By default, I am the keeper of the R.Mutt Press pencil. This is a responsibility that will weigh heavily on me until I can arrange to have it delivered to the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. I know they will want it, because it belongs in their Charles Gatewood archive, which houses several thousand of his vintage and modern silver prints, 250,000 slides and negatives, plus his videos and films — Chaz was a prolific artist.
Internationally known photographer Charles Gatewood died last week at 73, in San Francisco. He had lived in Europe and New York before settling in the Woodstock area 1978-87. But California is where he prospered and was happiest — or as happy as a guy who grew up in Missouri can be. He came to Woodstock in 1975 to give a talk at the Catskill Center For Photography — as it was called then. He was selling copies of his first photography book, Sidetripping, with text by William S. Burroughs, out of the trunk of his car. I offered him a bed, and that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted over 40 years, strengthened by frequent visits and a lively, voluminous correspondence.
The R.Mutt pencil is all that remains of a curious literary experiment that took place on Pine Lane in isolated Saugerties, where Charles bought a house near rock star John Hall. (“I think I was too disreputable for John” Charles said.). In those days — the early eighties — winters were cold, and snow still fell, leaving six foot drifts. People stayed home.
Isolated and lonely, Charles came up with a plan to get his friends to come to him. He announced the formation of a small cooperative press that would publish the work of members. He called it R.Mutt, the monicker Marcel Duchamp affixed to his famous urinal. There were to be just two mottoes for member Mutts: “the truth well told” and (don’t just talk) “put the book on the table.” The atmosphere was Pickwickian as the cenacle formed at Charles’ long wooden table near the fireplace: Marco Vassi, erotic avatar, acclaimed by Norman Mailer as the country’s leading erotic writer; Annie Sprinkle, erotic performance artist; Spider Webb, tattoo artist extraordinaire; V.K. McCarty, dominatrix and Penthouse Forum editor; and Michael Perkins, poet without portfolio. Looking on at these coop meetings were Sondra Howell, Executive Director of the Woodstock Guild; Ivory Robinson, philosopher; and, by speaker phone from California, V.Vale of Re/search Publications. Sometimes members would bring guests, like photographer and film director Larry Clark.
It was a hip group, and at its center was mild-mannered Charles Gatewood, the hippest of us all. Everyone brought a dish, and after a pot luck dinner, Chaz might show his latest photos, some of which would go into his classic book Forbidden Photographs.
We had a lot of fun with R.Mutt, and it got us through a cold Winter; but the only Mutts who put their books on the table were the two of us. Charles put Forbidden down, and the rest is cultural history. The combination of pictures and text is so powerful that the book’s impact should have rivaled that of Naked Lunch. It didn’t, at least not in Woodstock. A show at the trendy Robert Samuels Gallery in New York got him noticed, but didn’t make him famous. Photography was moving away from realism into the narcissism of abstraction.
One day he announced that he was burning his long johns, selling his house, and moving to San Francisco. I didn’t see him again until 1989, when I rode Greyhound cross country to San Francisco. I found my friend productive and happy. He had gone 12 Step, and kicked a bad booze habit. He had a girlfriend.
He had shows and was being recognized. Dubbed “the family photographer to the erotic underground,” his subjects were raffish and colorful exhibitionists — people who expressed themselves by removing their clothing and putting on tattoos and piercings. Charles’s taste for the bizarre was boundless. He’d majored in Anthropology in college, and he would go to great lengths to observe — and shoot — a new subculture.
I had a chance to observe him on a daily basis when I began spending Octobers with him through the Nineties. By then his Flash Video business (“Weird San Francisco,” etc.) enabled him to rent a penthouse above the Mission with panoramic views. When I visited, he might give a lecture to a college class, or go out for coffee with his artist friends. Sometimes we went to church. As bona fide pagans, we felt an obligation to keep up with what good Christians might be doing. One memorable Sunday we attended services at the mostly black John Coltrane Church, and when we emerged from a hell and damnation sermon the previously sunny skies were dark. It was the great Oakland fire. “I guess the Christian God is not happy with us,” Charles commented dryly.
We both loved to hike, preferably to a new hot spring. We hiked and camped in the Sierras, Big Sur, and various deserts. Our favorite hot watering hole was Harbin Hot Springs in the mountains above Calistoga, where we pitched a tent and soaked for three days. Once, our friend Kathy Acker joined us. She roared up from SF on her Harley, and after a late dinner, the three of us were kicking back in a warm pool, chatting, watching the naked people, building a mellow mushroom high. The moon was full, the voices around us soft and seductive. Kathy was talking about Patricia Highsmith’s latest Ripley novel, and Hogg, the most recent novel from our friend Chip Delany, when our cozy colloquy was interrupted by a human rarely seen on the hot spring circuit: a genuine, raw-boned, bug-eyed Clem Kadiddlehopper, a rube character created by Red Skelton on TV. Clem would of passed for normal at a tractor pull, but he had happened upon a Satanic trio, and he was too hypnotized by Kathy’s naked body to exit. Instead he stammered “what do you all do?” Silence — and then the mushrooms hit.
We released a torrent — a cataract of laughter — that went on and on as we saw ourselves in Clem’s eyes: we were everything America feared. Kathy Acker, rich girl turned stripper turned famous avant-garde novelist; Charles, family photographer to the sexual underground; and me, most recently called by a leading critic “America’s answer to Sade.”
Like Weegee, like Robert Frank, Charles Gatewood focused his camera on the dispossessed and the alienated; he searched out those who walk in darkness. The sexual outcasts and outlaws who are both pariahs and prophets found their chronicler in Gatewood. His wide compassionate vision captured the neglected, the defiant, and the overlooked. The future will be glad he was here. Bolder than Frank, more shocking than Mapplethorpe, Gatewood is one of the few artists Woodstock can point to with pride to justify its arts colony reputation.
At the end of his life he was in great pain from a bad back, but he was kept happily busy by the pretty girls who came to be immortalized in one of his photos. He wrote to me that he had done everything he wanted to do with his life.
Come to think of it, I’m going to keep the R.Mutt pencil. When Chaz asked Mutts to cough up dues money, I was the only one who put cash on the table. As a joke, he bought the official pencil, and gave it to me.
Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.