Kinky Machine

The rise, life and women of photographer Eric Kroll

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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.

* * * *

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.

* * * *

click to enlarge Kinky Machine
© Eric Kroll
Mother and daughter, Lynka and Leah in East Marion, NY.

Both of Kroll's parents had refined tastes when it came to the arts, and they had a heavy social cachet. They exposed Kroll, the middle child, to art at a tender age. "My mother would drag us to every museum in New York," Kroll says. And his fascinations blended art with jazz and, when he hit his teens, porno. He'd sneak off to Manhattan to purchase girlie magazines and hide them in woods near his house. He'd also sneak off to see jazz in the city too, Coltrane and others.

"I was in the audience for Bill Evans when they recorded Sunday at the Vanguard," he says.

He harbored a serious interest in literature as well. "I saw Norman Mailer speak at Carnagie Hall and the first thing he said was 'Kick her in the cunt.' He said that over and over. I was 15 years old. [Gregory] Corso was there drinking from a flask. This was Carnagie Hall, so it was all about going against the rules of proper behavior."

Kroll's natural aesthetic sense, and overall appreciation of beauty, came from his dad, Boris Kroll, a self-taught hand weaver and designer internationally recognized as a visionary and manufacturer of colorful textiles and weave designs. Along with his reputation came millions of dollars, and the Manhattan-born Kroll grew up with a nanny ("She was huge to me") in a house on a hill overlooking 10 acres, located in the upscale, mansion-filled Westchester County in New York. His mother was a shoe model, a "trophy wife," Kroll says, who had a keen eye for beautiful things.

He got his first camera at 16, "a Pentax 35mm. It was a gift from my father's friend, Bob Lord. I knew I was getting something interesting from a very cool cat; he was one of my father's elegant friends."

His first picture "was this weird distorted picture of my sister underwater in her red, one-piece swimming suit" that later reminded of him photographer André Kertész and his distorted nudes.

And just as if he'd joined a band or became a gynecologist, the camera, Kroll figured out, was his way of getting closer to women.

He studied literature and comparative religion at Bard College but quit because, Kroll chuckles, "my dad didn't want me to continue there because I was smoking pot."

He was reacting against his own privileged world: "I was embarrassed to ride in that black continental. I just didn't get it. Diane Arbus and I resented the wealth we came from. She felt it impeded her closeness to the world. That wasn't my problem. My problem was I didn't understand why I had been born in to this privilege. I had a lot of empathy for the poor. She didn't seem to have any of that. And I saw how money made my dad miserable, and I wanted no part of the misery."

Kroll switched to cultural anthropology and graduated in 1969 from University of Colorado in Boulder. With $300 in his pocket, he headed for Woodstock, New York but managed instead to open the first-ever photo gallery in Taos, New Mexico, one specializing in artful partial nudes.

He soon got into photojournalism because "Vietnam had me upset. I thought being out in Taos making art when Vietnam was going down was a shitty thing to be doing."

A freelance assignment from Newsweek found him shooting New Mexico's counterculture communes. He was eating peyote and "got to hang with Dennis Hopper, and with his wife Michele Phillips and Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. I also learned early on how you get screwed financially in photography."

Kroll returned to New York working as a photojournalist. His travels resulted in Sex Objects, the photo-documentary book that focused on American sex workers. Its realism is shaded with compassions and sadnesses; Kroll observed and documented without judgment, and never valorized the tragedies or sad choices of the single women and mothers. It's a strange, timeless and elegiac reminder how just being human can even devastate people.

Some considered Sex Objects pornographic and because it was funded through a government grant, it was slammed on the front page of the New York Times by New York Republican Sen. John Marchi. Key figures in the art world came to Kroll's defense.

In 2014, Sex Objects was prestigiously cited in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's The Photobook: A History Volume III as a genre-shaping photobook.

"Martin Parr, he is God," Kroll says. "You get into that book and you're solid for the rest of your life. Only wish my parents were alive to see that."

