Erotic Notion #68: Eros is a Small Dark Circle
By Hapax Legomenon

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"...more steps. I've got to get higher ...higher..."
final line, "Great Ziegfeld"

The lusty adventure began when an Indian gentleman walked into my photolab, offering a lot of business. "It's for a very special project," he said.

I showed him my price list, and he smiled. "Do you have volume discounts?"

"Sometimes," I said. "What kind of project?"

"My company does many things — magazines, promos, videos. Sometimes we need outside help when our regular photolab falls behind. Our merchandise is very special, only for adults, if you know what I mean." He chuckled nervously, although not with the least bit of embarrassment.

"Sex magazines?"

"Exactly. My company prints ten different magazine titles a month — about 100 a year. Plus video boxes, promotional material, advertisements. We need someone to handle the overflow."

"Let me see," I said, entertaining the thought of it for a moment. Perhaps I should have been repulsed or offended, but I already had experience with a variety of content and customers. Sex photos were just another niche to me. Besides, I wasn't in a position to refuse business. I was 61 and had over two decades experience in photography — seven years at this photolab. Two assistants worked part time for me, but essentially it was a one man operation. I could do anything I wanted, even pornography.

I asked for samples, and the man opened the briefcase, bringing out a stack of glossy color publications. I flipped through them quickly, looking past salacious content to take note of color processing and layout. Though clearly competent, these photos were amateur stuff, probably a 35 mm with ambient lighting and no fancy flashes or color effects. It would be a meat and potatoes job. "Do you do any hardcore stuff?" I asked.

"Absolutely!" he said. "That's 99% of our business. I don't usually carry them around with me."

"Indeed," I said, flipping to a page where three nude girls sat in a line, shaving the crotch of another busty girl. I smiled and glanced at the man. "Are all the photographs this artistic?"

The man shrugged and said, "you can't imagine what readers will pay for these days."

I agreed to the project — on the condition that nothing was illegal or too sadistic or gross. I hardly needed involvement in that. The man assured me it was all legal, the normal in-and-out stuff, lots of come shots, nothing too way out, but still very kinky. I started to ask him what he meant, but decided to wait until I could see for myself.

The nude was already a subject familiar to me. I had once studied the great Renaissance masters, the sensuous ignudos painted with fidelity and love, the enigmatic smiles, the luscious curves now preserved for posterity. Of course, many models had been courtesans, but the Great Masters (from Titian to Monet) insisted on using them for portraits; in every artist there is a thirst to describe and immortalize beauty in its most mundane manifestation. A courtesan without clothes is no longer a courtesan; she is a nymph, a mythological lover, an allegory or even an angel. La Fornarina the courtesan was Raphael's mistress, but also the saintly Virgin of the Chair. And the lusty half-naked girls of Florence could easily be added to the company of our Savior in Bronzino's Descent of Christ into Limbo. Beauty becomes a universal; it cannot be reduced to a single setting or context. It is inserted into mythological portraits because no one can face the fact that beauty exists on the margins, on the streets, in the seedy clubs. What man has not dreamed of possessing Manet's Olympia after looking her over at the L'Ouvre? And what man would not sneer at that same meretricious beauty as she plies her trade on the Champs Elysees? While poring over the figures on the contact sheets, I saw boredom and resignation in their smiles, but also amusement and a desire to be adored. I am exaggerating, but it is true: underneath the surface realities of every painting and photo lie a modesty — and even submissiveness — I find irresistible.

I started with twenty rolls of film and did the color processing slowly. Getting the flesh tones took time, but haste should not interfere with eternity. The girls inhabiting a single moment deserve the most beautiful cage I can create for them. Photographers owe a debt to the subject, a debt that increases each time the shutter opens. Though a photographer transforms reality, he can never create a new one; he exploits the textures of the natural world without ever knowing what they feel like.

When the magazine man returned, I gave him the photos, telling him I charged a reduced rate for blowups. That thrilled Gupta. He promised to mention it to his printing supervisor. Two weeks later when Gupta brought 20 more rolls, I asked whether they'd printed the magazine with photos from the first batch yet.

