It is an impulse, a memory, a moment of light and shadow. It is sensuality. It is sex. It is love, and humor. It is a yearning for beauty that has driven artists to despair and creation. It is a desire, a question. On these pages, 30 photographers give us an answer.

On the sensuality of looking and other crucial matters of the heart and mind.

November/December 1993
by Diane Ackerman

What the eyes caress, the memory fondles. As infants, using our fingers as eyes, we learn the world has depth and all of life a quirky topography, a three-dimensional feel. Then the merest glimpse of a clamshell or a shoulder is enough to kindle the touch‑memory for curve. Then seeing a photograph of a naked man lying in a shallow riverbed is enough to recall the feel of round, hard, flat, bulging, knobbly, interflowing. Then looking at a picture of a woman applying a large airy feather to her netherparts can't help but evoke the feel of the feather. Then Anita Ekberg's portrait says bosom-spilling. And then, a photo of a woman's face, her eyes closed in carnal reverie, her cheek muscles limply bussed‑out by love, as a man's thumb gently presses open her bottom lip, is enough to make one utter a vicarious sigh.

Photographs such as these adorn this special issue of American Photo, mapping a terrain for the sensuality of looking. The hands have already been where the eyes long to go, and we can imagine the territory in painstaking detail. That is enough. Indeed, it is the all some people desire. PET scans show that it makes no difference whether we experience an event or imagine it‑the same parts of the brain light up. No wonder we are ardent voyeurs, savoring the visual Eden of photography and film. They offer us homeopathic doses of love, exhilaration, mystery, sex, and violence‑all enjoyed from a safe remove. To feel but not feel. To gamble but not risk. To undress and unravel and penetrate with mere thought. These are heady thrills. A creative brain makes its own virtual reality every day. In the right frame of mind that of a devoted paramour ‑all of life is erotic. To love the world with the eyes one uses them as hands, to love the world with ideas one uses them as eyes.

Visual images are sticky. They attract meaning and emotion, and then quickly become unforgettable. No image is an island; it includes much that lies unseen. The lithe, giraffe‑like woman nakedly feeding a real giraffe had to take her clothes off somewhere. Soon enough the giraffe, with a long insinuating tongue, will reach for the leaf she offers. And what is her relationship to the clothed person standing in the shadows behind her? Images work somewhat like pictograms. For example, in the scrapbook of my own memory, the image of a man holding a woman's face in his hands means "tenderness."

I remember the time a friend picked a ripe apple from his tree, took a bite from its firm flesh, and offered it to me to sample. We were not lovers. But, biting into the crater his teeth had just left, I joined him in the apple's flesh, which tasted sweet, and open. In that small oasis, our mouths met. Now when I see a photograph of such an apple, I don't think mom, country, and apple pie. The image is tinged with the erotic. I think kiss.

Someone may find a telephone receiver sensuous, because it reminds him of the hot calls that inflamed one summer, and the delicious hours he held a phone's smooth, bakelite knob as if it were his beloved's hand. Someone else may be set a tingle by a curvaceous back, a mischievous smile, or a ravenous glance.

What is erotic? The acrobatic play of the imagination. The sea of memories in which we bathe. The way we caress and worship things with our eyes. Our willingness to be stirred by the voluptuous. What is erotic is our passion for the liveliness of life.

Diane Ackerman's bestselling book of essays, A Natural History of the Senses, was published by Vintage Books in 1991. This spring, Random House will bring out her new collection, A Natural History of Love.



Steve Michalik

"When I was asked to submit an image to this issue, I decided to choose one that had a sense of irony and humor."