Picture This

I’m not precisely a big shot even now, although I’ve begun to make myself a reputation locally, but I do have another reputation, under another name, for some of the other things I’ve shot. I work with two identities: there’s F L Milton (Photography), who does weddings, baby pictures, local calendars and the like, and there’s FeLine, who takes pictures of the sort that your mother hopes you aren’t searching for on the internet. Except that you are, or you wouldn’t be here. We’ll talk about that later. But all this happened in the days when I was merely a baby instamatic.

I had borrowed to the full extent of my capacity to lie to the bank manager, to fund the shop, the van, the bike and the equipment. I needed work, and I needed lots of it, and I needed it right now. There wasn’t another photographer in the town, so I was collecting all the weddings and the like, but although they pay reasonably well, they don’t pay fast. Well, think about it. You get married on the first and I take sixty pictures, and then you go to Barbados for three weeks, and when you come home you spend a fortnight looking at the pictures and showing them to your family and deciding which ones you want, and you tell me and it takes me another week to print them and fix them in that vulgar leather-bound album, and then you wait another fortnight before you pay the bill. That’s two months in which I have to pay my mortgage. And nobody very much gets married between November and March, so I needed other work.

Yes, like the rest of the world, I started off with high moral ideals. I wasn’t doing ‘glamour’ photography. It’s demeaning and vulgar and all the rest of it. The trouble is, you can’t eat ideals, nor can you pay the bills with them. And glamour work was what I was offered. Some of the girls were apparently happier working with a female photographer than a male one. (Most of them don’t give a solitary damn; a few of the men went all coy and twitchy about waving their bits around for a woman with a camera, but most of them didn’t care either.) Anyway, the people who organise such things like to have a stable of both male and female photographers, and after the third red phone bill, that stable included me.

But you can have no idea how dull it is. It is boring work. I did three months of pictures of pouty singles, male and female, and thought I would die of boredom. Then I did a month of vanilla couples, and it damn near put me off sex for life. And yes, I have met the men with the improbable names and the even less likely attributes, and I have yet to encounter one I liked. Pay attention, guys! It’s not enough! And then I was asked how I felt about ‘something a little more specialised’ and I did several weeks of gay and lesbian shots. And frankly that was dull too, but at least as a straight woman I was spared the subjects hitting on me. It didn’t pay well, but it paid reasonably promptly, and the bank manager backed off a little. I didn’t like the work particularly, but I did it to the best of my ability.

And then I was asked again how I felt about ‘specialised’ work. I admit, I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t want to do it. I had already made it plain what I didn’t do: no children (or adults looking like children), no animals, and nothing that I think of as ‘gynaecological shots’. You know, one knee over here and one knee over there and the camera so close that the shutter becomes an alternative to waxing.

“No, no. Nothing like that,” said Freddy. “Just play.”

“What sort of play, Freddy?”

“A little S & M? What about bondage? How do you feel about that?”

“What’s it for?  Just pictures, or text as well?”

“Either. Do us some good pictures, sweetie, and we’ll add text.”

“No. I don’t do it that way round. Give me text and I’ll add pictures, but I’m not giving permission for my pictures to be attached to text without seeing the words first. There’s some nasty stuff going round and I won’t be part of it.”

“Oooh, darling, are you a player, then?”

“No, I’m bloody not. But I’m not completely stupid, either. I buy a copy of whatever my pictures are appearing in and I make sure that it’s not including anything that gives me the yips. You’re OK, Freddy. I haven’t found anything I’ve done for you turning up in anything really nasty. But I’m not doing any more work for. . .” and I named a Name.

“Sweetie! Honey! If you aren’t working for him, you’ll starve.”

“I won’t. Freddy, what’s with the ‘sweetie, honey’ stuff?”

“Sorry, darling, it’s just the way I am.”

“Freddy, I looked you up. You’re a married man with three children.”

He laughed. “It’s just a habit. I started off with straight stuff, and the manner stopped the girls trying to hit on me for more work. Then I came over to doing these, and the manner had stuck.”

“Don’t the boys hit on you for more work?”

