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The Road to Darkness

By Association Member China Hamilton.

The strange world of my art is really rather beautiful to me but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I have now been within it for a very long time as I started making and processing sunlight photographs at age eleven and painting and drawing seriously at age 13; I even sold my first painting at that age. The four years of degree level Art College failed to dampen my visual desires and the greatest benefit to me was studying drawing the nude under the great, late Fred Janes.

Though people may not always think so, my work moves between the simple beauty of the female nude to the darkest recesses of what is so often now called ‘BDSM’. This is woven in with an overwhelming love of women, their beauty, their strengths and their intrigue. I, like so many people I know, can trace my passions back to my earliest memories. I feel very strongly that our various traits and desires are born within us and are in no way different to say being born gay. Like being born a homosexual we are misfits in a straight and prejudiced society. It is only recently that we have been able to be more open and public and to avoid persecution by the police and the censor. These restrictions upon published work for so long slanted the work of mine that people got to know publicly, towards the softer more classic images.

I say this because for the very many newcomers into the world of erotica and especially its BDSM side, such problems are hardly known or understood. [It isn’t so long ago that you couldn’t even show a curl of pubic hair and only perhaps about ten years ago that main stream magazines wouldn’t show any bondage.] It has now attracted many who just see it as a form of enjoyable sexual liberation, of dressing up and of strutting fashion with the occasional flick of a very soft whip. There is for example a great deal of difference between a person who dons some rubber because it flatters their figure and someone who sleeps in rubber sheets because it is fetish and most arousing sexually. Equally there is a great deal of difference between someone who pretends to squirm and cry out when flicked with a velvet whip and someone who takes a severe beating because they hunger for the arousal and the drug high that it brings. The people who are in this world are there because they have always been aroused by a particulate aspect and are for me the ‘real’ people. These are indeed the women and men who used to inhabit and form this world before it was flooded by what we often term as ‘tourists’. I explain all this because it matters to me and to those like me who were born to it. The women that I work with are the real thing. Their expression of their sexuality through real and often demanding scenarios and fantasies, matters deeply and emotionally to them. It is not some fashionable, trendy make believe.

So for me as an artist, it is very much about their beauty and honesty and the latent beauty and honesty of such situations of expression. It is hard sometimes for outsiders to understand that for the vast majority of us it is all part of caring and loving relationships. Dominance and submission in a balanced partnership is played out as a genuine part of that relationship which then fulfils and feeds its sexuality. If it includes one of many variations and fetishes that is all part of the pleasure. It is certainly not about abuse in any shape or form. It is also such an open and understanding church. Every strange and subtle consensual adult sexual attitude is tolerated and accepted, it welcomes the rich professional and the person on benefit from all races. It is an unique place where even the disabled can feel a rare equality and be at home. There are no fights and no violence. Every form of religion and belief is there and people talk about their mortgages as much as they do about sex, in fact more!

My creative role has been to forge a bond between myself and my subjects. I say subjects because I am never happy with the term model. It is rare that I work with women without the establishment of at least a close friendship. It is often those first, tentative encounters that develop into a long working relationship that in turn develops and permits greater intimacy and expression as we both become more comfortable with what we are recording. It is this relaxed intimacy that is perhaps the secret of my work. I believe that I must record and help to express very genuine and often demanding moments that allow the expression and sharing of deeply private sexual and erotic fantasies. When such a working union is forged it is then that very special work is produced. My job is to explore, facilitate and capture, not as a mere photographic record but to produce an image that communicates emotion and connects with those who see it.

I have developed over many years a special way of working; most work does not even start until midnight is well past. Tiredness produces a relaxation on both my part and my subjects that seems to liberate the senses. Windows are dark and even the 1000 watts of tungsten I use is turned off unless a picture is to be taken. It is very rare that it is not a one to one only, spectators are to me a distraction and unless on rare occasions the scene demands considerable engineering and help, others are not present. The less organisation and pre-planning there is the better things seem to get. As together we create scenes and moments I occasionally pause to take a picture as wonderful, fleeting images become apparent to my eye. Everything is practiced instinct.

