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Rick Castro: beyond the fetish frontier

The seminal S&M photographer on shooting his 93-year-old father for Rick Owens, discovering Tony Ward and his PG Tips obsession

There are so many images competing for our attention these days, but one look at fetish photographer Rick Castro's solemnly beautiful lookbook for Rick Owens’ AW14 Moody menswear stops you dead in your tracks. Here are four older gentlemen, aged sixty to ninety-three, posing almost nude or shrouded in menacing leather and eerily ecclesiastical silhouettes. Castro’s powerful images not only challenge our ideas of beauty and obsession with youth but also the way society has stigmatised the idea of being a sexual being past a certain age.

Since his childhood, Castro’s been drawn to film noir and the darkly romantic. “Some say we dream in black and white. I remember my dreams and nightmares equally. Both have their place in my psyche,” he says, on the phone from Antebellum, his fetish art gallery in Hollywood, where he’s currently prepping for his first retrospective show. “I’m just not one with sweet things like Hallmark.”

Before taking up photography in the mid-eighties and going on to shoot his 1996 Tony Ward cult hit Hustler White alongside Bruce LaBruce, Castro started out as a stylist, working with Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz and Joel-Peter Witkin. His work is in the Kinsey Institute, he’s photographed the Dalai Lama, and he’s had a tea fetish since a visit to London, where a missed flight and a journey from hell sent him into an almighty rage that he says was only pacified by the words “Sit down, love, and let me make you a nice cup of tea.”

I’d love to hear about the story behind the images. They’re absolutely beautiful.

Rick Castro: Well, thank you, I’m very proud of them. I go back very far with Rick and Michele [Lamy]. I knew them in Los Angeles when we were all very young and running around Hollywood, and they actually met through me. My art gallery is on the same block as where their original studio used to be.

How did you meet?

Rick Castro: I met Rick in the 80s when I was a stylist and he had a workspace in Culver City. He had a couple of hats in a shop on Melrose called Black Salad where all the items were black. I called him up and asked him if I could use this beautiful black wire hat for an Interview magazine layout. I go even further back with Michele, when she had her first clothing shop in West Hollywood.

So how did the shoot come about?

Rick Castro: Rick’s stylist Rich Aybar had been looking at a video I did in the eighties for a menswear collection for Michele Lamy and he was like, ‘I want to work with the person who did this’. The video he’d seen has Tony Ward in it and it’s very body, sexy, muscle, cock oriented, so I’m sure that’s kind of what he wanted to do. But then I spoke to Rick and he wanted to do these everyday people and older people, just different images that are against beauty and fashion. So I suggested we use my dad, who’s going to be ninety-three this year. And he said "perfect!" Rick loved the pictures I sent him of my dad and the other models, and in person it all clicked that this could be something really special. Because you just don’t see it in a lookbook, or in fashion for that matter. And Rick met my father back in the 80s, so there’s that kind of family connection.

What was it like photographing your father?

Rick Castro: It was really interesting. My dad is as familiar with my work as he really wants to be or allows himself to be. So I proposed the idea and he just looked at me like I had three eyes and said "Why does [Rick] want me? I’m not model material." And I said "Yeah, but I know you’re photogenic, you have a great look and you’re tall. You’d be perfect." And he said "Well, I’ll do it for you," which I thought was very, very sweet. It really brought a tear to my eye. I’d photographed my dad once before, when I recreated an image of him in his World War II uniform.

How was it on the day of the shoot?

Rick Castro: My friend Steven McNicholl gave my dad a nice classic haircut. I dressed him, because he needs a little help, and we did the shoot here at my gallery. I think the entire time he just talked about family issues and how he was annoyed at my aunt and annoyed at the cousin and didn’t really focus on what was actually going on. When he put on the long leather pullover, very baggy matching shorts and very high leather boots he made the comment "Boris Karloff" which I thought was perfect!

There’s such a tenderness in the portraits of your father, even with the severity of the clothes and the styling.

Rick Castro: Thank you, I really agree. The thing that really endears me so much is you can see in his eyes that he loves me. And it just touches my soul for many reasons. You know, father and son haven’t always seen eye to eye, he doesn’t really understand my world, he doesn’t really necessarily accept that I’m gay. I think he does, but he doesn’t really. And so the only bond is that you can see in his eyes that he loves me, and I just think it’s so sweet how it’ll be like this permanent record no matter how we connected as people. The image will live on and it’s art.

Who are the other gentlemen in the images?

Rick Castro: Men who are part of the stuff I do here in Hollywood. Paul Marshall, who’s sixty. He’s been a professional model and has a very serious look. Robert Sides who’s seventy-two is the one wearing the boots and the underwear. And Turk Magnanti, the model with the beard, is sixty-five. They were very excited because they know me and know my work. They weren’t necessarily familiar with Rick, but when they saw the clothes they loved them.

I see something very painterly about the portraits, almost Renaissance-like. What did you want them to convey?

Rick Castro: I think that’s pretty accurate. I wanted them to look like portraits and have a timeless quality where you’re not really sure if it’s from the past, if it’s current or from the future. And the age of the men throws it into a whole different thing because you’re not expecting it to be men who have wrinkly skin or wrinkly butts or the non-perfect thing, but at the same time they’re incredibly photogenic and I think it broadens the appeal of what is and isn’t fashion. What art can be.