"Not yet — would you like to see them?"

"Of course."

Gupta smiled. "You like girls too?"

"Naturally," I replied. "But I'm also curious."

Gupta promised to bring the magazine next time. A week later, when Gupta returned with his next batch, he handed me a flimsy magazine called "Wet and Wild." I balked at the sight of the cover, which was offcenter and even out of focus. I remembered developing the cover photo, but never thought it actually would be printed. I asked Gupta how they selected photos. He didn't know. Flipping through the pages, I realized with horror that they just ran all the photos, even the the ones with bad lighting or unflattering poses. Gupta tried to rationalize, saying it was their cheapest magazine, just nude shots and nothing else. He pulled out another glossy magazine, "Young Naked Lust," and opened it to a random photo (which I recognized). Its color processing was as perfect as could be, but the original image was underexposed and beyond a darkroom's redemption.

I don't normally give advice to customers, but I had to speak up. The blurry cover image should have never been printed, and a little culling and cropping might have made everything look less horrifying.

Gupta stopped me. "You have to ask my boss about that. He can't afford anything fancy."

"Fancy?" I said, laughing. "This is just the way it's done. Next time I'll put the best shots on the contact sheet and let you pick the best ones."

"Oh, no! " Gupta said, unconvinced. "You shouldn't try to make this complicated."

"Not at all," I said.

Later I realized that Gupta didn't care what I did as long as the magazine had enough photos. When Gupta returned for the next batch, he was surprised and even a little annoyed when I told him I'd developed only a fifth of the photos. But as he flipped through the prints, he seemed genuinely impressed. I pointed out where I did retouching and cropping. He gazed silently, then asked about the undeveloped images. Don't worry about it, I told him; just blow up the size of the best shots; ten random unflattering images had less impact than two gorgeous full page shots.

Of course, I was helping too much. And though pleased with my results, I was foisting (yes, I admit it) a new aesthetic onto a product. There was something to be said for the idea of letting the camera capture the beautiful awkwardness of the body's imperfections: the skin blemishes, the awful lighting, the misshapen smiles. The other photos looked natural, spontaneous and free (albeit cheap). The pictures didn't try to flatter, only expose. There was no attempt to find beauty, only ugliness. A crotch shot bothered me less than a bad crotch shot, the unoriginal angles, the attempt to detach the face from the cunt, the mentality that spreading the girl's legs (and cunt) automatically made the pose more erotic.

I chose photos carefully, seeking magic and vitality as well as a sense of balance. I wanted through cropping and enlargement to create an intimate unspoken space between model and nonexistent lover. Finally, I wanted a photo to be a testament to exploitation, a plea for love in an age of manufactured lust. The image I was currently dealing with — a dark-skinned Mexican girl fingering herself on a faded hotel couch — was banal but fascinating. On one level she was a stranger, a psychological enigma; on another level she was a human nude — raw material for artistic inspiration. The great Ingres insisted on first sketching figures in the nude before painting them with clothes; when I gazed upon this girl's photograph, my mind was filled with hundreds of poses and dramatic situations through which her individuality could manifest itself. She was unknowable, but I needed to feel as though I could know her.

As I worked, I recalled Ingres' Jupiter and Thetis: a young French girl kneeling in supplication on the lap of a hirsute giant. Her delicate arm reaches up and tries to touch his bearded face. The man stares ahead impassively, gripping his sceptre and resting his arm against a cloud, refusing to acknowledge the overt sensuality of her importunings. Pressing her bared breast to his robe, she crouches precariously at the edge of a golden platform, while the man sits back, ready at a whim to boot her into oblivion. She wraps her other arm around his waist, hoping for a pronouncement, exposing the whole of her neck as it strains upward in a yearning both sorrowful and sensuous.

