Kinky Machine

The rise, life and women of photographer Eric Kroll

click to enlarge Kinky Machine
Brian Smith
Melanie King in Eric Kroll’s Tucson kitchen.

She's standing beneath a giant stuffed bird surrounded by maniacal wall and ceiling displays of peepshow pulp. The sombrero's perched back on her head like Poncho Villa as a young, perfect-skinned woman and its sparkly chinstrap dangles below the ends of her straight dark hair just above her bare breasts. A hand-tooled western leather gun belt fitted with matching holsters and a pair of replica six-shooters hangs over her shoulder, covers her left breast, buckles at her sternum, and continues down around the soft curve her right hip. Black leather cowboy boots and silver spurs complete the get-up, and she's otherwise naked, a natural beauty.

Sliding open the glass door that leads into the kitchen, the main entrance to this Catalina foothills condo, she says, "Hey, you're here to see Eric?

She reaches out her hand. "Come inside. I'm Melanie."

With his basketball belly leading the way, the forthright photographer toddles into the kitchen between stacks of collectable fetish-themed kitsch, laughing mischievously, his thick salt-and-pepper mustache disguising the top half his grin, and his dark eyes and outward energy are weirdly boyish for a guy of 69.

"I thought you'd like to meet Melanie," he laughs. Then, in his dusty rattletrap voice, he asks, "Would you like some coffee?"

This is Eric Kroll, internationally feted photographer long specializing in fetish work. But his dress may not suggest that: Khaki shorts, mismatched pastel-colored socks with white Converse, and a midnight blue Mexican wedding shirt (blotched with several coffee stains down the front). Pretty much each time I meet with Kroll he's wearing a variation of the same thing. It's sartorial cheek, maybe an unconscious riff on his own childhood, something Lumpy Rutherford might've worn in that era of pin-up models and girlie magazine softcore, the stuff Kroll collected as a young teen, and stuff he continues to satirize and celebrate in his work. His daily attire is telling in other ways too, like how he scarcely takes himself seriously, and how his work was a reaction against the "restrictions" of the world around him, the pop world, the established art world, the social-climber world, the corporate world, the celebrity world, and the divinely wretched hells of the work-a-day world. Fuck that. He's an artist, a walking talk show of the Kroll world.

It's just as he was living back in the 1970s and early '80s when his photo career was seemingly as upright as a couture's dress dummy, shooting for Vogue and Elle magazines as well as The New York Times and Der Spiegel, snapping portraits of Henry Kissinger and David Bowie and Woody Allen, of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe and Yoko Ono, and moonlighting as portraitist of Chicago streetwalkers, South Carolina massage parlor whores and dollar-a-minute-to-cop-a-feel nude models in Texas, all caught in their ghostly melancholy milieus.

By balking at restrictions—this was an era when rock 'n' roll could still frighten the old man—with an understanding that "anyone could get a shot of David Bowie," Kroll's forward momentum pulled him from the celebrity-centric, right-time-right-place mode of photojournalism into something else entirely. Sometime in 1986, after befriending feminist porn pioneer and badass crusader Annie Sprinkle, women became became Kroll's life's work, and his magazine spreads, gallery shows, and five coffee-table books of his fetish-themed photographs are rich with his own obsessions.

Today Melanie King fits. She grew up in the hills of North Carolina ("I escaped from there," she says) and now resides in New York City, a married mother of a young, special-needs child. She's working toward her Ph.D. in philosophy, plays bass clarinet and is a highly skilled photographer, specializing in documentary-style black-and-white portraits of the marginalized, especially those from where she grew up, and her pictures often, and without hyperbole, recall the work of Diane Arbus and Kroll. The 32-year-old didn't know Kroll when she phoned him up 13 years ago, after seeing some his fetish photography, and asked him to shoot her in fetishized garb, getting spanked and worshipped and so on. The two have been close since, meeting all over the country but not in a sexual way. It's not about that. She's in Tucson for several days now mainly because Kroll's her pal. She's in an unsaid kind of subservient role here, doing as she's told, changing into single-piece black bathing suit, finding this picture or that negative, posing for Kroll this way or that way under certain light from the windows, working as both Kroll's assistant and model. Being with Kroll, she tells me later, is another way of escape.

