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Automatic for the People

It’s Not The Sex Machines That Make A New Photography Book

Photos by Timothy Archibald
BALD IS SEXY: Timothy Archibald’s photograph “Dan And Jan”
Timothy Archibald
Timothy Archibald

By Stephen Michael Snyder | Posted 11/2/2005

Timothy Archibald has taken pictures for Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, Outside Magazine, and Mother Jones, specializing mostly in portrait work for feature stories. But for his first book of photography, which came out Oct. 22 from Process Media, the San Francisco photographer turned to a decidedly different subject. The 38-year-old Archibald spent two years photographing and interviewing household inventors of sex machines from all over the country for his new book Sex Machines. An exhibit of his photos, as well as some of the machines themselves, opens Nov. 3 at New York’s Museum of Sex. Before traveling to New York for the opening, Archibald gives a slide show and talk Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. at Atomic Books (co-owned by City Paper contributor Benn Ray).


City Paper: How did you come across this subject?

Timothy Archibald: For my job I am a magazine photographer, so I do little picture stories and portraits for magazines. I wanted to do a project meeting and photographing inventors and the things that they invented. When I started to research that I came across a site on the internet that was for inventors of sex machines. I had no idea what that was at all. On the site these guys had pictures of the machines that essentially were what I ended up doing the entire book on, which were these cylindrical, almost painful-looking metal contraptions that had a big flywheel and a thrusting shaft and like a wooden base. They were very rough, and nothing was very polished about them. And then there was this phallic dildo at the end. This combination of mechanical and human just really fascinated me


CP: Was it hard to find people willing to be photographed?

TA: My assumption was that it was going to be tricky. I felt that these things were private or that people would have shame about these things. I felt that this was like a taboo thing. But as I got deeper into the project I found that the taboo was in my head. The people in the book, they don’t have that baggage. That was my thing. These people were comfortable and proud with what they were up to, and I think that kind of came across in the interviews.


CP: How else did your perceptions change going through the course of the project?

TA: That’s a good question. I am a photographer, so I’m attracted to the visual, and the machines looked fascinating. But I had assumed that someone who would create these things would be some sort of social misfit. Or it’d be a guy who couldn’t relate to women, someone who preferred the clean precision and preciseness of all things mechanical, as opposed to having to deal with emotions and human types of things.

But that was all nonsense. The majority of the people were married. It ended up breaking every stereotype that I had. These are just like average people. They were creating these things just out of instinct. They weren’t trying to be sexually edgy. It wasn’t about being part of a scene.


CP: How did you find your first subjects?

TA: There were these guys in San Francisco who had a pornography company for the web. They did all sorts of things—unusual fetish things, not just straight pornography—like people electrocuting each other and people into leather. One of their sites was about machines—you know, machine sex. I reached out to those guys with the idea of doing a story for a magazine because I thought that I could talk to them and I could see these machines up close and get a feel for what this was all about. They showed me the machines, and I talked to them a bit. They said, “If you’re interested in the inventors, there’s a couple we know that we think would be great.” So they pointed me in those people’s directions.

When I was in the pornography studio I realized what was going to make this project better. These are just machines, and if they’re in a pornography studio that’s one thing, but that doesn’t tell us anything about anybody’s life. That’s theater. Pornography is theater. I made some pictures at this pornography studio, and they were curious, but they weren’t fascinating. I felt like if I met the people who made these machines in their homes, that could be fascinating. Fortunately it was.


CP: Describe some of the people in the book.

TA: Sure. We have John Traven. He lives in Idaho City, Idaho. He invented a sex machine to give to his wife before she filed for divorce. He’s a Christian and has always been a Christian. He began selling his machine,. and he will only sell it to someone who can provide a marriage license to prove that they’re going to use it within marriage. He feels sex outside marriage is dangerous, but within marriage you are certainly allowed to explore anything. He felt that by trying to sell these machines to people who were maybe looking for ways to help their marriage, he could use it as a tool to begin counseling them. So that was definitely stereotype-breaking.

Also in the project is Deb and Bill Howard and they’re in Salisbury, Maryland. Deb and Bill Howard aren’t inventors, but were users of a machine. Bill is in a wheelchair, and Deb is his wife. They began exploring using the machine for their own relationship due to their own health problems. Then, as a way to make money, they set up their own internet porn site. It has photographs and movies taken by Bill of his wife, Deb, using their machine. Talking to them, it’s just a way to bring in a couple extra bucks, especially seeing that one of them is handicapped and had to leave his job. They kind of discovered these machines because they had to, and now they’re trying to pay the bills with it.


CP: What was the strangest machine you photographed?

TA: There was a guy. He had this outlandish, large contraption/sex machine that he was installing in a whorehouse in Nevada. So in Nevada there’s legal brothels. He had this supercomplicated, computer-driven sex machine that he called the Thrill Hammer. When you see that one in the book or online it’s just outlandish. It has like these giant tentacles coming out of it and then a computer mounted on a gynecological chair. It looked like a threatening monster that would end up penetrating every orifice that you have. That was definitely the most out of control.

There was another machine that ideally we’re getting for this exhibit at the Museum of Sex. And that was invented by an inventor named Scott Ehalt. He calls it the Pile Driver. It’s essentially two vertical shafts of steel, upon which an enormous dildo is mounted, and there’s an engine attached to it. He was trying to hide what its function was from a neighbor and he said it was being used to poke holes in sheetrock. It looks exactly like that. He and I had to lift it together to pull it out of someone’s garage so I could photograph it. It was easily something two men had to struggle to lift. And it’s all rusty and hard edges. When we were putting together the book we were like, “This is the anthropological sexual discovery of the 20th century.”


CP: How did you get hooked up with Atomic Books?

TA: It’s hard to get into a bookstore to do a signing. We thought it would be easy, and we had a sensational book that people would want. Out here in San Francisco there’s a high-end book store called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. And it’s kind of famous and they have famous authors come in. We proposed doing something there, and immediately they were like, “Absolutely not.” I think that they thought it was sleazy or smarmy or something like that.

Not everybody gets the book and not everybody understands it or embraces it. But Atomic, right from the beginning they were selling it and enthusiastically trumpeting it on their web site, discussing it on their blog. Like with anything, you’re excited when someone gets it.


CP: What’s been the reaction so far to the book?

TA: It seems like in the U.K. and in Germany we’ve gotten great press who, perceptively, immediately get it. Every interview we’ve done with people from there has been super and insightful, and I kind of left it thinking more about the project. In the U.S. it’s been really hard to get press. Playgirl is doing something. Of course, we love them and everything, but it’s been real hard to get mainstream press.

It was important to us that we communicated to the public that this is an entertaining, accessible book that isn’t like a fetish book. It’s not aimed at people who are into this fetish. It’s not necessarily a sex book. We were always saying, “It’s sociology, not sexuality.” Whether it is or isn’t, that’s for the readers to decide.

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