In a picture for "Try it You'll Like It," a small-breasted Asian girl kneels against the body of a skinny African-American at the edge of a bed. The room (probably a hotel) had simple furniture and no signs of being lived in, nothing to suggest a time or place. Both are nude (although the girl's green panties provide minimal cover). The girls' head bends slightly over the man's half-erect penis, her mouth covering the tip, her hands grasping the base as though it were a snow cone or a ball of string for a kite. The girl's face looks at the viewer directly, not with fake lust or even sadness but a blank expression, as though being asked a question. The man glances down with a gentle, easygoing expression, cradling her head and caressing the curves of her shoulders.

In one of the Prado's immortal pictures, Titian's Danae, a pensive beauty reclines on a bed, legs spread apart and knees bent vertically. Half-sitting against pillows propped against her back, she stares at an old woman trying to catch rays of light with her apron. Draping curtains and soft light suggest the intimacy of a bedroom. But dark rain clouds have penetrated the walls, hovering above her pubis, ready to sully her pale skin with a shower of gold. Yet, despite the picture's inherent sensuality, the girl remains in a state of never being touched; her fingers fall over a sleeping dog without making contact; the nurse's hands and apron seem millimeters away from her outstretched leg; her toe brushes over the edge of the red blanket without feeling its texture.

In the cover shot for "Sorority Sexcapades," a tiny bright-eyed girl lies fully naked on a couch staring up at the camera, smiling a casual mercenary smile. She grips her preternaturally large breasts in a gesture of mock arousal and with the other hand holds a dildo inside her pussy, a few centimeters above a penis half-penetrating her ass by an unseen man whose hand lifts one of her legs. Her mouth is wide open; her long blondish hair is brushed back behind her head to permit an unobstructed view of her cheeks now covered with semen from the second penis above her; This penis is only a small addition at the picture's left corner, but it was the apex and focus of her gaze. She looks peaceful, calm, sedate.

For the next batch of photos, Gupta asked for duplicates, one for the hardcore edition and the other for the softcore trade mags. Both photos could be the same, but the softcore version would have to blot out the hardcore bits. To illustrate, Gupta opened a magazine to a random page and pointed to a picture where a dot covered the hardcore penetration. Later, after experimenting with a few techniques, I replicated the effect and began overlaying images with black dots. The trick, I discovered, was covering the penetration without obscuring the photo's salaciousness. The rules of softcore, Gupta had said, were very strict. No ejaculation fluid, no erections, no penetrations (by finger, toe or even nipple) and absolutely no contact between pussy and cock, cock and mouth, pussy and mouth, ass and mouth, ass and cock. But really any photo was permissible as long as the black dots were positioned in the right places. I soon discovered that a black dot gave each picture a sense of mystery. What was so peverse that it needed covering up? What depravity would rain upon viewers if these circles were removed and all obscene secrets became known?

At Gupta's direction I went back to old prints and negatives, inserting circles at every nexus. Some photos, especially the orgy shots, required two or more. For a while I used different shapes: triangles, squares, ovals, stars and hearts. But only the circle preserved the symmetry; it served as the origin and converging point for every erotic plane, marking the intersections of human curves and lines. Eros is a small dark circle; it is the shape of the moon, a hole or even the human eye. It is an abyss, a shadow, a world eclipsed by its own inhumanity. Instead of reforming the picture's immorality, these circles reinforce it; the great pornographers of the world prefer hiding to revealing; they cannot reveal unless they first try to hide, allowing exhibition to become artifice. I sprinkled dots liberally, sometimes inserting extras to liven up dull photos. I inserted dots on noses, elbows, once over both eyes. Later, after Gupta gave me hundreds of proofs for a softcore catalog, I varied the sizes. For a tiny photo of straight penetration, I made the circle so large that it practically engulfed both figures; for another I made the circle so small that it barely obstructed the tip of penetration. In others I added circles to preserve a vestige of decorum in a world without modesty, only the naked startling truth. Sometimes I put circles wherever limbs or fingers touched, erotic or not. For the pornographer, the electricity of lust is conducted, never created; every touch, every point of contact, directs the flow onward without stopping at a single point. I took out an art book and began superimposing dots over everything: a small dot now separates the fingers of God and Adam in Michelangelo's masterpiece, putting the aid of God forever beyond human reach. On the patchwork of sleeping sinews in Klimt's Love and Death, I scattered a dozen, perhaps as a foretaste of the shadowy spectre of mortality. A dot now darkens the shoulder of the middle peasant in Bruegel's Blind Leading the Blind, giving unforeseen hope for those already headed for a tumble. To the meeting of noses in Brozino's famous allegory, I placed a dot, creating a void in the center of that voluptuous claustrophobic universe. To the fingers lunging, crouching and embracing in Bologna's marble menage a trois, I put a dot on the woman's bare hip, allowing her to evade unwanted caresses and glide through the man's rapacious grasp.

