Known for the satire in his images as well as the shock value, Clarke relishes his ability to poke fun and provoke his audience, "especially now that the media has degenerated into a sex- and celebrity-obsessed farce," he says. Born in southern Ireland in 1950, Clarke moved to England in 1964 and studied at the West Sussex College of Art, The London College of Printing, and finally The Royal College of Art, where he received an MA. Always candid, Clarke admits that he entered nude photography for one reason alone: sex. After some time in journalism and advertising, Clarke, on the advice of a friend, tried to attract the interest of a girl in his college by using photography. Not only did he find his first wife, but also a new career.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Clarke began making his mark in the erotic-photography world. He followed his first book, an illustrated version of Anaïs Nin's Delta of Venus (Gallery Books, 1980), with a concentration of fetish images in Obsession (Quartet Books, 1981) and The Dark Summer (Quartet Books, 1985). It was during these years that his signature image-women in skin-tight rubber garments-would become prominent.
At the same time, Clarke was also shooting advertising work that had the same edge as his personal imagery-a difficult trick to pull off. This trend, which included a campaign for Agfa, as well as later shoots for Levi's, Volkswagen, Pirelli, and Smirnoff, continues to this day. Recent campaigns for Wallis and Urban Stone clothing have helped keep Clarke's name in the spotlight. These commercial images, which mimicked a previous Clarke series of black-and-white images of early morning promiscuity in nightclubs, featured a threesome of non-professional models engaging in sexual activity in a clublike atmosphere. The results were, by normal advertising standards, scandalous. In fact, the Urban Stone images were dubbed the "rudest" and "most explicit" ads ever seen by some critics. Needless to say, Clarke was delighted. "A successful nude is one that doubles the heart rate," says Clarke, who has shot for dozens of magazines, including Maxim, Tatler, and Loaded. "An image that doesn't rattle somebody is worthless. I want to supercharge sexuality beyond what is actually achievable. I want to connect with Man's animal instincts."
Clarke took some time off from his erotic imagery in the 1990s and produced a book on the renowned chef Marco Pierre White called White Heat (Trafalgar Square, 1999). He also gave lectures for film specialist Ilford, and designed a series of calendars for UK utility company PowerGen.
It was not long before Clarke was back in the field that made him famous, however. His latest book, Shooting Sex: The Definitive Guide to Undressing Beautiful Strangers (Georg Olms Verlag, 2002), is a "how-to" manual on photographing the nude in the provocative Clarke style. His 2004 UK exhibition, Love Dolls Never Die, was his first in 12 years. It was also the first show in which he used digital technology to create the prints. Clarke cites influences as varied as Brassai, Weegee, Helmut Newton, and Leni Riefenstahl. In terms of his own working methods, he mainly uses a Pentax 6x7 and a Fuji 6x9, and he gains his subject's confidence by "staying in their eye line, fully dressed." He admits that he chooses them with one emotion in mind: lust. That, along with the fact that he clearly loves women, comes through stridently in his photographs.
There is nothing boring about Bob Carlos Clarke's nudes. They are carnal, bold, sexual, and frank. They emphasize and use every technique, prop, and look that has ever been used to turn on a male. Even when they have a classic style, his nudes still retain something adventurous. He pushes back the boundaries and then passes the new boundaries again without blinking.
"Do it for pleasure," says Clarke, when asked for his advice on breaking into nude photography. "Do it to get laid. But get a real job."