“Occasionally, yes, but I don’t have any trouble refusing them. Get to the point, Fran. Are you going to do some shoots for me? Nothing nasty, if you don’t want to. A little B and D.”

“Yes, all right, but nothing too. . . detailed.”

“Straight or gay?”

“Don’t care. I’m not going to take part, after all.”

He called me the next week and sent over a short story, and I read it through and agreed to illustrate it. It wasn’t nasty, just ungrammatical, and that wasn’t my problem, so I went over to the studio and was introduced to Con and Curt. As they say, all the handsome men are gay. . . I could really have gone for Con. Tall, and broad in the shoulder, and narrow in the hip. An exceedingly sexy bum (and by that point in my career I had seen enough naked behinds that I felt qualified to offer an opinion). Legs that went up an unbelievably long way. Delicate features, smooth dark hair, huge brown eyes, and not too young. And gay as bedamned, or he wouldn’t have been there. Pity.

Curt, on the other hand, had a face like a Botticelli angel, and an unbelievably foul mouth. He had a most peculiar accent: he had put an unconvincing American overlay onto pure Romford, and he did that irritating thing of adding “know what I mean” to the end of every phrase, which always induces in me the deep desire to say “no, I don’t”. I was prepared to bet that Curt wasn’t his original name. He was a Kevin or a Gary if I had ever seen one. Very, very pretty, another neat bum. He was small – no more than five foot six, I would have said, and slight with it, and his manner brought the hackles up on my neck within minutes. He was the sort of man who – I was going to say, who gives gay men a bad name, but actually, who gives people a bad name. He struck me almost instantly as being a complete waste of good breathing space. Look, total queen doesn’t bother me, but bad-mannered brat does. And obviously, in his eyes, the photographer came slightly lower in the animal kingdom than pond slime. By the end of the first hour, I was aware that he despised me for being female, for being straight, for being a photographer, for being single, for being there, for having bad taste in clothes, for not wearing make-up to work, for having a motorbike rather than a car, for original sin (probably). I despised him for being Curt.

Freddy kept the peace as best he could. He had obviously worked with Curt before, because the argument about his eyeliner clearly picked up this time where it had left off the time before. “I don’t care if everybody’s wearing it, Curt. I need you to look like total innocence, and green eyeliner doesn’t help. Go and wash your face, please.”

Sulk. Flounce. Bridle. And a mouthful of profanity about Freddy.

“Just do it, Curt. We can’t start until you do.”

He came back with a sulky expression and a clean face (and frankly, looked ten years younger, but that wasn’t my concern so I said nothing). Con lounged around looking elegant, while Freddy read through his paperwork and muttered to himself. Then he looked up. “Right. We’re Big Bad Biker and College Innocent, today. I’ve got leathers for you, Con. Curt, put a tie on, and a long sleeved shirt.”

I didn’t listen to the argument about the tie – Freddy was explaining in calm but slightly exasperated tones that the tie was going to be needed later to bind Curt’s wrists, and Curt was having a tantrum about the uncoolth of it. I was too busy trying not to stare at Con. Look, the people who display their shapes in this sort of photo don’t tend to be shy about their bodies – they don’t go to undress in the other room. So Con had quite cheerfully stripped off his shirt and his jeans (and that, thank you very much, was all, apart from his shoes, that he had been wearing) and was working his way into a set of leathers, the trousers of which were at least one size too small for him. Don’t STARE, Fran. Don’t offer to help. He kicks with the other foot. Oh, God, what a waste! The rear view (which is, frankly, almost always better than the full frontal anyway) was really very. . . Don’t stare. Sort out the cameras.

He pulled on a white T-shirt, and tucked it in tightly and I thought “nice abs”, and then he dragged the jacket over the top and grinned at me. “Will I do?”

“How would I know? You would do for a straight woman, but I don’t know your market.”

“I’m not sure it’s that different, to tell the truth. Curt! Stop being such a brat to Freddy and come here and let’s get started. You’re supposed to be a brat to me, remember?”

