Libido: Reviews: Badlands
Charles Gatewood’s Badlands

By Sophie DuChien

“I’ve always liked to look at forbidden things,” says Charles Gatewood in the introduction to his new book from Goliath press, and for nearly four decades he has pointed his camera at things that make the bourgeois blush and fundies fulminate.

This 350-image, black-and-white collection, packaged in a small (7.5 in. by 5.75 in.), fat, glossy paperback volume reflects both changes in America and changes in Gatewood, from the bad-boy freak photographer of the ‘60s in New York to the ‘80s Modern Primatives artiste to the detoxed San Francisco underground cameraman of the ‘90s, documenting the tattooed, pierced, freakiest of the freaky.

Gatewood’s vision is akin to New York’s justifiably famous Weegee; only Gatewood’s universe isn’t a gritty, night-time city. It’s a balls out, f-64, point of view that’s blended the revolutionary fervor of the ‘60s with a William Burrough’s-like darkside vision of art as a cultural battering ram, daring viewers to feel the images viscerally. In the introduction Gatewood is quoted saying, “I want my pictures to SCREAM. I want my pictures to punch the viewer in the nose.”

And that’s exactly what he does, pushing into the viewer’s face a fistful of human envelope pushers — if I’m not mixing too many metaphors.

Not all of Gatewood’s nose punching is about sex as outlaw activity. There is collected here, for example, the famous “Tattooed Fetus” image, which is probably as much of a challenge to delicate sensibilities as Robert Mapplethorpe’s famous image of the bullwhip-up-his-butt photo. Also included are Gatewood’s photos from Wallstreet, which paint the place as dark, cold, hard, ominous and limiting. So, too are there difficult, mostly (for me) anti-erotic pictures of people pierced by hooks and hung up by their flesh, and people who find expression in blood play.

Yet what’s remarkable to me is that so much of what Gatewood sees as challenging has to do with sexuality as a mode of expression. The act of declaring oneself sexually, Gatewood seems to say, is the most direct way to peel off the layers of dead civilization to feel the basic impulses of life.

One difference in Gatewood’s work over the years that became apparent to me from perusing Badlands is that his portraits have gone from people doing to people posing. To tell the truth, I’m not quite sure what that means. Maybe someday he’ll tell me.

Badlands, photographs by Charles Gatewood (Goliath, 1999. ISBN: 3-9805876-4-9. 448 pages, paperback, $39.95)

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