Why Is This Man Smiling?
Carlos Batts Wants You to Know That He Is Not a Pornographer. So What Is He?
Batts is explaining this in his parents' furnished basement in Reisterstown. He's wearing all black--button-down shirt, T-shirt, pants, sneakers--and is digging in a black suitcase for a copy of his new book, Wild Skin. He has just driven down from New York, where he attended a Wild Skin release party.
The book, a heavy coffee-table volume issued by the German publisher Edition Reuss, collects pictures Batts has taken over the past decade--pictures that are predominantly of women undressed, pictures that may have previously appeared in Taboo, or Leg World, or Oui, or Oriental Doll. Hence the disclaimer, right off. Carlos Batts is an artist.
Some artists wait tables. Some artists live off trust funds. Batts himself used to work in a Ritz Camera photo lab. Now he gets paid hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to snap pictures of naked girls for skin and fetish-porn mags.
A "failed painter," as he puts it, Batts turned early on to photo collage, layering his own photographs together and manipulating the images by hand. He brings out some of his old stuff, in a black-on-black portfolio. It's a swirl of industrial-gothic imagery: bones, machinery, nudes in masks and body paint. "I've always been into dark shit," he says. "I've always listened to hard music. . . . I mean, being black and listening to [Metallica's] Master of Puppets--in a black neighborhood. That was before rap-rock was cool."
He sold stuff to Reptilian Records, and to dark-fantasy publishers. He followed his muse. Then, in 1997, he got invited to meet with some editors at Larry Flynt Publishing. And they invited his muse to move in a different direction.
Carlos Batts:I went out there and I showed them this stuff, all my manipulations, all the images . . . I'm styling, I do the body paint. And I happened to have an outtake--before I beat the image up, I had an outtake of one of the girls, a Polaroid test. And the girl was very voluptuous, had long Bettie Page black hair, and [an editor said] said, "Would that girl be interested in working for our new magazine called Leg World?"
I had photographed a lot of people naked, but not in a superficial sense where it was about them being naked, you know what I mean? So even if she was hot, I'm never like, "Oh, yeah, you're hot." It was always like, I'm going to paint her green and do something with her. . . .
From the outtake, I asked my model, I said, "Hey would you be interested in doing this, something like a Bettie Page thing for this magazine." She said, "Oh, yeah, that'd be cool."
And growing up watching '70s porn, '80s porn . . . I'm driven to warm, deep yellow-orange-red colors. And I light everything backwards. I'm working at the lab, [and] Agfa film was the cheapest film. You get a three-pack for like $2.99 plus [an employee] discount. This film was so warm. And I lit it wrong. I used the wrong bulbs. The stuff came out really deep, really moody colors.
And they loved it, because it was almost like Bettie Page, and it was contemporary, but kind of '70s. It was really warm. I love lighting it that way. And from there, they were like, "Oh, Carlos, shoot some stuff."
Batts sips iced tea from a bottle as he talks. He has been talking nonstop for two days, and his voice is fraying. But he's a near-compulsive talker, with a story to tell. Like any good origin myth, the tale of Batts' Leg World debut captures its subject's favorite themes: The self-taught outsider, working on the cheap. The power of good intentions. And, especially, the free exchange between art and commerce.
The market sees what the market wants to see. And the market likes to see naked women. A photographer who works the nude form into industrial-gothic collages is, market logic would imply, a photographer who knows how to get girls to take their clothes off.
[In 1999] I put together what I call a demo book of 300 images, after I made the contact with my German publisher. . . . He sent me a letter back and said, "I like some of your things, but some of them I don't like. Can you do more erotic? In Europe we can show more of the erotic girl." . . . In my book, I didn't even send him that many girls. I sent him more of my weird stuff. . . .
I've been getting rejection letters my whole life. From every art gallery in Baltimore. Make sure that's in there: Every art gallery, and competition, and juried show in Baltimore rejected me. . . . I have the rejection letters. So I've never given up on my work. I'd like to thank them.
Anyway. So getting his rejection letter, he seemed pleasant. . . . Most of the time, when people don't want to work with you, it's like, "Thank you for your time, really interesting." They always give you thank-you-for-your-time bullshit. But there was a little something in the letter that made me think, maybe he is interested.
