New York City native Rob Zukowski knows a thing or two about photographing the male nude. There’s more to Mr. Z.’s artistic vision, however, than just naked masculine flesh on display. When it comes to his erotic photography, this busy man-about-town is equally as interested in the attitude and personality that lies beneath the surface of the skin. That said, there is plenty to…ahem, arouse your interests in Zukowski’s photography. The men he uses in his artwork encompass a wide range of ages and body types, and the moods of his portraits range from boyishly playful to provocatively pensive. The young artist admits that he has a fondness for guys with tattoos and piercings, and he apparently likes to adorn them with S&M- themed gear. He also seeks out subjects that have unique attributes– massive feet, scars, big ears, or unusual expressions. Regardless of the individual men in his photography, the end results are pretty astonishing. Rob Zukowski’s work is quietly intimate yet explosively sexual at the same time. Here’s an artist with a very clear-eyed vision of what he wants… and, as he tells me, Zukowski gets very intensely and personally involved in every session to get that perfect shot. Rob Z’s artistic intentions may be sharp and focused, but the underlying results capture a full spectrum of thoughts and emotions in his models. Looking at his portraits, the viewer can’t help but wonder what is going through his subjects’ minds. Zukowski is currently working on several different ongoing projects. One of them, “Self-Gratification” (nicknamed “the masturbation series”), captures the facial expressions and body language of men who are ready to climax after self-pleasuring themselves for (get ready!) an hour. Another, “The Masculinity Project”, is an artistic display which helps to answer the question “What makes a man a man?” and explores the ever-evolving definition of “masculinity”. The series uses both biological men as well as F-to-M transsexuals. This bold project is scheduled to be on display at New York City‘s LGBT Center in September 2011. Rob Zukowski’s work can also be seen at the upcoming art show “Forbidden Pleasures”, a one-night exhibition of male erotic artwork at The Center on June 23rd. The event will also feature artwork by Rob Ordonez, Mark Krieger, Thomas Evans, Ves Pitts, and Richard Meyers. “Forbidden Pleasures” is a benefit for The Men’s Sexual Health Project (M*SHP) to further the fight against HIV/AIDS. The charismatic Zukowski and I met at a West Village Starbucks to discuss his artistic vision and his upcoming projects:
JR: Hi Rob! Thanks so much for meeting me! So, a lot of artists have their own unique take when photographing the male nude. They have a vision about what they want to see and what they want to convey to the viewer. When you shoot, what kind of “vibe” or “feeling” are you going for?
RZ: It depends on the project. If I am doing something that is simply body-focused because it’s about the classic male nude, then the first thing that I look for is simply what the body looks like: the arms, the pecs, the legs… But basically, my work is probably more about the expressions and the attitudes. It’s the reactions versus the actions. So, I talk to the models first. If you can’t have a conversation with me about what turns you on, what you like about your body, what gets you hot, or about the work you‘ve done before… If all you can do is come in and pose and look pretty, then it’s probably not going to work. I need more than that! I look more for personality than body. Face is important, and body is important. These are all considerations. But for the most part, I’ll pick a personality over a body… because, at least then, I know that I am going to get the expressions that I want. So, for me, the “vibe” has to be what it’s all about: what their personality is, and how they express themselves. That’s what I look for more than anything else!
JR: Wow! I guess personality is just as important as what they look like on the surface, huh?!
RZ: Yes. You can get this really great guy who knows how to pose and has got this amazing body, but… well, for example, I’ve done this series that involved guys in some very light bondage, where the camera is set up and I’m basically yanking on a leash while they are in a collar. If all you know how to do is just stand there and smile, then that’s not going to work for a shot like that. If I am doing the masturbation series and all you know how to do is pose and look at the camera and not give me what you’re really going through after 60 minutes of masturbation, then that’s not going to work either.
JR: Did you say “60 minutes of masturbation”?! Whoa… I guess I understand: you wanna build up the intensity!
