Slava Mogutin is a sexy motherfucker. And I don’t just say that because I have a fetish for Russian bad boys. The Siberian-born Mogutin is somewhat of a bad boy: first Russian dissident to be granted political asylum in the United States as a result of queer activism; first Russian photographer to smash American conventions by shooting photos for both gay porn rags like Honcho and Inches and high-brow publications like the New York Times, Visionaire, and ArtUS; first Russian writer to go from writing seven books, to acting in gay porn films, to being an international art star. But his sex appeal doesn’t exist solely in his bad-boyness—there’s something much more primal in Mogutin. There’s a raw and gritty brilliance that shines brightly in everything he creates. His second photography book, about the disappearing New York City go-go-boy scene, is just another example of how Mogutin turns sex into art and art into sex.
In Bruce Benderson’s essay “Love Is Not for Sale,” he describes NYC Go-Go as “an expression of the indomitable glory of desire, even as it learns to identify itself with exploitation.” How do you define exploitation?
The New York go-go scene is a small model of a hypercapitalist consumerist society where anything or anyone can be exploited and turned into a product. And my book is a social study of this scene. It has just as much to do with body politics as with the real economic situation at this time and place—where desire and despair, money and poverty, sex and frustration can be all jammed into a tiny bar. It is truly a fascinating, grotesque scene with lots of colorful and powerful characters!
What do you think the difference is between pornography and art—between XXX photos in the average whack mag and XXX photos that might actually make it onto an art-gallery wall?
Sometimes the difference is in the angle, sometimes it’s in the whole approach. These days, the line between art and porn is wearing very thin—and porn, art, and fashion often happily mix. From my personal experience, pornography is a far more conventional and conservative genre than “fine art.” I used to shoot for porn magazines like Honcho, Inches, and Playgirl, and my editors would always complain that I never had enough close-up dick shots from below. And those are the money shots, the golden standard of the industry! I felt like I was disqualified from porn but, nevertheless, I think of it as a memorable and productive experience. Ironically, some of my photos that used to be considered too “hardcore” for porn magazines later made their way onto the walls of some galleries and museums and were published in Lost Boys.
You’ve been writing since you were a teenager—when did you first pick up a camera?
I’ve been taking pictures my whole life, first with my father’s old Soviet Zenit camera, then with different point-and-shoots. I had a darkroom set up in our bathroom so I could print my own photographs. As a teenager in Moscow, I used to take pictures at rock concerts and I photographed many underground Russian bands. Then I started photographing all the people I interviewed throughout my journalistic career: Allen Ginsberg, Dennis Cooper, Joe Dallesandro, Gus Van Sant, François Ozon, Charlotte Rampling… But I didn’t start thinking of photography as my language until 1998 or 1999 when I finally had enough confidence to start publishing and exhibiting my work.
As a photographer, I hate being on the other side of the lens; I feel weirdly vulnerable having my picture taken. You’ve not only modeled, you starred in Bruce LaBruce’s Skin Flick—do you think there’s something valuable in being comfortable on both sides of the camera?
I learned a lot from working with people like Bruce LaBruce and Terry Richardson. I learned that you don’t need an expensive studio setup or professional equipment in order to take a beautiful, engaging image. You don’t need a crew of 20 people on a set and another 20 behind the set. In fact, in most cases you don’t even need a set! I still prefer to work without any assistants, one on one with my subjects.
Back to New York—what was it like walking into clubs like the Cock or Mr. Black for the first time?
My boyfriend, Brian, used to work as a go-go dancer and bartender in downtown gay bars like Boysroom, the Cock, and Mr. Black. And I got to meet all the other go-go boys through him. So I would just go say hi to Brian and take pictures of him and his friends. I never treated this project as an assignment or a job. It was all very casual. Now that Brian doesn’t work in bars anymore and most of those places are already gone, we can both look back at that chapter of our lives just flipping through the pages of my book.
How damaging do you think Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Quality of Life” campaign has been to the nightlife scene? Do you see it getting worse?
The infamous Quality of Life campaign was essentially a war on New York nightlife—something that this city was always famous for. And it wasn’t just damaging; it was devastating. All the best clubs, gay bars, porn theaters, sex and strip clubs were shut down—the whole city was sanitized and castrated. And this war continues under our current billionaire mayor. All the places documented in NYC Go-Go, with the exception of the Cock, were shut down before the book was even released. I think New York gay nightlife is at its lowest point now. It’s time for us to elect a gay mayor, like in Berlin or Paris!
It’s Gay Pride week here. How do you perceive the way Americans celebrate pride? Do you think these celebrations are doing anything to actually improve or change the political landscape here in the U.S.? What about gay marriage—do you feel strongly either way?
Well, I definitely think that the American gay movement is far behind most civilized European countries in terms of real political rights and freedoms. All these parades have more to do with consumerism than political activism. I do feel strongly about gay marriage. I believe I should be able to marry my American boyfriend of four years and finally get my American citizenship after 13 years of living in this country.
If you could collaborate on an art project with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be?
I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with a lot of great living artists such as Brian Kenny, Gio Black Peter, Bruce LaBruce, and Christophe Chemin. But if I had to choose to collaborate with the dead ones, my list would be pretty long: Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, David Wojnarowicz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jack Smith—to name just a few.
In both your photography books, Lost Boys and now NYC Go-Go, you find a gritty and raw sexuality in the subject of almost every photo. And in the bio on your website you describe yourself as a “porno activist,” “homo terrorist,” and “propagandist of brutal violence, psychic pathology, and sexual perversions.” Does anything even shock you anymore?
I just took all the things I’ve been accused of and mixed them together, kind of turned all those clichés and labels inside out. For me it’s not about shocking anyone, but rather resisting taking on any kind of image or persona projected on me. I am what you want to make of me, but I’m neither! I do like it when my work is being called raw and gritty though. It’s very sweet of you!