Dexx: You’ve been shooting fetish photography for decades, you’re a legend in the BDSM community, and probably the only fetish photographer that’s also a household name in the vanilla world. You didn’t start out doing Fetish photography or even pictures of people though, but rather with landscapes. So how did you actually become interested in photography all that time ago?
Ken Marcus: Well, I became interested as a kid. I think I was maybe five or six years old when I first picked up a camera and I was attracted to it. I got involved in doing dark room work, I think when I was around maybe eight years old. My brother had left a little kit from the boy scouts to earn a merit badge in the basement. I went down there one day, found it, pulled it out, read the instructions, mixed it up and started printing his negatives just because I was bored and thought that that would be fun to do. And it’s very addicting seeing pictures come up when you develop so I got into doing that and started studying with Ansel Adams at an early age.
When did you take your first fetish pictures?
That would have been in the early ’90s.
That wouldn’t have been the Penthouse magazine one by any chance?
No, well, yeah. Kind of. There was a layout that I did with a girl who was playing with some rope and wrapped it and did a couple of silly little things like that. You wouldn’t really call it bondage. But it was enough that that particular issue of Penthouse wasn’t allowed in the UK, not in England, not in Canada, not in Australia and it ended up costing them a couple of million dollars in sales. They were hesitant to do that again for a lot of years. Did a similar thing with Playboy. I got them banned once in Canada…got them to push a few boundaries and the Canadians pushed back. So…some of the weirdest laws revolve around pornography.
So presumably before you did that first shoot in the early ’90s, you had a personal interest in BDSM?
Absolutely. All my life. Every serious relationship that I had, anything that lasted more than a short period of time. I tried a couple vanilla relationships in my lifetime but those didn’t last. But in regards to photographing it, you just didn’t do that back then. That was asking for trouble. I came from a period of time when you could go to federal prison for showing pubic hair or genitalia in a photograph.
Wow! So times have changed for the better then?
Times have changed somewhat for the better. There are very active forces right now trying to get rid of porn, trying every clever conceivable way. “We want to protect the actors. Therefore we want them to all wear condoms”. Knowing full well that no one will ever buy porn with somebody wearing a condom.
But these days you can obviously find just about anything that you might want on the internet.
Exactly. Because the current laws in the United States do not affect anything on the Internet. The United States has no place involved in the Internet. We have no jurisdiction. We can’t do anything. We can add jurisdiction over the production of content, but once it’s out there, you know, it could come from anywhere. How are you going to stop it? So that’s kind of where the world is evolved to now.
So the restriction that’s coming on the production side and you mentioned the “condom” thing; is that California specific?
Yeah, because no one makes porn in other parts of the US legally. I believe there’s some place in New Hampshire where it’s still legal. It’s not legal anywhere in Florida, yet there is a thriving Florida porn business.
All right. When you were sort of into BDSM but not really doing any photography yet, was there a scene or a community?
No, there was no scene, there was no community, there was nothing until the Internet came along unless you were male, gay, and lived in West Hollywood and would have happened to be connected to the right people that knew where the right underground clubs were. And that was about all that there was for many, many years. It wasn’t until maybe the early ’90s that the first night clubs for straight people started to have a little bit of BDSM stuff in there. They would have someone like Sir Nik come in with bullwhips or whatever…that was very daring in those days.
So how did you meet people…to play with or to have D/s relationships with before then?
