Photographer Naomi Harris (at left) was living in Miami, freelancing for the Miami Herald and New York Times, when she attended her first swing party. She was brought there by a friend she’d met at the local nude beach (“I don’t like tan lines and I don’t like bathing suits,” she says) and initially found herself horrified by the sight of frumpy attendees loading up on roast beef before heading to the backroom for an orgy. At the same time, though, she was intrigued.
The result of her curiosity is the book America Swings (Taschen, $500), which was named as one of the ten best photography books of 2009 by American Photo. The book shows a world to which few photographers have been admitted—an alternate American Heartland where the phrase “good times with good neighbors” has a very particular meaning.
Longtime American Photo contributor Michael Kaplan recently sat down (fully clothed) with Harris to find out how she photographed the world of American swingers.
AMERICAN PHOTO: What led you to immerse yourself in the swing scene?
NAOMI HARRIS: I found it funny and fascinating, and I thought that it had to be photographed. But then, soon after attending my first party, I got involved with a boyfriend and put this project on the backburner. After we broke up, though, in June of 2003, I saw something about a four-day camping and fornication festival called SwingStock. It seemed too good to be true. I rented a medium format camera—from the start, I thought of this as a big project that could be a book—and got permission to shoot the event.
AP: How did the swingers, many of whom are middle-aged and not traditionally photogenic, react when they saw you?
NH: They kept telling me to put down my camera and participate, which wasn’t bad for my ego. On the very first day I remember seeing these women who were 100 pounds overweight and having multiple orgasms. I wondered why that doesn’t happen for me.
NH: Sometimes somebody would say, “Enough with the photos!” But often I turned them on. A lot of these people are exhibitionists. So they didn’t mind. Anyone who refused to sign a model release didn’t get photographed.
AP: How did your subjects react to being presented with model releases at swing parties?
NH: A lot of them would ask, “Who’s going to see this book anyway?” [and then sign the release]. I thought that I was going to be on Oprah. I figured that a lot of people would see the book.
AP: Did you make an effort to blend in?
NH: I tried to dress to the theme. If people at the party were going nude, I went nude. Other times I dressed sexy, in sparkling boy-shorts and a bra. I feel that it’s better not to stand out like a sore thumb when you’re shooting. It makes people less likely to question what you’re doing there. I always wore sneakers, tube socks, and a tool belt [ loaded up with gear]. They all thought my tool belt was so sexy.
NH: I shot with a Contax 645. Unfortunately, that company has gone out of business, but I still use it. It’s my favorite camera. It feels like a 35mm camera, even though it is medium format. I used the Quantum Q Flash when shooting people having sex. I wanted to simply capture the sex as it was happening. For portraits, I used strobes with umbrellas and bounced the light off the ceiling for a more formal look.
AP: And now, six years later, you have a great book, with a forward by Richard Prince. How’d you hook up with Taschen?
NH: George Pitts, the former photo director of Vibe, saw the project as it progressed, and he said I should meet with the picture editor at Taschen. I only had Epson prints with me, she liked them, and asked me to leave the images for Benedict Taschen, the owner of the company. I wanted to send her higher-quality prints, but she told me not to. She said that Benedict would prefer seeing the pictures this way.
AP: Obviously, she was right. Had it been a goal of yours to have a Taschen book to your credit?
NH: I knew that no one but Taschen would show the work the way I want it to be shown. They do big books and celebrate eroticism, and I knew they would handle the subject matter respectfully. That said, though, it really wasn’t a matter of who I wanted. It was about whether or not they would want me.
AP: I notice that the swinger section on your website, is password protected. How come?
NH: It wasn’t at first. Initially, I thought people would recognize that if I can shoot swingers, who are not exactly chic and sophisticated, and make them comfortable, then I can shoot anyone. But I lost some commercial jobs as a result of those photos. There was one job that got taken away from me after I flew to the location in North Carolina. An executive saw the images on my site and became uncomfortable. It’s interesting. I think that if I shot hot, young girls, I would be like Terry Richardson. He’s toasted and hailed for doing sexual stuff. It shows the double standard of our society: Hot, young girls should have sex and the rest of us should keep it in the closet.