Dean O'Brien's Blog

CW2: Essay ‘The Controversial Work of Bob Carlos Clarke’

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The Controversial Work of Bob Carlos Clarke

So what is it that can make one person view an image as art and yet another another person view the same image as pornographic?  Is this just a matter of taste or is there another underlying reason?  The work of Bob Carlos Clarke has always been discussed in this manner.   The face, pose, clothing and location all add to how we read an image.  ‘An expression can have a dramatic impact even with the slightest movement of the eyes or mouth‘ (Bate, 2009: 74).  When looking at the work of artists such as Richard Avedon it is easy to see that there is an erotic component contained within some of his images but that they are less about the arousal of men.  Carlos Clarke’s work was different altogether.

When Carlos Clarke’s images of ‘Tite Street’ and ‘Whip Girl’ were displayed in the window of The Little Black Gallery for the exhibition ‘Retrospective’ in April 2010 it caused some commotion.  Residents complained to the council for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the gallery received a visit from the Police.  This brought into question what exactly is pornography and what is art?  A letter from the Police stated

‘My assessment is that Whip Girl is acceptable but I have some concerns about Tite Street.  Tite Street appears to show a man having rear entry sex with a woman who is bent double and not wearing any knickers. Of course, this is not the appropriate place to have a debate about art versus pornography. It is my assessment that Tite Street should not be able to be clearly viewed from the street. I strongly advise that Tite Street is moved’.

It wasn’t moved and no further action was taken.  I understand the residents concern even though I adore the work of Bob.  Everything is being sexualised these days.  Something will have to give eventually.  In an article published in The Independent it stated that ‘Women and desire are the twin obsessions of the majority of his black and white images’ (2006: 38).

By his own admission he was obsessed with women.  It is easy to believe that Bob was really in awe of women.  He really did have an obsession.

In an interview in Professional Photographer Lindsey Carlos Clarke remembers him saying   ‘She’s already older than when I shot her two days ago and over time she’ll age and crumble. But I have her here in my camera forever. I really think he believed that he owned them after he photographed them.’  Framer, Tim Blake, speaking in the same interview stated that ‘I think once you give Bob’s pictures some dialogue, and learn about their history, they become a totally different thing’. (2009: 12)

To try and get a clearer picture of this I decide to contact Ghislain Pascal who was Bob’s agent and now runs The Little Black Gallery who hold all of Bob’s work.  This meeting was vital to try and get an insight into what made Bob create these images.  Many are under the impression that Carlos Clarke’s work was demeaning to women.  When asked about this, Pascal said ‘Well I think if people actually look at Bob’s work and read the words he has bothered to write.  Shooting Sex was kind of his biography and if people read the words that went with the ‘Love Dolls’ catalogue they would see that Bob is not being misogynistic he is actually completely in awe of woman.  He fantasied about women, he was obsessed by women and he never saw them as objects.  The whole concept of the whole Love Doll show was that women are taking over the world and men are redundant so it was completely the opposite.  They need to look at the captions, the titles and words that go with it.  There are lots of photographers who are demeaning, who are not very objective, tacky and crude but that was not Bob’s intention.  He was a little bit more intellectual than that’.

I get the impression that due to pressure from within the industry there are a large amount of photographers who refrain from shooting women in this way.  In the long run I cannot see how it would benefit them. Pascal decided to expand on this by stating ‘It depends what they do.  The whole reason that Bob got into photography was to photograph women.  He said in his own words that It was a great way to get a shag.  The thing with Bob is that he wasn’t a fashion photographer.  He wasn’t a celebrity photographer.  He wasn’t a portrait photographer.  He didn’t fall into any slot so for Bob he became pigeon holed and known for shooting girls in rubber.  But then because Helmut Newton was a fashion photographer and he shot his erotic pictures for Vogue so for him it wasn’t a problem. He had been commissioned to shoot these pictures whereas for Bob it was his own work.  At one point in his career Bob even used a pseudonym which I thought was a stupid idea as everything goes in cycles.  I suppose you have to follow a path and stick to it and not let people dictate to you what they want you to do’.

This seemed to confirm what had already been said in various media reports.  Other photographic artists seem to produce images that are a lot more sexually charged than those of Carlos Clarke and yet seem more easily accepted.  David LaChapelle is one of those.  Is it because, as Ghislain stated above that as many of his images are commissions for fashion magazines that this gives him a form of immunity?  Or are people not viewing them in the same way because they are receiving them in a mainstream form of media which is all too familiar to them?  The conclusion could be then that it all comes down to marketing.  Nothing more than good old fashioned sales techniques.  The same goods just packaged differently.  Not quite a case of the emperors new clothes but certainly not a million miles away either.

At first glance an observer may see close similarities between the two images above.  However, the body positioning shows that are both sending different signals.  Saying that LaChapelle’s image was submissive might seem like an understatement.  The stance on the Bob Carlos Clarke model is very dominant.  The closed mouth and facial expression giving attitude.  This gives the model a feeling of power and control.  LaChapelle’s model has a mouth wide open possibly giving the impression of simulating  a sex act.