I’m a special case. All I ever had to do to meet women is either answer my phone or answer my door. At the age of 23 I became the Penthouse photographer shooting the centerfold then after that I spent 11 years with Playboy doing that. There has been a non-stop parade of some of the world’s most beautiful and erotic women. Did I say neurotic or erotic? …Well, it’s a typographical choice there. Anyway, like I said I was a special case. Having a studio on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood during the ’60s, the ’70s was an amazing time. There was great social upheavals happening and most of the people involved in all of this lived in the neighborhood and they could hardly wait to come in and take their clothes off and fuck on camera. But it wasn’t BDSM. I’m not even sure they even knew the words BDSM. There were some kinky girls who liked to get spanked, there were some kinky guys who liked to spank girls, that was about it. In regards to bondage, that was something that maybe you read about in a foreign publication that was smuggled into the United States. It really wasn’t until the Internet when people could go on and see what the Japanese would do with rope. And that was a big eye-opener. You know, basically what it said to guys is, “Wow, if I buy some rope, girls want to get naked and I can touch them.” There was a lot of that, kind of…and there still is around the peripherals of it. I think that it required certain amounts of a broad scale mainstream exposure to little elements of it here or there that peaked people’s interests. You cannot discount some of the costumes and music videos and other media that would pick up symbolic concepts from the BDSM world and then throw it out to their vanilla audience. So, I think that’s been very helpful.
So how did you learn the technical skills of BDSM like rope tying for example, to turn into your shoots?
Well, I have a friend, Ira Levine otherwise known as Ernest Greene, and in the early ’90s he was making a lot of bondage films. And one day he calls up and he is in the neighborhood and he has with him a girl who is a direct descendant of the man that is credited for inventing photography. Her name is, her last name is Daguerre, as in Daguerre types. Cindy Daguerre. So he brought her over and I have some time, and I had a backdrop set up. So he starts tying her up and I start taking pictures and that was cool and I gave him some prints and gave her some and it was fun. Then over the next two or three or four years periodically he’d come by and bring girls. I’d find girls, he’d come over and we worked a lot together and he is a true master of technique of those days. I specify of those days, because times change, there’s different things now. Not to say that he hasn’t mastered all of those things, too. But at that time that was the best you could get, so he was actually making a living, doing that. It was a period of about maybe three years we worked together, then one day I get this job from the Japanese to do a book for them. They liked the book, they gave me another book, they sent out their art director. The art director is in the studio, he speaks hardly any English, I speak hardly any Japanese and he comes across some of the bondage pictures that I have done with Ira and some of his girls. And makes a phone call to Japan. They call me back 20 minutes later, “Would you like to do a bondage book for us?” My first initial response was, “No.” Because first of all there was no bondage scene in the United States at that time and that stuff was considered not only porn but like really weird creepiness. No one understood; there was no exposure to that stuff at that time. And they kept bugging me about it, I kept thinking about it, then one night I came up with an idea. I called them and I said, “Okay, here’s my idea. You send me Japan’s greatest bondage master, I will find America’s greatest bondage master, we’ll put the two of them together, I’ll get a bunch of great looking girls, we’ll get some fabulous American locations and we’ll shoot a book.” And they went for it. So for ten days I had Ira and I had this guy from Japan tying up girls. Well, I’m photographing the thing and it’s like watching two masters do their individual styles. You know you watch one guy do something and you think, “Oh, that’s the way it has to be done.” But you watch two people from two different cultures doing the same thing and you realize there’re really different approaches to it. The Japanese guy came away from that thing, this really is much more like human macramé. It’s art. The American and European approach to it is more of…it’s painful restriction. Even though the Japanese, you know, originally started it for controlling prisoners. Anyway, two totally different things and I have an opportunity to work with him. I’ve been a trained artist all my life and I kind of understand art when I see someone do their art. It’s like, “Okay, I get it.” I have good hand eye coordination, I can do that if I put my mind to it and so I just started doing that at that time.
So, really early on you were photographing other people doing the bondage but presumably now you do a lot of the actual tying?
Oh, yeah. And then bondage now crosses that line in sexuality, which it never did way back when. And so now, you’ll not only tie up a girl but then you’ll tie things to her and you’re touching her and you turn her on and don’t let her out until, you know, the parking meter says it’s time to go, you know [laughs].
That sounds pretty fun.
