Forniphilia is a form of BDSM where a person is used as household furniture. The best example is, of course, Allen Jones’s 1970 sculptures of a table, chair and hatstand, which surprisingly still causes controversy even today.
People were being used as furniture long before this though, and the oldest depiction I have seen so far is a 1878 carved wooden chair of two nude females on their hands and knees holding up a seat. Since taking my first fetish photograph over thirty years ago, I have met many submissive women who would call themselves feminists. Sex has no ideology, so it is useless to tell someone it is not politically correct to be tied up and beaten or to run off with someone else’s partner. If it gives them satisfaction, they will do it. People will often extrapolate from their own position. If they cannot imagine doing something themselves, even as a last resort, they imagine someone else engaging in it must be doing so under some form of duress, which is often not the case.
The first time I went to a fetish club, one of the first sights that greeted me was like a scene straight out of The Story of O. The first forniphilia I saw with my own eyes was a man in a riding outfit carrying a dog lead attached to the pierced labia of a nude woman. From her pierced nipples hung a plastic tray and at intervals he would send her off to the bar and she would return with a drink balanced on the tray, the weight borne by her nipples. I wrote about it in my essay, How to Become Debauched While Remaining a Virgin. I was quite taken with what I saw and thought that these people were as imaginative in their sex lives as I was in my photography. I specialised in the unusual and surreal and here were ready-made images I could use.
Soon after winning the Vogue/Sotheby’s Award for my series of high heel shoe pictures entitled, The Fetish, someone suggested that I see the fetish style magazine, Skin Two. I did a shoot for them and it was in the pages of the magazine I saw a picture of a woman with nipple rings that led me to an idea for a photograph. I was at the fetish club to find a model. I subsequently took the picture entitled, The Most Scurrilous Washing Line in Christendom, depicting a woman with clothes pegged out on washing lines attached to her nipples.
When I first started exhibiting, it amused me to use pseudonyms, among them Sue Purb, Warren Peace and Adolf Himmler. I exhibited the picture under the name Beverly Hill and a Time Out magazine critic proclaimed it a feminist statement. For the first time I realised that the same picture could be interpreted differently depending on if it was taken by a male or female. As a man it amused me as I believe only a woman can be a feminist. I took my next image of forniphilia a few years later when I heard on BBC Radio 4, a woman saying how she liked her partner reading his newspaper by the light of a candle in her vagina. I swapped the newspaper for a book of philosophy and entitled it The Philosopher Illumined by Candle Light.
Not long ago, I came across a web page citing the picture and classifying me as a misogynist. I was slightly surprised but not at all troubled. If I was afraid of alienating people, I would have taken up landscape photography. The author was an older woman and her rhetoric seemed very seventies. As far as I am concerned the discourse has moved on. Besides, according to my Facebook page, 48% of my followers are women and of my total audience 35% are women in the 18-34 age group as opposed to only 28% young men. My guess is that in an age of Fifty Shades of Grey and when more and more young women are having sex with each other, as borne out by the last British sex survey, a lot of young women enjoy seeing erotic images of other women.
Some people might find the sexuality of others problematic or even abusive but is it the job of an artist to primarily consider questions of taste or consensus or be mindful of who it may upset? If I choose to interpret acts that occur in the world, all I can do is render them to the best of my ability with a bit of wit and incision.
For someone like me who favoured surreal and out of the ordinary pictures, this was redolent of all sorts of exciting possibilities. Here were human Transformers who could change into tables, chairs, standing lamps or whatever their master commanded.
Someone with ideological reasons to dislike BDSM would always find it abusive even if the subject enjoyed it. After all, is this not the very epitome of objectification?
Are these pictures in good or bad taste? I have no taste. I just try to take the type of picture I like to see the most. I do not believe the job of an artist is to primarily consider questions of taste or consensus or be mindful of who a work may upset. If I was afraid of alienating people, I would have taken up landscape photography.
Does my photography subvert or reinforce the dominant gender stereotypes of our society? If you are vanilla it may subvert what you think of as normal and if you are into BDSM it may reinforce what is normal for you. If as an artist you come across wondrous material do you walk away because somebody somewhere might object? Sex has no ideology so nobody is going to let a political movement prescribe the ways they can get off.
I did not come into photography with a political agenda. My approach is personal and intimate rather than the universal and grandiose.
In the internet age, is there any shock value left in photography of this sort? Do I hope for shock/controversy, or am I more concerned with documentation? I am not expecting these pictures to shock, we should have got over that since Allen Jones first showed his sculptures so long ago in 1970.
Shock is a bullet in the artist’s arsenal which was legitimised by twentieth century art. The thing about it though, is that its power diminishes on repeated viewing and once shock subsides, to be good, the art still has to resonate and display an engaging sensibility behind it.
Even if you want to be controversial it is not that easy. First of all, you need a platform and the gate keepers to these platforms are far more conservative than they like to think themselves. The agenda is always “Will it sell?”
I stage photographs, I do not document.
Alva Bernadine makes photographs and films. By using themes such as surrealism, sexuality and violence, Bernadine touches various overlapping topics and strategies. Several reoccurring subject matters can be recognised, such as mirrors, shadows, optical effects and representations of the female form. The work is filled with invented surreal scenarios, witty events, troubling scenes from movies that were never made and almost hallucinatory images that invoke narrative, prompting you to imagine what came before or what is about to happen. They are not only about desire but the problems that go with it. Bernadine was born in Grenada, West Indies and grew up on the outskirts of London. He won the Vogue/Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Award as a young photographer and has since worked for many prestigious magazines and became Erotic Photographer of the Year for his first book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women.