Interview with EFRAIN GONZALEZ
I was reading something on advocate.com about your guided tours through the meal packing district of New York City, where there was a club scene far different and more underground than there are today. Care to shed some light on this?
In the years between 1970 and 2000 the meat packing district became the central hub for the city’s queer and underground sex and S&M fetish culture and creative art. If you wanted something kinky, you went to the meatpacking district which started on 14th Street and Ninth Ave and stretched out to the abandoned piers and down to Christopher St. If you looked around hard enough, you could fuck, spank, eat, dress, fist, piss, get pissed on, dress up, dress down, change genders, get fucked, drink, smoke, and just plain hang out to your heart’s content in the many crazy places that found a home among the old brick factories of this industrial wasteland. This small district was home to many of the city’s top sex and fetish clubs. Their short walking distance to each other made it possible for each to cross pollinate each other and feed off the energy and diversity that they all brought to the district. The closeness of all those leather and fetish clubs in one small insular district created a critical mass that made the neighborhood alive with its own energy.
What were the social and financial factors that led New York fetish culture to thrive for as long as it has?
The lack of real estate development in addition to the cheap rents in a run down neighborhood made the district a haven for such places like The Mineshaft, on Washington Street, the Hellfire on Ninth Ave, and Lee’s Mardi Gras boutique for transwomen and cross-dressers on the second floor on the corner of 14th and Ninth Ave. There was J’s, a gay jerk off and cruising bar, behind a red door in the old Triangle building on Hudson and 14th Street, and Hogs & Heifers on Washington and 13th Street, where tattooed bikers parked their big greasy motorcycles in front and gave mean looks to the tourists. The was the Anvil on 14th and 10th Ave, the Locker Room on 14th and 9th, Mother on 14th and Washington, and many others that came and went.
How did you first hear of the city’s fetish culture, and what inspired you to check it out and start photographing events?
I first became aware of the presence of leather bars in Greenwich Village and the meatpacking industry when I started driving a taxicab at night in NYC in 1975. I would see the leather clad men walking down the dark streets at night, on their way to gay fetish bars like Spike, Badlands, and The Eagle, and it excited me. I began to capture the life at night with a Nikon camera loaded with Tri-X film. At first I covered the streets, shooting street people and the traffic at night, then in 1982 I discovered the one and only Hellfire Club. It was located in an old decaying, civil war era, under the street vault, and I would go there every Friday and Saturday night, playing in the backrooms, using the gloryholes, finding all kinds of sex, love and passion, staying till 3, 4, 5 o'clock in the morning and sleeping late on Sunday. I began to visit more places, like J's, Badlands on West St, and gay porno houses scattered up and down West st. I wanted to photograph inside the club scene in the 80's, but it was difficult in many places because photos were strictly forbidden and controlled in the clubs in those days. As I became more trusted, I was allowed to take photos on special occasions. I respected the subjects I photographed and earned their trust. I was lucky to be able to capture the play going on in these clubs, Hellfire, The Lure, and Paddles.
How long had you been a photographer before you started working the fetish clubs?
I started taking photos in high school and I took classes in college, in particular, SVA on 23rd St. Annie Sprinkle, the Porn Star, was a fellow student with me there in 1977. I later took classes in photojournalism at the New School, and I was fortunate to attend a lecture by famed photographer Helmut Newton and Mary Ellen Mark. He explained why his artwork contained so much fetish oriented imagery. I was always taking photos, mostly in B&W film because I could not afford color film, and I loved learning how to take photos at night using Tri-X film. Going all over the city at night, shooting the light and shadow where I saw it. I really began shooting in the fetish clubs when I discovered the Hellfire Club in 1982. I have had many of my photographs published in newspapers and magazines.
What photography equipment were you using in the 90s, and what equipment do you currently work with?