Yeah. Well, it beats working. It’s a lot of work.[laughs]
So it seems like now we’re kind of enjoying a bit of a renaissance era of kink. There are clubs around the country and there are websites where people can connect with each other and it’s started to become much more accepted in mainstream culture as well. Is that how you see it as well?
Yeah. It’s lost its edge.
Right. But it’s also much more accessible for people, isn’t it?
That’s why it’s lost its edge. You know, it’s like as long as it had to remain closeted then it was something special. But, you know, if the teenagers that live next door and you have already seen Fifty Shades of Grey and are talking about all this stuff and you’re embarrassed because you’re hearing as you’re going through the supermarket, you know, maybe it’s time for some people to like catch up with the times. Things have changed.
And do you think that’s going to continue, as time moves on that it’ll just become something that’s quite normal? People won’t really feel particularly embarrassed.
Normal is different from accepted.
If you were to compare with, for example, gay culture, which is now pretty accepted in many parts of the Western world. And that is something that happened within my lifetime that I never really expected to see much. I grew up in West Hollywood. You know, I always thought that was, rather funny that I grew up to be a centerfold photographer for magazines where I’m supposed to portray the quintessential girl next door. Whereas growing up on King’s Road in West Hollywood the girl next door was a 42 year-old man that wore a dress on the weekend. It’s a little different where I come from.
Right. So, some of the major Fetish porn producers like Intersec and Kink.com and yourself have obviously influenced a lot of the younger generation of kink minded people. Do you see that as being a positive influence?
Absolutely. It’s feeding a hunger, you know, I think that it’s important that people that have aggressiveness get in touch with an understanding what that aggressiveness is and how they can use it, what their options are. Just because you’re aggressive doesn’t mean you should go out and punch someone out but if the only way that you can get off is by punching someone out, find someone who likes to get punched out. It’s that simple, you know, everything has to be negotiated and accommodating to each one. So that’s what the BDSM world is providing outlets to…And, you know, the…I used an extreme example, we’re using physical violence because most of what goes on in BDSM really is more of a power exchange mental thing, you know. If you’re a dominant and you’re with someone who is submissive its nice to be able to let your dominant side come out and vice versa. Whereas we all have the function in polite societies so we can’t always be ourselves.
So out of all the fetish photography work that you’ve done over years, are there any projects that really stand out to you as highlights?
Well, certainly that book project that I did with Ira and Takashi, that was an eye opener, that was a milestone, that was something that I didn’t even understand at the time how important that would be.
I read that a long time ago you created your own light diffusers because nobody was making the kind that you wanted.
Nobody was making any kind. Now that kind of a look had fallen out of fashion for many years and as I was growing up in photography, everything was about sharpness and contrast and that’s just the way everything looked in those days. I always remember this one picture that Ansel Adams showed me that he had shot of some water, some trees, some bushes, sky and it was shot on an 8×10 view camera on a special Kodak soft focus lens. I always remember the way that that looked, it had a very romantic feel to it. It gave more of an impressionistic feel of what you were looking at rather than a clinical linear field. In talking about it with him, he said you know you don’t have to have one of these lenses you know, you can just take a piece of glass and rub some Vaseline over the front of it and put it there and it can do kind of the same thing. So many years later I’m getting ready to shoot my first layout for Penthouse Magazine and I realized all we’ve got is like a couch and a rug and it doesn’t even look that good. What am I gonna do? Well maybe if I diffuse it or blur it out? So I took a skylight filter, screwed it on, a little bit of Vaseline, shot it through this blurry, blurry thing. They loved it, they ran it, double page spread for the opening thing and for the next three years I had layouts, centerfolds, covers, everything in Penthouse Magazine every issue.
So aside from the light diffusion, is there any particular attribute that you would say distinguishes your work in terms of style or mood or content?
Well, no. I mean I have gone through a lot of different technical looks over the years. I think my strongest suit is composition lighting, the technical end of all of that.
How do you find models that are interested in doing BDSM shoots?
