Tits, Ass & Class
Elegantly handsome and acerbically erudite, photographer Bob Carlos Clarke would be equally comfortable at the helm of a yacht moored in the Med, or ensconced at a table at the Spearmint Rhino with a birds-eye view of a freshly Brazilian waxed nether-region. Clarke moves seamlessly between worlds in his quest for the perfect erotic image, paradoxically dependent upon the very aspect of society to which he would seem naturally diametrically opposed.
Arriving at his studio for our interview burdened by the assumption that I am about to encounter a smarmy 'Stringfellow' cliché at best, a toxic misogynist at worst, I am unprepared for the intensity and focused energy of the very un-smarmy gentleman who opens the door, barefoot, wearing combat fatigues. At fifty-three, Bob Carlos Clarke is in good nick; fighting fit with piercing eyes and a wiry build.
Born in Cork in Southern Ireland in 1950, Robert Carlos Clarke was dispatched at the tender age of eight to an all-male boarding school which is presumably where he misplaced all trace of an Irish lilt, replacing it with a rather large and lazy, ripe plum.
His recent book, Shooting Sex: The definitive guide to undressing beautiful strangers, (which more or less says it all) is a photographic autobiography driven by saucy, often hilarious, anecdotes in which Clarke recounts his early prurient curiosity and excitement. An original tearaway prone to driving his family to distraction and his aunt, the Marchioness of Ormonde, to lament 'Sadly, I can envisage nothing for Robert but prison', his future looked grim. But to young Robert, the future was bright and it was all about 'pulling'. In hormonal desperation, he picked up the camera for the sole purpose of picking up girls. And it worked.
His book reads like a rock star's memoir or a 'How To' manual for unbridled shagging. Eventually un-tethered from the confines of school, Clarke made up for lost time with inventive fervour and headed straight for London and, ironically into marriage to the first girl he persuaded to present herself for the scrutiny of his amateur lens. 'She was too unapproachably lovely to speak to, but when I heard she modelled part-time, I knew I had to become a photographer without delay'. From there, despite the acquisition of a wife, he photographs and shags in illicitly delicious defiance of Richard Avedon's declaration 'You can't fuck and photograph at the same time'
I struggle with a pseudo feminist, half-hearted inclination to pigeon hole Clarke. 'It was a joy to discover that beautiful females could be selected and ordered from a catalogue' and, 'spot a girl, call her agent and have her delivered like a pizza' but I soon give up, seduced by his wicked humour and acerbic observations which are softened somehow by the presence of real soul.
Equal parts shutterbug-philosopher, social anthropologist and accomplished 'sexologist'; he at times can seem almost clinical in his commentary on the erotic language of women. And yet, there is evidence of a profound and tangible tenderness as witnessed in the passages about the anorexic Mandy Smith whom he photographed at the depth of her illness. I sense instinctively that he does truly love women, but would I want to be a woman he loved?
'Can you tell me where I can find some real lesbians, really gorgeous ones, not just posers playing the lesbo card to get work?' Clarke asks suddenly, leaning back in his chair. I blink moronically and obediently supply several names, but of course Bob's been there and bought the shirt and as it turns out, 'my' lesbians are already yesterday's news.
Glancing around the vast white walls of the studio it occurs to me that Clarke should exhibit his work in a gallery setting. One work in particular, Le petite morte is especially resonant and turns out to be part of a study he made of 'the moment of orgasm'. He recounts the trials and tribulations of that particular shoot with casual alacrity and comments that 'it's surprising given the circumstances, but most women don't actually look their best at that precise moment; the face contorts and in a still image it just looks like acute back pain or something.'
Clarke smiles infrequently yet often seems on the verge of cracking a joke or delivering a barbed one-liner, the latter of which he has an endless and amusing supply. He chivalrously avoids name-dropping but anecdotes abound and it's not difficult to guess to whom he is referring. During his career he has shot the young Liz Hurley, a skittish-yet-gamely professional Jerry Hall (ask him about the live alligators), actress Rachel Wietz, and glamour models Caprice and the ever popular-but-B-list Jordan. It is curious to note though that his more graphic and interesting shots tend to be of the anonymous women who remove their clothes with exuberantly common abandon - 'porn stars, whores and strippers' - the ones that Clarke admits he prefers to stroppy, precious 'glamour models'. 'Sure, the professional models are gorgeous, but celebrity bores the fuck out of me. Give me something real, something with character and a personality. For most of these girls, the pursuit of fame has knocked the edges off them, stolen the one thing that might have made them halfway interesting. Pursuing celebrity has become an obsession in this country and it is deeply, deeply uninteresting to me.'
The 'glamour' model is a uniquely British phenomenon, which could explain why the North American versions (Caprice, et al) end up here.
Though it could be symptomatic of my gender, his few photographs of men are in some ways the most arresting, the most narrative and (maybe) the most erotic. His shots of Marco Pierre White taken in 1991 are sexy in the extreme and capture the raw incorrigibility of the mercurial celebrity chef. One montage shows White, wild-haired with a meat cleaver clutched menacingly in his fist, another of his backside, chef's tunic ripped away at the back, trousers sliced open as though the heat (or a scorned woman) had literally got the better of him. One fabulous iconic image shows White sitting bare-chested, fag-in-mouth, all attitude and reared back 'dare-yuh', with an enormous grey shark draped flaccidly across his lap like some twisted re-interpretation of the Pieta.
In a nutshell, Bob Carlos Clarke, like his work, is clever and seductive and it is arguably his wit and irresistible charm that make his female subjects 'putty to his shutter'. There is something about a man with a camera (when he knows how to use it) that can turn even the most sensible woman into a writhing come-hither pin-up and, suffice to say, this dude knows how to use it.