King will roll her eyes at the absolute ridiculousness of Kroll too, like when he says he's too fat to get up and lift a framed picture from the wall to show me. So she removes her boots, steps over piles books and pictures and records, to retrieve said pic.

Kroll gets women into his life and into these sorts of roles, and he has myriad kinked-up photos (and videos) to show for it.

"My ex-wife would always say that I could get any woman to undress," he says. "As long as it has a photograph, that sounds cool."

It's too easy and lazy to wave off Kroll as some dirty old man, like some backdated smut-peddler still loitering around some 24-hour porno palace.

Nay. Kroll is really hunting for truths. He adores women, pedistalizes them, makes dominant figures of them, makes mothers of them, and there's rarely soft, easy sentiment in his shots, even when he's satirizing sex, or shooting the everyday—the overworked waitress or the semi-pro ballplayer or the local, guitar-wielding hero or passersby lost to the fringes.

He doesn't "distinguish," he says. "I don't think one thing is high art and one thing is low art. I shoot everything hopefully with the same enthusiasm and the same respect, whether it's what the world considers porn, or freak, or Henry Kissinger; they're all the same to me. I'm trying to make the most interesting photograph I can make."

Then you can glean from his conversations how his truths mostly, if not always, reside in the feminine side of the universe. His work was never about making anyone comfortable, it was really about making his vision comfortable. He gets rankled when the words like "sexist" and "misogynist" are hurled in his direction.

"I don't see the misogynist in my work," he says. "I don't see it. It doesn't qualify as a problem. It's about her, coming to me saying she wants me to shoot her. It's her sexuality. And a 23-year-old, what are you going to do? Shoot her with her textbooks? It's never about her crotch. Not ever. It never was. It was always about what covers it. It doesn't matter to me whether I'm going to shoot some absolutely sexual, sensual woman—which I really like doing, still—or anything else."

And that's been Kroll's trade, and he has many admirers because of it, and he's enormously influential.

He made fans of Robert Crumb, Debbie Harry and the late Keith Haring. (Kroll has shot all three.) His 1994 coffee-table tome Fetish Girls (Taschen)—filled with homages to his artistic and photographic heroes including Bunny Yeager, Bill Ward, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp—sold 250,000 copies. In 2008 writer Elia Katz studied Kroll and shot a fly-on-the-wall documentary on him called Eric Kroll: A Photographer's Life, which featured mainstreamized porn star Sasha Grey.

Other fans come from way back: As I was leafing through Kroll's copy of his first book, the 1977 photojournalistic Sex Objects, a postcard fell out postmarked October, 1979. It was a note thanking Kroll for his "fine book, which caught me by surprise for its striking depictions ..." The inscription is signed "Gay Talese," one of the foremost authors of the 20th century.

American photographer/painter Richard Prince even appropriated an image from Kroll's Sex Objects on one of his works that sold for around $2 million. Kroll didn't see a penny. He didn't care. He was flattered.

The retied HBO series Real Sex featured Kroll in its sixth episode (1993) shooting him making his film Girdle Gulch, featuring statuesque blonde known as Arizona Alice.

Fans rise from old-school American mainstream, like film star Diane Keaton. "I didn't expect that," Kroll says. "I thought she was out of my reach."

Renowned and collected artist Gail Marcus-Orlen, a well-spoken and graceful woman in her 60s, who'd met Kroll through her late husband, poet and UA professor Steve Orlen, is another. "His eyes are everywhere," she says. "If we travel somewhere he'll stop and point out things, and shoot things that I didn't even see. Beautiful things in nature, and in life."

She laughs, "He really is one-of-kind. But he can be frustrating. Sometimes he really is just a naughty little boy. He doesn't compromise himself, and he has a child's impulsiveness—he'd never get these photographs if he didn't. He doesn't see any pornography in his work either, and who can really define what pornography is? I get the art. Absolutely. There's real artistic value in his stuff. Not everyone will, not everyone does. He's a surrealist in a way, that's what he's doing. And it's in the photographers that he's admired. And he takes fabulous photos of people, of food and chefs, these beautiful things that others might miss. Yet he doesn't show those.