So I had continued to shoot in L.A., [where] I had moved. Technically, I became better. I started shooting girls cleaner, to make money, of course. And I sent him back a new edit. . . . I had Latin, Asian, black, white--cleaner shots. . . . Just clean girls, lit really well.
I had 30 pages of a demo and then 30 pages of text and a picture of me, and sent it to him. And I had worked on this for a year, a solid year, and I got a fucking e-mail from him, and it was awesome. It said, "Wow, Carlos, this is what I want. Your colors are great, the girls are great, your perspectives are great, I want to do a book of you." And in that e-mail, he had outlined how he does his business. I had got a book deal. He was just like, the German, it wasn't any bullshit. . . . I was overwhelmed. It really worked. This time it really worked.
The fruit of Batts' labors checks in at 224 thick, glossy pages and retails for $75. "If you're going to buy a book like this, you're not buying it for the same reason you would buy a magazine," says Rachel Whang, co-owner of Atomic Books, which stocks Wild Skin locally. The presentation and layout are what you might get with a book of Ansel Adams landscapes.
Voluble though he is, Batts lets the pictures do the talking in the book. Save for an introduction by Rick Berry, an artist friend of Batts, printed in English, French, and German ("Er hat die Vorlieben und Eigenarten eines Künstlers."), there's almost no text--unless you count the words "white" and "trash" tattooed on the right and left hamstrings of a bruised-looking young woman in a Confederate-battle-flag-patterned bikini.
This is a fair example of what Wild Skin offers. And this: Elsewhere in the book, the same bikini bottom shows up on a black model, squatting in front of the camera. "That's one of my favorite images," Batts says. "That wasn't even for a magazine. I just wanted to do something . . . a little bit more provocative, in the political sense of that. A booty black stripper girl with a Confederate flag on her butt."
What else? A white woman in a black fishnet body stocking with a cutaway crotch, snapped while peeing. A scrawny Asian woman styled like the Grim Reaper, wrapped in something like cheesecloth and holding a scythe. A topless all-American blond with sharp tan lines. A woman contorted to suck the spike heel of her own towering shoe. Closeups of feet. Dildos being inserted. Straitjackets. Black body paint. Rusty implements. More feet. Wrestling masks. More pee. Still more feet.
My intent was never to do hard-core. I'm not even in the league. I wasn't technically inclined to light a room like that. I didn't even know how begin to light a big, shiny, bright white girl. I would set up four hot bulbs and let it go. Get some mood in there. Make her become more of a character, and not just like a thing. . . .
Really slick porno is lit like you'd light a lawn mower. It's like shooting a Sears catalog. There's no depths as far as personality. You're not engaged. She's just a brightly lit vagina. I could never do that. . . .
Some of the specific body shots [in the book] are for magazines. I don't have a foot fetish. I like shoes. I like fishnets. I like duct tape. Everyone's always trying to gauge what I like. These are specific assignments. I had a 1,200-piece edit that my editor went through. And he said, "Oh, this'll be for the feet guys, this'll be for the pee guys, this'll be for the bondage guys." So it became a marketing idea behind, like, let's have a selection.
The one thing that makes me really just geeked on the whole book is that it's such a great range of things. Most fetish books, or erotic books, or nude books, it's like, a naked white girl. Two hundred pages, 180 pages, are the same. But this gives a sense of the temperaments that I have--where I have gone from painting, and that's like the most realistic thing I feel good about. As well as: black girls, Latin girls, Asian girls, fat girls, skinny girls, girls with blemishes, girls that are clean, girls with tattoos. . . .
I think, being a black man, I have a different perception of everything that I've shot so far. My perception of shooting women is just generally different from a 50-year-old white photographer. I wanted to show a plethora of different kinds of people. Because I've never liked the fact that we've been pushed the blond, blue-eyed, skinny-girl thing so much.
Whether on white girls or not, there are plenty of well-lit vaginas in Wild Skin, and more than a few well-lit anuses. There are plenty of blunt, bent-over poses, women striking stances that a horny mandrill or rhesus monkey would have no trouble interpreting.
"You never debate a naked girl or a pretty girl or a hot girl," Batts says. "If I take a picture of a pretty, shiny girl into any magazine in the country, even if I was Joe Schmo, they wouldn't debate me. . . . The problem is that it doesn't evolve."
