By Marli Guzzetta
Natasha Gornik was 12 years old, living in the Illinois suburbs, when she climbed up to reach the highest cabinets in her kitchen and found by accident a sexually suggestive polaroid of one of her parents, hidden away.
“I was turned on by it. Which was conflicting, because it was a parent, but something really interesting was going on in that moment,” remembers Gornik, a fetish photographer and one-eighth of the artists in the Sex Cells group exhibition at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery (emmanuelfremingallery.com) opening this Thursday, June 28. Selected by Asli Unal, the show’s featured artists “combine familiar props and subjects in an original manner” as they tackle themes including seduction, bondage and religion, according to the gallery’s description. Gornik has four portraits in the show: a bare-chested and milk-white submissive man in a leather hood; a masked prodomme with vivid blue eyes and lashes as precise as pinheads; a hooded and bound submissive of unknown gender; and a club kid from Houston who regularly wears a prosthetic rubber body part (likely not the one you expect) over his clothing as a cod piece.
Gornik would rather not say which parent was in that early Polaroid, but she’ll recall the lack of clothing and the leering, amateur American Apparel quality to the image. The photo had been dated. It was from the 1970s. “I’d go back to look it from time to time, and then one day it was gone.”
By the time the Polaroid disappeared, the image had taken root. “I was constantly searching for things,” Gornik recalls. “Beneath my parents’ mattress, under their bed — I was always looking for something.”
This search extended to Gornik’s time at Columbia College of Chicago, where two remarkable things happened: She discovered still frame photography — admiring the likes of Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Helmut Newton and Floria Sigismondi — and she answered an ad in the erotic personals section of her local free newsweekly, which she read regularly for personal amusement.
“The ad read, ‘Worship our goddess FEET.’ Then it included a descriptive paragraph of what can happen to feet, and ended with the sentence ‘Now Hiring,’” remembers Gornik, who answered the ad, but not because she needed the money.
“It was purely curiosity and experience,” she says. “I was so fucking bored. I wanted that rush. I needed something exciting.”
The professional domination house hired Gornik and gave her no training. At age 19, the tall, lanky girl with brown hair and blue eyes conducted her first session: The managers put her in a room with a 200 pound man who wanted to wrestle with a woman who could beat him. It didn’t go as well as it could have, but Gornik kept with professional domination, eventually bringing the camera into the dungeon to photograph one of the other dominatrices.
“I was very intimidated by her. I didn’t think I was cool enough for her, so I used the camera to start a friendship,” says Gornik, who parlayed that photo session into another and then another … “I didn’t feel strong, sexy, or confident, but I loved taking photos of strong, sexy, confident women. So in a sense I was just living in a fantasy.”
As her portfolio grew, Gornik eked out visits with studios and galleries. “But they wanted something more, and I wanted to do more as well,” she recalls. “So I thought that stepping into the frame, I would understand the image more, because I would be a part of it. I would get an interesting experience out of it and not just be the photographer in the room.”
Most of the people Gornik photographs are in the New York City fetish scene, of which she counts herself as a respected and respectable member. Gornik calls her style “experiential photography” — in-the-moment images, often close-ups, of what Gornik is seeing in a given situation. Maybe the face of a bound man. Maybe a pair of sheer underwear on a bed. Maybe a tight angle looking up an unknown woman’s skirt.
In these situations, color and reflective textures turn Gornik’s head. She has a special love for latex and rubber, and gets especially close to subjects wearing them, so that her flash reflects off of them like an “I was here” graffiti scribble, or, as she explains it, like the bling in Lynda Carter’s eyes in the opening credits of The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. The flash’s reflection has an almost ejaculatory quality in these images.
Gornik has learned through her prodomme experience that getting under people’s skin involves not giving away too much of oneself. “However, you still have to really listen to them — to what they say or how they feel.” It’s possible she would say the same about being a photographer.
This intimate proximity implies a level of acceptance, or a lack of judgment. “Society tells you ‘no’ a lot. I never liked that,” Gornik says. “Through my photography, I’ve learned that you can say ‘yes’ to a lot of things and have a healthy wonderful experience that isn’t going to harm you, and it can make you grow as a person.”
A good professional dominatrix will generally leave her submissive not with a happy ending but with a “to be continued. …” It’s a skill Gornik has extended to her photography. Gornik knows what has happened, or is happening or is about to happen to the man in bondage. She knows who owns the underwear and why they are on the bed. She knows the predilections of the woman not wearing anything under her skirt. And she knows the viewer wants to know. But Gornik is okay with teasing, sharing a piece of what’s happening and then denying the full context.
The lens may be a window, but in Gornik’s photography, it’s a window that remains closed to those who don’t have the courage to find their own way into the experience. Members of the fetish community, especially professionals, are a notoriously guarded group. Gornik has earned her way to the other side of the lens, where viewing is not the same as doing, and she’s not about to spill all of her secrets so quickly.
Instead, she is willing to give the viewer the same provocations she’s had — first as a child on the counters of her kitchen, then as a bystander in her first dungeon in Chicago and since then in dungeons, bedrooms and private parties across the country. She’ll provide glimpses of someone else’s “yesses.” If the viewer wants more, it’s up to him or her to do as Gornik has done and use them as motivation to leave the world of ‘no’ and head out into the world of something more.
“Sex Cells” is on view from Thursday June 28 until July 28, 2012 at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery 547 W. 27th St., Suite 508 New York, NY