Good luck trying to find a copy of Sex Objects. It now fetches close to a grand online. He met Koli fashion model (and Oui magazine centerfold) Lynka Adams in 1976, married her 1980. She starred in his work, and they have two daughters, Willa and Leah. In the meantime he began teaching at local colleges, including The School of Visual Arts, Hunter College, and Antioch in Baltimore.

In 1986 he met Annie Sprinkle, who actually lived next to Kroll's Manhattan studio.

"Annie was important in my development as a photographer," Kroll says. She was hooked into the whole fetish scene. Rubber and leather? Killer. I loved how women looked in it."

Kroll says he photographed Lynka in an outfit Sprinkle had loaned him, including a cream-colored 1950's rocket-coned bra, and it had the look and feel of the stuff he'd hide out in the woods near his house as a teen. Those photos signaled Kroll's shift toward fetish.

The family relocated to San Francisco in '94, and Kroll had begun working for Taschen books, a foremost publisher of art books (there are dedicated Taschen bookstores in various places around the world.) Taschen released Kroll photo books, including Fetish Girls, followed by Eric Kroll's Fetish Days (1996) and Eric Kroll's Beauty Parade (1997).

The books found Kroll exploring truths about his subjects and often expressing them symbolically; this isn't kink for sake of libido, and it's often hilarious. It's what Kroll continues to do now. He's always skewering something, even vaguely Freudian ideas of an artist depicting openly a world of fantastic fantasy, especially, say, a rubber-clad women wielding a strap-on penis in a moody shot filled of negative space. It's sometimes male versus female, matriarchal versus patriarchal, or female versus female, or point of view versus subject. Men are often just peripheral, like second-class citizens. (Kroll occasionally inserted himself into shots; we see a much younger Kroll on the floor sucking toes of one leather-clad woman or under the ass of another, each with a directionless gaze.) Women are mostly dominators and mostly worshipped; sometimes they're bent over, knotted up, suckled, or sitting on someone's face. Some they're suppressed, like a ball-gagged woman at the end of a leather tether—at the end or her rope, so to speak.

Kroll finds women who are exceptionally lovely in ways that aren't always traditionally defined—they can be considered overweight and zaftig and flawed, or classically beautiful—but they all exude extraordinary sexual tension, not just in countenances and curves, and the all the ribbons and bows of fetishistic leather and rubber apparel, but in auras, that sort of intangible something that makes viewers want to know more. Kroll's gift is sensing sexual tension and collecting it in his camera.

For Taschen, Kroll also shepherded and edited exquisite, spare-no-expense books on mid-century giants in fetish and bondage art Bill Ward and Eric Stanton, as well as photographers such as John Willie, Elmer Batters, Chas Ray Krider, and artist Natacha Merritt and others.

* * * *

click to enlarge Kinky Machine
© Eric Kroll
Willa, Eric Kroll's daughter, in San Fransisco.

Kroll split with his wife and in 1996 met Felice—28 years his junior—at Bondage A Go Go in San Francisco. Felice (she requested her last name not be used) became his live-in lover, his muse, his model, and a sort of big sister/surrogate mom to his two daughters. Kroll and Felice explored San Francisco's rich subterraneous worlds of fetish.

Kroll only gets emotional when he talks about his daughters. "You want the best, you do the best. You can never tell." He pauses. "Kids just want to be loved."

His daughter, Willa Kroll, is now 27 and teaches second grade New York City. She describes life with dad as a "nourishing time," and says he "encouraged her creativity." Willa says she was always aware of his fetish photography work, even though he kept no evidence of it around their San Francisco house.

"It's funny I guess because it was always around in San Francisco, because it's so much more open sexually. When I told my friends, especially the boys, what my dad did they all thought it was pretty cool. And then I got the shocked responses at my all-girl Catholic school.

"But listen, my father was so good at making me feel proud of my creative work. Always. And he'd do things like take pictures and show all his friends. It's why art is such an important part of my life, and in my teaching."

What does she think of dad's fetish work?

"I've never been ashamed of the work that he does. From my feminist studies in college, and my feminist beliefs, I've always been able to speak my mind. Having said that, I've purposely avoided studying closely his work, not because I think it's not art, it just not something I'm particularly interested in. I keep a safe distance from it so as not to confuse that with who my father is."