Well, obviously he did remember, because he was. And a brat to me, and a brat to Freddy. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone so patently in need of a spanking. This wasn’t yesterday, remember, nor even the day before: this was before digital cameras were commonplace, and I was working with a ‘real’ point-and-press-the-button camera, which frankly requires much more skill. Oh, sure, I could, and did, manipulate the images, but not as easily, and not to anything like the same extent. These days, if you want a picture of just about anything, it can be arranged via the computer. You want a famous footballer dressed as a nun? No problem. The latest Hollywood babe turned into a man? Easy. But these were real photographs on real film.

The only question was about colour. Curt was due to be given a red behind by Con over the course of about four magazine pages. Now, I learned, between this shoot and the next few that I did, that there were those models who did, and those who did not. There was a regular correspondence in the letters pages of the magazines about whether a photographed red bottom was genuine or touched – and as you would expect, the answer was ‘either or both’. Some of the models were purely models, and I added colour afterwards. Some were players and Freddy’s job was at least in part to keep them leashed until I got some decent ‘pink’ shots before they all got carried away and we moved into the realms of scarlet and crimson.

Curt was a player. He was quite ready and willing to be spanked by Con. The trouble was, the thing he wasn’t was a model. I’ve met lots of them over the years, from catalogue stuff to soft porn, and most of them are reasonably professional about their work. Curt was the exception. Looking back on it, what he really wanted was a club scene where he could have his little rear warmed in front of a large audience. He would have loved that, I’m sure. As it was, he got a temporary Top who didn’t like him much (that came over fairly early on), and an audience composed of Freddy and me, neither of us, from his point of view, making the right noises. We simply weren’t impressed. Freddy kept wanting bits done again, and I kept wanting Con to stop so that I could get another shot. Nowadays, at this much of a remove, I can almost find it in myself to be sorry for him. He wanted a scene, and he wasn’t getting one.

At the time, though, I had no sympathy for him at all. Everybody but Curt wanted to get this thing done: Con and I, who were on piece rates, wanted to be paid as much as possible for as short a time as possible, and Freddy had taken the studio by the hour and wanted to get out before the profits of the shoot, never large, were completely overtaken by the costs. Con clearly knew what he was about. He knew when to look knowingly at the camera and when to ignore it. He heaved Curt about like so much luggage, presenting him to me at a variety of angles. He spanked him sharply enough to give me a variety of interesting shots, but not so hard that Curt bruised or couldn’t take any more. And he too became steadily more and more exasperated with the constant flow of complaint, argument, bitching, and plain profanity accompanying equally constant movement. I couldn’t get a clear shot of anything because Curt fidgeted so much.

When I had been forced to reload the camera for the third time, I lost my temper. Remember, the poor photographer is self employed: my cameras belong to me and I provide all my own consumables, including film. I had opened another red bill that morning, and I was sickeningly aware that wasted film brought me no income, only expenditure. I managed two more shots, while Curt wiggled and complained, and then I Spoke. I expressed myself fairly sharply on the subject of unprofessional behaviour, and there was a moment’s deadly silence before Freddy called for a break and coffee all round, while Curt made sotto voce remarks about me. Honestly, and they say women can bitch!

We had another go afterwards, and this time Curt was not just being generally irritating but specifically inflammatory. Previously, most of the act had been aimed at Con, presumably in the hope of making Con act the scene for real. Now it was aimed at me, just to see if I would fall off my trolley. And in the end, obligingly, I did.

I took yet another shot which I knew would be blurred because Con had moved, and I moved myself. I managed to put the camera down, rather than dropping it (thank God: I couldn’t have afforded to replace it), and I went across the studio like a viper, and snatched Curt off Con’s knee. Con gave a little yelp of surprise, and Curt a louder one, as I hauled him to his feet. Remember, I said he was small, and I am not: also, the motorbike tends to make me build up bulk in the shoulder. I topped him by about three inches, and probably twenty pounds, and he had by this point lost his shoes, so when I heaved him up by the front of his shirt, his feet barely touched the floor.

