how 'the baroness' is reinventing erotica through the female gaze
Matthew Holroyd and Ché Zara Blomfield discuss the female gaze in modern sexuality.
Art by Penny Slinger
Bored with images catering to heterosexual masculinity dominating the erotic publishing landscape, the talented team behind Baron turned the conversation to the female gaze. Delving into how women are sexually represented and what they would want to see, they brought some esteemed creative talent along for the ride. i-D contributors Harley Weir, Eloise Parry, and Penny Slinger all feature in the new issue of Baroness, a stylish but impish tribute to feminine desire and arguably the most beautiful erotic magazine there is out there. To find out more, we gathered the magazine's founders Matthew Holroyd and Ché Zara Blomfield to discuss why Baroness' images don't court themes of domination and yet demand attention, and the problematic duality of the term "female sexuality."
What was missing from the current magazine landscape that you want to try and fill with Baroness?
MH: I rarely think about other magazines when creating a magazine, as I do not want to get too influenced. I work mainly with photography and I believe that the magazine or book is very much the ideal place to see photography so I use it as my platform; otherwise I would be a curator in a gallery. I really do believe that magazines, especially fashion magazines at the moment, are probably the most interesting places to see photography. I mean look at Baron or DIS or even Arena Homme + compared to The Photographers' Gallery, the magazines are so much more exciting and contemporary. I did look at lots of gay magazines; I revisited BUTT, Beefcake and Straight to Hell, which were so brilliant at making homoerotic imagery with humor. Yet apart from Playgirl and some great feminist publications and pornography there really hasn't been a huge amount in publishing about the male nude from other gazes in magazine format, so there felt a gap and the project was instantly attractive.
CZB: I barely look at magazines. At first I was against the idea of Baroness as I felt it would be creating a division we hoped to move on from with Baron. The same way we should move on from gendered bathrooms. Though later I was convinced Baroness would be more or less Baron Issue 4, themed with a focus towards a female gaze. Something we realized while working on the issue is super complex to illustrate, especially visually.
From inception to printed magazine, how long did the process take? When did you think of making it and what were you inspired by?
MH: It has taken a while, probably a year. There have been about ten shoots edited out from the final outcome, as they felt too close to some of the aforementioned magazines. It also took a while to find our voice, originally the plan was for it to be just about ideas on the 'female gaze' and the male nude, that changed midway through and the outcome contains different gazes and their response to the theme, so sometimes the male nude is absent. The magazine was also re-designed six times, at first we wanted the layout to look a bit like a Marian Keyes book, but the imagery was too intense for that. I also changed art director and have started working with Bill Sullivan from S U N Editions.
CZB: Ages. We cut nearly half of the content halfway through and changed the designer like Matthew said. Photography isn't my area and it was complex to get visuals that felt fitting to our concept and goals. Although it didn't make the final edit I was inspired by conversations with Ella Plevin and her interest in the cortical homunculus, a physical representation of the human body located in the brain. The feminine gaze, if there is one, seems to be much more discrete and internalized, the cortical homunculus could be a metaphor.
To what extent is Baroness a modern social commentary?
MH: Very much so, I think there hasn't really been enough cock in magazines, which seems unfair. But you see a lot of social commentary in most of the shoots. Edith Bergfors and I made a shoot about a man with two dicks. We read about this guy in the US who actually has two penises, we couldn't get him to take part, so we used some modern technology to achieve the look with a willing model. In our shoot he is the ultimate man, with two large penises. It's done like reader's wives, in a seedy hotel room with Edith playing the voyeuristic wife, snapping at her man. Photographer Eloise Parry and myself made a really funny shoot about how some straight men have big hang-ups about being too 'feminine' or being seen as 'gay', we cast straight guys, some with man boobs and dressed them up in trashy lingerie. It was a very sexy shoot! One of the models took a fancy to Eloise and showed her his prince albert, which was huge and surrounded by ginger pubes, she named him the Ginger Pig and shoved her camera at it.
CZB: My commissions to artists and writers are responses to what I feel is vital to be included. Anastasios Logothetis' work is very rare in that he, as a straight male objectifies himself to deal with sexuality and feminism; it's not a common take. The title of his work for Baroness is Every Animal is a Female Artist is taken from an exhibition title of Rosemarie Trockel. Trockel claims the way a society treats animals is a measure of its civilization. In Logothetis' work he carefully edits his naked body into images of famous works of performance art that include animals. The title by Trockel was also a provocation to Joseph Beuys' quote Every human being is an artist, which in German used the masculine word for artist. I feel Antoinette Fernandez short story/love letter is somewhat a social commentary in a way that it's quite bitchy and blunt with stereotypes and also deals head on (no pun intended) with female desire.
Why was it important for you for Baron to have a female counterpart?
