Photography has long been a window into our social psyches, capturing not only scenes of beauty, but also the hidden underbellies of human experience: decadence, struggle, violence, passion, and despair. The word â€ścontroversialâ€ť is often used to describe these artists, because they rupture and/or critique the boundaries of normativity, thereby causing discomfort.
Below is a collection of photographersâ€”both old and newâ€”who use imagery deemed â€ścontroversialâ€ť as a way to tell stories. Many of the works are surreal, loaded with symbolism waiting to be unpacked; some of them seem brutally objectifying; all of them are shocking in some way. However, the questions they provoke about power and identity (especially in regards to gender and sexuality) are invaluable in examining the ways we see othersâ€”and ourselves.
Top: Robert Mapplethorpe was known for his photographs of New Yorkâ€™s BDSM scene in the late 1960s and 70s.
Guy Bourdin’s fashion photography was erotic, humorous, and sometimes violent.
Starting the list is Guy Bourdin (1928â€“1991), the infamous Vogue Paris photographer known for his surrealist, sexual, and sometimes brutalÂ imagery involving women. Some of his photos, like the oneÂ above, are suggestively playful; others are disturbing, such as aÂ woman lying unconscious with blood streaming from her face. Bourdinâ€™s color-drenched scenarios make the blatant link between fashion and the objectification of womenâ€™s bodies, but they continue to attract curiosity and discussion today, insisting the questionâ€”is itÂ a theatrical commentary, or pure exploitation (or both)? Bourdin leaves it to the viewersâ€”as well as theirÂ own carnal and consumerist desiresâ€”to decide.
Ren Hang explores flesh and intimacy in candid, surprising ways.
Ren Hang is a Beijing-based photographer known for his erotic and uncensored work. His main subject is the nude figure, presented in unconventional waysâ€”browse his collection and youâ€™ll see people urinating, posing with flowers against their genitals, and kissing severed pig heads. However, while fetishistic and perhaps startling, there is a poeticism and fearlessness to it; for Hang, the human body is his storyboard as he captures candid moments of fear, arousal, and longing. Deemed controversial by mainstream art circles in China, Hangâ€™s work has been curated by Ai Weiwei, a fellow nonconformistÂ artist.
Pretty Puke presents scenarios of debauchery and experimentation in late-night youth culture.
Pretty Puke (Miller Rodriguez)
In theatrical scenes of debauchery, Pretty Puke is a contemporary photographer who curates the late-night, emerging youth culture of Los Angeles. Visit his website and youâ€™ll be immersed in a plethora of bizarreâ€”and often raunchyâ€”lo-fi images; subjects include everything from people posing with road kill to vandalizing dumpsters. To some, this may seem like anÂ excessive representation of todayâ€™s youth, but they tell bold, culturallyÂ relevant stories about resistance, sexuality, and coming-of-age in the modern, digitized world.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s BDSM photography beautifully explores sexual subculture and community.
Photographer Robert MapplethorpeÂ (1946â€“1989)Â is remembered for his candid yet compassionate exploration of themes deemed â€ścontroversialâ€ť by normative society: BDSM, nudity, racial politics, and homosexuality. From 1969 through the ’70s, he providedÂ unapologetic representation for repressed groups. His legacyÂ survived vicious cultural debates over the difference between â€śartâ€ť and â€śpornography,â€ť as well as the homophobia ofÂ the AIDS crisis. Today, his historical photosâ€”which tell the story of New Yorkâ€™s underground, and the individuals who inhabited itâ€”remain influential in their fearless exploration of identity and desire.
Steven Klein’s images of Lara Stone for Vogue magazine caused questions of gender-based violence.
Similar to Bourdin, the work of American fashion photographer Steven Klein pushes the envelope in its representations of race, sex, and gender. The February 2009 issue of Vogue ParisÂ published a series by Klein titled “Lara Fiction Noire,” starringÂ Lara Stone as a vampiric creature. With pale lighting and bold role reversals, Klein’s sexualÂ or post-bloodbath narrativesÂ twist the viewerâ€™s imagination, playing at the crossroads of lust, beauty, and violence.
The cover of LaChapelleâ€™s book Heaven to Hell features Love with a crucified Cobain lookalike on her lap.
David LaChapelle is a commercial photographer known for surreal and often sexualized portraits of well-known celebrities; check out his photo â€śLusty Spring,â€ť which features Angelina Jolie in a state of flowery, orgasmic bliss. He is also known for challenging boundaries by showcasing transgender models. His hyperreal and kitschy imageryâ€”see the eye-popping Cobain/Love pietĂ above, for exampleâ€”createsÂ sensational storylines.
This photo of Gearonâ€™s children posing on the beach with Disney masks caused a stir.
Tierney Gearon is a contemporary Los Angeles-based photographer known for her colorful and dynamic images, which often feature her family and friends. In 2001, she was given an unfavorable spotlight when she included photos of her children (aged seven and four at the time) in the exhibition â€śI Am a Cameraâ€ť at the Saatchi Gallery. In one photo, the children are posing nude and wearing masks (which they electedÂ to wear) while on the beach. For Gearon, the image is a genuine story about childhood games and silliness; others saw an image of exploitation. Gearon has strongly disputed these claims, and the photo has brought up important questions regarding censorship and the fickleness of perception.
The teenagers in Hensonâ€™s dreamlike photosÂ appear affectionate and sensitiveâ€”not carnal.
Not unlike Gearon, Australian photographer Bill HensonÂ came under scrutiny for his representation of youth. Some of Hensonâ€™s images depict teenaged boys and girls in painterly, twilight scenes. Nude or partially clothed, the subjects appear romantic, but not overtly sexual (in the end, Henson was not prosecuted). ThereÂ is a lot of human passionÂ in these photos; each turned face and reaching arm tells an emotionally-richÂ storyÂ about bodily awareness, the power of touch, and the melancholia of youth.
This satirical portrait of a nun-gone-bad was the cover of Toilet Paper magazineâ€™s June 2010 issue.
Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari
Toilet Paper magazine is the offspring of two creative minds: artists Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari. Started in 2010, each issue contains surreal images brimming with irony and troubleâ€”a mouth stuffed with hot dogs, or a woman with clothespins clamped to her backside (see their Tumblr for more color-saturated examples). Their stories arrive from a mix of humor, controversy, and shock-value; the nun shooting up in a hotel room covers all of these bases, intended to confuse and provoke us.
This photograph of Witkinâ€™s displays a human head that has been cut in half and positioned into a kiss.
Weâ€™ll finish this list with something controversial, but in a way thatâ€™s different from the above-mentioned artists; American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin occasionally incorporated dead bodies (or portions of them) into his images. Death and vulnerability are driving themes, originating from a horrific car crash Witkin witnessed as a child. To create his works, he often had to cross the border into Mexico, making deals with hospitals to gainÂ access to anonymous body parts. Many have labeled his work exploitative and grotesque, understandably; but beyond the shock, others might see visceral meditations on societal decay and theÂ transienceÂ of life.
Photos Â© respective artists.