“It’s always a little bit of a shock,” says photographer Chris Scalise. “But it seems like they can’t take their eyes away from it.” He’s describing viewers’ typical reactions to his latest collection of photographs, a documentary series on Noir Leather’s fetish shows. “They’ll pass by [an image that strikes them] — and then pass by again.”
Inspired by the work of a fellow Detroit photographer, Scalise (who specializes in editorial and commercial photography) attended his first Noir show in 1997. Although completely unfamiliar with the fetish scene, he found the atmosphere, um, intriguing — and was allowed backstage to do some shooting. About a dozen other events followed, resulting in the dynamic black-and-white images that now line the walls of his Oak Park home, waiting to be transported to Roam Gallery in Royal Oak for the opening of his new show this Saturday.
In a sense, some of the shots contain exactly the elements you’d expect — leather- and fishnet-clad models spilling out of their corsets, simulated sex acts, plenty of submission-dominance play. But what makes these photos interesting, aside from their titillating subject matter, is the candid behind-the-scenes look at the models themselves.
For the most part, the models were not posed. Scalise simply roamed around the backstage area, photographing models engaged in conversation, adjusting their collars and hiking up their latex bustiers. He also photographed the shows, capturing on-stage antics and audience reaction.
While viewing Scalise’s photos, you’re transformed into the role of voyeur. “[The viewers] are the ones staring through the camera viewfinder,” says Scalise. “They are the ones backstage seeing the models getting ready.”
And often you don’t want to look away.
Scalise finds unaffected sexiness, humor and vulnerability in his subjects. One woman laughs as another helps tape her breasts to fit into a skin-tight getup; a man in a chain mail headdress and (for some reason) goggles, sits pensively in the foreground while our eyes are drawn irresistibly to the woman in the background who wears a look of strange sadness.
One of the most seductive photos in the collection depicts a model attending to her appearance in a dingy, graffiti-splattered restroom. Viewed from behind, she is wearing a G-string, garters, bra, an armband and what appear to be thigh-high boots. A long fall of (probably fake) dark hair spills down her back. The shot beautifully captures the curvaceous lines of her body. But there’s also something potently erotic about the way she carefully adjusts a garter. It’s such a feminine gesture and is only enhanced by her grimy surroundings.
I ask which is his favorite and Scalise points out an image of a tall woman wearing a short leopard-print dress. She leans over to tug on the leash of a nearly naked guy who is crawling on all fours. “I like the sense of movement in that one,” he says.
He acknowledges that few people are deeply rattled by fetish images anymore.
“The whole subculture of B&D-S&M is slowly being marketed to the mainstream.”
This was another good reason for him to document the Noir events — he wanted to capture an authentic sense of the phenomenon before it gets assimilated.
The public may be harder to shock, but apparently grocery stores aren’t. One of Scalise’s fetish photographs was banned from the Detroit Artists Market last year.
“They decided to pull it because of the sponsor — Farmer Jack.” He laughs, “And I thought that was really cool.”
“Christopher Scalise: Photographs” opens Friday, Oct. 19 (7-10:30 p.m.) at Roam Gallery, 212 W. 11 Mile Rd., Royal Oak, and runs until Nov. 9. Call 248-245-ROAM.Christina Kallery writes about visions and illusions for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org