By Chris Hall
The extent to which Michael Rosen's photography has shaped my sexual imagination can be demonstrated by Plate 7 in his newly-released collection, Vanilla Sex. It's an image of a heterosexual couple in a 69 position, shot from directly above the bed. The man is on top, his back curved up toward the camera, his face hidden between her thighs. She's staring up between his ass cheeks straight into the camera with a strangely placid expression on her face. The language of their bodies is passionate and tense, but her face is oddly still and unreadable, although in its way as intense as the muscles in her partner's curved back.
I remember very clearly the first time I saw that picture: it was sometime in the mid-90s, when the dot-com boom was in full boom. I was looking for a job, and somehow got an interview with Blowfish, one of the first sex-poz companies to sell toys online. To their eternal shame, they didn't hire me, but I did leave the offices with a copy of their most recent catalog, with Plate 7 on the cover. The image was so striking that I kept the catalog for years after the listings of merchandise inside became irrelevant. It wandered over my desk, in and out of drawers, and through various spots on my bookshelves until 2002, when I packed up the Richmond District apartment that I'd lived in for the past nine years to go live in New York City to live with a woman I had met.
In 2010, I'm still living with that woman, and the catalog is long gone. But it's symbolic of something about Rosen's work: it's been there, lurking as a part of my sexual imagination for at least twenty years now, even when I haven't immediately recognized the images as his. It might even be said that I've come to take him for granted, in the same way that one can look at Hopper's Nighthawks or the Mona Lisa for the millionth time without really seeing them. That was perhaps the best thing about working on this review of Vanilla Sex: I was forced to stop, look carefully at images that I had seen before, and think about what their real value was. Not just in Vanilla Sex, either; I also went back and looked at his collections Sexual Magic, Sexual Portraits, and Sexual Art.
The first thing that will strike people oddly about Vanilla Sex is the title. The very first image in the book is a woman on hands and knees wearing a gas mask and pissing into a wine glass. That tells you something right off the bat: the title, just as much as the photos themselves, is meant to redefine how we think about sex. For most people, "vanilla" denotes the stuff that society at large considers to be undeniably part of "sex." Vanilla sex is the stuff that you could admit to if you're a "respectable" citizen like a doctor or movie star. Traditionally, vanilla has been narrowly defined to monogamous heterosexual vaginal intercourse in the missionary position. At some point, the definition expanded to include blowjobs and pussy eating, and even spanking is considered a spicy variety of vanilla. And now, certain kinds of gay and lesbian sex are becoming vanilla (especially if you are or want to be married).
But Rosen's definition of vanilla is still more expansive than that. If you don't pick that up from the photos, he explains it explicitly in the Afterword: "For me, 'vanilla' means the spectrum of our community's sexuality: what we normally do. So, some photographs are of acts generally considered normal and standard... while others are of acts considered normal and standard only within the radical sex community."
However, the nature of the acts in Vanilla Sex are of less interest to me than the people performing them. Let's face it: sex photographers are a dime a dozen these days. You could probably fill the Louvre six or seven times over with technically proficient photographs of beautiful people clad in leather or latex who have been cuffed, tied, oiled, and pierced in countless imaginative ways. The majority of the sex and fetish photography that's available now shows a marked lack of imagination and displays nothing more than the boredom of the photographers with both photography and sex. The main inspiration behind it seems to be simply the idea that sex is automatically interesting. You can see all these photographers thinking that of they just point a camera at a well-toned 20-year-old in skimpy clothing, they'll have a provocative, interesting photo. Nothing could be further from the truth; sexual pictures can be boring, and frequently are, no matter how much high-fashion fetish gear you dress your models in.
The reason that these high-art attempts at eroticism fail so spectacularly is not only that they are repetitive, using the same body types and same fashions, but that the photographers so resolutely refuse to allow any reality outside the frame to intrude. Looking at them, you can’t imagine these perfectly poised forms to ever have existed beyond the millisecond it took for the shutter to open and close. Sex, which is the most kinetic and explosive urge we have, is presented with the inert beauty of an insect trapped in amber.
In contrast, the images that Rosen presents in Vanilla Sex extend far beyond the frame of the picture. Looking at them, you can imagine whole stories, whole lifetimes. In Rosen’s photos, fuckingwho we fuck, how we fuck, and whenis part of life. Rosen writes that the photos in this book “challenge the banality of pornography” and they do that by showing the extraordinary potential of the ordinary. We are overwhelmed by sexual images in commercials, art, and pornography, and you might think that the increasing number of images would indicate that we’re moving away from puritanism and towards more positive attitudes towards sex. But in reality, the great mass of those images in all three realms tell us one thing: “Sex feels good, but it’s not for you. You’re too fat, too skinny, too old, too poor, your tits or cock aren’t big enough, you don’t stay hard long enough. Sex is for the elite.” In Vanilla Sex, the pictures tell another story. Sex is part of life, a part of the narrative that we create just by being alive. While lesser photographers strive for perfection, Rosen’s images are beautiful because of the wrinkles, the scars, the gray hairs, the folds of flesh that accumulate on our bodies simply as a result of being alive.
I keep trying to find examples of photographs to describe, but the real experience is flipping through the book from one picture to another, and considering each photo in context. Plate 22, for example, is an image of porn star and Femina Potens owner Madison Young sitting on a stool, her eyes blissfully closed as she fondles her breast and massages her pussy through her underwear. On the opposite page, Plate 23, is a large woman, perhaps 300 pounds, reclining nude on her back. The expression of bliss on her face is very similar to that on Madison’s, and you can only wonder how it got there. Wondering is part of the pleasure. The title may be a sly prank on the part of Rosen, but the book as a whole is a worthy exploration of the potential of our bodies and our imaginations.