Self Publish Be Naughty, a book you can reconfigure for your own pleasure. Picture courtesy Self Publish Be Happy.
When people find out I’ve been working on an erotic book, the recurrent question is “Why?” The short answer is “Why not?” but, beyond my enthusiasm for doing what you’re not supposed to do, there are deeper reasons. Like most of my projects, the book Self Publish, Be Naughty mixes the personal and political, and presents photography that hides complex meaning behind a lighthearted, immediate appeal.
Self Publish, Be Naughty is part of a wider project called Self Publish, Be Happy, which I started 18 months ago [BJP, #7781] and which aims to nurture and champion the current explosion of self-published books. It’s a new venture for us, though, because it’s the first book we’ve published ourselves.
We launched a call for "naughty" pictures in March, and more than 5000 were submitted, both by established artists and young up-and-coming practitioners. I and three other members of Self Publish, Be Happy (one girl and two guys) then sat down for more than two days to look though all the images, picking out what we found personally arousing (“hot” or “not”) without knowing where they were from or who made them. We went though three rounds of editing, interrupted by various surreal long discussions on specific photographs’ erotic credentials, before finalising the edit – 122 pictures by 75 artists, running from the bizarre to the mundane, the allusive to the graphic.
Stinging nettle, 2010 (c) Agnes Thor, featured in Self Publish, Be Naughty.
Danil pose me, St Petersburg, Russia, 2011 (c) Alexander Sedelnikov.
Fundamentally, Self Publish, Be Naughty is a book of arousing pictures – a term we prefer to the adjectives “erotic” or “pornographic”, which are overloaded with history. Inspired by old porn magazines, we decided to print all the photographs full-bleed, obeying the dictat that the viewer needs to see the action as big as possible. But we broke one of pornography’s most basic rules by mixing various fetishes and sexual preferences.
Two years ago I interviewed Dian Hanson for BJP. Former editor of Juggs and Leg Show and current editor of Taschen’s "sexy books", she’s an authority on mainstream pornography, and believes it has to be specific to be successful. “In the 1970s, after the sexual revolution, porn publishers thought that men would all become bisexual and started publishing magazines catering for them,” she stated. “They all were a huge failure. If you get turned on by women wearing stockings and you buy a book with photos of legs you might be fine with girls wearing undies, but find that anything else breaks the arousal flow.”
Self Publish, Be Naughty doesn’t cater for an identifiable audience, and it deliberately mixes images for those who like women with shots for those who prefer men. For me, human desires are always in flux, and attempts to pin them down and label them are imposed by social constraints not nature. Sexual identities such as “straight”, “gay” and “bisexual” were once necessary tools in advocating for equality; in the 21st century, I think we are moving beyond such categorisation. Thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich and Michel Foucault, who have written on the relationship between sexuality, society and capitalism, are once again being discussed in universities as the assumptions of the last 50 years start to be surpassed.
Photo (c) Ben Seeley.
Josh (c) Carrie Levy
Self Publish, Be Naughty, I hope, can offer a visual embodiment of the debate. It is a flesh manifesto of a fluid approach to sexuality and gender. It’s not a book for bisexuals, it’s a book that doesn’t conform to such old language. New porn, Self Publish, Be Naughty also differs from conventional pornography in that we haven’t commissioned the images.
The contributors, most of whom are fine art and documentary photographers, were left to suggest their own vision of eroticism rather than attempt to craft something for the arousal of others. In most cases, we were sent images documenting the sexual excitement of the photographer, in which their presence was palpable. Sometimes they were even literally in the image – in our cover shot, a hand climbs between the photographer’s legs.
This means that the photographers are partners in crime or accepted spectators of real erotic encounters, rather than detached recorders of scenes made for the camera. That also meant that, in many images, especially the portraits, there is a sense of anticipation of something that is yet to happen.
The other element present throughout the book is a sense of fun, of gleeful naughtiness. Sex is encountered as in the everyday, as something enjoyable and instinctive but also comic and sometimes ridiculous. This sex is personal and intimate, but it’s also – ideally – universal.
Having taken liberties with conventions of porn, we decided to play with the rules of photobooks as well which, self-published or not, usually emphasise the sequence and narrative of the images. Instead, art director Antonio de Luca designed a changeable collection of A4 posters, printed by Ubyu, each of which could be a centrefold, and bound them together with a removable elastic band. When bought, each copy of the book will have an accidental sequence of pages; after that, it’s up to the reader to structure them. To us, that echoes the fragmented and subversive nature of desire, and the fact that each individual has their own approach to satisfying it.
We also avoided the canonical book structure of half-title, title page and so on, immediately confronting the reader with images. We avoided including an introduction, instead opting to present a collection of writings on sex, from Plato to anonymous online stories. I firmly believe photographs don’t always have to be explained. Their most potent quality can lie in their ambiguity, just as it can in sexual partners’ essential and enduring “otherness”.
Will all this be evident in the book? Perhaps not, but I like the idea it can be seen as a simple nudie book, an enquiry into a conservative genre and an expression of a younger generation that doesn’t feel sexual or gender constrictions. I hope it can be a political tool and an expression of a change in society. It will hopefully infiltrate without being obvious, provoking its readers in every sense of the word.
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