I used mostly Nikon cameras, A Nikon F from the 60's, and a Nikon FT that I bought in 1975 at Willoughby Peerless on 32nd St, and I still have it. It was built like a rock and I used it with a 28mm lens for a lot of my night photography in bad neighborhoods. It was a very tough and solid camera. I also had a Zeiss Ikon Contessa that I bought at a flea market for 35 bucks, it was a wonderful little 35mm camera made in 1952 and had an excellent folding lens. On the Nikon I liked to use zoom lenses, with most of them having wide angles zoom. I also had a Speed Graflex Century with a 120 film back. For printing I had a Besler 23d in my home and I set up a darkroom with full chemistry trays.
Any classes in particular where you picked up special techniques at the New School? Where did Helmut Newton say the ides for his fetish oriented imagery come from in his lecture?
SVA and New School taught me the basics: how to develop film, how to see, how to print, and the tricks to tune your printing. I learned to shoot by learning how to work my film and camera and by shooting over and over again to learn how the camera sees, and what its limits are, so that when I approach the shot I can catch the image I want to see by knowing the limits and powers of my film and lens. I would shoot in low light and learn the limits of handheld street photography. I bulk loaded my own film to save money to buy more film and developed it at home in my bathtub. I would use any printing paper I could get or steal, and mix chemistry in my bathtub. I was inspired by the work of Eugene Smith and WeeGee as well as the night photography of Brassi. Brassi was incredible with his night life photos, and WeeGee was catching raw humanity in all its craziness and violence and baring its soul with his flash shots. And Erich Salomon, a German photojournalist who would sneak into forbidden places with a camera designed to shoot in low light. They captured real life, action as it happened and the humanity behind it. In his lecture Helmut Newton said some of his kinky looking shots were inspired by real life and not quite posed. He gave examples of what he saw and how he used it to create posed images.
Does working in your own dark room produce more of the kind of results you look for when developing your photos?
In my darkroom I was able to adjust contrast using filters, crop, dodge and burn, control the exposure of the paper and sometimes use different chemistry and paper types to change the look of the finished print. Matt or glossy, tones or sepia. I mostly used D76 to develop the film, and later used T-Max chemistry to work with newer T-Max film. Also I used Rodinal and HC110 on a very limited basis. Only at work would I use those chemistries. I tried color printing at home, the cibachrome process, but it was far more toxic and far more sensitive to temperature change and the color chemistry would oxidize rapidly. Sometimes the image would rapidly grow weaker and weaker with each print even if only a few minutes apart. Also color was more expensive. Almost all of my images are in B&W. I also used a Polaroid 110A camera. It used a roll of instant developing film, till the film was discontinued in the mid 80's. My main focus was to print out as many photos as possible, printing them, washing and drying them so I could show them to friends and send to some of the magazines that wanted to use them. So I would only print a select few of the images from each page of negatives, leaving the rest unprinted, to be forgotten. In digital scanning, I can have the entire series from each sheet of negs, and then anyone can see everything. I tried to print archival art style prints for sale, but my images were not a big mover. The subject matter is not something that would look good on a wall in Kansas. And it was more labor intensive and needed greater care to store and transport
What effect do your black and white photographs have when you view them? I noticed your use of shadow in a few of them. Is this effect produced intentionally?
I started shooting B&W in high school and I still shoot B&W in digital cameras now that they are getting more sophisticated and creating advanced technology. I try and try to capture a sense, a feel for the image as I felt it. I want to capture an edge, a power, a feeling that I get as I walk down a street, enter a room, look at a scene unfolding before me, and I want to translate that feeling, that vision, onto film, and from the film, onto a sheet of silver paper. Then in a darkroom, you burn and dodge, filter and develop. Sometimes you try again, a different contrast, a different burn, trying to make the photo speak. I love to capture an image that speaks to me and makes me want to look and look again. I shoot everything, I shoot all manner of things at all times. Day, night, people, flowers, cats, dogs, tattoos, blood, raindrops. But night photography is of particular interest to me. I loved the meatpacking area because it was so alone and full of strange shadows and deserted streets. Old buildings and sleazy street people. You could walk down those streets at night and feel like it was the end of the world. Walking for blocks without seeing a single person, to feel totally alone, and it was scary. The Lower East Side, East Village and Soho were great places for dark and shadow. Night time is a wonderful place to take photos. The lights, the deep shadows, contrast, textures. Now with digital cameras you can get B&W HDR (High Dynamic Range) feature that creates an interesting B&W image without a darkroom. Interesting to alter with Photoshop.
