The Erotic Portraiture of Michael Berkowitz

The erotic photography, or as he describes it himself “Erotic portraiture”, of Michael Berkowitz is quite unique. It has this typical decorative vintage style, something you will love or hate, and dresses up his models in these amazing costumes.

An interview with this photographer, about his inspiration and creation process.

How would you personally describe the nature of your art?
I’m a fine art photographer and I usually like to describe my work as “erotic portraiture”. Inasmuch as I create my elaborate costumes, jewelry and tableaus in which I photograph my models, I feel the particular subject I’m photographing is central to each image. I think that dressing up and playing a role enables my models to reveal something about themselves that they ordinarily might hide. Costume play and role playing have become very popular in recent times and I see time and again the pleasure my subjects get from dressing up, indulging in and allowing themselves to be extraordinarily beautiful. We don’t often get and opportunity to shine and people are jumping at the chance to do so in my studio.

What artists, art periods, are an inspiration for your own work? And in what way?
Before I was a photographer and before I began doing erotic work, I was a painter, sculptor, and performance artist. I’ve been studying art all my life and all of art history informs my work. I did begin doing my current work, though, after seeing a book of French erotic photography of the 19th century. I had also previously been familiar with the “Storyville Portraits” of E.J. Bellocq. I used to exhibit at an art gallery that sold his work and I was able to trade my sculptures for some of his prints. I’ve always loved the work of the painter Gustav Klimt and I think I always keep him in mind when I work. Also, one of my favorite portraitists is the great Malian photographer Seydou Keita. Though originally I took inspiration for my sets and costumes from vintage Victorian photos, now I cast my eye more broadly at asian art and costume, vintage burlesque, Erte’ costume designs and sculptures, Byzantine art, etc..

Where are your ideas coming from? Does your work reflect your own erotic fantasies & desires?
From my earliest youth, I’ve always been attracted to burlesque performers, showgirls, strippers, and circus performers. From fantasy films and science fiction, I was always drawn to female characters who were extravagantly and fantastically costumed. Anywhere women allowed themselves to be gorgeous in an over the top way. Everyone says they want to be beautiful but generally people shy away from beauty, are afraid to stand out. I love it when women, especially women who you would not think of as being particularly pretty, pull out the stops and make themselves beautiful.

What you biggest artistic frustration? Or main struggle in your creation process?
My biggest frustration is acceptance of erotic themes in contemporary art galleries. It seems particularly stupid that such and important and central human impulse is denied legitimacy. It’s starting to change, but slowly.

Is it easy to find places to display your work? ( galleries, museums or shows )? Or is erotic art still somewhat taboo in your country?
Erotic art is still taboo, especially and ironically, in the New York art world. New York, which is generally in the avant garde in many ways, is very backwards when accepting erotic or sexual subjects. Beauty is also still considered a dirty word in New York. Time and again, critics, curators and galleries contend that something can’t be art unless it’s political, ironic, or makes some kind of social statement. Some other cities, particularly Chicago and L.A. are more open in that regard.

Can you provide a link to a website that you consider a must,an interesting read, or an inspiration for your own work?
Recently, I discovered Lulu.com, a self-publishing site. In addition to being able to inexpensively and easily publish your own work as a book, they offer great collections of vintage photographs on CD. I’ve gotten great inspiration from collections of vintage images of French, showgirls, ethnic nudes, etc.

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