Rick Castro | Fetish King
Rick Castro is an invaluable figure in the history and tradition of LA’s bewitching underground. At every encounter I have had I felt like a child asking their parent for a bedtime story, only mine were questions of how fucked up everyone was, what they were wearing, and what seedy places they inhabited that are no longer there. His prolific work of the 80s and 90s is still a template for the sexual expression we so widely aestheticize in today’s hyper tech culture, though what is remarkable is the lack of pretense and self-awareness that has built the digital ages parameters for how far we can actually push the envelope. His fixation on the physique and body of leather was a natural extension of the spirit of Tom of Finland.
Reviewing Castro’s early work, his vision spoke of a specific era, a time when clothing were grungy and minimal(ist) along with stories of grit and glamour that only came with living in 90’s Hollywood. All this seems so reserve in the way we approach the digital sexual revolution of PrEP and sex positivity YouTube land, a triumph that seems radical as displayed in an era of high AIDS related deaths and the closet scene of gay men. It is with this signature style that it has come time for the photographer to present a retrospective at the Tom of Finland Foundation, curated by Rubén Esparza, which showcases his work at its most pure, sexual, sleek and unapologetic. I jumped at the chance to speak to the photographer to learn about what would birth his creative exploration into fashion, LA, and the euphoria of fetishism.
How is installing, what’s been going on?
Well, I’ve been organizing, how about that? And it’s been going really well, we’re actually going to install on the 3rd and 4th. You’ve been to the Tom House. So we’re taking over the living room and the dining room. The house is from 1911 so everything is going to be Victorian style, which I love. At the Antebellum Gallery, if you remember, I had railing on the walls, and that’s Victorian style, so you hang everything from the picture railing on two tiers. And the top tier, you hang the paintings or photographs, the framed art from cords with latches that hang over the picture railing and then you tilt the image so people don’t have to turn their head up, they just look on the other side of the gallery and just look straight and you can see there’s tilt. That’s Victorian style, which is very practical. It works well with the house.
I’ll look at it... So this particular selection is all-encompassing over a certain amount of time. Is there any time, in regards to your career, where you feel like you didn’t get enough shine?
Well, you may or may not know that I’ve been doing photography since 1986, so before you were born, and so its going to have images from then, like my signature images and then, of course, work from the present day. It really is a retrospective of my work, but it’s a curated retrospective of my work. It’s a small, condensed version, because I have a lot of work and a lot of work has not been seen, so this particular show is focusing on the work that is more of my signature pieces with a few new ones thrown in portfolios and that kind of thing. Also ephemera, which I love because I have a lot of personal, artifacts from over the years.
What pieces haven’t we seen yet? Is there anything new, or something that was lost and then found?
Nothing lost, a lot of images that I did recently kind of tend to get a little bit more, slightly metaphysical and more introspective, considering the subject matter, which is fetish and bondage. They kind of lend themselves to color. So, a little more color, a smidge more color.
I wanted to know your opinion about the way the fetish community is being mainstreamed right now. What is your take on that?
It’s inevitable that that would just happen. On one hand, I’mm glad there’s acceptance. Because when I first started working in the mid-80’s there was very little, if no understanding whatsoever, and it was just kinda labeled either porn, or perversion, or whatever. Now, in the 21st century, my opinion, is all about fetish. People have at least a superficial understanding of what that is. They might not know the true, deep meaning. It is a lot more universal than most people realize. I think now it’s accepted as pretty universal, and it’s just a part of personality and everything that goes with the person is the idea of who they are. It cuts throught the core of who you are. It’s beyond sexual, in my opinion, it really is.
To me, its the same thing as religion or faith. Because for example, when you think of the true meaning of fetish, its something giving empowerment to something else. So the person is the one, who’s making the person, the object, or the shoe, or the other interesting. It’s just an object, it’s just a person. But the other person thats obsessing on it is giving it all the glory, the power.
It’s like an idol, or God-like at that point.
Yes, and the fervor, the euphoria, and the climatic idea, to me, is very similar to when people are praying, or when their meditating, or orgasming. It’s really all the same euphoria, its like another level. It’s not just everyday, so I like that.
What is your relationship with the Tom of Finland Foundation?
It goes way back, that goes back to also before you were born. There used to be this really great bar on Hoover Ave in Silver Lake called The One-Way. Have you heard of it?
It was the best leather bar in Los Angeles, hands down. A little hole in the wall, not much bigger than this room we are in right now (Figaro Bistrot). But much darker, great music. Just beer, not even mixed drinks really, just beer, which I don’t drink. You were guaranteed to meet somebody at The One-Way, you were guaranteed to-if not go home with somebody, at least get your dick sucked right there. And it wasn’t a sex club.
So anyways, I was there pretty often and I met this very hot leather guy and I tried to pick him up, which didn’t really work out, but we made out. We exchanged numbers, this was pre-cellphone, pre-internet, so we actually wrote down our numbers. And a few years later, I had my very first exhibition at the original Different Light Bookstore, which was in Silver Lake.
Which bookstore was that one?
That was the first gay bookstore in Los Angeles. They have one also in San Francisco, they have one in New York. The one in Los Angeles was at the Silver Lake Junction, where Santa Monica meets Sunset. It was right in the triangle, thats where the first bookstore was. It was very cute.
So they gave me my first show. I invited this leather man to this show and I got a really good crowd and he was my first collector and on the spot, he offered me to publish my book. That was Durk Dehner, founder of the Tom Finland Foundation with Tom. So Durk Dehner and Tom of Finland formed the foundation together. Right around that time actually, late-80s. So through Durk, I eventually met Tom of Finland and I went to one of his very early shows, which was the expansion of Circus of Books in West Hollywood. Because at one time it was just the one narrow room where the videos used to be.
