There's an electric sexuality that leaps from the images of Chicago photographer Johnny Flamethrower. Women stretch in their bindings and writhe in bridled anticipation while clean light and deep color dance freely around them. Sharp stilettos and fishnets are juxtaposed with ball gags and leashes, but whether his models are dominating or in submission, the hunger of their eyes makes clear that they are in a position of power. We spoke with Flamethrower about real fetish vs. the fad of fetish, what turns him on, and the true intention of his art.
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Eros Zine: You've managed to perplex Fleshbot with your mysterious persona. Are you based in Detroit? Windsor? Who are you??
Johnny Flamethrower: Yeah, I get the "Mystery Man" thing a lot from people. It's the logical result of a personal hang-up: I'm comfortable showing my work so long as you don't know me, and I'm comfortable knowing you so long as you never ask to see the work. I've been meaning to see a shrink about that... well, one of these days. Let's say my ancestry is Mediterranean, and I'm currently in Chicago. How's that?
Eros Zine: Vague, dammit! There are a lot of fishnet stockings and spiky heels in your photos. Also several women with pale, piercing eyes. What are you biggest fetishes? What turns you on most?
Johnny Flamethrower: Oh, tough question. I'm partial to anything exaggerated or severe... long, painted nails, outlandish heels and sleek stockings, all those things that underscore the 'femaleness' of the subject. Many of the common fetishes do it for me.
But I think the prevalent sensibility at work for me is one of "tightness" or restriction, whether it's achieved via corset or latex or collar. The sense that there is something sensual, something potent trapped within; it's the fashion equivalent of the moments building up to an orgasm, holding back, holding back, until it seems as though something may burst.
The anticipation in many ways is the real attraction, which is why I so often find partially clad women more appealing than those who are completely nude. After all, we know what's really under there, but we can't get to it; moreover, it (whatever it is) can't get out. Easy to see how this kind of fashion plays so neatly into the essence of bondage art... it's indulgence and denial in a tug-of-war, and the viewer can't help but want to participate.
Eros Zine: There is such a clarity in the light and sparse use of color in your images. How much photo retouching do you do?
Johnny Flamethrower: Well, I'm obviously no purist, I think that sort of thing is merely a matter of taste. When I first started, I smoothed everyone's skin into oblivion, until they looked like 3D Poser models… really silly. But you tire of that soon enough, evolve, and ultimately long for a more organic beauty.
It's a far greater challenge, you know, retaining pores and imperfections while maintaining the allure. Some models are horrified when they see you've deliberately kept a mole or a bruise, but I adore bruises! The more stylized and other-worldly the image, the more the viewer's eye needs proof that this is a real woman before them, and the results are more satisfying.
Eros Zine: Do you do your own rigging in the BDSM shots?
Johnny Flamethrower: Oh yes, the rigging is my own. I don't really enjoy doing it because it's so detail-oriented and tedious, but it's the only way to get what you want. Personal bondage exploration is a different thing altogether; I mean, who really cares what the knots look like in the dark? But when it comes to aesthetics, everything has to be just so, which is probably why I try to keep it simple.
Eros Zine: Well, it works! How did you start shooting bondage?
Johnny Flamethrower: I started shooting over two years ago. I needed an artistic outlet that wasn't beholden to outside forces… no clients or deadlines, you know? This particular subject matter has always been at the core of my being, so it was only natural. I've had a few people ask me, "Why must it always be this?" and I discovered that I really don't need to know. The fact is, if I didn't shoot this, I wouldn't shoot. Period.
Eros Zine: You also play a lot with shadows. How much of your lighting is premeditated and how much just happens as you?
Johnny Flamethrower: Of course there are times when you hatch a plan, execute it, and you come away with precisely what was envisioned. That's good, certainly. But just as often, what begins as a premeditated notion rapidly assumes a will of its own, and that has the potential to be wondrous. It's nearly a metaphor for life; you exert your will on the environment, but the environment has ideas of its own and reacts unexpectedly; those reactions in turn give you an idea or two, and the dance is on. Artists play God all the time, but it's important for us to remember that we're anything but. You really must remain alert or you'll miss an opportunity to be part of something much bigger than yourself.
Sez G: How long does it take you to initially light a set?
Johnny Flamethrower: It's different every time. It may come together in minutes, or I may wrestle with it forever. As my time with a particular model or location is usually limited, the most important thing is the ability to recognize when a certain approach just isn't working, and knowing when to reel in your own tenacity and move on. My professional background is in motion pictures, so I'm hyper sensitive to the concept of time.
Eros Zine: There are a few recurring faces in your portfolio, particularly Iris. Where do you meet your models? Do you have any muses?
Johnny Flamethrower: I've worked with Iris twice now; she's been a great model because she's so in tune with the spirit of fetish art -- not "fetish as fad," but the real deal. She and her husband have been tremendously kind and supportive to me. I often need to be pushed into socializing, so they've been really instrumental there.
The models come from everywhere... some are girls from the local scene, some I meet on networking sites, many just email me from out of the blue and I have no idea how they found me. And while it is a rarity, the most fun for me by far is using non-models, snaring someone who's got something and doesn't know it. Now that's a real find. But you never know where you might come across an ideal subject.
As for muses... well, that's a slippery notion. The goal, I think, is to find someone with whom you connect but can maintain the necessary boundaries. And I mean someone who isn't merely visually exciting, but who has that special something on the inside, an intangible that is fostered in some unique way by your specific relationship. At present, I'd have to say Eva Leigh is as close to a muse as I've ever had. We're very much on the same page artistically & personally, and she's such a comfortable soul, it really puts me at ease. I find I don't need to think so hard when she's around, and we laugh a lot.
Eros Zine: Where do you take the photos?
Johnny Flamethrower: Location is always an issue... one that's been especially vexing for me all along. For a while there, I'd walk into a cocktail party, shake hands with the host, then try to figure out how soon was too soon to ask which direction the windows in the place were facing... In fact, it was my need of locations that originally got me past the phobia of showing my work. Everyone's first question is about the nature of the shoot, and you can't lie.... well, you can, but it's a poor idea. Their children obviously can't be home, and I've noticed that soon after the model arrives, a fair number of wives decide it's a good time for their husbands to head off to the gym. Anyway, most people are generally supportive.
Eros Zine: Can you walk me through a typical shoot?
Johnny Flamethrower: I'd walk you through a typical outing, but honestly, they're all so different. And this year has differed wildly from the last year, in many respects.
Eros Zine: Whose cat is on the leash?
Johnny Flamethrower: Ha! That one belongs to Mandy, the model. Talk of interacting with one's environment... the little rascal refused to leave the frame, so we took away her choice in the matter. Lucky for Mandy, I suppose. That leash was intended for her.
Eros Zine: Ha! What's next for you?
Johnny Flamethrower: Well, it's an odd time right now. Though I'm satisfied with my development thus far, I feel I've hit a plateau... as an artist, you can tell whether you're breaking new ground or not. The last couple years I've seen a literal flood of impersonal material from all over the place, much of it in the 'fetish-as-fad' vein I mentioned. I think if you don't have a genuine voice and a strong sense of self you simply contribute to the clutter, and I can't allow that. I have to reinvent my approach, evolve. As for my next stage of development, I have a very clear idea of where I want to go, but no idea how I'm going to get there. Time will tell.
To learn more about Johnny Flamethrower visit www.JohnnyFlamethrower.com.
Johnny Flamethrower - by Sez G.