RZ: Yeah. I am looking to shoot couples as well, not just with masturbation but in terms of different sexualities too. That’s what I am hoping to get at the club Paddles for a photography shoot. I’d like to get a variety of different guys together to do an assortment of different things, while I can shoot their facial expressions. I have even done series– these haven’t been put up yet– where the models’ hands are tied behind their backs and… let’s just say I have a lot of control over what their expressions are.
JR: A lot of guys, I’ve noticed get almost something of a “painful” look on their face when they are cumming or when they are close. It sometimes make you want to ask, “Are you OK? Is this good? Are you enjoying this?” And then you learn that the face just naturally contorts and twists in all kinds of shapes during sex.
RZ: There have been some pictures from that series where I’m like, “OK, these pictures will never see the light of day!” Some of the “pained” look that you speak of won’t work… but once I know that the model is getting close, I put my finger on the button and keep clicking and clicking and clicking, and I will take like 100 or so pictures just during that minute, to capture every possible move and every possible expression that they could possibly make. Then of course, the real work starts because I have to go through 1000 photos, but it’s all good stuff!
JR: Do you have a hard time finding models who are willing to pose in “the altogether“?
RZ: I used to use the Craigslist Adult Gigs section all the time, and then of course that’s gone now. I’ve tried posting in the Talents section. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. But between Model Mayhem and 2K Models, and finding people on Facebook and different places, it’s not too hard. It depends on the project. The more sexual the project is, the harder it is to find a model. If it’s just, “We’ll take pictures of your feet or your armpits or your nipples” or just standard body shots, then it’s easy to get. But when you approach somebody and say, “I want you to show up with your partner and I want you two to have sex while I take pictures of your expressions!”, then it’s a little harder to cast.
JR: No doubt! You might even get one partner who is willing to do it, but the other one isn’t!
RZ: Yeah. The more wild the project, the harder it is to find the models. But, you keep trying.
JR: What was your most unusual experience during a photo shoot? Did you ever have anyone walk out, or go crazy, or did you ever have to just throw someone out?
RZ: There have been a few guys who I have had to ask to leave. I am hardcore when it comes to, “Do not show up drunk. Do not show up high.” I will not work with you. For one, I think it’s a hindrance on their abilities for whatever it is you are doing. But also, it’s also for legal purposes. I don’t need you to come in where I am working and falling down because you’re all fucked up, and then suing me because hit your head on my file cabinet. I have made a few people leave shoots for stuff like that. I can’t work that way. The one time that I actually got “involved” in one of the shoots was with a couple, and they were doing an assortment of different things to get the expressions. I’m getting closer and closer, and taking pictures and taking pictures, and before I know it, somebody’s hand is between my legs, and I’m just thinking in my head, “OK, This is highly unprofessional!” and I am losing focus… but at some point I just put the camera down, and (Laughs) I’m like, “I’m just going to run with this!”
JR: (Laughs) Wow! That sounds hot… like a porn movie come to life! Now, a lot of people would think that an erotic shoot is always hot and sexy for the photographer. I always imagined that it would be also, but as a lot of other photographers have pointed out, it’s hard work too. It can’t be easy to have to twist and turn and get yourself into all these different positions, just to get that perfect shot…
RZ: For the masturbation portraits, I DO tend to get turned on, because there is no twisting and turning involved. They are literally sitting across from me and I’m in a chair, so I am just using the lens to focus in and out, and turning the camera from side to side. There’s no real jumping up and down, or hovering over them. So in those situations, it gets erotic. But for the most part, when I am having to put oil on you, or putting glitter on you, or shaving this, or trimming that, or adjusting your junk so that it’s laying the right way on your thigh, it’s work!
JR: It only LOOKS easy, I would imagine! For that hot photo that you see in the magazine or hanging on the wall of a gallery, there were probably hours of work involved!
