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Mimi and Arto, Los Angeles, 2009Ed Templeton

Ed Templeton on taboos

In the first column on porn, sex and art's intersections, Isabella Burley asks how once-shocking photos of teenagers snogging play in the age of streaming smut

Under the Blog Full Frontal, Dazed writer Isabella Burley will report on the intersect between porn, art and pop culture.

In 1994, Ed Templeton began documenting teenagers kissing. In these voyeuristic snapshots he captured the intimate and awkward moments of lustful adolescence -  the flashes of tongues, the semi-open mouths and the wondering of hands. It was pre-mainstream internet, and before an entire generation of youth began documenting their lives online. Each kiss is unveiled through a series of intimate and confrontational details – something Templeton describes as wanting to reveal “the utter lust oozing from the couple.” But today, is there still a taboo that surrounds teenagers and their vigorous public face-sucking? “Kissing is the only acceptable form of public sex,” he answers. “Public spaces are filled with couples engaged in deep heavy-petting, they are lost in passion, and oblivious to outsiders.”

In these works, Templeton prescribes us with the role of peeping toms, voyeurs of a fleeting moment of erotic impulse. “There is a certain sexiness to the images,” he continues, “but I think the awkwardness of those teenage years is also an endless source of interest. We all went through it.” What drives Templeton's role as “the sado-voyeurist” is the importance he places on the realm of public space. By exposing these private moments within their public surroundings, he extends our engagement with a everyday act and throws perversion into the mix. “I loved the mini-theatre that is a public kiss,” he explains. “In Spain, for instance, many multi-generational families live together in small apartments and therefore the young couples have no place to do their kissing but outside in the plazas, or on the public benches.”

Today, an entire generation of teenagers live out their lives in a virtual realm, posting their own impulsive images of lip locking online. As with most things, sex is, and will always be part of our online experience. “With what the internet has to offer, hand printed photographs of kids kissing is the equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting,” Templeton jokes. “At the click of a button a teenage girl can change her life by texting a nude photo of herself to a boy, who then texts it to all his friends. 

What is unusual about this body of work, is that they were only exhibited for the first time last year - despite many of the works being made almost two decades earlier. They were displayed at The Half Gallery in New York, where the exhibition coincided with the release of Templeton's photo book Teenage Kissers, a publication that quickly became a cult item. “They barley raised an eyebrow,” he exclaims, and in a sense the works were placed in a different context to which they were made. Shown at a time where the internet has shaped our encounters of sex and re-defined the notion of what can be considered 'taboo'.

Things were very different when Templeton had his first photo exhibition in 1998, where he exhibited a nude image of his wife Deanna laying on the carpet with a drip of semen coming from between her legs. “That photo caused a serious uproar from some of the people who ran the space,” he tells me. “It was seen as a base attempt to shock. We argued and shed tears over that being shown, and ever since it has been part of what defines my photography. Many people can’t see past the “nude photos of his wife” aspect. But that was then, I think less and less are images like that seen as anything controversial. Terry Richardson is a household name, and people become famous for leaking sex tapes. Who cares what some stupid artist is doing with his wife of 20 years?”

Isabella Burley is a London-based writer. Each month she will discuss how the work of one artist has been shaped by sex, porn and the internet. Ed Templeton: Memory Foam runs from 12 January 2013 – 16 February 2013, at Roberts & Tilton, California.