Kroll created a persona for Felice, calling her Gwen (after John Willie's character Sweet Gwendoline), and she appears in many different guises in Kroll's two-volume The Transformation of Gwen, released in the early 2000s. It's the most fervently sexual of anything Kroll has shot. In the postscript of the first volume he writes, "I think one of the reasons I photographed Gwen, my girlfriend, having sex with so many partners was to face my greatest fear—that my girlfriend would cheat on me. So I photographed it. I controlled it. It happened repeatedly, right in front of me. I could judge her reaction. I could record her response. I had visual proof. In the end it didn't make any difference. I knew there were moments when I'd see her kiss another man or run her fingers through a woman's hair and I'd feel myself get hard. There were moments when I'd see her do the same thing and I'd feel a sharp pain of regret and sense of loss."

Brandon Arnovick was one of few Kroll male models in San Francisco. He reckons he participated in between 50 and 75 "official" Kroll shoots, and with Felice.

"Felice is absolutely gorgeous," Arnovark says. "She was Kroll's muse and I was his prop. In my sex life I'm very average, missionary position, but I'm a little bit of sex-addict. I don't have pocket pussies, dildos and buttplugs and whips anymore. I have two children. But Kroll helped to liberate me."

What did he learn from Kroll?

"I'm short, uncircumcised; I'm not like some Adonis dude. He showed me that my package, by that I mean my whole being, wasn't a detriment at all. It was huge for me. And it was liberating, freeing. At first it was like, 'Who's this weird old man?' But he had good charisma, and he's charming, and he's smart, and he's fun as shit."

After eight years together Felice and Kroll called it quits.

"She was changing at her own accelerating rate, and I wasn't changing much," Kroll says. "Felice was my way out of my marriage too. I was really in love with her."

"I lost my sense of self," Felice tells me, adding, with a chuckle, that Kroll's "not the easiest man to deal with."

Kroll soon moved to Los Angeles, continued working, and edited for Taschen the highly regarded Neil Leifer: Ballet in the Dirt—The Golden Age of Baseball, a beautifully wrought photobook of baseball in the '60s and '70s.

When the big-paying gigs were drying up he moved to Tucson. In 2010 he edited Warhol: Dylan to Duchamp, a book published by the Eric Firestone gallery. It's a mind-boggling collection of Warhol shots highlighted by Bob Broder, an Arizona photographer who shot Warhol in Tucson in '68, working on his film Lonesome Cowboy.

And Felice is now helping Kroll organize his work, which in no mean feat, and she helps sell some of his collectables online, stuff he can part with. Other than Social Security, Kroll doesn't have much of an income. He's in debt. He doesn't shoot anything "just for the money." He pays models sometimes with rare pieces straight from his collection—I watched him pay one with rare Bettie Page prints.

His fetish and bondage collectables and collection—separate from his photography work—could likely fetch a million dollars or more, if parceled out. That doesn't interest Kroll one bit. He's not in it for the money. It's all emotional.

"A lot of people shun that which they don't understand," he says. "That's exactly what attracts me. Always has. I remember someone, I don't remember who, said his favorite kind of music is 'anything I haven't heard.' That's why I still drive 20-some-thousand miles down the road every year. That's why I approach the waiter, or the golf pro, or anyone I think has something that I want to record. I really like to find that which turns me on and put it in a photograph. It doesn't matter to me whether I'm going to shoot some absolutely sexual, sensual woman—which I really like doing—or anything else."

* * * *

click to enlarge Kinky Machine
© Eric Kroll
Sammy playing Risk.

Sammy M pulls up the tighty-whities she's been instructed to slip on, shoots a glance over her shoulder, pushes out her ass and asks, "Are these slutty enough?"

Her face sneers with tongue-in cheek delight, and she says, "It's the sexual tension that brings me here."

Kroll is stooped low, shooting Sammy, muttering instructions like: "Turn a little that way, stick your ass out ... Yes! Like that! Yes!" And, "Use this like a dildo! Yes!