MH: The initial idea wasn't so appealing. As I loved magazines like BUTT and felt that it would be a struggle to capture the male nude in a new way, that wasn't homoerotic. But once I started researching the idea, it felt so new and exciting and I loved the idea of making a character called the Baroness. The Baroness is slightly based on a character in a Jackie Collins book, with men at her disposal and also my best friend, who loves her gays, and calls them 'my boys', she is six foot and a man-eater.
CZB: I feel it was important to experiment. I think, in a way, during the process I realized why there aren't more magazines catering for female sexual desire. From working on the magazine I feel like the idea females are more mentally creative and stimulated was proven true. We lust less for images. Although, Baron never aimed to be sexy. It was always about the exploration of what was, and what wasn't provocative within the scope of pornography and art.
Do you think this is a magazine that could have existed even 10 years ago?
MH: 10 years ago in magazines it was very man-centric, it was almost as though lots of these male photographers were having midlife crisis, flashing their wobbly bits everywhere, so am sure it could have fitted in well. Although the 90s would have been a great time to have published it, there was a bit of a female revolution happening, the ladette, Samantha in Sex and the City, Ann Summers parties and the rabbit.
CZB: One predecessor could be Lisa Crystal Carver, author of Drugs Are Nice and Rollerderby Magazine. Another is Vague Paper, Matthew's previous magazine, through which we met. Maybe what I'm saying is that it did exist, albeit in different forms. What could be interesting now is that there is no longer an underground; everything is quickly swept into the mainstream.
The mainstream seems to be oddly dipping its toe into nudity and sexuality, and then quickly regressing (Kim Kardashian can be naked on the cover of GQ but a Calvin Klein image of Klara Kristin can be banned). Why do you think that is?
MH: I think some of those different reactions are partly due to photography, and that photography generally leaves the viewer to make their own analysis in most contexts. There is generally no narration, photography can be very evocative, unless it's an image that's very simple to read. An image of Kim on the cover of GQ is usually done in a very simplistic way, in most contexts, you understand that it's Kim, that she is comfortable with appearing naked not nude, and that it's a cover for GQ. But that Calvin Klein image was loaded with lots of different meanings, concerning gender binaries, other than just being an advert, and that frightens people, because they have to decide what it means, especially if it concerns social commentary. If Harley Weir had recorded narration explaining that image, I'm sure it wouldn't have caused such an uproar.
CZB: Exactly. The Kim Kardashian we are familiar with as a 'sexy' image (while I disagree), its flash photography, straight on, we're familiar with the context. It's boring and familiar. While the Klara Kristin image is dreamlike and personal. People may actually be affected by it. When we started Baron, one reason was, well "fashion is pornographic anyway." And we were surprised that we got no advertising. We were "too provocative," even for lingerie companies we approached. It all comes down to context.
How far do you think female sexuality has come in recent years?
MH: This idea of 'female sexuality' has had lots of problematic dualisms and there is obviously an entire derogatory vocabulary about constructed ideas on 'female sexuality', so I do feel it's been difficult for a lot of women to express their sexuality because of these preconceived ideas on being 'female' and 'gender roles'. But I do think this is changing with a magazine like The Baroness and photographers like Harley Weir and universities including books like The Cyborg Manifesto on their reading lists.
CZB: I agree it can be difficult to express sexuality because of constructs, and also competitiveness between females, and a comfort zone. I've been affected by comments, and peers' sexual performances (by that I mainly mean posing for Instagram), and found myself questioning the inherent power of exploiting one's own sex/uality - something I don't feel comfortable with doing publicly. Questioning whether I'm 'missing out' on the benefits of objectifying myself is sad but true. I feel no one should feel they have to perform it if they don't want to.
How did your list of (very) distinguished contributors get involved?
CZB: Usually by us asking them.
MH: We didn't get them all, I really wanted to have Marilyn Manson in the magazine. We were going to shoot him with a fake vagina, but he pulled out. We also wanted Andrew Richardson, but that didn't work out. Other than that, most were past contributors or collaborators such as Harley Weir and Neil Drabble.
When can we expect issue 2 and what else will it explore?
MHL: Issue 2 of The Baroness will be a book, a bit like what we did with Tyrone Lebon, big and stiff and a hardbound affair.
CZB: Hopefully more masculine sexuality from female perspectives. I'm still interested in exploring this subject. I feel we just got to the surface with this issue and I'm still thinking about it.
Also please add in anything you think will be interesting for readers!
MH: The Baroness is launching her debut record. We have been working with Victoria Smith, who has been a drummer for Jamie T and M.I.A on the debut song. So watch this space, we will be No. 69 in the music charts soon.
CZB: Did you know the mind was once thought to lie in the diaphragm? Also we are working on a shop for dildos. I want to commission artist made/designed dildos, strap-ons and other fun and beautiful objects.
You can buy Baroness Issue 1 here.
Text Lynette Nylander