William Seabrook and Man Ray

Visualizing Sadomasochistic Intersubjectivity


  • Sergio Cortesini Università di Pisa




Man Ray, William Seabrook, Sadomasochism, BDSM, Deborah Luris / Justine, Lee Miller, Michel Leiris


Around 1929‑1930 writer William Seabrook commissioned from Man Ray three sets of photographs. One set showed Seabrook himself mimicking S/M interactions with Lee Miller; another group was tableaux vivants visualizing Seabrook’s fetishistic fantasies; the third set consisted of portraits of Seabrook’s partner (Marjorie Worthington) wearing a collar especially designed by Man Ray. These series, along with other related works (such as Seabrook’s photographs of a female partner sheathed in a black leather mask, published in surrealist journals Documents and VVV), offer a seemingly abusive iconography of female subjection for the sake of male gratification. However, delving into the intellectual environment that aggregated Man Ray, Seabrook, and the surrealists of Documents, this article seeks to read the pictorial corpus as visualizations of interpersonal interactions that approximate the protocol of today’s BDSM. The body of work is indeed imbued with motifs of primitivism, orientalism, and négrophilie that were rampant in vanguard elites around 1930. Seabrook’s fetishistic objects and practices were not alien to racial bias, and gendered unbalance of power. Yet, while these experiments seem to debase the female partners into objects of erotic mechanics, most of them were consensual and performative and bear witness to personal search for modernist transcendence and spiritual epiphany.


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Performance, subversion, relation: tracing queer in BDSM