Here’s how some of the world’s best photographers depict the complex world of human desire and sexuality
We’ve gathered together some of the finest recently published and upcoming photobooks exploring sex, desire, intimacy, and nudity. From deviant twin-lovers navigating Florida’s perilous underworld, the lesbian community in 1990s San Francisco taking a stand on the city’s rioutous streets, and a range of compelling reimaginings of the nude, here are some of the most enticing and provocative books for Valentine’s day…
LEA COLOMBO, COLOURS OF MY BODY (2021)
“The interesting thing about colour is that it can guide emotions in so many different ways: it can either amplify an emotion or maintain an emotion. The beauty of it is that the relationship with colour and emotion is forever changing,” explained Lea Colombo, talking to AnOther last year about her debut book and its accompanying exhibition, Colours of My Body. Known for her portraits of SOPHIE, Karen Elson, and Billie Eilish, and many more, Colombo began making self-portraits of herself during lockdown.
Through a series of sumptuous, prismatic-coloured images overlaid with sketching, paint, and wax, Colombo explores her “relationship with her higher self”, tuning into the vibrant tones of her body and its potent feminine aura. “I am attracted to [colour’s] vibration and energy, the frequency that it gives off and has, or holds,” she elaborated. “It allows a deeper expression. Colour is the living touchstone of reality. Everything that we see and experience is made up of a spectrum of colours – it’s how we relate to the world and ourselves. As such, it is a pivotal component of my artistic and photographic expression. It is how I render my relationship to subject and self.”
PHYLLIS CHRISTOPHER, DARK ROOM: SAN FRANCISCO SEX AND PROTEST, 1988–2003 (2022)
Between 1988 and 2003, photographer Phyllis Christopher took portraits of the San Francisco lesbian community, articulating queer lesbian desire during these febrile years of homophobic rhetoric in the media, fear, unrest, damaging right-wing political agendas, and the Aids crisis. Speaking to AnOther, Christopher explained: “The Aids epidemic definitely informed the work. Some of my work is very graphic and it’s because we needed to talk about sex because people were dying and we didn't know why. We needed to be very open about sex and very articulate about it.”
Her new book, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex And Protest (published by Book Works) gathers together her potent black and white portraits encompassing studio shots, protests, street life, and club life, merging documentary photography with more performative images, and deeply intimate private moments with public demonstrations.
For Christopher, taking pictures was about defiantly creating visibility during a time of censorship and erasure. Speaking to AnOther, Christopher explained: “People often say, ‘how did you get women to have sex for the camera?’ And it’s like, women were desperate to do it because there were no images out there. We wanted to communicate to each other what we were doing and how fun it was.”
Phyllis Christopher’s Dark Room: San Francisco Sex And Protest is published by Book Works and available to pre-order now
LUCIE ROX AND CRYSTABEL RILEY, WATER••COLOUR (2021)
Created in collaboration with make-up artist Crystabel Riley, WATER••COLOUR investigates “the relationship between skin and landscape, and how this could come together through the prism of Blackness”, styled in Di Petsa’s wet look dresses and Sinéad O’Dwyer’s silicone bustiers.
Their bold images are inspired by the Afrofuturist novella The Deep by Rivers Solomon – a story that envisions an underwater civilisation founded by the daughters of pregnant women cruelly tossed overboard slave ships crossing the ocean. Rox and Riley’s vision of a subaquatic dimension ruled by a supernaturally beautiful, formidable species of undersea women is a love letter to the reclaimed, all-powerful, and emancipated Black female body.
The second edition of WATER••COLOUR by Lucie Rox And Crystabel Riley is available now
NAN GOLDIN, THE BALLAD OF SEXUAL DEPENDENCY (1986)
“Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the colour, smell, sound and physical presence, the density, and flavour of life,” wrote Nan Goldin on what she herself described as the “defining work” of her life, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
First published in 1986, the anniversary edition of this hugely influential monograph of incredibly visceral photographs (published by Aperture), features all-new image separations produced using state-of-the-art technologies and specially prepared reproduction files.
In one of her most acclaimed works, Goldin investigates deeply personal narratives about herself and her community in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Throughout these unflinchingly honest and tender depictions, Goldin distils all the sorrowful, joyful, lustful, desolate, and loving moments of existence, reminding us that even while suffering loss, we are in the throes of life.
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is published by Aperture and is available now
MARK MCKNIGHT, HEAVEN IS A PRISON (2020)
The desert has long since functioned as a place of reckoning – an unforgiving terrain into which people go to “find themselves”, to “lose themselves”, or to face their demons. In Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison (published by Loose Joints), the high desert in Southern California becomes what the photographer describes as a “queer otherworld… at once utopic and purgatorial.”
With their striking black and white chiaroscuro, McKnight’s images contrast the tender, naked flesh rugged scenery and skyscapes, moving between sex, bondage, affection, violence as the entangled, naked bodies reach their own moment of reckoning in the majestic, vast landscape.
NEIL KRUG, THE GOLDTWINZ (2021)
Photographer Neil Krug has a flair for infusing even the most idyllic, sun-drenched scenes with an undercurrent of foreboding. Known for creating Lana Del Rey’s most iconic album covers, the Los Angeles-based photographer travelled to Florida for one of his most recent projects, The GoldTwinz (published by NeoText). There, he created a “sunshine noir” following the dramatic tale of star-crossed lover-twins Marc and Yvette as they navigate the underworlds of webcamming, nightclub singing, and the dark web. It’s a story of intrigue, forbidden lust, and “sex-cam lullabies” starring Krug’s longtime collaborator and muse, Kaiman Kazazian.
Accompanied by a text by American writer, Jardine Libaire, The GoldTwinz invokes the Southern gothic cinema, folklore, pop culture, music, and ideology that haunts Sunshine State, drawing the viewer into a compulsive tale inspired collectively by Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfant Terribles, the sound of Dusty Springfield, the romantic sensibility of Bonnie and Clyde, the movies of Harmony Korine and John Cassavetes, and the inscrutable, inhospitable Everglades.
The GoldTwinz by Neil Krug and Jardine Libaire is available now from NeoText
MONA KUHN, MONA KUHN: WORKS (2021)
For more than 20 years, photographer Mona Kuhn has been investigating the innate human longing for spiritual connection. Known for developing a deep relationship with her subjects, her nude portraits possess a rare and unique intimacy. In contrast to other photographers for whom nudity is a kind of battledress, Kuhn’s images seem to offer glimpses into the emotional landscape of her subjects. She explains: “When I was in college in the early 90s, Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts were iconic, but it was not how I wanted it to be.”
Mona Kuhn: Works (published by Thames & Hudson) collects together the Los Angeles-based photographer’s studies of nakedness and sensuality. Among many other series of images from Kuhn’s career, the monologue includes Bushes and Succulents – contrasting obscenely beautiful flowering succulents with solarised images of naked women in a celebration of “female essence”.
Mona Kuhn: Works is published by Thames & Hudson and is available now