We're out at Saguaro National Park east of Tucson, juxtaposed in the lovely desert, and the sun is waning. The park rangers haven't nosed around much. They passed through at a distance earlier and didn't stop; obviously they hadn't noticed the half-naked girl and vintage pieces of sexy garb hanging in the blue palo verde tree. Last time Kroll was out here shooting he got popped for doing "a commercial photo shoot" and had to pay a fine. But, as he'll tell you, he wasn't doing anything wrong, the little guerilla photo shoot was anything but commercial. He'd be making money if it were.

The curvy Sammy is a 22-year-old UA journalism student who grew up in a Christian Science household. She plays the harp and dances at TD's Showclub. She called Kroll on a tip from a friend wanting to do some photos. That's how it often happens with Kroll. Women just phone him up to fetishize for the camera. Other times he just stops women on the street. They often agree.

Sammy continues to move and pose in the wan light, casting appropriate fuck-me glances for Kroll's lens with the seasoned grace of a skilled dancer who knows how to objectify herself with whatever version of the male (or female's) idea of what sex should mean, and she can turn it up or down, hot or cold, depending on how she gauges it in the observer's mind. It's real skill. She translates a kind sexuality in a way that few can, whether she's aware of it or not, and Kroll sees that in her, which is why he loves shooting her. Sammy will go into Kroll's collection for whatever purpose—perhaps a new book, another gallery showing, some presentation down the road, at the very least a day's work in his oeuvre.

But out here in the desert there's little or no sexual tension and Kroll transmits zero creepiness.

It reminds me of what painter Marcus-Orlen said about how when she paints "things become objects and they lose their emotional power if you concentrate on them too long." She said that's what happens when Kroll shoots women, and she was right.

If there's any reason to feel objectified, Sammy doesn't show it, even as she switches in and out of vintage lingerie, cheeky-ass cutoffs, and Bridgett Bardot swimsuits and a McCarthy-era cowboy kitchen apron with matching gloves and a skillet.

Kroll directs her to her back, to bend her torso sideways, keeping her legs straight. A look of exasperation falls over her face.

"I'm not that flexible, c'mon!"

"It looks like you're riding a horse!"

Sammy laughs, "How majestic."

Kroll keeps the tempo fairly high and Sammy never appears bored, or concerned with her appearance. Kroll had earned her trust. He is, after all, an old pro.

A tourist drives through the little lunch area a good 30 yards away, spots Kroll in his miss-matched pastel socks and a scantily dressed young woman and quickly circles around and exits the area.

"The rangers will be in here in a minute," Kroll says.

We retreat deeper into the desert and Sammy is soon splayed out on a blanket between saguaros and mesquites.

Kroll points his Leica camera into her face. Says, "I don't want to be your sex object."

"Ha-ha, good one."

Then he's up, stepping back, shooting. Says, "Look at me you'd just come six times from masturbating."

"I would be very tired."

Then she translates a certain tension, a certain shade falls over her eyes, which prompts Kroll to shout, "That's it!"

"Now look back at me with shame."

She does, and it's doesn't look fake.

She's game and Kroll knows how far he can go. He always knows, just as he knows where the artistic ends and pornography begins. He's a master manipulator and it shows in the work, there is context and space and a strong sense of implied sexuality and tease and humor and juxtaposition. It's what Kroll was after. Sammy too, she says.

Then he stops shooting Sammy altogether and takes stock of the rich surroundings, the light sinking into the desert floor, stretching out the landscape of saguaro and blooming-yellow palo verde and prickly pear. Kroll begins to snap the terrain and doesn't stop, turning in different directions to the light on the desert, the cool evening colors of a strangely green world. He points off the shadows falling over the Rincon Mountain range to the east, to the agave at his feet, and says, "such interesting things always going on." These otherworldly formations, hard to decipher, hard to collect, and the best you can do is capture the moments. That is, if you're lucky.

To follow Eric Kroll's exploits, go to Ericdavidkroll.blogspot.com. Kroll's prints are available for viewing and purchase at the Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave., 624-7370.


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