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Photographed by Max Henry

Steven Harwick has been taking photographs since he was a child, and with an affinity for fetish in his teenage years, he found a powerful form to express his identity by marrying these interests. Well studied on Americana and queer fetishism, with a BFA in Photography from Pratt Institute, Harwick combines all his knowledge in order to create photography, video, installation, sculpture and collage. Printed matter is a touchstone of his creative career, beginning with a self-published zine “Bound Leather”, which brings a new perspective to the Physique Pictorial inspired images, boasting fifteen issues. The zine features models not seen in vintage publications, while still celebrating the titillating and sometimes perverse tableaus of fetish work. Harwick is a self-starter who is happiest when creating and/or immersed within his community. His latest publication By the Skin of My Teeth combines images from his photographic journey, with text about fetish, which recognizes the joy and freedom of the BDSM and leather community. You can see his show “By the Skin of My Teeth” at CultureEdit Gallery April 1st, from 5-9pm in Hollywood. And look out for a second run of the book!

What led you to study photography at Pratt Institute? 

I’ve been interested in photography for basically as long as I can remember. I loved having fun little 90s plastic cameras and taking them on school field trips and stuff. I’ve always loved looking at family photographs from different generations. I remember seeing some really formative museum and gallery shows that made me fall in love with the medium. I’d say early on in high school, this interest kind of solidified into figuring out it’s what I wanted to do with my life. I found editorials in fashion magazines when I was younger that were so beautiful and creative and really focused on building a world and putting the viewer in it. That’s what I ultimately wanted to do – communicate ideas and such through this visual language. Growing up in New Jersey, I’d come into New York often and made trips to Brooklyn throughout high school. I landed on Pratt to study mainly because of its campus, location, photography program, and the scholarships offered.

You dabble in many mediums, is photography your favorite?

I’d say photography was the vehicle that led me to consider myself an artist. As a really little kid, I was always drawing cartoons, making comics, and I did some paintings and other stuff – I mean to say, I always felt artistic. But finding photography was the first time I really felt I could harness a tool and medium to say exactly what I wanted to say. Since then, I continually am falling deeper in love with photography and all that that means. I also have been exploring installation work, mainly because my photography was so much about building sets and gathering materials to set dress. I thought this in and of itself could be a piece – allowing a viewer to experience the space, and transcend something purely visual, adding sound and smell to give a full sensory experience. I don’t like being boxed into being one thing – I use whatever medium can express my ideas the clearest in the moment.

When did you become interested in the Leather and BDSM community?

I’ve been particularly interested in leather since I was a very little kid. I think it must have been something that was hardwired from birth, honestly.  Growing up with that, I ultimately sought out the BDSM community via the internet. I’ve been on fetish-specific community sites and blogs since I was a teenager. I’m grateful for the ease in access in these communities because it really helped early on to not feel like I was the only one with these interests. It became easy to see that this was not a unique interest, there were plenty of people engaged with the very same fascinations. It helped tremendously, for me personally, to see artwork made that really pulled at that thread, too.

Your work is entrenched in history, referencing traditional fetish imagery, but with your own contemporary spin— how are you updating the genre?

Well, my biggest thing initially was not seeing my body reflected in this sort of imagery. The majority were these muscular beefcake men. It was in coming to appreciate my own body, rejecting the expectation that I should look a certain way, where I found the thesis for my work. I realized if I was feeling this, other people certainly must also be feeling this way. Seeing the reality of the community I was actively participating in, I saw how diverse it truly is. So the crux of my work became about documenting and photographing the true nature of the community I see around me: all body types, expressions of gender, races, etc. I didn’t want to exclusively make photos of people who only look like me either – I just want to work with as wide a range of people as I possibly can. In that way, the project can only keep growing.

Who are some of your favorite fetish artists?

This list could be a mile long, but I’d say some of the earliest works I remember seeing were Irving Klaw’s photographs of Bettie Page. Then Mapplethorpe, of course. I really love Karlheinz Weinberger’s work very much as well. Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland, of course for the tent-poles they were. Video and film work from James Bidgood, Kenneth Anger, and Bruce LaBruce are really important to me. As for contemporaries and peers, there are too many to name - but I love what Tamara Santibañez is doing with their sculpture and painting work, Matt Lambert’s video work is gorgeous. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Isaiah Davis’ show at Participant Inc. last year and was floored by that work. A.K. Burns had a piece in the ICP Triennial years ago that really got me excited about video and installation work. There are so many and I’m so happy there are – the well is never dry!

Do you think fetish art promotes freedom? And why does this matter?

It was as liberating for me to see fetish artwork published in books and shown in museums as it was to find online BDSM communities meant for hookups/cruising. Both showed me that I was not alone and that these were not feelings or interests that needed to be shoved down and buried in the sock drawer. They can be publicly celebrated and be full of joy and admiration. I think that’s true freedom, for me – the sheer joy that comes from being fully and deeply authentic, unencumbered by thoughts of judgment. I think it’s important to see because, as it did for me, it shows others the path to this freedom. We should absolutely foster as many voices speaking in this language as possible, be it fetish or not - just being authentic and unafraid.

Tell me about your Zine “Bound Leather.” What inspired that publication? 

I finished my degree and was trying to figure out what was next for me - what work I wanted to make. My thesis during the last two years of school was focused on an exploration of mid-century Americana: pinup girls, neon signs, motels. Coming out of that trying to find the next focus, I was flipping through my collection of Physique Pictorial issues and realized this was the same time period, but a facet I hadn’t explored and one that so perfectly aligned with my personal kinks. So I began making work that was about leather and fetish and then ultimately decided to make my own zine. Rather than try to find a magazine to publish the images, or have it be solely an internet-based project, I liked the control of being able to shoot what I wanted to, and ultimately go to print with the images I chose.