“Listen to me, mister. You may be here because you like having a hot bottom. The rest of us are here to earn our livings. Now let’s get something clear in that tiny and inadequate space you call your mind. If we haven’t finished this shoot, all of it, in half an hour, then you will be going over my knee. And believe me, you will not enjoy the experience. You will find that a straight woman in a temper spanks much, much harder than a gay man, and with much less consideration for your dignity. Am I using any words you don’t understand?”

I dropped him, and he staggered back against Con, who was giving me a look of absolute fascination.

“You wouldn’t dare!”

A lot of men have said that to me since, but I think he was the first.

“I would dare. And the strap on this camera is leather, and it’s removable, so unless you want to find out what it feels like laid across your arse, I suggest that you start behaving like a professional model and not like some bolshy little princess.”

We didn’t manage half an hour, because Curt burst into tears and Freddy had to take him out for five minutes to calm down, but we managed three-quarters of an hour and some excellent shots. Every time I came close with the camera, Curt put on an expression of such mingled fear and resentment that the whole set of pictures later had a much greater air of reality than is usual in such things. As soon as we were finished, he was changed and out of there, before I had any chance to mend fences with him.

Con peeled off the jacket and shirt to put on his own clothes, while I was packing up the camera. I looked up just in time to see him trying to get the trousers off.

“Hell and damnation! I’ll never walk again. Freddy, next time, can I have some clothes that don’t cut off my circulation?”

Dear God, he was just standing there rubbing the blood flow back into his thighs. I wanted to do that! Don’t STARE, Fran, he isn’t interested, he looks the other way. . .

He put his jeans on again (shame. . . I mean, thank God), and turned to me.

“Fran, have you got a business card or anything? I’ve enjoyed working with you, even if Curt didn’t, and. . . well, sometimes we get asked if we have a photographer of preference. If these come out well, I’d like to do some more.”

I grinned at him stupidly and gave him my card. They were going to come out well, I was sure of that, and more work was always desirable, but I wasn’t sure that Con was someone with whom I could comfortably spend too much time. Not without some very disturbed nights, and possibly a lot of batteries.

My temperature had come down a little by the next time we worked together, and in fact we did four or five photoshoots with Con and various skinny little things (but not Curt, who had apparently announced that given a choice between posing for me, and root canal work without an anaesthetic, he would be at the dentist). On the final occasion, he (Con, not Curt) asked me out for a drink, and later we went for a meal. He was good company, with a wicked sense of humour, and we swapped stories about disastrous shoots, and scandal about the people who paid our wages. He walked me back to my door, and then he caught me absolutely on the hop: he kissed me. And not a friendly, ‘haven’t we been having fun’ kiss, either. He kissed me like any other man at the end of the evening who is rather hoping that you will invite him up for coffee and a couple of hours of this and that.

I nearly screamed. The poor man must have been utterly bewildered – I was giving him both the serious come-on and the what-the-hell, and he dropped his hands from my face and backed away, apologising frantically.

“Sorry, I’m sorry, Fran, I’m sorry, I thought you wanted me to. I’m sorry.”

“Yes, but aren’t you. . . I thought you were. . . Don’t you. . .”

My nouns and adjectives had deserted me; my vocabulary was all to pieces. The word ‘gay’ was gone, but at least I had enough self-possession to avoid the words that did arrive, none of which was flattering.

“Don’t I what?”

“I thought you. . . men.”

“Gay, you mean? No, I’m bi. Didn’t you know? Oh, God, Fran, I’m sorry, I must have frightened you half to death! It’s just that you – well, I thought you knew.”

“I – no. I didn’t know. I’ve always seen you with men, you see, and I suppose it never occurred to me that you...”

“No, well, I only top with men. I’d rather be topped by a woman.”

Somehow that didn’t help. My brain hurt. Con? Con, a Bottom? I gawped at him.

“Oh, fuck. I’ve blown this, haven’t I? I’m really sorry. I thought you knew I was bi, and well, I was rather hoping that you might like to top a little tonight.”

O.K. Calm down, Fran. He isn’t using any words you don’t know. This is Con. He is bisexual. He bottoms for women. He wants to –

“I might what?”