It really shows the beauty of older bodies and elevates them.

Rick Castro: Yeah, it’s unexpected and it was important to me to push some nudity because when do you see a nude old man? You just don’t. And if you do, it’s maybe in a kind of comical way. And I’m sure that some people might find it comical but if they do, great. Whatever. I think people will see it as something different in the future as to what it is now. It has its own glamour and I’m very proud of the portrait of my father where he’s nude from the waist up and has one of Rick’s coats draped over his lap and he’s wearing the leather bracelets with little ivory buttons. That represents any father or any older man. I’m grateful that it’s my father, but it really represents a certain classicism, almost sculptural. And you know, he was embarrassed to be there without his shirt and quite frankly I hadn’t seen him without his shirt. I mean, when do you see your parents naked? It was just a very revealing sort of experience for all of us, and the guys that were helping me made that comment, too.

Looking at your work as a whole, what do you want to convey about the male body and male sexuality?

Rick Castro: I definitely like to push the envelope and the idea of what’s erotic and tease censorship because I have a hard time with censorship in America. Europe accepts things as art or as classic. America seems to be immature when it comes to any kind of sexuality and sensuality. And there has to be a new word for erotic because I think that sounds sort of seventies. And porn sounds too nasty. I myself like fetish but people don’t quite understand fetish yet.

What's the biggest misconception about fetish?

Rick Castro: That it’s perversion. In fact it’s the opposite. Fetish is the exploration of sex as art, and the refinement of one’s personal desires. Anything can be fetishised. I can basically exhibit anything at my fetish art gallery. There’ll be new fetishes forever. I feel that the 21st century is all about fetish.

“Fetish is the exploration of sex as art, and the refinement of one’s personal desires. Anything can be fetishised...There’ll be new fetishes forever. I feel that the 21st century is all about fetish.” – Rick Castro

Fashion in itself is deeply fetishistic.

Rick Castro: Deeply. And Rick’s clothes are the epitome of that. There were times when I used to tell him that stuff he did was fetish and he didn’t quite understand it. Now he completely understands! There’s a real beauty to obsession and that’s really the driving force in fashion. Wanting the next thing.

What’s the most memorable fetish shoot you’ve done?

Rick Castro: Aside from this recent Rick Owens shoot, I would have to say photographing Gore Vidal back in 2004. I have a Gore Vidal fetish. He spoke with me after the shoot and did the best George Bush impression. "I’m a wartime president, I’m a wartime president!" I also did an editorial for Flaunt magazine in 2009 with bears and cubs, as in hairy, large men. They wore jewellery like Cartier, Gucci and Chanel and every piece came with its own hired armed guard. My studio was filled with bears, guards and guns and I called the story Talk to me, Hairy Winston.

Is the idea of provocation important to you in your work?

Rick Castro: I’m not into things you hang on the wall as background décor. Images have to have a punch. The art in images that I react to are things that you look at for a while. Some of my work is maybe considered extreme but the times are changing so much that what was considered extreme in what I did ten years ago isn’t anymore. In a way, the lookbook is extreme for right now because it pushes the provocative in an unexpected way. The idea is not to keep getting more exaggerated but to keep altering and rediscovering things. We’re living in a time where you have to really refine what you’re interested in, otherwise you get lost. There’s just too much to choose from. I see a lot of young artists getting lost, not quite sure where to go. It becomes this nervous system overload. And it kind of scares me. I’m all about unplugging and just going for a walk.

If you do look at things for inspiration, what do you look at?

Rick Castro: Surprisingly simple things. I’ve gotta tell you, my dear: a nice cup of tea solves everything. It gives me so much inspiration. I have a tea fetish. I have tea every day at my gallery at five o’clock. Every Wednesday people come here and have tea, and we sit and look at art and talk about fetish or anything over a cup of tea.

What’s your favourite tea?

Rick Castro: Well, I like my tea like I like my men: strong and black. A standard of course is PG Tips if it’s bagged. For loose tea I like an Assam or a Ceylon.

Is there a piece you’re especially excited about showing in your upcoming Rick Castro: Masterworks exhibition?

Rick Castro: I’m definitely going to include the image of my father, and I have these classic images of Tony Ward. I kind of discovered him and he was my muse back in the 90s. And street hustlers from when there was actual street hustling, not Grindr!

What originally drew you to Tony Ward?

Rick Castro: In 1985, I saw Tony in a blue magazine called In Touch. I knew he was a star. He had animal magnetism that transcended gender. I booked him immediately, and he was the model for the first photo I’d ever taken. At the time, I was styling for Herb Ritts, so I took a few Polaroids to show him and he said "I don’t know, Rick. He’s like, I don’t know what. He’s not my type, I don’t like his nose." "What do you mean?" I exploded. "His nose is Romanesque. It’s like a second dick. He’s the world’s type!" Tony Ward is the longest working male model, so I think my instincts were correct.

Rick Castro: Masterworks will open Saturday November 15th at Antebellum, Hollywood.