What I am doing though is building upon and exploiting nearly fifty years of photography and drawing. I add drawing because it is the discipline that teaches you to see and observe. One needs to train the eye to note every nuance of the setting, to spot and correct even the smallest thing that is not quite right, an eye, a hand, the angle of the head… Technical knowledge cannot of course be abandoned to instinct unless it is ingrained deep within you. It is rather like the difference between practice and performance. I have always taught students that the great weakness of photography as a creative medium is the so common distraction of the technical. Most people come to photography through such a technical route, yet fussing with cameras, settings and lighting is the opposite force to simplicity and creative instinct.

In my earlier times when all my work was of course darkroom based, I was obsessed by the possibilities of producing individual and unique prints. I developed a number of completely new processes and techniques many of which were taken up by other photographers as I shared them in the photographic and print making press. I expanded many of the processes used by the Victorians so that the photograph would transcend the simple print and become a piece of art, quite un-repeatable. I have always seen the great dilemma of photography as art in its ability to mechanically reproduce identical pieces of work. Special printing techniques prevent this from happening as they are too complex and too manipulated to repeat themselves. Printing is the moment of the art, the negative, the digital recording are but raw materials, like sketches. Life is only breathed into the creation when it is printed, it is a vital production when photography is the medium.

Equally photography exists to provide many services, the vast majority to just record and present the subject with professional quality. Fine art photography is only produced by the true artist but even so, it is for them only a medium. What matters is both the driving motive and the unique creative contribution such work brings. The same criteria and judgments as for say a painting or a musical composition are needed. Art must move people, stir the soul, be desired, be possessed, be coveted. It must move things forward and often it must be controversial. The real artist is driven to produce their work; admired, hated or ignored they are compelled to create. It is always though others who judge and value. The internet and its proliferation of imagery has both expanded the availability of work to a much wider audience but at the same time it had devalued totally the individual piece of work in its original form. It is as though we only see the visual arts through reproductions of them upon a small screen, as we used to see paintings and sculpture in books of photographs, rather than seeing the work in the flesh, upon a gallery wall or towering over us. Photography as an art, is not just about the image, it is also about the fine quality of the print as much as the texture and brush strokes of a painting are vital to its full appreciation.

What is interesting for me is that I was driven out of my darkroom by the dreadful poisons and the fumes that were slowly killing me, as they have others in my chemical field. Fortunately the digital world had at last developed sufficiently to produce very high quality prints and images. So that is now how I work. There are though those who feel that photographic art cannot be produced except by the traditional wet methods; a Luddite attitude that cherishes the classic print over the digital. Rather like those who stupidly think that painting can only be art if it is oil on canvas. I do produce my prints on archival hand made paper, as I so often did in the darkroom. I still believe in quality. I am not afraid to use the many tools that the digital process can offer which help work to succeed even beyond the constraints of darkroom printing. In the end though I still strive for a classic print leaving the special effects and distortions of Photoshop to the 21st century photographers.

What has always mattered, in any art or craft, is the finial result. It is the content not the process or medium that matter, they are just tools. It is irrelevant if a wood turner uses a foot driven lathe or an electrically powered machine for it still requires his skill and his mind, above all his love, to produce wonderful work.

Emotionally, now after fifty years, I seek more than I have ever done before for simplicity and beauty. My real challenge is still to capture the extraordinary sexuality and power that many women have. This is what drives me.

I have chosen a difficult theme and one that has put much of my work on the fringes of photographic art. Indeed I am now shunned by the establishment for I have moved so far beyond the simple and acceptable nude woman and have opened the door to the infinitely darker world that is neither understood not accepted except by those who belong there. This happened because I saw a greater challenge that excited and drove my creative instincts. To be permitted to attempt to capture a woman in a moment of sexual ecstasy produced through fantasy, submission and real suffering is a rare gift to be given. To be there when it starts, to be there when it happens and to be there when she lies exhausted and recovering is to seek a form of beauty few are privileged to share. Pornography revels in the fake and screaming orgasm, I strive to find the body language and the look upon the face that can never be faked. So the challenge will continue, a private journey with my few wonderful subjects that in the end can be shared with others who sometimes most kindly appreciate and understand.

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