Taken all together in one book, the bluntness has a different effect. Not many people are polymorphous enough to get ordinary prurient value from Wild Skin--not with shoe-porn following pee-porn following wheelchair-porn. If you're not into feet, a golden-lit closeup of a foot, showing the imprint of a just-removed stocking, can be a composition exercise, a study in the formal techniques of objectification.
But detachment has its limits. The banana picture, for instance--"the most talked-about image in the book," Batts says--is just what you might think it is. "I did it to be a smart-ass," he says, "because they always wanted penetration, they're always talking about penetration. . . . So I was like, 'OK, here's something.'"
And how did Leg World respond to the ironic, challenging gesture?
"They ran it."
This, this is a couple having sex. They're having sex, she's sucking his dick, but I wanted to do something really cool. It was for a magazine called Taboo. I'll give you an example of what people really don't know. Taboo magazine is like a fetish magazine. People always want to make--they say, "You do fetish, you do fetish." But most people associate fetish with, like, shiny patent-leather clothes or leather corsets.
Fetish to me is, like, duct tape, power tools, and bondage. . . . I don't like to see people hurt. I'm by no means a masochist. By no means do I want to violate women or torture them. I'm not fascinated by that. I don't have any driven insecurity, to try to hurt people. It's an aesthetic that I like. It's interesting to me. Just like movies--if I like Seven, or Silence of the Lambs, or Tetsuo the Iron Man.
But this is a set that I was actually shooting a couple having sex. As you can see, it's like I tried to make it yellow in the background, and red. Just explosive, so you're like, "Whoa, man." Know what I mean? More impactful.
There are themes in Wild Skin, pictures that comment on other pictures. "I sneak in little shit on people," Batts says, pointing out an image of a model in the bathroom, her face, chest, and torso swathed in bandages, looking at herself in the mirror. "This is like the bandages of her getting face surgery, like everyone cosmetically needing work in L.A., or her breasts being done. . . . [She's] bandaged because she wants to look better." Some day, he says, he wants to do a series of real before-and-after pictures of women who have gotten breast augmentation.
Batts can and does read the book as a study in the contrasts between the coasts, between the images he shot in Baltimore and the ones he shot in Los Angeles. He flips through the pages, connecting images to cities. The well-lit pinup girls are generally from L.A. The ones wearing masks, with sharp metal bits in their hair, are from Baltimore. Here, he says: "Los Angeles . . . tan, shiny. Baltimore: girl licking a knife, paint cracked on the wall."
Baltimore's a very interesting training ground for creative people. As you can see, like Jada Pinkett or Sisqo or even John Waters. . . . You kind of have a sense of family here; it's a close-knit group of artists and ideas. . . . But you outgrow it. It's a great city. I'm not going to talk shit about it. I'm born and raised here. Hollywood's not that great. There's downsides to that shit too. . . .
Baltimore models just model for entertainment purposes; it wasn't necessarily like they were trying to get head shots or tear sheets. They knew me, and I was doing a lot of creative stuff, so it was an opportunity for them to do some creative stuff. They knew about me. It was, like, small-time fame to be in one of the spreads. Whereas L.A., the models--it's all driven by tear sheets and press. . . .
The downside to Baltimore is that it's really cliquish, and the Maryland Institute College of Art dominates the art scene so much. It's frustrating. And I think that a lot of people don't understand the industry, because this is an industry. . . . You don't accidentally work for magazines, you don't accidentally do music videos. . . .
I lived around the corner from MICA. . . . I was just like, fuck, man, I just want one person to be like, "This guy is doing his own thing." That was the most frustrating part, that people weren't even, like, accepting of other things. There's a lot of pretentious bullshit. I went around, I scouted, I love looking. I love looking and looking at art. I would go over to the Institute, and when I see tea bags hanging on a string--I think that's really fascinating, but for $20,000 a year? . . . I don't need to do art-speak to articulate stupidity. There's a lot of weak shit happening at the Mecca of art in Baltimore.
