Tony Ward’s photo-dramas in his book “Tableaux Vivants” aren’t particularly sadistic, but Ward himself seems as much a genuine sexual visionary as was the Marquis de Sade.
Just look through the book (or visit the Web site). See that picture? Is a woman really being penetrated by a chair leg? What is coming out the neck of the pigtailed girl performing cunnilingus on the woman with frizzy hair? Sure, some of Ward’s photos are a little camp (a true fairy godmother watches a couple copulate). Others a little too film noir — who is the German in a top hat creeping up the stairs behind a pair of naked women? (The male model turns out to be Ward’s father.) Once or twice Ward’s vision is a little too retro-Helmut Newton, but when Ward is on target, an observer feels like a spy in some sublime brothel lodged in purgatory.
In a phone conversation, Ward reveals a fascinating connection between staging these photographs and a parlor game practiced in 19th century bourgeois households. He also says that the sexual tension in his pictures is very real — Ward doesn’t practice “safe photo shoots.” But before we talk about these things, let’s get Bill Clinton out of the way.
When I was setting up our interview, your wife started saying something about a photo of Bill Clinton. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I worried that I was about to interview the wrong Tony Ward, some Washington photographer who took pictures of politicians.
[Laughs.] We had every intention of publishing the Clinton photo in “Tableaux Vivants,” but the publisher decided against it. He feared being sued by the former president. I thought that was ridiculous. I thought under parody laws we would be fine, but he didn’t want to risk it.
You took the photo during the Monica Lewinsky scandal?
Way before. I picked up some of the early blurbs in the press about Paula Jones. The photo was just waiting around to be run. Now, everyone knows that President Clinton has these strong sexual desires. That’s partly what makes him as powerful as he is.
The images that did make “Tableaux Vivants” are extraordinary.
My passion for the past 10 years has been to delve into the area of what defines porn and what defines art. We all have a certain notion of what a pornographic image is — we’ve certainly seen enough of them. I feel there is a big chasm in the art world where a blind eye has been turned toward the erotic art world.
What is “erotic art” as opposed to just “art.”
If you were to look at a close-up of a breast as a still life, then it would be fine. That’s “art.” But if you see the breast as a sex object — well, there lies the rub. I’m always playing with that — how we perceive things. Part of my goal is to make the erotic in my pictures at least the equivalent of a landscape.
My favorite photo is the one of two women dancing together in a wine cellar under the gaze of a burly barebacked guy. There’s something going on. But what? It’s like some outtake from “Kiss Me, Deadly.”
The whole premise of the tableau is to set up a metaphor for the mind. To create ambiguity in the viewer. That particular image was shot some years ago in New York. The girl facing the picture was the former lesbian lover of Madonna. I was trying at that point to get real people who had some renown in these circumstances to create a bit of sensation.
How many outtakes are there until you get the scene perfect?
I don’t have many outtakes at all. The way the tableaux happen is that it’s like a theater piece. All the people involved in the pictures know that we’re creating live theater. The picture is the end result of the production. Each person has a role that I discuss with them. Once all the lighting, the hair and makeup, and the conversation between the actors takes place, I put them in this setting to say goodbye to all the players. The photograph is just the end result of a play that we did among ourselves.
So you’re saying it’s an improvised theater piece with the photograph being the climax?
Let me explain. The tableau vivant was a theater game in the 19th century that existed long before radio and television. People would depict scenes from paintings as a form of entertainment. They would gather at someone’s home. Have wine and cheese. Nice conversation. Then as the evening was winding down, they would costume themselves and go into a pose for a predetermined amount of time. It signaled the end of the evening. I had done some reading about this and realized that I had never seen a complete set of works that reinvigorated the practice of the 19th century theater game.
Is this something you’re going to continue?
No. That body of work is finished. There are roughly 60 images in the set. Most of them were done between 1993 and 1996. Then they started to taper off because I got involved in other projects.
Are you interested in doing movies?
I’ve been asked that quite a lot. I am interested certainly from a directorial standpoint. I would like to get my feet wet, but I haven’t had the right project yet. People in the porn industry approached me about various possibilities, but none of the concepts have intrigued me.
Did you take photographs as a kid?
I started taking pictures in 1974 when I was a sophomore in college. I’m 46 now. I guess I was a kid. Oh, some people say, “When I was 5 years old …” No, I’m a late bloomer.
When did the erotic become your subject?
