By Pete Vonder Haar | April 19, 2005

After watching “Forbidden Photographs,” I realized we have photographer/anthropologist Charles Gatewood to thank for the surge in popularity of body modification and tattooing during the last decade. Conversely, you could also say we have him to blame for every hipster coffee shop waiter who is rendered unintelligible by an inch-long steel rod through his tongue. You make the call.
Filmmaker Bill Macdonald follows Gatewood as he travels to such places as San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair and Burning Man, snapping pictures all the while. The result is a fascinating trip through America’s subculture, which Gatewood has been documenting (in books like Modern Primitives and True Blood) through his unique photography for over 40 years. From early snaps of such figures as Bob Dylan and author William Burroughs to the modern-day fetish and blood ritual scene, Gatewood has no equal when it comes to experience with the underground and the level of access his fame allows.
Gatewood majored in cultural anthropology in college, and his unique approach in combining photography with a social scientist’s eye has helped not only to document the rise of piercing, self-mutilation, and fetish culture, but also to examine how these movements have made inroads into mainstream society.
Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that Gatewood is remarkably candid about his past and his own appetites. His self-confessed voyeurism is evident in his tamer photographs, which prominently feature attractive goth-type girls in various states of undress. It isn’t until some of his more extreme shots are shown – a tattooed fetus, people dangling from hooks, a guy with his penis split in two (voluntarily) – that one appreciates the respect accorded him in this particular world (or perhaps the amount of attendant exhibitionism).
Macdonald assembles interviews with a variety of artists, psychologists, gallery owners, and fetish types, all of whom predictably sing Gatewood’s praises. While I didn’t really miss the inclusion of opposite views, it might’ve been amusing to get some foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist to counterpoint the voluminous praise with a rant about painted w****s and sodomites.
The one thing I found mildly ironic about “Forbidden Photographs” was how so many of his subjects described how easy it was to model for Gatewood on account of how “normal” looking he is. And while it’s true he resembles nothing so much as your local green grocer or that guy who taught Art in high school, it strikes me as funny that Gatewood wouldn’t have had half the success he has in the underground scene if he actually looked like a member.
For those not familiar with the work of Charles Gatewood (probably a good chunk of mainstream America), I encourage you to seek out “Forbidden Photographs.” Some of what you’ll see is titillating, some is disturbing, and some will make you recoil in sympathetic pain. All of it is compelling, however, and will get you to acknowledge certain ways of life you may not have known existed.
But please, no more Prince Alberts. I beg you.

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