I’ve found a number of them on various modeling sites. Like Model Mayhem. I find some on Fetlife. I meet people socially, I get emails from people who are interested and live in other places that are willing to make a trip out here just to do a shoot.
Well I guess it must easier to find BDSM models now than twenty years ago, right.
Than ever before.
What do you look for in models? Presumably you have a lot to choose from.
Well, I would hope that they would be attractive, although sometimes I’ve experienced models that can do incredible things and they’re not your typical kind of of attractiveness. I like people that have a sense of experimentation about themselves, that want to push their limits, that have a sense of show business about themselves too. One of the nice things about living in Southern California, and being in Hollywood, is that you’re surrounded by some of the most talented people on earth. That’s what I find interesting, is that you’re never doing the same thing twice, even though you’re doing the same thing repeatedly because of the human element.
When you’re actually shooting with them, how do you prepare them or work with them to get the best out of them so that they’re presenting their best side?
I direct them. I’m a good director, I pay attention to detail and I share with them during the shoot. A lot of photographers don’t show people what they’re doing. I’ll stop every fifteen, twenty minutes or so, whenever I feel that it’s appropriate. They look at it and they go, “Oh that’s great, but can we do that again, but this time maybe I can point my foot more that way?” That’s where it pays off, you make them part of the creative process.
Are there any other kind of pitfalls for other photographers that might be starting out doing this kind of thing?
Sure, absolutely. Have insurance, absolutely! You’re gonna tie some girl up, you’re gonna run the risk of pinching a nerve or doing some sort of nerve damage that might cost her three months of not being able to work. You’re gonna get sued. Have at least a million dollars worth of insurance.
Do you have any other advice for any aspiring photographers just starting out, in terms of how to go about it?
I think the advice that I would give anybody with photography is have fun with it. Shoot everything, take a million pictures and then please don’t subject your friends to all of them. Do what’s known as editing. Call out the best ones, show a few around, have some fun with it but other than that, unless you’re trying to shoot for magazines or publications that have certain specific criteria that they look for, then don’t worry about it. That’s becoming less and less of an issue anyway because there are less and less print magazines.
If you were starting your own career all over again, would you do anything differently?
I would specialize in food.
Yeah. I did that for a while early in my career, it was the most money I have ever made in photography. It’s a fascinating field; it’s difficult to do. A lot of it’s involving digital manipulations these days but that’s true of anything. Yeah, big products, food, cars, I’m not even sure if architectural photography still pays, but there are large buildings that pay for things. There are still large paying accounts in the world of photography, but would I recommend that anybody go into that business? No.
Well it seems like you’re living the dream, so what’s next for you?
Well, I don’t know. My internet business is becoming increasingly less active than it has been. There are far more players in the business. I’m a one man show. It’s an entirely different kind of thing that I do. I don’t know of anyone else that’s doing this. I don’t know of anyone else that has the kind of operation that I do. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a lot of money behind you from something. I worked real hard for a lot of years to be able to afford this. So yeah, I’m living the dream because I’ve built a good solid foundation. That was one of the things that Ansel Adams instilled in me real, real early. He said everyone wants the pyramid but you’ve got to start with that first level. Build the strongest, best foundation that you can. Then as life goes on, you build on that, see where it gets you. Good advice.
Anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Well, let’s see, play nice, don’t steal pictures off the internet and republish them, join websites, think of kink as a religion: spend 15% of your income every month on supporting websites and toy manufacturers.
Ken Marcus is Los Angeles-based photographer specializing in erotica and BDSM for over fifty years. His work has been published in Playboy, Penthouse, and many more. View more information on Ken here: www.kenmarcus.com
Ernest Greene says
Ken – Congrats on a great interview and many thanks for the recognition of my contribution to your work. It’s been both an honor and a pleasure to be your friend and participate in your work. I’m pleased to have so many of my favorite Ken Marcus images up on the wall of Nina’s and my studio. They are a continuing source of inspiration.