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EXPLORING MYTHS OF A SEXUAL SUBCULTURE

Published on February 15, 2004    Page: 10E

© 2004- Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.

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Byline:
BOB KEYES Staff Writer

Photographer Barbara Nitke approached the subject of sadomasochism from the perspective of an unknowing observer. She discovered that her assumptions about the kinds of people who engaged in the behavior were wrong. "I thought if you were interested in it, it had to be because you had some traumatic childhood experience that reshaped your love life in a certain way. That was my theory, and it was quickly disproven," said Nitke, who will be at Radiant Light Gallery in Portland Friday to sign and discuss her newly published photography book, "Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism."

An exhibition of her photographs also is on display. Thomas Adams, who runs the gallery, says the artistic merit in Hall's work lies in her technique and composition. She uses infrared film to create a surreal atmosphere; the photos lack sharp focus and often seem cloudy. Few photographers use infrared film because of its challenging nature.

Distinguishing the work is her ability to capture her subjects' personalities, Adams says.

"As the third eye, she sort of creates a ménage à trois between herself and the people she is photographing. She is able to capture in a dramatic way their relationship. The compositions are done in such a way that they are more like paintings," he says.

"She has the typical foreground, background and middle ground of any good work of art, but she manages to carry the eye into the image, and the image itself has many focal points. The viewer rarely gets bored. Her work is very graphic, in the sense of the composition and the tonalities, the black and whites."

Nitke's book has created a buzz in the photography world. A decade in the making, it is among the first mainstream publications to examine the subject, which recently received a four-page feature spread in Time magazine.

She says her goal is to provide an insider's view into the issues of trust, intimacy and negotiation in this sexual subculture.

Nitke, who lives in New York City, photographed most of the couples in her book from 1994 to 1998. It took her a year to win the trust of those who appear in the book and five years to find a publisher willing to handle the subject.

"Eventually, one person let me shoot, and then someone else. I started showing people my pictures, and people liked them. One thing led to another," she says.

Nitke, president of the Camera Club of New York and a faculty member of the School of Visual Arts in New York, has explored issues of sexual relationships through photography since 1982.

For this project, she describes her role as a "voyeur in the community. I don't actually practice SM, but I feel that when I am watching people and especially photographing them, there is a deep emotional connection with them. I feel I am part of the SM community, and I really do understand it."

The book, published by the German press Kehrer Verlag, attempts to break down the myths about SM - among those in the subculture, it's always "SM" and never "S and M."

Nitke receives no public money for her work. She debated applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s, but thought better of it. "I just decided it was going to be a waste of my time to even think about writing a grant. So there has never been any controversy there," she says.

Noted critic A.D. Coleman writes in an essay in the book, "At a time when varieties of sexual practice once considered marginal and taboo ... have moved from the periphery to the center, from the closet into the open, the work of photographers like Barbara Nitke has helped bring the discussion of these sexual alternatives into the mainstream."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: bkeyes@pressherald.com

Nugget Box:
BOOK SIGNING
Barbara Nitke, author of "Kiss of Fire: A Romantic View of Sadomasochism"
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20
Where: Radiant Light Gallery, 142 High St., Suite 409, Portland

What else:
Nitke will discuss her work in greater detail from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday. Call 252-7258 for reservations or information. The gallery will display her photos through April 17.