George Pitts was the director of photography of Vibe magazine and went on to be the director of photography of Life magazine from 2004 to 2007. In addition to his numerous exhibitions and published photographs in the United States and oversea, he has received numerous honours in photography and has recently focused his energies on fine art photography, painting and writing. He teaches courses about the photographic representation of sexuality at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. With his chain wallet and many rings, Pitts is full of rigorous energy, and he’s currently working on a book project for Taschen on the subject of “mature women.”

Related: erotic portraits by George Pitts

Q: How did you start working with erotic concepts in some of your photography?

It was the natural transition from my painting which reflects similar content. But witnessing various photographers who I worked with in the '90s as a photography director at Vibe magazine, and attending tons of shoots by emerging and established talents certainly influenced me. But it was when I purchased a book by [Nobuyoshi] Araki, entitled Tenshi-Sai, that was particularly subtle, naturalistic and excellent in its use of colour, that I slowly decided to change practices. 

Q: Having worked with Life magazine as their director of photography, how did you undertake your first erotic imagery, given your awareness of contemporary photography?

A Russian model told me recently that "erotic photography allows you to dream, whereas pornography erases the need to do so," which stuck with me. There are several formal looks in "contemporary photography"; some are classical, rooted in black and white imagery, and there are also various styles of colour representation that run the gamut from the snapshot aesthetic, fashion and beauty, and environmental portraiture, to name a few.

I'm drawing from these differing modes, classical and contemporary, to conduct a dialectic of representation that is both reverent and, at times, irreverent. Images of women in our culture seem to equivocate between these two central modes of representation. But I also look to cinema in considering how to represent sexuality within the still frame. The degrees of piety associated with black and white photographic depictions of the eroticized nude collapse when one draws on the black and white cinematic style of, say, a populist softcore artist like Russ Meyer; and that interests me, when the pretense of reverent technique confronts the physical presence or glamour of an individual's body.

Serious photographers tend to evade the issue of erotica, perhaps because the word itself isn't much better than the word "pornography." A central concern of mine is how to render contemporary sexuality creatively, with beauty, wit, depth, intensity and compassion; introducing newer paradigms in the process. Not every subject needs to be depicted as pretty in order to be seen as beautiful. Should the depiction of the eroticized body only lie in the domain of porn? I don't think so.

Q: What do you think of the continual allure of fine art nudes, surfacing alongside the proliferation of more graphic sexual imagery, porn?

The "fine art nude" is arguably the more respectful and refined manner of photographing a woman or man, yet more sexually frank images can also be entailed in this style of representation. Graphic imagery doesn't necessarily preclude a more artful purpose, and one can't forget that cultural mores about sex also inform the discourse regarding images. The term "fine art" can be an oxymoron in certain respects, enforcing a preoccupation with rigid notions of good taste that don't accommodate the cultural urges identified with different eras.

For instance, the work of Helmut Newton introduced themes that were once deemed marginal and inappropriate for the mainstream, such as fetishism, sadomasochistic narratives and prosthetic body parts. One could argue that Newton had the requisite wit and intelligence to channel these elements into the fashion industry in a palatable visual style. The surrealists pushed for more freedom of expression in representing sexuality, and Newton, Guy Bourdin and the generations both before them and after, have enlarged the range of possibilities available in photographing the nude. The documentary realists such as Larry Clark, the fashion culture with its rabid eye for what is chic in a given epoch and the rise of female artists in fine art, performance art, dance, pop music and theatre have expanded the level of tolerance for images that reflect contemporary sexuality.

Q: What do you think of your work with Vibe magazine, in terms of how varieties of sexuality appears often in rap, hip hop, urban music cultures?

If I hadn't worked at Vibe, it's doubtful that I would have pursued photography as I do now. Vibe sought to represent and reflect the candour of hip-hop culture, and in the process women and men of colour invented an urban platform for their work that was contagious worldwide. Unedited speech and sexual suggestiveness were organic to much of the hip-hop perspective, and hip-hop forged an unprecedented level of cultural visibility for many disenfranchised sectors. So indirectly hip-hop contributed toward my own personal path.

vibe_ten_years_cover_2.jpgQ: With your 10 Years of Vibe collection [left], what do you think of sex symbol processes in this media – are you drawn to any figures?

Loved Lil' Kim, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl, Peaches, PJ Harvey and Lydia Lunch. Some of these women played to the media, and some had an aversion to it. The beauty lies in how different they are in their personas, in their musical expressions and in the construction of their pop images. Lydia probably loathes the idea of a  "pop image," and Beth Gibbons too.

Q: How do you see your concepts in your current book work on the subject of mature female nudes with Taschen? How is it developing?
The book work is proceeding steadily, but it's not the easiest project to produce quickly. I am indebted to the various women who have come forward to be photographed, and the experience itself has been profound for me....

Q: In looking for models from age 35 and older, what have you found working with models who are variably older?

