Russ Karel’s 71 beautiful, large, photographs of naked and semi-naked young women in domestic interiors are some of the oddest and finest photographs from the period. ‘Odd’ because Karel took a popular soft porn genre and made it over into Pop Art. ‘Fine’, because he used a large format camera and antiquarian and very expensive darkroom techniques such as cyanotype, gum-bichromate, platinum and Kalitype often with pigments thrown in. They were also printed on fine rag or laid paper. They are luxury Pop ‘objects’ for the new domestic interiors of the ‘60s and ‘70s decorated with moulded plastics, glass and shiny mylar and furnished with Allen Jones erotic art furniture or Joe Colombo ‘living systems’.
Karel was a thorn in the side of British television, a fantasist who also made great documentary films that revealed the forgotten, glossed over and marginalised early histories of Yiddish and ‘Negro’ cinema. Jeremy Isaacs 1995 Guardian obituary for him described Karel as a protean figure, “Demon driven”, hounded by the FBI, entranced by the music of Mingus and who was at “..his worst most of the time”.
It would be easy to dismiss these nude, erotic photographs of young women of European and African-Caribbean origin as just ‘mucky’ photos by one of the ubiquitous amateur photographers who once haunted the nether-regions of our crumbling post-war European cities. They were fully paid up members of the ‘dirty Mac brigade’ who placed squalid little handwritten cards in the newsagent window “Models required. Good rates”. Or, a longhair’s version of this sexploitation derived from the sixties, a version of “Fucking for Freedom” or in this case nude modelling for freedom in the cause of ‘sexual liberation’.
There is of course a large element of truth in this accusation of sexploitation, the models are posed predictably, some with an unwilling ‘Rictus Sardonicus’ like grin, semi-clothed in the costumage of the early seventies ‘wank mag’, or just nude. Their gazes are fixed on the cameraman (“That’s it, babe. Make love to the camera” said David Hemmings’ character in ‘Blow-Up’), eyes stiffly beckon the male gaze in turn, and unnatural ‘natural’ poses ‘invite’.
The camera gazes back at them, fixing their identities into one moment of awkward posturing for the pleasure of male eyes. Even ‘worse’, they are tinted and printed in the most ‘vulgar’ of colours. Yet, in our age of instant and extreme sexual imagery at the end of a Google image search they compare well as the most innocent and mainstream of pornography. Photos are re-branded here in secondhandland as vintage, ‘retro’, erotica, one rule of the Establishment is that rude things are not offensive if they end in an ‘a’ or have a French name. As such, Karel made ‘tarte de fromage’ rather than ‘cheesecake’.
Who are the women in the photographs? The sessions were probably in Milan and or London, cities full of young, nubile baby boomers. Were they hard-up women making the rent? Maybe they were stray ‘flower children’ hitching across Europe (‘Ass, Gas or Grass. Nobody rides for free’ said a tee-shirt slogan of the time). Were some drawn into Karel’s orbit to pose ‘pro-bono’ for ‘art’s sake’; with promises that it would lead to greater things?
Some are posed on what look like ‘casting couches’, others sat the wrong way round on ratty looking dowel backed chairs or lounged with legs apart or made shapes in front of long mirrors. Or, they lay on stairs and floors signalling a kind of geographic or domestic sexual availability. Some kneel like sexual supplicants awaiting benediction, confirmation or communion. They wore what has now become the dress code for smut in the seventies; a vaguely hip smattering of over sized ‘fencenet’ stockings, shiny or peroxide wigs, beads and belts, silvery panties, feather boas, mini-skirts and long leather boots. Of course, this was long before the ‘vajazzled’ era we now live in and so the women largely have hair in their pubic regions and their breasts loll naturally and stomach lines are sensuous and traditionally feminine.
Karel worked with Andy Warhol and was a member of the glamorous world of film and television. He was on the same spectrum as Hemmings’ ‘mod’ photographer in Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’, a character based on David Bailey. Perhaps then, in the wake of ‘Couch’ and ‘Chelsea Girls’ it felt perfectly reasonable to take your clothes off for an ‘avant-garde’ photo-session. Or rather, quite simply, the women were professional sex workers, the so-called ‘Lucciole’ or fireflies of Milan’s ancient sexual services industry. Maybe, they were recruited from the ranks of ‘Go-Go’ dancers working in that grey area between selling sex and entertaining men.
The use of pigments makes them look painterly and this is reminiscent of Degas’s pastel depictions of women bathing. Degas also did monotypes and pastels of prostitutes in brothels wearing stockings, wigs and jewellery. The designer Carlo Mollino’s Polaroids of Turin prostitutes from the same period are also very similar. Yet, in Karel’s use of ‘obsolete’ and quite expensive, darkroom techniques such as salt, platinum, Kalitype and gum-bichromate he went beyond ‘copying’ the masters, mere amateurism or soft porn, or even Mollino’s secret art. He arguably created a new genre, a sort of antiquarian-Pop. Indeed, some photos, either by art or accident, look like blue skinned aliens or drag queen refugees from Warhol’s Factory.
Karel gave each of them at least one rubberstamp ‘F!ART’ as if he was torn between smut and erotica, high art and low art, erotica and porn, vulgarity and good taste. This is an area of artistic practise that is highly contested and that was explored with great rigour later in the 70s by Cosey Fanni Tutti/COUM Transmissions and others. These photos are a remarkable set of very experimental images.