The next day Gupta returned with 70 more rolls.

"Do your photographers ever take vacations?" I asked.

"These aren't from my regulars. It's all freelance stuff."

"From whom?"

"It's international stuff, supposed to be hot as hell. Hungary, Thailand, who the fuck knows?"

"Will there ever be an end to this madness?" I asked, half-mockingly.

"No end at all," he said with satisfaction. "The beauty of this world is infinite in its variety."

"And infinite in its sadness."

My comment took Gupta aback, but he laughed, deciding not to take me seriously. "You Americans, you're always so sensitive."

"You're American too."

"Yes, but you're only American and nothing more," Gupta said. "You have no concept of the world beyond your borders, beyond your quaint rules and customs."

"How long have you been doing this?" I asked.

"Twelve, thirteen years."

"Have you ever thought about stopping or doing something else?"

"Sure. I've thought about it, who hasn't? But someone has to do it; if not me, then someone else. No point in complaining, every job is awful; it's how you do it that counts. Don't blame me for the dirt, blame the man who buys it! We're just providing a product. If you don't like it, just close your eyes. Distributors make their millions because demand was always there to begin with. And yes, girls from every place on earth are coming out of the woodworks to disrobe or fuck. There will always be freelancers and mail order firms and publishing houses. Don't blame me. Blame the whole fucking system."

"But what do you want from life?"

"Spare me."

"Have you ever thought about your legacy?"

Gupta chuckled. "Better a legacy that lasts. Our pictures will give men hardons five centuries from now. Societies disintegrate, but the porn remains. In Oregon there exists a gigantic underground vault dedicated to preserving every dirty picture ever published. Our distribution office sends a copy of every published volume to a post office box there. Every received photograph is catalogued, microfilmed and assigned a section. This L'Ouvre of Lust has books, movies, photographs, paintings, sculptures, videogames, even holographic images. Everything regardless of subject matter or perversion is stored there. Special sections dealing with illicit perversions are cordoned off and sealed from viewing, at least until a change in mores permits their viewing once again.

"Visitors are never allowed inside, though I've heard rumors of VIPs being allowed to roam freely for no longer than an hour. A friend of mine used to work there, back when the vault was in California. It moves every few years; its location is always a well-guarded secret. My friend used to talk about the things he'd seen — he worked as a curator in the Asian heterosexual photography collection, and that was the only room he had clearance for. The beautiful thing about porn is that it transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries. A fuck is a fuck is a fuck. A beautiful centerfold is beautiful if she speaks Malayam or doesn't speak at all. The overseas acquisition department was amply funded, and although he worked there only a short time, what he saw was enough to occupy his imagination and conversation for years. His ejection from the vault occurred when he was caught trying to smuggle out a picture of a nude twelve year old girl inside his sneakers. His stay there was brief — only four months — but he retains in his memory a fleeting vision of paradise."

Written, March 1994

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"For the pornographer, the electricity of lust is conducted, never created; every touch, every point of contact directs the flow onward without stopping at a single point."
Agnolo Bronzino, Venus, Cupid, Folly, and
                Time (1545)
Agnolo Bronzino, Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time (1545)
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