"You know," she continues, "I've been with him when people come up to him and are honored to meet him because they are genuine fans of his work and books."

Kroll never participates in life without a camera. It makes his world pertinent.

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click to enlarge Kinky Machine
Brian Smith

"I'm the bad boy of the footballs," Kroll proclaims, stepping into the recesses of his handsomely sized condo. "The last one after Lee Marvin. I don't accept the rules of proper behavior."

(The self-mockery reveal is telling because Kroll sometimes barely has a pot to piss in, almost literally. On one visit his water was shut off for non-payment, not because he forgot to pay it but because he didn't have the money.)

Kroll lives in chichi Ventana Canyon Golf Villas, nestled fairly high in the hills above Tucson. The master bedroom, whose northern window is bordered by all manner of fetish photography, kink art and sexualized tchotchkes, looks out on to the expansive green of the golf course whose view today shows wealthy white-hairs in pastels put-putting about, on foot and in carts.

"The condo belonged to my mom," Kroll says, "and she gave it to me when she died in 2007. It was the cheapest place for me to be after living in L.A." So he moved to Tucson full time in '09, one goal being to organize the countless images and images he shot over the years. That could take a few years.

The bedroom (and the kitchen) only hint as what the rest of Kroll's condo holds. It's an explosion of kitsch, decadence, art; a glittery trashy tableaux of Kroll's personal obsessions, dominated by countless images, books and magazine covers—many shot by Kroll—of sensuously curved and often austere women. It's a place that he, and others, have called an "American mosaic of culture," a randy cross of John Doe's apartment in the movie Se7en meets peepshow parlor meets boyhood dreams of a perfect bachelor pad, a briny-scented assault on taste, good and band—like a wonderfully ribald, punk-rock cousin to any Museum of Contemporary Art. Each room, including the garage and laundry room, is rhythmically crammed with some artifact that's a lowbrow (or highbrow) homage to a precinct of subterranean American culture that was defined by the narrow, mid-century ideas of sex and kink—and art and lit and humor and weird improbabilities. It's an imposing intersection of male and female submissiveness, a comment on pop consumerism and its attendant and ever-complex tensions and hilarities.

In other words, Kroll has been a keen collector of vintage girlie goods since his early 30s, and it'd take weeks to take in and understand everything here, and everyone he's crossed paths with—the infamous, the famous, the fallen—exhibited in this veritable museum. See, Kroll's collection is stored and displayed here, along with the photos and negatives of his life's work. (Sometimes I would inadvertently step on piles of things as I negotiated my way around the condo not realizing they were negatives and photos). More, it's as if he's blissfully unaware of the overwhelming nature and outlandish delights of his collections. There's so much here it feels like burden; and it's easy to miss the subtleties, but not the metasexual stuff that often drives this man.

And the man is eloquent yet he sometimes slips into a kind of Faulknerian stream of consciousness when he's surveying his world, shifting subjects. He often clips phrases with a curt, "Stayin' with me?"—it's his way of controlling conversation, of keeping tabs on your attention to his detail, which is precise.

He'll head off on mini-tangents about the avant-garde sides of Charles Mingus, the lampooning unpredictability of French artist Yves Klein, or some guy he "found in the everglades who did swamp girl photographs." He talks at length about working with Bunny Yeager (she shot many of the iconic Bettie Page pics that have fed Kroll's collection), or how Cindy Sherman's self-portraits are not self-portraits at all because she transformed to other personas, diving into "the grotesque using prosthetic limbs" and objects. Kroll mixes the intellectual with the profane with the trash and it works like a song.

It's all here, like you're stepping inside Kroll's head. If there's orderliness to the chaos, it's this:

"I collect," Kroll says. "I have to see this shit. I want to respond to it, and that's why everything's up [on display]. In other words, I don't have one single original idea." The golf course condo is his inspiration, and then he goes out and shoots.

