The accidental pornographer

L.A. photographer Carlos Batts doesn't want to be known for taking dirty pictures, but he's so damn good at it.

Published August 30, 2001 7:10PM (EDT)

For years my friend Carlos Batts has had a revolving column in stroke mags such as Oui, Hustler's Leg World and others titled "Diary of a Mad Photographer," in which he chronicles the more absurd aspects of his regular forays into the fleshpots side-by-side with his latest, uh, spread.

Sometimes I think he should call his column "Diary of a Reluctant Pornographer," because the only thing "mad" -- in the crazy sense of the word -- about Carlos is that he seems so freakin' blasé about watching an amazing brunette in fishnet stockings pee in front of him, or having some peroxide trollop from the Czech Republic maneuver a shiny red dildo in and out of her vagina with her bare feet. I mean, Carlos, don't you know you have it made, man?

"Yeah, yeah," Carlos says, playing it off. "All my guy friends are like, 'Wow you get to shoot that all the time?' But there's a lot of shit that goes along with it. Straight up, I never fuck any of my models. If I was into fucking them, I wouldn't have a book deal at 28. I'd be a hack photographer. OK, the girls are naked, but how're you gonna shoot 15 rolls of film when you're trying to score? There are other things on my mind -- like paying rent. I take my craft very seriously. I don't want it to be Jerry Springer."

Indeed, this month Carlos, whose garish, goth-inspired images of feral feminine sexuality have appeared in everything from Taboo and Nugget to Vibe and While You Were Sleeping, celebrates the release of his massive, coffee-table tome "Wild Skin," a 224-page fetish smorgasbord from the German publisher Edition Reuss. Better known for such sticky-finger specialties as "Fetish Theatre," "Shaven Angels" and my favorite, "100 Naked Girls on a Chair," Edition Reuss has spared no deutsche mark producing a sleek collection of Carlos' own version of the Rainbow Coalition. There are white-trash chicks with tats, Asian girls in see-through garb armed with scythes or butt-nekkid and wrapped in greasy tire chains, black gals with bodacious ta-tas and plus-size Latin lovelies that look so tasty and Rubenesque they make you want to sign up for Español as a second language.

The book reflects almost a decade of work, from the time when Carlos was starting out as a photographer for local punk/hardcore groups back in his native Baltimore to his current crop of pro and semi-pro honeys here in Los Angeles. Carlos moved to the West Coast about two years ago, but back in the day, the girls he photographed (for the most part) had never modeled before. They were either friends he'd met in the local clubs or girlfriends of his buds, which sort of explains the various body types Carlos usually fixates on.

Instead of the usual boring Bambis and Ashleys, the blond or brunette wet-dream visions of perfection most erotic photographers go after, Carlos' women are more likely to be the girl-next-door in Baltimore, a blue-collar mix of skinny, flat-chested freaks and full-figured hoochie-mamas in too-tight bustiers. Granted, they're all hot, but these women aren't the first choices of the often Wonder Bread-and-mayo eatin' photo editors Carlos has had to deal with.

"Of course, I am black," Carlos explains when I ask him about his rather eclectic aesthetic when it comes to the ladies. "And in Baltimore, I grew up with all kinds of people. White girls weren't all that. But that's the downside to having white frat boys run all of the porno magazines. There are African-American, Mexican and Asian guys that want to see naked girls. Everything can't be a derivative of Marilyn Monroe. I'm not saying there's a conspiracy out there, but a lot of the major erotic white photographers seem devoid of culture. Coming from a middle-class black family, I can't even approach shit the way a white photographer would. When I look at a girl with a big ass and thighs, it's normal to me. My mother's fat, all my aunts are fat. I was raised by fat black women. So when I see a fat black or Korean girl coming down the street, I'm not thinking, Oh, yeah, you need to lose weight."

He adds, "And don't even bring up Jennifer Lopez to me. People are always talking about J.Lo's bootie, and it's not even that big!"

See, Carlos is all about Pam Grier, '70s porn and Venus and Serena Williams. Actually, he's even more about masked Mexican wrestlers, the Incredible Hulk, duct tape, old-school horror flicks like "I Spit on Your Grave" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and serial killers like Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer.

He has dreds and wears black T-shirts and shorts with black tennis shoes and black socks, and he likes folks to call him Batman or Blacula. Basically, though he won't like me saying this, Carlos is a geek -- a geek after the manner of Kool Keith, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and everyone in the band Metallica. He reminds me of all the guys I used to sit with in the lunchroom in junior high or share copies of Mad Magazine or National Lampoon with on the bus ride home from school. If you ever attend one of those Comicon conventions, the ones where all the future Kevin Smiths of the world congregate to share news about whether Nicolas Cage is going to play Ghost Rider, then you'll know what I'm talking about.