Carlos Clark had a rather unorthodox way of locating many of his subjects as Pascal explains ‘Bob always went out and found girls himself.  He didn’t go to model agencies.  He used to find them in strip clubs or wherever else.  Inevitably many of them would become models. He would often shoot with just him and the girl, no assistants or nothing’.

Although Pascal was about the closest I could get to asking Carlos Clarke himself, I still felt that this debate lacked weight.  It needed the opinion of a female photographer.  I eventually managed to make contact with erotic female photographer Emma Delves-Broughton.  I knew that Emma would have known of Bob and his work but little did I know that she had actually met him a few times.  I had long been under the impression that if erotic images were taken by a female photographer then they would be more socially acceptable.  When I put this question to Delves-Broughton she stated ‘I’m not sure really, the general public may have the opinion that it may be more socially acceptable, though many will dismiss the whole genre, and not care who has taken the photographs’.

Carlos Clarke believed that beauty was always a woman’s most powerful weapon.  Therefore if this is the case, then surely there is a mutual benefit for the photographer and the model.  Delves-Broughton expanded on this by saying ‘I like that idea, both models and clients feel empowered by a beautiful picture of themselves.  How could you not be?  From my own point of view, if the model does not feel that the end result is mutually beneficial, then you wouldn’t get anywhere near as many models that would want to work with you. You would need to take beautiful pictures in order for that to happen. Many models wanted to work for Bob.

The fact that many models wanted to work for him still does not give him some sort of immunity from being sexist.  I put this to Delves-Broughton who replied ‘I would say his work is very empowering to women, if you have attention to detail, as Bob did. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, I don’t find his work sexist, he was a photographer doing what he believed in, and making a living too. A lot of people wouldn’t understand his work, of course, it’s not possible to please everybody all of the time’.

If the narrative behind the images is more pornographic than artistic, does this stop or change our aesthetic appreciation of the image?  I would argue that this was down to the individual.  To bring this debate right up to date I wanted to look at the image by Panayiotis Lamprou forPortrait of my British wife’. This recently won second prize in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010.  Art or pornography?  Where does one start with this?  Lets face facts here.  Regardless of who won.  This is the image that this year will be remembered for.  Maybe for all the wrong reasons.  Viewing to see the image in its full entirety was restricted by many websites who were only prepared to show the upper half.  This even included the National Portrait Gallery where at the time it had been shortlisted.  As expected, this only drew the image and image maker more attention.

What I am starting to realise is that people do bring their own frame of reference when looking at images.  Almost a pre-judgement.  We live in a society where the rules regarding how we are fed sexually charged imagery is changing.  It is such a grey area.  We may not be able to instantly describe in words what in an image is artisitic or pornographic but we know it when we see it.  Everyone is entitled to express an opinion on such pieces but to deny them to the masses only creates a bigger demand to see them.  The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize this year proved that.


Amateur Photographer (2010) Icons of Photography – Iconic Photographer – Bob Carlos Clarke [online] available from <> [15 November 2010]

Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts, Oxford: Berg

Carlos Clarke, Bob (2002) Shooting Sex: The Definitive Guide to Undressing Beautiful Strangers, London: Butler and Tanner

Carlos Clarke, Bob (1981) Obsession, London: Quartet Books

Carlos Clarke, Bob (2004) Infanta Electronica [online] available from <> [28 November 2010]

Carlos Clarke, Bob (1990) Tite Street [online] available from <> [14 November 2010]

Carlos Clarke, Bob (2000) Whip Girl [online] available from <> [14 November 2010]

Cotton, Charlotte (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, London: Thames and Hudson Ltd

Delves-Broughton, Emma (2010)  Bob Carlos Clarke: Art or Pornography [email] to Delves-Broughton, Emma [24 November 2010]

Garfield, Simon (2009) Exposure: The Unusual Life and Violent Death of Bob Carlos Clarke, London: Ebury Publishing

Gefter, Philip (2009) Photography after Frank, New York: aperture

Jones, Alice (2006) ‘A Mirror of Many Faces’. The Independent (London) 29 March, 38

LaChapelle, David (2000) Lil Kim Blow Up Doll [online] available from <> [15 November  2010]

Lipkin, Jonathan (2005) Photography Reborn, New York: Harry N.Abrams

Panayiotis, Lamprou (2010) ‘Portrait of my British wife’ [online] available from <> [1 December 2010]

Pascal, Ghislain (2010) The Controversial Work of Bob Carlos Clarke [interview by D. O’Brien] London, 11 November 2010

Professional Photographer (2009) Bob Carlos Clarke Retrospective [online] available from <> [16 November 2010]



Written by Dean O'Brien

December 2, 2010 at 10:03 pm

One Response

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  1. Hello Dean great research and a great reflective essay.
    A good idea getting a female photographers point of view. I find it interesting that some photographers describe themselves as doing nudes and view the human body as an abstract object or landscape. I think it’s a debate between ‘nude’ vs ‘naked’. Actually should there be a distinction made or have we transcended beyond ‘erotic art’ vs ‘pornography’ into a more open approach/rapport to sexuality and the female form in particular. Brilliant Blog of critical thinking!

    Chris Alford

    January 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm

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