RZ: It’s a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it. Just to get the dick to lay the right way on the thigh. Let’s face it: They can be hard to work with! You just want it to stay in the right place, and then as soon as you take your hand away, it flops right down again. You’re like, “Any minute now I’m going to tape it!” And I HAVE done that on occasion! I’ve used peanut butter before. Peanut butter sticks really, really well! And, it’s usually close to flesh tones.
RZ: I have done them, but an erection is just another erection. There’s a whole phallic series on my website, but they are all flaccid. I don’t mind erection shots, but– it’s like, I don’t know… what everybody else does. You know what I mean? I’m big on the personality and the attitude, and I can only get so much personality and attitude from penis! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Good point! So, is there an artist who has been an inspiration to you or an influence on you?
RZ: I always liked Mapplethorpe. I used to look at Herb Ritts back in the ’80’s. His work was always so dirty and so gritty. It was a little “standard”: a really buff guy was carrying chains and a tire… but I liked the dirty aspect. It wasn’t “pretty” or “clean”. One photographer who has done very well, and her work is great, is Annie Leibovitz. I kind of consider myself the “anti-Annie” (laughs) because, her photographs are beautiful. They are wonderfully composed. They are well-lit. But it’s like, “Oh, look: Mick Jagger’s lips. Cyndi Lauper singing”. There’s nothing unexpected. They are glamour shots. And I don’t like the standard, expected shot. I want something a little bit more unexpected: the look you weren’t expecting to get… the pose that was completely unintentional. My intention is to capture the unintentional a lot of the time. My shoots are a “fucking shit show”! I am constantly adjusting the lights, constantly moving the background, getting up on ladders and getting down on my knees, putting the model up on a table and constantly moving around to get different angles… I know what I want to get, I just don’t know how I’m going to get it! The whole thing is just a process, and that’s part of what I find exciting about it. I don’t want to sit there and spend an hour on the set and an hour on the lights to get the perfect pose and the perfect angles. That may be a great way of doing things, if that’s what your work is. I don’t do it that way. I like different. I like “unexpected”. I have an idea of what it should look like and .what the mood should be, but I don’t want to plan it out. I want to work for it in the moment. I’ll look at some of these guys and I’ll be like, “OK, you have this very innocent look about you. I want to catch that, but I want to catch it with a leather collar around your neck.“ I have an idea about what I want the photo to say, but I will try all these different ideas to make it say it… and you get the most unexpected shots that way. I do standard headshots and commercial work and stock and all that kind of stuff. I have a whole other photography business that focuses on that. When I do my erotic work, which is more artistic for me, it’s like, “I don’t want to plan it out!” The models get more into it this way too. I want them to get excited and to get more into it. You get more personality that way!
JR: Wow! So, is there a particular personality or celebrity who you’d love to shoot?
RZ: There are a lot of different guys that I’d like to shoot… but there is something that I like about taking a more innocent type and putting them in a non-innocent situation. Like, I would love to take somebody like Jake Gyllenthaal, dirty him up, throw a rope around his neck, and get him on his hands and knees eating out of a dog bowl…
JR: (Laughs) Now we’re talkin’!
RZ: Yeah, stuff like that. The more innocent, the more All-American… those are the ones who I would like to shoot! There was this one guy who I shot. His name was Antonio, I think. He was this very innocent 19-year old kid who just came out of the closet. He had braces. He was just this apple pie, boy-next-door, baseball…So of course, I put him in leather collars with ropes around his neck, and he was so excited and he got so into it, and the pictures came out great. There was this contrast between the silver braces and the silver ring of the collar… and that’s the kind of thing I like to do! He became a completely different person. Daniel Radcliffe is another one I’d like to shoot, and so is Leonardo DiCaprio…and Ricky Martin, and the one who plays the gay kid on “Glee”…
JR: Yeah, he’s adorable!
