By Jack Hafferkamp
What is it about our apparently increasing cultural interest in fetishistic acts and images?
Is it all simply fashion for a fractious age? Is it merely foolishness for fractured fops and fopettes? Is it all about depersonalizing and objectifying women? Or is it just plain old dress-up fun for the culture of anomie? Whats going on with all this?
The basics are deceptively simple. Ever put on a pair of shoes or a particular shirt/blouse and felt sexy? At bottom, a fetish is a kind of associational substitution of a thing for the act of sex, so that certain things themselves have the power of arousal. Thus a dress or shoes or a perfume can be said to be "sexy." Body parts, too, can become fetishized, as in the common male love for big breasts. At this level, most all of us are fetishists to one degree or another.
But beyond that basic simplicity, it turns out that the concept of the fetish is complex, a shifting interplay among power and perception, objectification and gratification, glamour and perversion, compulsion and spontaneity, sublimation and sexuality.
One new book of note, The Beauty of Fetish by photographer Steve Diet Goedde, from the Swiss publishing house Edition Stemmle, dives headlong into this morass and comes up a winner, helping to explain and personalize the meaning of it all. One reason for the books success is the excellent explanatory essay by New York Times photography critic Vicki Goldberg that accompanies Goeddes luscious and lusciously reproduced photos. Says Goldberg:
A collection of fetishistic images is a kind of rarefied costume party where everyone masquerades as the same character: an objectified, abstracted, depersonalized female, her secondary sex characteristics magnified at the expense of her face, her feet removed from usefulness to become objects of abject admiration, and her body constricted by laces and cased in hard, shiny, slithery materials that render it inaccessible.
The woman becomes a kind of display case for a set of props that are perhaps more beautiful and interesting than she, thus reducing sexuality to a set of (possibly) attractive stereotypes and successfully domesticating it.
In 140 often playful images, photographer Goedde manages to underscore both Goldbergs point and simultaneously make human and familiar a group of very urban-looking women for whom fetish gear is fashion statement, beauty enhancer and reaction to hard-edged environment. That is, while Goedde is very much a photographer of fetish fashion, he is also much more -- and this is the unexpected, even magical aspect of this surprising book. Goedde manages to personalize a process that basically removes the personality of the subject.
The result is a collection of fetish photos that are cool yet warm, sexy but not overtly sexual (much less so than, say, Calvin Kleins fetishistic underwear ads of a couple of years ago) and inviting rather than off-putting. Amazingly, Goedde manages to put a human face on fetish fashion.