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Skin Graft

Photographer Carlos Batts Just Might Be the Ultimate Pornographer, Whether He Likes It or Not

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 12/3/2003

In the middle of a bolt-action monologue about how his career is trending upward, photographer Carlos Batts, after name-dropping John Waters and a San Francisco gallery among others, is quick to offer up his most recent bona fides. "I just sold stuff to The National Enquirer," he says, via cell phone from Hollywood.

The stuff he sold was a batch of 2-year-old nude photos of Tammy Lynn Michaels--the actress who recently married Melissa Etheridge--but he gave the tabloid more than that. Under the signal headline "SECRET BARE PAST OF MELISSA'S NEW BRIDE," Batts also shared his own recollections of taking those photos, which he apparently described to the Enquirer in more stilted, deliberate language than he uses on the phone.

"Tammy posed for dozens of very provocative pictures, and, surprisingly, almost all of the risqué positions were her idea," he was quoted as saying, in the Oct. 14 edition. "The photo shoot took place at [a] home in Glendale, Calif. Tammy was free to parade around the yard nude, strike poses in a bubble bath, and dress up in sexy clothes."

Batts' photographs of the would-be star had originally run in the graffiti/tattoo/softcore mag While You Were Sleeping, which Batts describes on the phone as "Maxim magazine for juvenile-delinquent kids." After listing Batts' reminiscences about the session, the article goes on to quote an anonymous "pal" of Tammy Lynn Michaels, who claims that she posed for Batts out of a combination of publicity starvation and financial desperation.

Batts (a former City Paper contributor) talks about his Enquirer transaction as a sign that he's in demand, as a measure of an increased taste for his work, which has been whetted by the release in October of his second book of kink, fetish, and hardcore porn, Crazy Sexy Hollywood. And that, to him, means he has more leverage in the lush cultural climate of California, far removed from his hometown of Baltimore.

"With the popularity of [my books], I have found a professional power," Batts, 30, says. "And I want to take advantage of the models and my environment. In California, you really have an opportunity to really exploit creativity on different levels."

Porn has a lot of things going for it, and, until recently, one of them was innocence. Batts may or may not be honest about, say, how much "professional power" he really has in Hollywood, and the Enquirer may or may not be honest about why Tammy Lynn Michaels posed for him. But this is why seeing people naked, or getting naked, or fucking can, when you're horny, seem like the last real truth. When it's done right, pornography is completely stripped of any mystery, or apology, or pretense, or self-consciousness. That's what makes it porn, and that's why few things are worse than porn that wants you to think it's something else. In this regard, Carlos Batts is at once the ultimate pornographer and the greatest threat to the skin trade. He's one of those pornographers who, despite the brutal enthusiasm he brings to the lens, refuses to accept the label. Even with the publication of his second book of fringe photos, Batts bristles when you call him a pornographer.

"I'm still not comfortable with that," he says. "Where'd you get that?"

We got it from one of his Web sites, www.wildskinonline.com, where he lists "pornographer" among his credentials. "What's it like being an internationally acclaimed photographer, artist, pornographer and filmmaker?" the Web page posits. "Wild Skin Online hopes to give you some insight into the world of Carlos Batts."

Real insight, it turns out, is hard to come by. Batts rat-a-tats like a Howitzer when discussing his work: He rapid-fire references his photographer forebears, both in the porn business and out. On the technical end, too, he talks a good game. And he makes plenty of mentions about what "the biggest differences" are between Crazy Sexy Hollywood and his earlier work, or his nonporn work, or the porn that other shooters are doing. But the prospect that his work might be pornographic, he says, constitutes "an invisible debate."

"That's up to the individual," he says. "My dedication to photography and my lighting style and my idea speaks volumes. People like what they like, and it's up to the individual."

It's strange that he should take this position. Because after you look through Crazy Sexy Hollywood, all glossy and color-drenched and legit-looking, after a few pages of coeds smearing each other in marshmallow cream, after a couple of naked chicks dappled in smash-mouth makeup and fake bruises, after a closeup of a skinny blonde lying on the floor, jamming a pink jelly dildo in her pussy, her face agape and expressionless, her eyes as big and empty as sandwich plates, it's hard to image just what pornography might be, if it isn't this.

You might call this a suspension of disbelief on his part, or you might call it homespun modesty. But in some ways, Batts still seems to carry himself like a humble Baltimore boy. He was raised in Reisterstown, where he hung out with the goth kids, got into horror movies, and studied photography, among other things, at Franklin High School. Beyond that, he notes, he is entirely self-trained. "I'd just been shooting a lot, reading a lot," he says of his teenaged years. "And I had a really good photography teacher in high school, so that helped."

After not too long, his interests in both darkness and the darkroom came together, and he began shooting dusky, fetishy sex scenes in his house using "friends of friends" as models, illuminating them with whatever lighting he could pull together. Even in those early days, the mid-1990s, his approach to porn had a secret, undercover, closeted quality.

"Baltimore was very agoraphobic," he says. "I never wanted to leave the house. I set up lights in the house, and [my photography] was always kind of saturated, kind of warm, dark colors."

