I posed a number of questions to this famous fine art photographer of the erotic, with an emphasis on his aims and motivations in the production of his more controversial work.
MM: Why did you move into more demanding and explicit imagery, away from socially safe erotic art nudes?
It wasn’t something that was done with any conscious thought but rather something that evolved from and was driven by, my female subjects and their desires to express and explore their darker fantasies and for me to record them.
MM: Can you enlarge upon this?
China: I have always worked with both friends and indeed lovers rather than hired models. I have never paid for someone to pose for my camera. I feel that as soon as it becomes a commercial relationship, that the essential intimacy is lost. I believe the underling secret of my work, lies in my subjects being completely at ease and engaging in what could be described as a joint venture. What is captured by the camera is happening for real. If sexual pleasure is present it is real arousal, if humiliation is revealed in their body language it is real, if they show suffering or pain then it is equally genuine.
MM: How much do you feel is contributed by your subjects, models to the scenes that are portrayed?
China: It is a complete collaboration. Often lengthy discussions take place before hand, both of course face to face and often by email before they arrive with me.
We discuss with complete candour their usually very private fantasies and desires to experience certain things. Obviously I take their accounts and suggestions and offer them ways that such things can be explored. I sometimes build a special piece of equipment to facilitate their desired experience or source devices and specialist items that will be used.
MM: Just how ‘real’ are the captured moments we see in your work? Your work has a very distinctive signature of darkness and mood, how and why is that achieved?
China: I have been known to work with a subject over a period of days, I have almost always worked alone, just myself and the woman. There have been times when for practical reasons I have needed the help of another man, with say heavy lifting requirements or even the rare presence of a man in the pictures. Normally it is just myself and my subject. The scene is explored as one would in any normal BDSM union, however I must remain unemotionally involved, as I have to pause things to move lights and of course take the pictures. This is though not something done in a studio but taking place in a real environment. As I have said nothing is faked. I do though sometimes, even in darkroom printing days, remove marks of flagellation that may have accumulated from previous moments, so that it appears that the subject is starting again from scratch in a new scene.
MM: Your work has a very distinctive signature of darkness and mood, how and why is that achieved?
China: My art and my photography must do much more than just record what is taking place at any moment. I love the libertine world of the Victorians when so much went on in secret and in the flickering light of candles and gas-light. When dominance and submission were explored in the dark of the night in some massive old house. The interplay of power and money with the permissiveness of position. I wish to re-create this world for the voyeuristic pleasures of those who enjoy my work. People must be able to use their imaginations to decide what has gone before and perhaps what is about to happen. The still image must present, often ambiguous moments, that draw the viewer’s mind in and permit it to engage its own fantasies. I try to be like a writer who does not provide too much information but rather just sets the parameters of a scene letting the reader paint their own pictures. What is interesting is that my most devoted fans seem to be women.
Thank you China for sharing some of your ‘secrets’ behind your work and contributing a few images from your vast archive. I know that interested people can learn much more about your philosophy and see a large range of work on your web site, ChinaHamilton.com