In 1993. When I got out of college in the 1970s, I got a job as a corporate photographer for a pharmaceutical company. Then in 1993 I had one of those epiphanies that you never believe really come about until one happens to you. I literally woke up one day and it didn’t feel like I was heading in a very clear direction in my life. I was a successful commercial photographer making a good living, raising a family, but I felt creatively empty. I realized that I was only picking up the camera to make money. So I did some soul searching and said, “What was it that brought me to using the camera as a vehicle of expression?” I realized that one of the great loves I’ve always had was love of women, the incredible attraction to their beauty and their power and their strength. This part of the joy in my life was missing in my work so I said to my wife that I was going to embark on a whole series of pictures of women. I started with her and those few pictures led to other women I happened to know, let’s say, in my neighborhood. That slowly grew into 25 pictures, and then the 25 grew into 100, and the 100 grew into the thousands now. It very quickly evolved once I had that awakening that day.
And these were published in Penthouse?
No. In January of 1994, I had a very large series of pictures published in the European magazine called Max. At the time it was the most sought-after pop culture magazine in the world. They ran a 16-page story in the September issue, and that led to a flurry of other press that started in Germany, and moved into France, then England. A couple of years later Bob Guccione became aware of this work, and published a 16-page piece in the anniversary issue of Penthouse. He got a lot of good response from his readership, which at that time was well over a million people.
Penthouse doesn’t carry much prestige in the art world, does it?
There are a lot of interesting people published in Penthouse. Part of this prestige thing is part of the problem of the hierarchical establishment of the art world. Certainly on the one hand you could say, “He’s just a Penthouse photographer.” But every artist has an outlet for how they make their living. Some artists who aren’t making any money work at bars — they’re waiters and waitresses. Are they judged as not being talented because they don’t make enough money to create good art? Where do you draw the line on that judgment? That’s part of the hypocrisy of the art world. If you don’t come out of a certain school or certain aesthetic or you’re not following a certain trend at a given time, you’re not looked at seriously. I think ultimately the best art of the time is not particularly trendy or popular. Great artists are ahead of the curve, not on the curve or behind it.
Not to tell my story, but for a few years back in the 1980s, I was a serious photographer. I quickly found out how easy it is to persuade women to remove their clothes for a camera, but it’s very difficult to take photos that are both highly erotic and artistically pure. My photos were pretty prim because I didn’t want to ever get aroused myself and thus “lose” my artistic vision. Are you completely businesslike when you’re photographing?
Of course not! The reason I am an erotic photographer of my renown and caliber is because I put everything on the line, including my structured life at home. My wife. My kids. My work comes first. I live through all the compulsions and attractions and passions that are associated with the work. My wife is very well aware of my digressions. My “digressions,” if you want to call them that, are part of the process of what you’re putting your camera in front of. It’s a very difficult thing to do. You’re putting your heart into the realm of temptation. That’s part of the compulsion of the work. Part of the challenge is dealing with each subject for who they are, and what their motivations are, and in some cases what their erotic ambitions are. You’re right. It’s not an easy thing.
I’m glad to hear you say that this is something you have to work through.
Constantly. It’s a never-ending battle. How can one be an “erotic artist” from a distance? It’s not possible. I mean, I see a lot of pictures like that. They’re very nice, soft nudes where everything is played safe. But that’s not what my work is about. I think that’s boring.
When you say “digressions,” what do you mean?
Digressions? Digressions deal with morality. If one is a moral person who is married (like myself), one is supposed to behave in a certain way which, let’s say, is monogamous. I am not monogamous. I don’t think most people are. I think most people try to convince themselves that they are, but I think part of the thesis of my work is to call in question, “Are human beings meant to be monogamous?” The longer I live, the more I’m convinced that human beings are not monogamous. I myself am supposed to be monogamous under the auspices of how I got married in the first place. Over a 20-year marriage, some things have changed. My wife and I have dealt with those changes. It’s very cathartic that I have been able to evolve into these pictures and deal with who I am as a person — as complicated as that may be for my wife certainly — but at the same time still having the vigor and strength to encounter the subject matter, and try to do really good work as a result of it.
Are you talking about the difference between a staged sexual encounter and one that is actually happening?
Well, both can happen within this work. That is mainly dependent on the model. Certain models call me or e-mail me for the sole purpose of fucking me. They could have any number of reasons for that. “Well, if I screw a Penthouse photographer this may make me more money down the road.” You know, like the casting couch in Hollywood? There’s a casting couch in the porn business. There are other women who are seduced by the photographic scene that I create. And they may be seduced, but they may not go over the line. So part of my responsibility as an artist is to be very sensitive as to where this talent is coming from. To be most professional during the process, but also leaving options open as to what could create a better picture. For example, I have appeared in my pictures. I’ve been published in Penthouse with myself and a model. I have done that already and I plan to do more of it, but I can only do so much to keep my whole life together.
