Lee Higgs started out taking pictures of nature while on vacation, but those photos always ended up in a drawer. He wanted to be able to show people his work without being a bore, so four years ago he attended a workshop where he learned the basics of glamour photography and lighting. A few weeks later he went back to the instructor's studio and shot a woman lounging around in a tank top. Says Higgs, "I had a telephoto lens and this girl was looking right back at me, and I just fell in love with the process."
Right away he tried to make money off his newfound passion: he put an ad in the Reader in search of musicians who needed promotional photos. Almost immediately he got a response from a guy who wanted shots of his rap artist girlfriend. "He bought $500 worth of prints," Higgs says, "and I didn't get any more calls after that."
At the time he placed the ad Higgs put up a Web site and posted messages in on-line photography forums mentioning that he was looking for models. He also started freelancing for several modeling agencies, but he soon got bored. "They wanted everyone to look like the preppies I grew up with," he says. Much of his on-line correspondence was with dominatrices and women otherwise interested in the fetish scene, and he traded scans or prints of them for their time. He found that the subject matter offered him a lot of creative freedom: "What's great about the fetish set is that they don't all have to be happy or pretty. There's a wide range of emotions going on."
Six months after the initial on-line posts, he had enough work through word of mouth that he was able to quit his day job selling medical supplies and open a 3,000-square-foot studio. He still photographs most of his models there, though it's currently jam-packed with "junk, unusual furniture found on the street, weird chairs, and exam tables from a tattoo parlor that went out of business," as well as bits of costumes he's picked up around town. He says he usually suggests the poses and scenarios for the models and they bring whatever crazy thing they feel like wearing. But it's "extremely improvisational--a girl shows up and that's when I start to figure out what the hell I'm gonna do."
Last winter his photos were on the cover of Skin Two magazine, and he's had others printed in lesser-known fetish and music magazines. Recently he published Generation Fetish, an anthology of some of his favorite photos from the last three years. There are 353 pages of pierced and/or tattooed women in various stages of undress, many in leather corsets or lacy lingerie, some tied up or handcuffed. About a third of the photos depict one woman coercing another into a sex act. Some are coy, such as the one of two models with braided pigtails wearing white vintage granny lingerie, hanging out in front of a pay phone. Some are more disturbing: one model wears 21 clothespins on each breast, nipple clamps, a ball gag, and a fishnet hood; another stands naked except for a red hangman's hood, ankles cuffed together and arms bound behind her back, with a noose around her neck. But even if his subject matter were different, Higgs's photos would still be eerie. Models are shot to appear doll-like, with heads too big for their bodies, and the film is cross processed to produce chalk white complexions, deeply saturated reds, and grayish yellows.
Higgs says plenty of people get bent out of shape over his work, even though his models' frank expressions make their willingness to cooperate clear. He frequently gets incensed E-mail from feminists who find his work offensive, and local galleries turn him away, advising him to go to New York. "To tie a girl up and tell her to do this and do that, there's a definite control-submission power dynamic," he says. "Images of one person in pain while the other remains indifferent may make some people nervous, but it's a real-life everyday situation. My photography is just a way of expressing this."
He never thought he'd end up making a living photographing bound and gagged half-naked women, but Higgs says he's "very much a family man. My nights and weekends are spent home with my wife and three kids. I sometimes feel like I'm living a double life, but a professional photographer friend told my wife on our wedding day that the guys who make it in this business are the ones who go home at night."
At 7 PM on Saturday at Quimby's Bookstore, Higgs will show slides of outtakes from his book, which he claims is "pretty contained and geared toward a large selling. At Quimby's I have the opportunity to show whatever I want--and I've got some pretty freaky stuff." Quimby's is located at 1854 W. North; call 773-342-0910 for more information. Also, eight of Higgs's photos are on display through October 19 at Echo Gallery, 1529 W. Chicago, 312-666-0868. Hours are by appointment only.