Portfolio > Articles

This interview appeared in Black Noise; Issue 9

Mortimer Dempsey: In one of your bios, you mentioned that you were “introduced to classic horror and science fiction ... at an early age.” Throughout the years, I've noticed that many of the more “transgressive” artists were monster kids. What were some of your favorite films, fiction and/or comic books as a kid that you still love today? How do you think these childhood obsessions have influenced your work in recent years?

Josef Desade: Growing up my father was a huge horror fan, so I ended up seeing and reading a lot of things I probably shouldn't have at an early age. I must say, as far as movies, Hellraiser first and foremost. My dad had me watch it at seven years old. That scene where The Architect comes out of the wall gave me nightmares for weeks and has always stuck with me. Philip Decker from Nightbreed and Michael Myers I would definitely say as well. As far as literature, I devoured anything I could from Clive Barker and pre-1996 Stephen King during my early childhood, as well as Dante's Inferno which has always stuck with me as far as imagery is concerned. I wasn't that big into comics, but Stephen Gammell’s artwork from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a big one for me. I would definitely say that they impact my work over the last decade, having a huge influence on how I touch on taboo subjects such as the fetish/BDSM community, religion, discrimination, and the likes.

MD: I can definitely recognize and relate to the profound influence of Hellraiser, considering that the film was the first time—that I can recall—that the aesthetics and ideas of the BDSM subculture was thrust onto mainstream audiences.

JD: Blue Velvet beat Hellraiser by a year, at least that is the earliest somewhat mainstream one I can think of.

MD: When do you think your interests first started to shift from fictional monsters to more real-life horrors, and why? Many of your works have the air of crime scene photography, so can we assume you have some interest in true crime?

JD: I don’t feel that my interests have shifted from fictional monsters to real-life horrors as a lot of my influences are one and the same. Nightbreed is discrimination in disguise. Hellraiser touches on real taboos in a fanciful way. Most of the monsters we see in movies and literature are far more than that; they represent everyday horrors in a way that we are able to more easily digest by showing them in a “fun” format. If anything, I would say that my interests have shifted to showing the cold reality of these things; taking away the costumes that our current society prefers and delivering them in a style that makes people uncomfortable.

As far as true crime is concerned, I do find it interesting, especially the psychology behind serial killers. But I think that a lot of the air of a crime scene comes from my models not faking it. I find a lot of people to work with in the BDSM scene here in New England, so the majority of violence, bruises, knife cuts, and so on aren't staged at all. If you look at my portfolio Lot 43 or I Want to See the Devil in Us All, none of the shots were faked or used makeup for effect.

MD: When it comes to your photography, is it safe to say that I see influences from the likes of Diane Arbus and Richard Kern? Is there a particular photographer or artist who has educated your approach to photography more than any other?

JD: I'm a little embarrassed to say that I had no idea who those photographers were until I looked them up and recognized some of their work. I personally make a point to not look at other photographers' work very often because I don't want their personal styles to seep into my own as much. With my photography I am entirely self-taught through trial and error, however two photographers that did have a major impact on me were Robert Mapplethorpe and Olga Karlovac. Robert is fairly well known, but if you haven't seen Olga's work you should check it out. It is simply beautiful.

MD: Mapplethorpe also came to mind when viewing your work. I'm also familiar with Karlovac's work, but I didn't make the connection until you mentioned it.

Although you seem to switch effortlessly from rich color palettes to chiaroscuro throughout your various portfolios, I get the impression that you are most comfortable with black and white or desaturated, muted tones. Is this an aesthetic preference?

JD: When it comes to my use of chiaroscuro and black and white it is interesting to some people, but a lot of people find it really odd. When I am shooting a scene, whether vibrant colors or not, I see the final shot in my head in black and white. It is something I have always done, and a lot of people find it odd, but it is just how I naturally see a shot I am taking - devoid of color. I do lean towards that style more because of that, but I also I feel that in a lot of cases it gives it a less distracting, more raw feeling to the viewer than it would in full color. So, it definitely has become an aesthetic choice for me.

MD: Although it's probably on a case-by-case basis, when it comes to your photo shoots, how much is pre-meditated and choreographed versus improvised and organic? Likewise, how much is dictated by you as the photographer versus the model(s) in question? Regardless of the balance, I get the distinct feeling that they are ultimately collaborative efforts in every sense of the word.