Do you know of online sites where the work of Smith, WeeGee, Brassi, Salomon and Newton can be viewed?
Which of the city’s fetish clubs were well-known and long lasting? When was it you started frequenting said clubs?
The Hellfire Club was one of New York’s most famous and longest lasting underground sex and bondage club, which helped make the Meatpacking District so notorious as a wild and kinky playground during the late 70’s up until its sad closing in 2002. Located at 28 Ninth Ave, just below 14th Street, it was literally under the ground, located in an aging, under the street, brick and flagstone vault, part of old New York’s vast subterranean structures from over a century ago. I first visited the Hellfire in 1982, and I was wide-eyed to see people in all stages of undress, spanking, tying, fucking and sucking to their hearts content. If you followed the rules, you were welcome to join in! And I kept going there to party, watch demos, and meet friends, till it all closed down. It lost its space in the basement of the 1840 triangle building in 2002 because of skyrocketing rents. It was a dirty sleazy hole-in-the-ground joint, and it was like heaven for all those looking for kink and sex.
What sort of debauchery could you expect visiting The Hellfire Club? Who has been known to attend in its heyday?
In the crowded under-the-street vault, you could rub shoulders (and other body parts) with leather clad masters, naked slaves, porn stars, dominant goddesses, swingers, cross dressers in lacy lingerie, couples fucking on the Crisco and cum stained floor, men on their knees worshiping a hard anonymous dick sticking out of a gloryhole, blinded folded submissives being led on a leash. Kinksters of every bent, twist and gender found a home in Lenny’s club. All kinds of celebrities could be seen wandering the halls and backrooms. Award winning writer Jerzy Kosinski was a common sight at Lenny’s club, folk singer Mary Travers of the group Peter, Paul and Mary was seen at the bar enjoying a pleasant conversation, and TV personality Tiny Tim came in to see the club, and promptly ran away! Film maker and comedian John Waters was a regular visitor to Hellfire, and he got a unique sex education watching the sex and sleaze going on all around. He enjoyed the atmosphere of Hellfire so much that he wrote positive reviews in magazines.
And not just leather and swingers were drawn to Hellfire’s dim recesses, but filmmakers were also drawn to its subterranean atmosphere. The club’s brick walls, arched ceilings and dirty floors became cinematic backgrounds. The movie Cruising, a 1980 thriller about gay murderers staring Al Pacino was filmed in the Hellfire club. It was decorated to look like the famous Mineshaft, the most famous of all the meatpacking district gay clubs, located just around the corner at 835 Washington Street. “Single White Female” with Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, used the exterior of the Triangle building at 28 Ninth Ave for its S&M sex scenes.
New York lost many clubs to gentrification in the 1990s and 2000s. How was the Hellfire Club affected by this?
The city tried to shut the Hellfire Club down in 1985, but the owners got wise and stripped out the backrooms and glory holes and reopened as The Vault, with a no sex policy. You could be naked, tied up, spanked, fisted - but no sex! That kept the city at bay. It became a popular meeting space for many fetish and sex oriented groups. It went through a few more changes, but in 2002 it closed forever due to high rents in a changing neighborhood.
The meatpacking district was a hub for fetish clubs, more so than the East Village or other parts of town, and keeping the different fetish clubs within walking distance is what made it so popular and gave it its wild reputation. It was more guarded and underground in the 70's and 80's, but by the 90's it reached it high mark of activity and popularity, becoming the block of choice for many of the fetish organizations existing in the city, like GMSMA, TES, LSM, NLA, ASH, to hold their parties and socials, is such large spaces as hellfire, the Lure, Mother, and the Vault on 10th Ave.
There is no longer a central location for these underground clubs. There are still fetish clubs, but you find them scattered all over the city, so the impact they have is weakened. If you go to a club and you don't like it, you either search for another far away or go home.
