a brownstone while a large handsome dog straddles her as he regards the viewer.

It’s a delight to leaf through this book and share Kloster’s personal vision of desire. By perusing her work, perhaps your own desire will come to be more fully embodied. Chances are you will see something here that will enhance your understanding of the role Eros plays in your life.


Preface

While there are many conceptions of ideal beauty and physical perfection, no one vision of attractiveness is more valid than any other. Accepted standards of beauty within a culture change over time. This book is a record of my recent work that probes the parameters of women's physical appeal, the sources of their sexual allure.

My first book was an in-depth exploration of one facet of sexual experience. I was surprised at the number of women who, like myself, were fascinated with the world of fetishism and S/M. For this project I wanted to do a book for and about women that examines a broader range of erotic expression.

Of course, I am a woman and so I ask, why do women like to look at other women? Men have traditionally been the main consumers of explicit sexual images. But females looking at softly sexy pictures of women may actually comprise a larger market. Fashion magazines exploit this apparent fact. The impulse is more than women simply seeking to research the competition. But is it appreciation, lust, or bisexuality?

In Western culture, female sexuality is society's sexuality. Sexual desire is expressed principally through depictions of seductive or aroused women. Men's cravings are a given. Women's desire must be cultivated and nurtured, hence it has greater value, and greater power as a symbol of desire itself. From early in life, women's privacy around others of their own gender is more encouraged than men's. For us, bathing and elimination always happen in private booths. Our bodies must be more covered up. Our genitals themselves are less revealed. Perhaps this reduced level of access to intimate information about the real life appearance of others fosters greater fascination with those of our own sex. At the same time, a greater degree of physical intimacy among girls and women is accepted. Young women may hold hands when they walk together, dance together, even practice kissing without raising any suspicions about their sexual preference.

So men and women, both gay and straight, are likely to be drawn to images of women. Women as ultra vixens in all the regalia of femininity: lipstick, heels, and finery. Women actin out extreme expressions of their erotic cravings. Women masquerading as men. Women of all types.

Going beyond S/M chic, the chapter "Sadean Women" portrays sexually confident, strong women who are not confined to the accepted sex roles set by society. These are women who no longer feel compelled to choose between the roles of Madonna and whore, a dilemma that has plagued women for generations.

"Ritual Love" includes scenes that disclose the roots of sublimated desires. I maintain that many of women's preoccupations – with food, fashion, motherhood and child beauty pageants, for example – have a sexual basis. "Obscure Objects of Desire" features portrayals of sexual attachment to body parts of objects. While it is commonly assumed that only men have sexual fetishes, in my view femininity is intrinsically fetishistic. Glamorous accessories like high heels, gloves, fans, and masks are really sex toys. As control of image-making and access to media ceases to be male-dominated, products and representations that frankly acknowledge women's fetishistic urges will inevitably become even more pervasive.

Gender play is the theme of the chapter "Divine Androgyne." These are women who experiment with masculinity by dressing as the opposite sex or simply affecting a macho demeanor. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church canonized scores of female saints who had lived their entire adult lives as men. Many had changed their gender to access the religious training afforded only to priests.

"Ecstatic Theater" is a chapter of enactments of erotic scenarios. Here are women who are capable of acknowledging their innermost desires and letting them take form. Using costumes and props, they act out story lines that they long to experience and often subconsciously fear, such as being dominant or submissive in a sexual relationship.

The women in this book range in age from nineteen to forty-three. They are mothers, wives, girlfriends, gay, straight, and bi. They are tall, short, thin, fat, Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic. They are women breaking out of old stereotypes. Some represent the return of the playgirl philosophy, some believe in Girl Power, some revive Princess Diana. Some have adopted pop-star styles from Madonna to Riot Grrrls to the Spice Girls. All of them manipulate their own images, to exhibit their appetites, revealing myriad forms of desire.

Doris Kloster
New York 1998

© Copyright
Doris Kloster 2016