From inception to execution, what is your self designing/publishing process? 

So for Bound Leather, I am really (perhaps to my detriment) under no schedule or structure. I just make photographs with people that find me or that I reach out to. Once I have enough of these shoots to put an issue together, I’ll decide on a cover and work on the layout. For as computer savvy as I am, I still need things to be very tangible, so I’ll print out little thumbnails and sit and rearrange them and make pairings or layout choices that way before bringing it into InDesign. Thus far, the majority of the issues of the zine have just been photography-based – a few of them I collaborated with an illustrator for some graphic elements, but it’s just cover to cover photography for the most part. So the lack of schedule means sometimes I just shoot and shoot and shoot and then have enough for four issues at once, and I can also go months at a time without a new release. Mainly I love having copies of these and being able to go to zine fairs and publishing events to show this work. The ultimate freedom of self publishing is that you’re not answering to anyone with regards to content or a timeline or anything, which I love.


Have you encountered censorship trying to get your work made?

Thankfully, not really! I work with a great printer that has never batted an eye at the content. Of course, I’ve had things taken off of Instagram, had my Vimeo deleted, things taken off Patreon, but who among us can say they haven’t? I’m lucky in that, while it’s a great vehicle for getting the work out there, I’m not at the mercy of Instagram or social media being the sole outlet. That’s another benefit of tangible printing!

What are the greatest challenges of creating such irreverent work?

I’d say the biggest hurdle I face in making my work is purely financial. I’ve got an unrelated full time job, which goes to fund my life as well as my artwork. Maybe one day the work can sustain itself and me, but for now I’m really comfortable with the balance I’ve struck. I’ve found a job that isn’t too creatively draining and can do my own work evenings and weekends. As far as other challenges, I think the rest are all self-imposed psychological ones. I struggle with imposter syndrome and feelings like I’m not doing enough all the time. But even when the noise is really loud, I just keep my head down and keep it moving - one foot in front of the other. I just keep making work. The making of the work itself is the opposite of a challenge - it’s such a joy and wildly rewarding. I get to meet amazing people from all over and we get to have this experience together making photographs. It’s the community building I always dreamt of!

Your latest book, By the Skin of My Teeth just came out. How is this book a part of your evolution as an artist?

It was an exciting and wish-fulfilling next step! I’ve been publishing the zine for about six years and have always wanted to make a hardcover book. It even features some work I made while in school, so really it covers almost a decade’s worth of my work. It’s a nice place to pause for a moment and look back on everything. From this perspective, I was able to find throughlines I didn’t know existed before and feel affirmed in my vision. It was great to be able to go through all the shoots I’ve done, show some documentation of my installation and sculptural work, and have everything live together as one body of work – I’m so proud of the end result.

What are you trying to say with the new book?

In this overarching collection of my work, I wanted to show some new work, some classic favorite images, and just highlight what this project means to me. It features over 50 different models that I’ve worked with. I think it’s the perfect representation of the crux of this project, and really highlights the diversity of people actively engaged with the BDSM community in some way. I also wanted to include a personal essay and interviews that investigate the idea of “fetish” and the word itself.

The book is full, not only of sexy glossy images, but also of text. Do you write the text yourself? How does it help articulate the message you are conveying in your images?

I was really excited to include text in the book – the first time in my self-publishing ventures I included text! I wrote the introductory essay, which kind of traces my personal history with fetish and BDSM as well as the trajectory of my artwork and how I landed on making this work. It was in sitting down to write the essay that I really saw that these were themes I had been grappling with my entire life and it’s very exciting when writing something can do that… uncover truths you didn’t realize before. The rest of the text in the book exists as a series of interviews with three individuals I have worked with in the past. I interviewed Kembra, Joel, and Destiny and really focused on what the word “fetish” means to them and how it relates to aspects of their lives. All three uncovered new layers; it was really gratifying having these conversations with them and to have them be documented in the book. I think reading the essay and interviews really strengthens the images by shining a light on personal experiences with fetish, and carves out authentic realities as they relate to kink and BDSM.

What’s it like to have an exhibition of your new works for CultureEdit?

It’s so exciting! I’ve never shown work on the west coast before and haven’t been to LA since I was a teenager. I’m really grateful for the opportunity and it’s so fun that D’Mahdnes and I have continued to stay in touch and that we could make this happen – we’ve shot together and photos we made together are in the book as well as the show. I like to use opportunities I get to show work as a reason to make something new or try something new - so this time, I had been really craving the magic of the darkroom again, as it had been years since I printed photography traditionally. I realized I had a good amount of negatives I’d want to include and see printed, so I booked time in a darkroom and got to print that way again! If you ever want to fall deeper in love with photography, get your hands wet in the darkroom - it’s pure magic. And then I’ve printed some color work digitally to mix in. It’s a good cross-section of images from the book and it’s exciting to have this project continue from zine to book to exhibit.

Are you currently working on anything else?  What are some of your creative goals?

I have a few things in the works. I’m shopping the book around to some publishers to see if anyone would like to pick it up for a second run. I self-published it and have sold out of the first edition. If it could get a wider run for the second edition, that would be great! I really loved my time in the darkroom, printing for this show. I plan on making some more analog work and printing in the darkroom more. I have a few installation ideas that need homes, and would love to work on a longer form video piece next year. Lots of ideas flying around and lots of things to do, but just taking it one thing at a time!

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