RZ: …or, maybe talking guys who are traditionally “bad boys” and putting them in something that’s a little bit more innocent… Like, there’s this one guy who I shot named Rohn. He’s a bit more on the “thug” side, but I put him in very white light and very sort of demure poses– and to have this overall thug look in sort of an angelic, soft way… So, I like to “switch it around”! I can take the “good boy” and make them bad, but I like to take the “bad boy” and put them in something that’s white and sweet and a little innocent…There’s that contrast there!
JR: Sounds like fun! So, what’s the hardest part about being an independent photographer? Is it that independent shutterbugs don’t make as much money as they deserve?
RZ: I try to do art shows. I have two photography businesses. One is all commercial and stock, and theater and headshots and all that. It’s a good small business. It definitely makes more money than the erotic art does. It’s hard to find venues for erotic art. I have even lost sales because of the erotic art I do. I try to make as much money as possible from both businesses. The way I look at it is: Even in the years where I have not covered my expenses with my art, I still love doing it. All my stuff is for sale, I’ll do prints, I create books, I do personal images and intimate portraits, and do all sorts of different jobs for different clients. But photographers traditionally don’t make all that much money. It can be a good side business if you market yourself right. But traveling the world with my artwork to have it shown in galleries all over the world probably isn’t going to happen any time soon!
JR: That’s tragic! Your work needs to be seen by the masses!
RZ: I would love to be able to do it full time. I like working in the erotic industries. It’s so hard, especially when it comes to male erotic art. With female erotic art, you can go out and make money with it. It’s more acceptable.
JR: It’s a shame that it still has to be like that in this day and age. But at least we have made progress in that department. I remember a few years ago, you could never even show a penis in a movie!
RZ: Exactly. I have had websites and magazines contact me and ask me if I have any photo stock of women. I was like, “No. I shoot men!” I shoot women for my commercial work– headshots and theater– but when it comes to my erotic work, I prefer to shoot men. I’m just not passionate about shooting women in those situations, and I think it would show in that work. I could probably make more money if I went out and started shooting erotic photos of women, but that‘s not what my art is!
JR: Tom of Finland did that. He tried to photograph women as erotically as he did the men. He said that he tried to give them that “sensual” look– big boobs, big lips, horny expressions, etc… but he just couldn’t do it. It just wasn’t in him!
RZ: I can totally relate!
JR: As a true connoisseur of male beauty, what do you find personally sexy?
RZ: It’s probably the same as my photography. It’s not so much about the physical; it’s more about the attitude. The things that I always look at, personally, are eyes… and, what their laugh sounds like. If you laugh and it makes me want to smile, or I can sit there and get “lost in your eyes”– to quote Debbie Gibson (JR laughs.)… Those are the things that I look for! The body is great, but I always look for people who have an eclectic personality, especially an eclectic sexual interests. You know: open minded. The guys who I have dated have ranged from a skinny little hairless twink to a 55-year old muscle bear. It’s a range. It’s more about the chemistry and the attraction than anything else. As long as it clicks, it clicks!
JR: Uh huh! So, when you aren’t shooting, what do you do for fun?
RZ: I’d probably shoot more! I try to travel. I have a summer home in Maine, so I try to get there as much as possible. It gets me the hell out of the City. I try to spend time with family and friends. I take a lot of classes: I take art classes and I have been studying massage therapy informally for years. I like working with my hands. I’ll take the drawing classes. I suck! I cannot draw the male form to save my life, surprisingly. But, I give a great backrub! I am also going for a degree in Communication Design. Between the two photography jobs, my full-time job in LGBT digital media, and working freelance for a few adult film companies, I typically work 70-80 hours a week. When I get the chance, I love to just hang out at home and eat whole wheat pizza and watch “Family Guy”. That’s my ideal night off!
JR: Let me know! I’ll join you! Thanks, Rob!
Visit Rob Zukowski’s official website at
http://www.RobZNYC.com. You can see his work next at the event Forbidden Pleasures. Visit http://www.HardDriveMen.com/ForbiddenPleasuresNight.html for more about that event.