In the meatpacking district I now give lecture tours among the shiny new stores and using my vast archive of photos and personal memories, I lead a tour that stops at every historical spot and using a tablet, I show my digital photos of the clubs as they were back in the 80’s and 90's.
Many people remember Mayor Giuliani’s Quality Of Life program from the late 1990s. In what ways do you remember that impacting the fetish scene in the years that followed?
The city started to attack clubs in 1985 by shutting down any club where sex was happening. That was under Ed Koch. Giuliani mostly attacked porn shops and bookstores. He tried to get around free speech issues by limiting the amount of porn a store could sell. As far as the clubs, there was some fear that he might aim some laws at the clubs, but as long as there was no sex, the clubs stayed open and grew. I do not recall much talk about Giuliani’s efforts against the clubs. We protested his laws, but we were mostly lucky in that his efforts were fought and there was much criticism of his agenda.
Name the fetish clubs that still exist. Even if fewer and farther between, are they as permissive as the older clubs?
Hellfire, Lure, Anvil, Mineshaft, Locker-Room, Badlands, Paradise Lost and Crisco Disco are all gone now, and many more whose names have been forgotten, but there are several clubs and houses still working in this city. The only venue that I know of that still remains from the heyday of the 80's and 90's is Paddles, which used to be located on 21 St and 10th Ave. It moved to 26 St and still functions, serving the S&M community and other fetish groups. It has survived by keeping strict rules to help it comply with city regulations. By obeying the rules it has avoided being shut down by the city, and has moved to avoid being shut by high rents. There are many new spaces scattered all over the city that are still open. There is Wild’s Playground, and the Parthenon Studio on 30th St. Bowery Bliss in the Lower East Side sometimes has fetish nights, Spam in Brooklyn has some fetish, and there is DungeonX at the Delancey. My favorite is Avant-Garde, held once a month on 30th St. It reminds me of the bondage action I would see in the 90's. There are more but I have not gone to all of them. Those I have gone to, some may be as kink and bondage inclined as the old clubs but they will not allow the full sexual action one would have found before 1985, (when the city began to crack down of full sex kink and fetish clubs). Spanking; yes! Fucking; no!
Another Manhattan club that is still around is The Pyramid. Are you likewise a regular visitor of that place?
The Pyramid is on Avenue A in the East Village. I went to many events there in the 80's and 90's and I have the photos. It was not near the meatpacking area. There were many fetish events and fetish art shows held at the Pyramid and in its basement. It had some wild shows on the stage in the back; kink and erotic. I had my camera bag set on fire from a fire act onstage!
Who was the fire act you were photographing when your camera bag was set on fire? What do you remember from that incident and had you regularly attended her shows?
I forgot her name, but she had a great flame tattoos on her ass. She was doing a fire show on the stage of the Pyramid, probably in the late 80's and she was not very good. She blew some burning fire off stage and it fell on my camera bag, lighting the canvas on fire, but I was able to put it out and save the bag. Later she tried another fire trick, but she set her face on fire. No real damage but she burned her eyelashes off. The best fire act that I saw were by Sky and Vlad, a couple that I have seen perform in many places in NYC.
I have seen Sky and Vlad aka Eros Fyre perform a few times and interviewed them when AEA was a print zine (I also interviewed Sky for this blog). Have you photographed their performances around the city?
I have hundreds of photos of Sky and Vlad doing their fire act and Dance at such clubs as Don Hill’s in Tribeca, CBGB, several Vampire parties, Otto's Shrunken Head, and many others.
How long have you been acquainted with Sky and Vlad? Which venue had the most fitting atmosphere for their shows?
I must have known then since the days of the Tattoo society meetings in the 80's. I have seen them perform at tattoo shows, CBGB, goth parties, vampire balls on Bowery, The SMack parties on Delancey St, Cave Canum on First Ave in the East Village, The Black Abby on Ave B, and birthday parties at Otto's Shrunken Head and Don Hill’s just to name a few. The best place to see them is any place that is large so they can display their moves and fire talents.
Do you remember a performer who was around in the 90s, known as Glorya Wholesome? She hosted parties at The Pyramid and The Korova Milk Bar (Avenue A) and The Now Bar (Seventh Ave).