Around this time, one of his horror-convention friends introduced him to a connection at Larry Flynt Publishing in Los Angeles. Batts landed freelancing jobs for some of the satellite fetish mags in Flynt's Hustler empire, small glossies with names like Leg World and Taboo. Many of the photos he took for them, together with his Baltimore shots, appeared together in Batts' first book, 2001's Wild Skin, a hefty coffee-table lunker that dropped a skewed eye on eroticism--an eye that was heavy, cold, and unclouded. Fat girls in painfully tight panties. Ugly girls with nice tattoos. Girls with stretch marks on their tits and zits on their asses but who looked at the lens like it was a pound of beefsteak and they hadn't eaten in days. But above all, Wild Skin was a nightmare of kink--nude women strapped in hospital trusses, slathered in dark body paint, affixed into metal neck braces, perching in wheelchairs. You'd have to suffer from some hard-wired hang-up to get off on any of it, but it had all the appearances of unapologetic porn.

"I mean, Wild Skin is probably the darkest, most saturated thing I've ever seen," Batts says. "Probably my favorite book of any photo book. I know it sounds pompous, but I felt like I broke new ground, like I definitely challenged the medium itself."

It's worth pointing out that the medium Batts is talking about here is not porn but simply the mechanics of photographic technique, which seem to preoccupy him more than the other, more complicated issues that his work arouses.

"My stuff never really took on the whole porn-system kind of lighting," he says. "They definitely have a system set up [where] they want you shooting women just like you shoot a product. . . . I don't really like to shoot like that, and at that time I wasn't that technically sophisticated to shoot like that."

In part because of his inexpert training, Batts used indoor film under lights that simulated daylight. This ended up giving his pictures a dirty orange cast that could seem by turns summery and warm or hepatic and sickly. To Batts, it smacked of retro sleaze. "It really had a very Elmer Batters, '60s, '70s color palette to it," he says. "And the publisher really liked that because it was different from a lot of things. I'd say that I light poorly really well."

Having found both a visual signature and a ready market to ply it in, Batts left Baltimore in 1999 and moved to L.A., toward "more business, more freedom, better weather." It would be a tense transition, one that would bring his unremittingly dark vision into the light of day, in more ways that one.

"One of the biggest differences for me [has been] in how much the environment really does affect you when you move around," he says. "Normally, I detested the sun in Baltimore. I never wanted to use it; you can't really control the sunset, the environment. But I have a better understanding of the sun and natural light now. . . . In L.A., I take advantage of the location, the beach, the sun, the sky, the palm trees, better architecture."

His disposition, though, didn't get any sunnier. As a freelancer, Batts found more work worrying the fringes of the entertainment industry--shooting for fetish mags, porn-movie boxes, CD covers, and clothing companies--and with each assignment he kept massaging his ugly-is-the-new-sexy idiom. He just gave it a Valley accent. "I have a genuine mean streak in me," Batts says. "And my publisher really wanted me to exploit my California dreamin'."

The codex of these dreams is his second book, Crazy Sexy Hollywood, 130 plates of freaks, fetish, and muted psychological violence, as seen through the viewfinder of a hanger-on among low-resolution celebrities. Jo Ritchie, Kid Rock's little sister, is in there, though he won't say in what picture. Actress Taryn Manning (8 Mile, Crossroads) is, too. So are the girls with the marshmallow cream, the fake bruises and neck braces, and the pink jelly dildo. And so is a nude shemale getting ready to piss, a closeup of a single red rose, and a female midget sitting on a toilet with a pug dog at her feet, a bondage gag-ball wedged in its small mouth.

"The book kinda has this theme of a California dream," Batts pipes up. "What Annie Liebowitz did with her level of celebrity and star power, it's like a more tangible level of that. I have actresses, musicians, girls right before they became celebrities, so it's like a more tangible version of Annie Liebowitz."

Just what makes his pictures art and not pornography--just why he sees himself more like Annie Liebowitz than Larry Flynt-- is "very, very complicated," he says. "It's a calculus equation." In the end, he believes that it's the mind-set of the artist that frames the photos, the sensitivity and the self-awareness on the part of the photographer that keeps porn apart from thoughtful sex art.

When it comes to what it might say about his own intent as an artist that he resells nude photographs of his models to The National Enquirer when they become famous, it becomes a bit more clear where Batts sees himself in that calculus equation.

"Look, the marriage between a pornographer and a model is a mutual one," he says. "You're not dealing with valedictorians. You're not dealing with engineers. Everyone knows what's going on. Everyone's well aware of what their duty is. It's not like a girl gets off a bus and is taken advantage of."

The decision to contact the Enquirer and sell them his photos of Tammy Lynn Michaels, he adds, was savvy on his part. "I thought who better to run the pictures than The National Enquirer," he says. "The L.A. Times is not gonna run it. People magazine isn't gonna run it. So I figured I'd let them know about it. . . . Plus, The National Enquirer is an international publication. It's just a good business move. . . . It's Hollywood. It's a system that has been here before me and will be here after me, and you have to make a living in the system."

But Batts says he's trying to steer clear of porn these days. "I don't really want to shoot naked women for the rest of my life," he says. "You get a lot of photographers that do. I'm fed up, over it, bored out of my mind." Some of his photos are going on display in a San Francisco gallery, but after that his last porn shoot for the foreseeable future will be making covers for dummy porn magazines that will be featured in John Waters' new film A Dirty Shame, slated for release this spring. In the meantime, he's working on a book of photos of his wife, Lilian, and mulling ways to "take on things that are outside of what I'm thinking about all the time.

"Maybe social things like the environment, different subject matters like vagabonds, just trying to really have more imagination and also be aware of race, culture, religion," Batts says. "I try to be devoid of those things, but I think that now I have a better idea about how to address them. All great artists have to address socially conscious things. And I guess I have to deal with that."

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