JD: When I go into most of my shoots, I only usually have a vague concept of what I plan to do. A large portion of them are improvised on the spot, especially the darker ones I have done with models from the kink community. I prefer an organic experience for the viewer over something completely choreographed and staged because when you factor in that a lot of the things going on in my shoots are actually happening, choreographing them would take away the genuine experience and beauty of the acts being performed. For the most part I allow the models to lose themselves in the scene with limited guidance. The only ones I really choreograph out are large shoots with more than three models involved, and even then, for the most part, the models are given quite a bit of freedom to "become” the scene organically.

MD: Out of all your already impressive portfolios, I personally found Vulnerability to be one of the most hard-hitting and touching collections. Some of the pieces evoked similar qualities to Arbus’ work (without being derivative), which is why I brought her up earlier. From my experience, most of the best photographic artists have—at some point—attempted to capture both the frailty and the inherent strength of the human spirit, and how experiences etch themselves onto an individual's physical nature. How did this particular series come about?

JD: My vulnerability series came about from a mixture of needing a project for the winter last year and my friend, J.C., wanting to do a photoshoot that portrayed what he was feeling inside as he came out to his family and friends. From the rawness of these original shots came this project where the goal was to capture a reflection of the human experience, unabashed and flawed, yet serenely beautiful.

MD: How difficult is it for you to juggle your career as a transgressive artist with that of being a mainstream photographer-for-hire? Have you had any situations where a customer of the latter has discovered your penchant for the former?

JD: I hear a lot of bad jokes. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been much of a juggling act. For the most part there has been a lot of curiosity about my work when I do family portraits or weddings, but nothing really negative has come from it. I am also extremely open about things and don't try to sweep it under the bed, so normally when someone comes to me to book something they are already well aware of my art.

MD: Backwards-thinking purists aside, photography was once rejected as a “pure” art form but has since been almost universally accepted. Likewise, digital art suffered similar indignities and stigmatization at the turn of the century but is now gaining traction as a valid form of artistic expression. Currently, art created by various artificial intelligence seems to be all the rage on the internet, although it seems to be putting a large number of artists and art aficionados on the offensive. How do you view this new medium, and how do you think it will affect the future of art?

JD: I personally am not a fan, although I respect the application. I feel that as things become ever more digital and automated that it removes the soul from the art. I think that humans, as they experience new technology, tend to become overly infatuated with the use of it. With each new thing we may gain some good applications, but we lose a part of what makes us human when we forget what came before. Eventually everything becomes nothing but a faint remembrance that we look back on fondly for only fleeting moments. That being said, I do appreciate the use of artificial intelligence when it comes to the editing aspect of things. The quality of programs that utilize AI over ones that don't are leaps and bounds apart when it comes to details.

MD: Judging from some of your past shoots you must have witnessed some interesting experiences. Would you like to share one?

JD: I have definitely had some wild shoots. Some that stand out are waterboarding someone in my garage in the middle of winter and a penguin voyeurism shoot. But the one that I would say was the most memorable was a shoot for my portfolio I Want to See the Devil in Us All with two veterans of the New England BDSM scene (thank you once again, Desade and EmeraldAsh) whom I was honored to work with. That shoot began very quickly with a rope around the neck and a slap to the face with the words: “Scene started…” being said with loving care. Throughout the shoot a variety of implements were used as well as force, up to and including knife play (do not try at home, please). If you look at the photos from that session, there is no makeup or special effects being used. Each bruise, welt, and cut in them is real. The blood is real. The expressions on the model are all real. The intensity of that shoot is one that will always stay with me. It was like crossing into another realm as the rest of the world disappeared and the lens captured each brutal yet beautiful moment.

MD: To wrap this interview up, do you have any projects in the works?

JD: When it comes to my photography, I almost always have something going on. Recently I finished up a portfolio with a theme of vulnerability that I am going to be pitching to some galleries. I am also working on a horror themed book which will be titled A Book of Terrible Things which will be mixing my photography with my writing (www.facebook.com/desadeist). Currently, I also have a book available of some of my work titled Provocateur. It features my portfolios I Want to See the Devil in Us All, Meditation Through Masochism, and a small selection of miscellaneous softer photos titled Aftercare. Copies of that can be purchased directly from me at www.facebook.com/cimmeriantranquilityphoto. For those who may be interested in my other non-photography projects, I have begun to delve a bit into short film which can be found on my website www.josefdesade.com and I just released the second book in a dark fantasy series I am writing which is available on Amazon. (Tohu Wa-Bohu, Scattered on the Wind, and Tohu Wa-Bohu: Blood and Clay).

Interview From Black Noise; Issue 9