And they’re closing now
Yeah, they closed.
Oh, they already closed? That’s so sad.
It’s all sad, gay history. So when they expanded, they opened the large room and before they put the bookshelves in they had an exhibit. That exhibit was Tom of Finland. So he was there, and actually, to put it all into art context, I used to work for Joel Peter Witkin, the art photographer as a stylist, art director and model scout in the 80s. He was interested to go, so we went together. And he kept saying “you should buy this, you should buy this. This is going to be worth a lot of money, you should buy this” And at the time, I was so broke, I said “well I can’t buy this, I don’t have the money.” And he said “use your credit card.” And I kept going, “I don’t have a credit card.” I asked him to buy me a Tom of Finland - he didn't.
What I ended up doing was buying prints for something like ten or twenty dollars, and Tom of Finland signed the prints. And one print was a print of Tom’s drawing of Peter Berlin with another leatherman. So I eventually met Peter, so I had this signature of Peter Berlin and Tom of Finland on the same print. If I had a little bit more money I would have bought the drawing, dude, I would be retired by now.
What do you feel is the relationship of the fetishist? Is it universal? You can go down melrose and find chains and leather as fashion now. What is the relationship with fashion, and what is your relationship with fashion in reference to how you work with fetish?
Well you know I never really liked fashion to tell you the truth. When I was working in the industry I was a wardrobe and costume designer. That was my initial introduction. I was doing costume and wardrobe on stage, working with Bette Midler, Tina Turner — a lot of the mainstays of Hollywood. Then I had an interview with an agency who at the time was involved with New York fashion. At that time there was no fashion in Los Angeles in the 1980’s, it was all about New York and Europe. So through that agency which was, Chantal Cloutier, not sure if its still around but everything went through that agency.
I showed her some work that I wanted to do. They all happened to be work with Italian Magazines, Per Lui, and Lei, young Italian magazines. Ironically about a month later she said “a photographer working in my office works with Per Lui and Lei and since you showed me these magazines I think you’d be the perfect stylist to work with them” so I said great, and she introduced me to Herb Ritts who was just starting with editorial. So I just kind of fell into doing fashion editorial, but Herb Ritts didn’t approach fashion as fashion - they became this California idea of fashion. A lot more Italian editorial story, casual. Then I went into more of a theatrical aspect- interjecting something wild like (sarcastically) black jeans, black boots, and leather jackets. Or things I was doing on my own that for me represented fetish and I was met with a lot of resistance. I would sneak it in, sneaking more each time until eventually I had Veronica Webb in full rubber - Versatile Fashions From Anaheim which did all the kink- from top to bottom. It was a euphemism, sex rubber. because the people I was working with had no idea I could sneak things through - which was fun to do.
Do you pay attention to this generation, who do you think is carrying on the torch for kink and fetish, expanding on the language and embracing on it.
Matteo Carlomusto. Italian designer I think is spot on 21 century fetish. The young kids have no qualms representing full on things which would never have been the mainstream assumption. But now people anticipate it and wear it without any problems. But I think a lot of times people do not know what it is exactly that they’re wearing or if they do maybe it doesn't arouse them the way a true fetish person might be aroused.
There is no more arousing and also such a high focus on style and fashion.
That's why I don’t like fashion, it never really goes deep enough. I’m all about aesthetics and presenting myself a certain way. For me it has to be comfortable, for me I’m projecting myself a certain way. I think a lot of the mainstream anyway is label conscious and that will never be my interest. Labels and branding, who came up with that term, was probably a Kardashian and I hate that term. If I ever had to brand myself I’m sure that I just wouldn’t. I think I have always been true to what I am presenting. For example when I started to explore my photography it just ended up being fetish, just made sense. I had no interest in doing something commercial with it because I already had my career in commercial stylist - there was plenty of commercial work and I didn’t need to dive further into that realm.
But, somebody got me an interview when I was in New York with Annie Flanders, she started Details Magazine which in the 80’s was an art and fashion magazine. They were very East Village, very experimental. Nothing to do with men’s fashion. I got an interview with her and showed her a very small portfolio of my work which had BDSM and the goddess bunny, amputees and she looked at my work and she said to her secretary, “Must I be subjected to this?” and so the interview was over. During that same month I also submitted my work to Drummer Magazine, which was the granddaddy of bdsm magazines based in San Francisco. I loved it and it was what I wanted to work for. They gave Robert Mapplethorpe, his first photographic cover.
Is it still around?
No, nothing good is still around. Initially they also rejected me, opposite of Annie, they said my work was “too artsy for us”. And she was saying my work was too porno. Nobody wanted me. With Drummer Magazine I eventually became the Los Angeles photographer for them when a new art director took over and sent me a letter— “We would be honored to publish anything you offer.”
5-6 years later, Long Nguyen contacted me saying, would you like to work for Flaunt. I was shocked out of my mind, asked him if he had actually seen my work. He said yes, of course. So that was my first time doing “fashion” as a photographer. My first shoot for Flaunt was in New York and Dior Homme when Hedi Slimane first joined. So he wanted me to do that collection in bondage but he did not tell the model. So I got to break it to the model, he was a good sport.
Rick Castro | Fetish King is on view from April 6- April 27 2019 at the Tom of Finland Foundation
1421 Laveta Terrace Los Angeles