I took photos of her shows at The Pyramid, though I missed The Now Bar.
How often did you attend Glorya’s parties at the Pyramid? Who else have you met performing at these events?
I went to a few of them at the Pyramid, and I may have more from other places. I took a vast volume of images and I have not been able to review them all. I have some photos printed from these nights, but I have not scanned the entire series yet. I have some memories of those parties, but it was a while ago and my memory gets a bit haze. Glorya was popular and active in many clubs. And they were all fun!
Did you get to visit The Korova Milk Bar in the late 90s and the 2000s before it closed?
I have visited the Milk Bar on Avenue A a few times, for a fashion shoot, a sideshow shoot and a fetish event, among others. It was a fun place and I am sad it is gone.
Describe the events you photographed at the Korova for the readers?
I did a shoot when they were doing a combination fetish night and fashion show for a young designer. There were many friends from the fetish community attending. That was one of a few evenings that I spent at the Milk Bar. Another that is memorable is a night of performances of the Disgraceland Family group, a collection of young sideshow artists who love to give shows on stage of body manipulation and sideshow stunts. Crazy stuff, lifting weights using needles in the skin, play piercing on stage, blood play, contortionists in a box. The Milk Bar was a wonderful place for fetish play, wild acts on stage, performances off the wall. Like Pyramid or Mother.
What was Mother like when you were attending? Is that club still active or has it since closed?
Mother was a club on 14th Street and was open for a lot of different events, Drag, Goth fetish, Music, Art, parties and performances. Some nights bands would play, some nights they had performance art on stage like that of Ron Athey. Other nights they had a lesbian only night called Clit Club run by Julie Tolentino. Still other nights they had Jackie 60 and Meat. On the main floor was the big long bar with barmaids in corsets mixing drinks, and the stage was on the wall facing Washington St, and downstairs were room with sofas to sit and enjoy your beer and be sociable with friends and strangers.
Are the photos of the artists and performers we discussed above available for viewing with your other photos on the net?
I am trying to create an archive of the many photos I have taken since 1975. It is a slow and careful process and I saved the finished annotated scans on a series of hard drives, so a failure in one will not destroy the archive I am building and annotating. I do my best to recall the names of people and places that are long gone. Sometimes when I post a photo it gets a large discussion on the social media that people talk about a lot of forgotten details. I save the talk thread and use the information people leave on it as a reference. I have some of my photos on my website, and I am constantly revising my webpages to include this new information. I have a LOT of negatives.
When did you start conducting your tours of the meat packing district? Do you have a site that advertises these tours? If so, how much of a response has it gotten since it’s been on the internet?
I was always telling people too young or new to the city of how it used to be, about “the good old days”, and when I got together with friends from the past club days, we would reminisce about the good old days and wax nostalgic about the way we used to party all night long. But when the meatpacking became so overdeveloped and pricey, watching old familiar buildings being torn down, I realized that our kink, queer and fetish history was being erased. There was so much culture created and nurtured in these buildings and basements in the decades before 2000, and I knew it was being lost and forgotten forever. I had an extensive archive of photographs and ephemeral flyers and posters of the time, so I realized I had an opportunity to use my extensive collection of bondage and street culture photographs to show people how life was really like in the past, the 80's and 90's. I researched the rules for getting a New York City tour guide license, studied for it, and in 2014 I took the city exam and passed with a high score of 130! I sat down and created a tour path that loops around the district, and covers the high points of the meatpacking history. I carry a large Tablet that has hundreds of my digital photos and flyers, sorted and stacked so as we come to a spot, I can illustrate the club with my photos on the tablet as I tell its story. So far I have given dozens of tours to all kinds of groups, some from Berlin, Paris, even Zagreb, and I have given lectures at the Leslie-Lohman museum and at the High Line in Chelsea. I am presently creating a tour to show the vanished history of the East Village and Lower East Side. You can find my website at http://www.hellfirepress.com and http://www.facebook.com/hellfiretours.
Where are all the stops on your East Village/Lower East Side tour, and how much information do you offer your guests?