Carlos Batts displays a deep and all-encompassing self-confidence, with the optimism of true belief. "I think it's the best book in the world," he says of Wild Skin. "I think they'll be giving classes on this at MICA: 'Understanding Poor Lighting and the Success of It.' How to light film wrong: daylight, with tungsten. Tungsten, with daylight. Fluorescent, with Polaroid. See, here we have Carlos, with cheap film and two flashlights."
Standard naked-photography question No. 1: What do Batts' parents think about Wild Skin? "They haven't seen the book yet." Nor, he says, have they met his girlfriend, Lillian, a short, curvy woman with a pale, heart-shaped face under sharp bangs. That face--with a generous amount of cleavage below it--peers out from the front jacket of the book, and reappears several times inside, in various other photos.
So Batts has brought Lillian and the book, together, back to Maryland so his folks can get acquainted. When his parents get home from work, he ducks upstairs for brief introductions, then comes back to continue the interview. A half-hour or so later, when he returns upstairs, the elder Battses and Lillian are sitting around the kitchen table, chatting, as the parents leaf through the book.
My family, you know, frankly, honestly, like, I don't care what they think, and they know that. I've never had to win over their approval in anything. . . .
I'm completely straight edge. I've never done a drug ever. I don't drink at all. I had a couple beers in high school. But if there's a word from Minor Threat's "Straight Edge"--I am straight edge. Ask anybody, it's real. I still represent straight edge. I don't do any alcohol. Never been arrested. I recently got one parking ticket because I had to move my car, but I don't even have a speeding ticket. I'm as square as possible, morally.
So they like me just because I'm stand-up. They don't really care what I do. That has its pluses and minuses. They didn't impose any great religious reasons on why not to do this. I did my thing, and they worked, and that was cool. . . .
I'm their oldest son. Like I said before, I never really did any crime or did anything wrong. Me being weird was, you know, it was hard on them. I'm 16, wearing a Carcass T-shirt. It's a death-metal band . . . . What are they supposed to do? I can't be mad at them. If my kid came in and had on a Britney Spears T-shirt, I'd be like, "What are you doing with a Britney Spears T-shirt on?"
They don't really gauge their love for me by the images I create. I'm sure a lot of it might be over their head, frankly. What do they know about skulls, death metal, and naked white girls? They're a black family from Baltimore. My mother doesn't care about any of that shit.
There are countless theories about where the line falls between art and pornography. On the producer's end, one of the hallmarks of porn seems to be a certain dead-end professionalism. Batts tells about shooting a big-time porn star, a Russian woman, for Leg World. "She didn't care about how I lit her," he says. "She didn't give a fuck about anything I did. She knew she got paid. . . . She didn't say, 'I want to see the picture, that was very cool, you're really talented.' She didn't care. I was like, Ehhh, that sucks. I don't really want to do that."
Carlos Batts is not a pornographer because Carlos Batts doesn't want to be a pornographer. He compares his work for the porn industry to Andy Warhol doing commercials. He has a big, glossy book--"This is the same size as an Annie Leibovitz book"--and designs on more, on a Wild Skin 2, a Wild Skin 3, books focusing on his darker, personal visions. He wants to make movies and music videos. He has ambitions.
I want to have a massive body of work. I want--c batts FLY is the name of my company--C as in Carlos, B-A-T-T-S Fly. . . . That's always been the name of my company, since I've been 16. I want to produce--it's a privilege, to be paid to be creative and paint people. It's awesome. And I want things, of course. I'm not thing-driven, but I want things.
But as an artist, I want to work a lot, I want to be consistent. . . . I want to have 10, 20 books, 10, 20 music videos--maybe, I'm sorry, more. Hundreds of music videos. Do film. I have tons of ideas I still want to do. . . .
I want to be the Gordon Parks of my generation. I want to be 88 with 10 books and a documentary on HBO. Not because I think I'm cool, or not because I'm a fucking blabbermouth, but because I have a massive body of work. That people are like, "Wow, this guy did this, in 1993." I saw that documentary, I was like, damn, he's 88, and he's still shootin'. Eighty-eight. He goes back, he was the first black everything. And that's the way I feel. I like the craft. . . .
I really love photography. I really, really do. And that's why I wanted to talk to you. Because it's not about the fuckin' bullshit girls. I know I've got a book of girls. It's not about the fuckin' girls. I really like art. You know what I mean? I really do.
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