Has a photographic session ever gotten out of hand?
There’s no such thing as a “session getting out of hand.” You’ve got to know this is a small world. You have to be a pro — which I don’t think there are a lot of real pros out there. I think a lot of female subjects are street-smart and know what they’re getting into. I discuss everything upfront beforehand. What the limits are. I get a sense about what the models are about right away. And the girls — the best ones — let you know right away where they’re coming from. So there is never anything that happens on my set that is a surprise or someone leaves unhappy. It just doesn’t happen.
Does anyone else work like you?
In my opinion there are only a few of us in the world that do this work at this level. Araki in Japan is probably the best in the world. Gills Berquet, my dear French friend, is one of the best in France. Helmut Newton was a precursor to what I’m doing now. He certainly hasn’t gone as hardcore, but he has had a wonderful relationship with women. I think he has a big heart for women, as limited as that view may be.
Have you met Newton?
Yes. I met him in Paris a couple of years ago. We were staying in the same hotel and I bumped into him in the lobby.
Did he know your work?
He was in the middle of going up in an elevator so we didn’t really have a conversation, but Helmut Newton should be aware of my work. If he’s not, he’s … Whatever. You know.
Europeans are still more sophisticated than Americans, aren’t they?
I’m not convinced that they are. I have been censored as much in Europe as I have been in America. The religious right has said sex is really wrong and capitalism says sex is great. That’s the biggest struggle. And money always wins in most struggles.
How old are your kids?
They are 16, 14 and 13. I have two girls and one boy.
Have they looked at your photographs?
Oh yeah. We live in a loft here in Philadelphia. They grew up with their father doing this work so they know about what happens with adults, and they’re looking forward to exploring some of that when they are at a mature age.
What kind of father are you?
A very good, very dedicated dad who’s trying to do the best for my kids. So far they’re all excelling and doing very well. Being a father isn’t exactly easy, but I think so far I’ve done a pretty good job at it.
It must be difficult dealing with teenage sexuality as an authority figure.
It is for sure. The girls, my girls, are worldly already. They’re not like small little skinny girls. They’re very voluptuous. Full breasted. [Pause.] Guys coming over. So I have to watch over as best I can. Just try to keep their heads level.
What if your daughters came to you and said, “We’re going to pose for some pictures, Pop”?
When they are of a legal age, and it is something they want to do, I would be a total hypocrite to say no. That would be their choice at that time when they are legal.
You know, back to the Clinton photo — that image made me rethink the whole Lewinsky scandal. Not that Clinton should have been impeached for phone sex with Lewinsky, but how did he live with himself after his low-rent lecherousness had been revealed to the world? Shame doesn’t really exist in America. It never has.
I think the English have these unwritten shame rules. If a member of Parliament is caught doing a dirty deed like Clinton, they would resign of the shame. You’re right. I think shame is not a big part of the American vernacular.
But should it be?
That’s a great question. I used that just recently — Well, I’m not going to go into that.
If Gary Condit were Japanese, the shame would have made him commit hari-kiri. If he was Islamic, he would have become a suicide bomber as penitence. Because he was an American, he just ran for election again.
I’m going to really think about that. Shame falls into the whole moral question. Americans have a tendency to move on and try to erase our shame with some degree of success.
No one hands out scarlet letters anymore.
Certainly I’ve had enough critics say that I should be ashamed, so I’m not the right guy to say, “Why is there an absence of shame in America?” But that’s a very good question.
Is there anything that shames you? I can’t image you taking pictures of your daughters naked like Sally Mann.
No. Absolutely not. When I established my work in ’93, I knew that I was going to eventually move into more provocative adult material. I did not, and would not, cross the line on the ethics of what we define as legal consent in America. That’s where I draw the line. That’s my moral barometer. I would never in a million years consider photographing someone under the age of 18. Because I have a history of so much powerful adult material, I don’t want anyone to question my judgment with respect to that. That’s a very serious issue. I say to my kids, “OK, you know all this stuff is out there. Once you’re 18, you have my consent. You do it before you’re 18, you don’t have my consent.” Now you raised a question. [Pause.] Should I also say, “You should be ashamed of yourself”? I don’t know. I don’t think even as a father, I should use that term.