Virtually all adult women are protective about how they appear in pictures. They are often even more cautious about the issue of nudity, and how comfortable and safe they will feel in revealing themselves, let alone their bodies, before a legion of readers. There have been a few women who were proud to be photographed, regardless of their body type. Those in the best physical shape were not necessarily those who were the most comfortable with being photographed.

The majority of the women have never been photographed seriously, and it can take some adjustment to pose in front of strobe lights. There has been no pattern to the kinds of women who have been portrayed, and they've come from all walks of life: a doctor, artists, musicians, working women in diverse fields, office managers, actresses, writers, a nudist, housewives and mothers. It's crucial to communicate the publisher's editorial agenda regardless of whether someone passes on having their picture taken. And during the correspondence with subjects and prospective subjects, I've learned a lot about how women feel about age, sexuality and why being in such a book has importance for them. Their reasons vary from woman to woman, and their motivations are rarely uniform.

Q: In looking at some of your recent work, I saw there’s a model who is pregnant and exposed. What do you think of the narrative, subjective processes in this, with many of your partial nudes, nudes?

Let's start with the pregnant women: 2009-2010 was a year I photographed three women who were pregnant or had just given birth. In my search for less generic subjects, pregnant women hold a fascination for me. But I endeavour to take compelling, even atypical, portraits that have a gently or strongly erotic intent. Some women feel their sexiest and their most desirous when pregnant, which was educational to learn. The physical form of a pregnant woman is glorious to admire and has its own inherent eroticism. The narrative I imagine I'm constructing with them is that in standing apart from the unctuous sentimentality associated with a woman who's expecting; there is the physical phenomenology of the process which is breathtaking, and I admit, heartwarming.

With the nudes, erotic portraits, surreal depictions and openly sensual pictures, I'm pretty much adapting to the temperament and actual sensibility of each woman or girl. My pictures are rarely simply about me directing people to do things for the camera. I have no cue cards, stating undress or flaunt your body. It's a dialogue throughout, a conversation about who they are as women and, of course, what they feel capable of sharing about themselves via their taste in clothing and attitude about their bodies. However strong the pictures may seem, it is a conversation we're having in pictures, not a shock corridor of thrills and spills.

Q: Are you interested in how nudes involving aspects of experience, differences of age, size, colour may challenge senses of beauty?
Yes, yes, yes and yes. Historically, we've learned from the travesties of wartime that race alone can challenge some region's idea of beauty or correct behaviour. Perhaps some mature women find it daunting about all the media attention lavished on young girls, but there are also some who feel it's perfectly fine, appropriate and merely the cultural order of things. The issue of size is probably just as radical as the issue of race, since curvaceous bodies are now as coveted as willowy forms. The inclusion of various physical types is representative of cultural tastes that cut across various races, systems of desire and even class.

Q: Have there been challenges, blocks working with diversity in erotic imagery?
I probably haven't indulged the matter of diversity extensively enough. A photographer like Araki explores all these issues within the context of Japanese women alone, which is amazing to ponder. The challenges that I contemplate are: what are the true merits of explicitness and whose taste does it serve? Is the genre of the fine art nude too sedate or is there a hybrid of nuances that is more resonant in its beauty, urgency and visceral impact? I'm interested in the idea of women recognizing themselves in the images of other women, which does entail some degree of idealization but not the erasure of character and those frailties that mark us as human.

Queer photography sometimes subverts the voyeuristic interest in seeing merely pretty women, and intellectually that's interesting. But I'm also interested in what that community covets about the female form and what constitutes desirability.

Q: I think it’s great you’re also reviewing the work of other photographers working with eroticism, like Ryan McGinley. What do you think, in terms of structures of critical commentary, about erotic, fine art photography?

I don't see enough effort to write critically about these areas of photography, and what little there is tends to reference the same few names. I still suspect an informed and comprehensive survey is yet to come, but maybe it begins with locating those who are genuine in their sensibility about these concerns or who exhibit a passion, or vision, or distinct range of techniques for the art of this practice.

Sometimes eroticism is just seen as fun, and [it is] rarely given the credit of being a serious vein of research. Because the subjects in these pictures are often seen behaving ironically or captured actually having fun or exhibiting pleasure, there seems to be the assumption that one doesn't need to take these images that seriously. Sobriety of expression is too often associated with genuine seriousness ... but there's critical work to be done in just discerning the merits of this photography.

Photographers such as Antoine D'Agata, Sally Mann, Gilles Berquet, Seiichi Furuya, and others have made stunning pictures that demonstrate an uncommon level of beauty, urgency or irreverence. Oftentimes too much ink is spilled on those who contrive a certain level of restraint in their rendering of the nude, with the assumption that discreet or understated depictions are indicative of true artistry, which is a premise I don't always buy.

George Pitts official website

Related: erotic portraits by George Pitts

5 Comments | Add a Comment
thanks for this homage-erotica nourishes, porn too often dissipates
a thinker-photographer
by turns thoughtful, wow
love to love ya baby!
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