He steps to a pile of books and produces a drawing by mid-century erotic illustrator Tom Poulton, pointing to a drawing that he wound up lifting for a shot of his own, to show his point.

There's installation inspiration too. For example, in the master bathroom, beneath a classic Sorrows of Satan theatre poster and classic, rare images of pinup Diane Webber, a giant bathtub is filled with computer monitors, several antiquated women's purses, old portable televisions and doll parts. It's an homage to Kroll friend and onetime mentor, the late Korean artist Nam June Paik, a scene Kroll titled "I shave by the light of Nam June Paik."

See, Kroll's funny.

He points to an illustration Crumb did for him that reads, "Girls Girls! What a day! ... At the studio of Eric Kroll, New York ... 1992." He talks of Wilma Wilcox, a partner to legendary crime-scene and black-and-white street photographer Weegee, a guy who captured gritty erotica in the '50s, and who died in '68. Kroll befriended Wilcox and she had loaned him many Weegee negatives, which fueled his collection.

A row of cowboy boots looms tall on a high ledge in the canvernous living room where fetish themes are crowded against cowboy and matador iconography—a valuable Picasso lithograph is sandwiched by thrift-store bullfighter art, sex cartoons and leather cowboy belts. There's museum-worthy pieces and collages (including the highly sought-after Moline of Tucson) next to derrieres belonging to women who all appear to be just waking from naps.

One of Kroll's framed photos is a send up George Bernard Shaw, showing a woman dripping milk from her breast into the coffee of a tie-wearing workaday father and their baby at the breakfast table. It's Kroll and his ex-wife and their first born (of two).

His collections reveal Kroll's infatuations with guys like John Willie, the trailblazing fetish photographer and artist who ran Bizarre Magazine, published in the 1940s and '50s, and Irving Klaw, the early fetish/bondage publisher and photographer who shot Bettie Page and Blaze Starr and is famous for such burlesque films as Teaserama among others. And famed American pin-up artist/illustrator Bill Ward and fetish and kinky comic-book artist Eric Stanton.

There's women shot by oddball obscuros like Lenny Burtman or Sam Menning ("he was once a boyfriend of Bettie Page"), material rescued from flooded basements or old Times Square offices, or material once belonging to notorious mob-connected cranks like publisher and bookstore owner Eddie Mishkin. His collection includes a treasure of women's apparel, vintage pumps and bathing suits, PVC corsetry, etc.—pounds and pounds of it; all things he uses on his shoots, and is everywhere here, in closets, boxes, on walls and in cases.

click to enlarge Kinky Machine
© Eric Kroll

He lifts a color photo of a nude woman drinking a beer in the wan California light of a motel window. It's porn star Serena at the storied Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood. It was '78 and Kroll was staying there next door to Tom Waits, shooting stills for the Paul Schrader film Hardcore starring George C. Scott. The film cast adult stars of the era, such as Serena. Kroll shot her in the morning as she slept. Then he woke her up and she lit a cigarette butt, stood up, and chugged from a day-old beer in front of the window. It's a mournful shot.

Another haunting shot shows a lithe, corkscrew-haired brunette named Barbara Butterfly (there's a butterfly tattoo on her chest) who Kroll met at a New York Dolls show at the Waldorf Astoria.

"So this is a woman I met and I rode the elevator with Wolfman Jack," Kroll says. "And there he was; the grease was just flowing off him."

He explains he invited Barbara to his photo studio to shoot her and she stayed for weeks. He said he took her down to meet his neighbors and they asked her what she did for a living. She said, "I give blow jobs." She's one of many subjects captured in Sex Objects.

Kroll could easily charge admission here. He could teach a scholarly course on the history of American erotica. He could use his place as a classroom. His own work is immersed here with the work of others, showing how Kroll is very much a part of the American fabric of fetish and erotica, and certainly how it evolved.

As Kroll plays tour guide to a soundtrack of Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis, his own story unfolds. Every artifact in the place has some emotional significance. Down to the newspaper clippings of the mansion Kroll grew up in with photos of his parents and their three children.

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