Still, it's been my experience, coming from a similar tribe (i.e., "the pervs"), that the geeks often have something interesting going on in their noggins. And they can certainly have more imaginative and original takes on human sexuality than your average latter-day Hugh Hefner-wannabe-hipsters. Perhaps that's why Carlos is a better photographer of erotica than most. Personally, I could never get my mind off the pussy, but Carlos would rather be sketching the storyboards for the sci-fi flick he's working on. That's how he detaches from his subject and creates something unusual.

"It's not like I set out to be a pornographer," he tells me as he fixes himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the Hollywood flat that doubles as his studio. "I had a friend who worked over at LFP, who I knew from going to the horror conventions. He said, 'Hey, why don't you work at LFP?' That's when LFP had all of these diverse magazines, like Blunt, RIP and Rap Pages. So I went to L.A. and met with all of the editors. They told me they were starting this new magazine called Leg World. I had never really thought about it. I'd shot a lot of pictures of naked people and people doing weird stuff, but it didn't occur to me to try to get into fetish. I had an outtake of one girl, and they said, 'What about her?' That's how I got started. That was in '97, I think."

And so a career was born, and Carlos began to apply to the wonderful world of sleaze all of the photo techniques and eccentricities he had developed while shooting video box covers, CD art and his own sci-fi "Heavy Metal" fantasies. For instance, Carlos employs a somewhat trashy, run-down Baltimore look in his photos -- brick walls with peeling paint, kitchens with faded yellow wallpaper, bathrooms stripped clean of adornment or dingy brown doorways and musty old couches as banal as any crime scene on "Homicide: Life on the Street." These are the backdrops for fat-assed white girls with dirty feet or some vampish Latin mama squirting urine all over the place.

His colors are a lot "warmer" -- that is, gaudy, yellow and overlit on purpose -- which lends his work a seedy, run-down aura. And his props -- like headgear for car accident victims, World War II-era gas masks, straitjackets and T-balls (worn in the mouth) fashioned from painted doll's heads -- have more to do with his obsession with the horror genre than with sex. Even the adult tapes he's directed -- "Girl Trouble" and "Love Hurts 1 & 2" -- appeal more to morbid than prurient interests, what with all the power tools and emergency-room bandaging in them.

George Pitts, director of photography at Vibe, hits it on the head when asked to describe what marks Carlos' style as distinctive. Pitts, who hired Carlos to shoot rock diva Nikka Costa, refers to Carlos' Baltimore steelo as the perfect counterpoint to fetish shutterbug Richard Kern's New York punk brio.

"Well, Baltimore is the home of David Byrne, and most visibly John Waters," says Pitts. "Maybe trash is part of the general regional culture of Baltimore for all I know, and maybe that came [to Carlos] without much deliberation. Kern seems almost WASPy by comparison to Carlos. What with Carlos' ethnicity and his rather unpopular expressionistic aesthetic, he's going against the grain of the prevailing styles of photography."

Carlos digs Waters, but he's never been crazy about the comparison to the Pope of Trash, which he's heard before. Still, like Waters, he's mostly been self-taught, and he has a weird sense of humor that makes you wonder what they put in Charm City's tap water. Whenever he tells the story about his old girlfriend back in Baltimore getting p.o.'d because one of his models shaved her pubes and left behind a pile of hair in the john, or the time one of his skankier models told him she was willing to do an anal scene to get enough dolo for Xmas presents, it never fails to crack me up. Though he's quick to point out that most of his models weren't like that.

"The girls I mainly shot with in Baltimore were regular girls who wanted to be in some cool pictures, and that was it. Whereas out here in L.A., there's a whole industry for that. There's a whole plethora of different kinds of girls who want to be in print because it's a tear sheet for something. It's all more career-oriented, and there's good and bad to that. In Baltimore, there were only a couple of times I came across girls who were a fucking pain in my ass. Unlike L.A. On the other hand, out here, if I want a midget with breast implants, I can make a phone call. I guess I've moved to another level."

Like they say in the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, "Eh, it's a living." Maybe I'd have the same attitude if it'd been in my face 24-7 like it has with Carlos, but I doubt it. As good as he is as a pornographer, you can tell Carlos is rarin' to move on to designing alien spaceships and three-headed Martian cyborgs. I don't think I'd be in such a hurry to exit stage left.

"Look, the book is awesome, it's great," he says. "And I want to do another one similar to it with different ideas, but I hope that my next project heads off in another direction. I mean, I'm not complaining. But I have a lot more things I'm interested in."

OK, Carlos, whatever you say. But until the day you leave porno for good, think you could use me as a light man?

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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