Photographer Gatewood explores underground

When a Williams student asked the underground photographer Charles Gatewood what the purpose and the messages of his art were, he gave the frankest answer one could give: “I get a thick check in my pocket.” Gatewood, who gave a slide show and discussion on campus on April 25, is a man who has fun doing his work and he gets paid for it.

The very existence of such a man deals a blow to the convenient assumption that, unlike any other occupation, art has to have a purpose and a message beyond liking what you do professionally. No one would ask a physicist, a cook or, god forbid, an investment banker what the message of his or her work was. Art is a different realm, though. Art is just about the only realm where one feels authorized to question and to judge – it remains the only refuge of incompetent judgment.

What makes the photography of Charles Gatewood hard to look at is not the scenes it has captured, but the fact that he has taken both his art and his worldview to a level where not a single impulse for judgment can thrive. His is a kingdom reined by objectivity and professionalism. The kings and the queens of this kingdom have marred their skins with the royal garb of exquisite and eccentric tattoos, crowned their genitals with metal piercing, or tasted the blood of their fellow humans. They smile from Gatewood’s photographs in their ecstatic celebration of excess, intoxicated by the adrenaline and endorphins the body releases in response to pain and to transcend the borders of all that is human.

The light in their eyes is horrific and hypnotic; it could make one run to a mirror and examine one’s face in solemn silence. This light is fixed onto all that exists, and like the flames of the candles in a church, is cathartic.

All that the artist Gatewood has to say about this is that he wants “to make kick-ass photography that would knock your socks off.” The anthropologist Gatewood has refrained from viewing these people as bizarre specimens or as subjects of scientific exploration. All that the human being Gatewood has to say about this objectivity is that these same representatives of the freakish and the primitive, these beings from whom we avert our eyes, are smart and talented, and that they have become his friends.

He has also refrained from becoming one of them in order to safeguard his objectivity. Gatewood is a human who encounters and portrays the ahuman with the eye of an artist, with the soul of a sage. By “ahuman” I refer to images that I cannot call “superhuman,” even less so “inhuman,” or, worse, “inhumane.” By ahuman I mean the photograph of a man, hanging on metal hooks by the skin of his chest; the pale blond woman with huge gleaming eyes, holding a huge syringe of human blood; and the one of a dead fetus, whose chest now bears a heart-shaped tattoo.

Behind these images is a man, dressed in black jeans and a black jacket, who is unafraid to admit that what he photographed scares him, too, and that some of these people died overindulging in their excesses. To think that he has been there, a camera shot away from what many are afraid to look at, and that their horrific elegance failed to blind or numb him, is not ahuman, though. It is inspiring, and like all that ever inspired, it is not normal.

Gatewood claims that even as a child he had “no concept of what is normal.” These were the times, when, instead of photographing fetish, he walked into his house to find sleeping on the couch a drunkard from Oklahoma who was going out with his babysitter. These were the times when his parents subscribed to the celebrity tabloid magazine “Confidential,” and hid it, presumably unsuccessfully, from him. Then came the time when, at age 15, Gatewood grew his first beard, and at 16, hitchhiked his way across America, only to leave his home for good a year later.

Studies of anthropology and art history followed with a plunge into the life of the ’60s in New York, a photography apprenticeship in Sweden and many, many photographs. Gatewood has done both textbook and magazine photography. He has taken wedding, passport and yearbook pictures. He has taken also a picture of one of the tattooed, pierced models while she herself is attempting to photograph him. On the picture, one can see his naked toes – but not him. He has remained discreet, but proud – objective, but not nonchalant. Here is a man who is abnormally good at what he does.