He looked at me blankly for a moment, and then he began to blush until he was as red as I was. “You aren’t a Top.”

I shook my head.

He leaned past me and rested his head against the wall. “Fran, can I just die here? Step over my body on your way to work. Only, please, please, please don’t ever tell anybody about this.”

“Like I’m going to tell everybody that I can’t distinguish a man who fancies me from a man who only fancies other men?”

“It’s just that I was so sure! The way you spoke to Curt! Oh, not the actual threats: he’d never think of going with a woman, he likes big solid men with – well, actually, I think he likes rough trade, and he’s going to come unstuck one day over it - but just the way you spoke, and the way you glared, and the way you loomed over him -  your whole attitude – you had Top written all over you.”

I gulped. “Con, I’ve never played. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of how to go about it.”

There was a silence. I could hear what I had just said: not ‘I wouldn’t want to’, but ‘I wouldn’t know how to’.

“I could teach you.”

It was the softest ever whisper. I could pretend I had never heard it. I could turn to my own door, and in a month Con and I would have made this into the sort of story that each of us would tell against ourselves, for the amusement of our friends. Because Fran wasn’t a Top. Fran didn’t play. Fran didn’t do that sort of thing. I’ve heard since that Bottoms get the same sort of feeling the first time – a panicky top-of-the-roller-coaster sensation, a feeling that one step forward will tip you into an inevitable and inescapable ride that you aren’t at all sure you want. I’m sure a lot of them peer over the edge and then back away and try never to think about it again, or wonder for years if they made the right decision. This Top took a deep breath, and rather to her own surprise, said faintly, “Teach me.”

Listen, I’ve had my share of lovers since then, and I’ve topped both men who knew what they wanted and a few who came to it new, and I just love the novices. And you can chalk that up to Con’s score. If I know anything about drawing them in gently, about pushing them just as far as they think they want to go, and one tiny step more, about recognising the step they really aren’t ready to take, and not making them go on, put it down to Con. If my Bottoms feel safe with me, or no more unsafe than gives them a buzz, the credit is Con’s. I hope he’s proud of me. He taught me everything. That first night, we barely touched. We sat together on my sofa in the dark, with him behind me holding me against his chest so that neither of us had to look at the other, and he talked. He told me what he liked. He told me what he didn’t like. What he wanted to be ordered to do. What he wanted to happen when he did, or didn’t, do it. What he did when he topped other men. What they liked, and disliked, and claimed to dislike but came back for. He told me the Words – the Words that press the buttons. Why do I say, “I’m going to smack your bottom until you can’t sit down”? Because it works. It’s clichéd, yes, but it works. Straight through to the hindbrain.

Then, a day or so later, we began to play, and Con taught me how to recognise what I was seeing. Do you know why Tops all speak in that supercilious drawl? It’s so that we can keep our brains running ahead of our tongues, so that if we see from your response that the script needs changing, we can change it on the fly. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the Top is rarely running the scene. I may have the first line, to get the script moving, but after that, all the dialogue is driven by the Bottom, although if I’m doing it right, he won’t know that.

It took him a month to train me, and then he and I had a relationship that – well, that we couldn’t sustain. He wanted to be topped, and I topped him, but it made me feel the way I feel about Grand Opera: I just can’t manage the necessary suspension of disbelief. I think he felt the same. We were both always aware of what had gone before – I could feel him thinking “I taught her to do that”, or “she dreamed that one up for herself”, and, well, it just didn’t work. We parted on good terms, though, and I still see him occasionally at shoots. We do better when I think of him as another Top, not as a Bottom, and each of us has passed on to the other ideas for scenes, or dialogue, or implements. Whatever.

But we’ve moved on. The rules are different nowadays, too. Con taught me about using safe words, but the secondary word (the one that means “slow down” or “stop doing that particular thing but don’t stop altogether”) came later. The whole thing is less S & M than it used to be, and more discipline based. I like that better too. So do you, or you wouldn’t be here.

Good, isn’t it?

Idris the Dragon

Click on Idris the Dragon to go back

© , 2005