I have created a loop that winds around the East Village and the Lower East Side, and it is designed to pass by many historical points of these two districts. My tour shows the unique past of those two neighborhoods, how they developed and the immigrant, punk, music, queer trans, and fetish history that was born there and how it grew and changed. I start on Houston street and show such places as the Saint, Club 82, the home of Quentin Crisp, The original St. Pat’s cathedral on Mott St, The Bowery and its unique queer history, lost cementers, CBGB and its punk rock history, Lucky Chang’s and its transgender history, The Club Baths, Novella Justine, the Marble cemetery on Second Ave, the Suicide Bar on First St, Cooper Union, Delancey Street and its Jewish and bootleg history, and many other points of past interest. It is designed to last about 90 minutes and we then have the choice of bars in the East Village to end the tour.
How many tourists usually accompany you on your route through East New York?
I get from one to twelve people depending on the weather. I advertise on Craig's List, Facebook, Linked in, and Fetlife. I post my postcards in different places, where people interested in cultural tours can find them. I have had tourists from Paris, the Ukraine, Canada, Croatia, L. A., Montana, and Australia. In the cold weather I give the tour, but If the cold becomes too much for the tourist and they beg off because they can't take the cold, I have a coffee bar in the meatpacking where we can retreat to and see my tour lecture on my tablet, filled with hundreds of photos from the Fetish Era.
Does displaying your photographic work online generate more of an interest in your tours from other countries?
As I get more and more exposure in web media, from interviews and links, I see a corresponding rise in requests for my tours and interest in my content. I get a lot of attention now from writers and magazines who see my archive as something of historical and cultural interest. I have designed my own web-page and I have links to other websites and publications that have interviewed me and written about and used my images. There are a few of my images posted on my website to give a taste of what my tours and lectures have to offer. There are a few books by other writers who have used my photos to illustrate their writings. I am trying to contact museums and publication that might show an interest in what I have saved.
Have any magazines or museums contacted you about helping support your work?
Not so far, but I am in contact with a few. I have hopes that I can get help and direction in getting grants to help me in my efforts. I need advice on how to apply for grants. I also hope to give more lectures about my work, Here are a few magazines I am in:
People I photographed (partial list):
Nina Hartley, legendary adult film actress
Randy Jones, original member of the Village People
Events Covered (partial list)
Drag March Sheridan Square- NYC
Folsom Street East – 13th St. and 28 St.
Gay Pride March – Manhattan
Gay Pride March – Brooklyn
Living in Leather – Portland 1989-1990, Chicago 1991-1992
Mermaid Parade – Coney Island
NYC Tattoo Convention – Roseland Ballroom
Rated X show – Nikerug Gallery 68th Street
Screw magazine 30th anniversary
Wigstock – Thompson Square East Village
Lectures and Slideshows (partial list)
High Line Lecture – 9/2014
BGSQD Bookstore Slideshow -3/2014
Leslie Lohman Museam Slideshow
I will be part of a group show of erotic photography at the Chrystie Street Gallery called Pornology At The Chrystie Street Gallery Thursday October 5th, 2006.
How would you most like to be remembered for your work in the future?
I want my work to receive recognition and be shared with all who want to see it. I want the cultures I photographed to be saved and understood and seen as I have seen them. These are worlds that live in the shadows, behind closed doors, unseen, unwanted, unknown. I love these images, I love the people I have photographed. I want my photographs to go to an important archive that will see my images for what they are. A window into lives. Portraits of people who were fantastic just being themselves. I like to say "I am just the guy who pressed the button". Being modest. But I have spent (or wasted) a part of my life chasing the outsiders, the edge-players, the rejects, people who choose to walk down a path, the path least chosen, in order to find their souls, their passions, their happiness. I have worked to create this archive, and I want my work to be seen in the same light as Maplethorpe, Weegee, Eugene Smith and David Duncan. I want to be remembered as a photojournalist, a good one. I may die broke, but I want my photos to live forever, like Matthew Brady, E. J. Bellocq, Kaveh Golestan and Brassai.