The Sex Machines Next Door
09-09-06 Xeni Jardin
Jon Traven does not look like a sex-machine inventor. He looks like a cowboy.
But the divorced Christian homesteader from Idaho is one of many makers of garage-built erotic devices featured in Sex Machines: Photographs and Interviews, a book by Timothy Archibald that documents the secretive subculture of hobbyists whose creations bear names like The Thumpstir and The Gangbang.
"Here I am, this divorced Christian guy, not promiscuous at all, and here I am with a sex machine," reads Traven's monologue in the book. "It was an idea I came up with in the last year or two of the marriage, as a last-ditch attempt to save whatever we had ... our sex life, if nothing else. She actually pushed me for a divorce before I could finish it and give it to her.
"I will require anyone ordering a machine from me to provide proof of marriage and a signed statement of intent to use only within that marriage. Kind of like a gun dealer that requires proof of age and proof of passage of a firearm safety test before selling someone a firearm. Sexual arousal is a doorway to a person's very soul and isn't to be messed with lightly."
Archibald shot Sex Machines on a medium-format Hasselblad camera, relying mostly on ambient, natural light. The resulting aesthetic is unstaged and unblinking. It's as if you've stepped into the kitchen of the Hide-A-Cock's inventor, and the machine were there staring right back at you -- from between a Pop-Tarts box and a half-eaten bag of Tostitos. Think American Gothic with giant mecha-dildos replacing pitchforks, or a Norman Rockwell print of the dirtiest thing that ever crawled out of an id.
But despite the provocative title, Sex Machines is not intended to titillate, explains Archibald. "Porn is theater," he told Wired News. "I was more interested in documenting these people's lives."
The project began when the San Francisco Bay Area editorial and commercial photographer received a magazine assignment to photograph the inventor of a foosball-like game popular in Silicon Valley dot-com lunchrooms.
"The invention was his passion, and he was so proud," Archibald recalls. "He said, 'When someone's playing and captures a goal, you gotta capture that look on their face!' And I'm thinking -- they're not that into it, it's just foosball. But he believed in his invention so much."
Archibald turned online to research DIY inventor culture and computer modding in hopes of finding similarly enthusiastic subjects. He ended up stumbling on listservs for sex-machine inventors.
"They posted photos of their machines in the forums, but the backgrounds in those images told something even more interesting about the inventor's life -- an empty yogurt container, a blender, a baby carriage. Mundane details everyone could relate to. The machines were anthropomorphic, alien, with fleshy appendages -- like nothing I'd ever seen before."
Archibald's e-mail queries to anonymous machine makers were politely but uniformly rejected. Most weren't selling their wares, and had no interest in giving up their privacy.
A year later, Archibald contacted the operators of machine-sex porn site Fuckingmachines.com (NSFW), who in turn pointed him to inventors they thought might be interested in opening up their lives and studios.
Soon, e-mails were cautiously returned, and some phone calls were answered, but one question remained: Just who were the people behind these machines?
"I figured I'd ring the doorbell and some guy would answer in a leather zipper mask -- they'd all be people who lived in basements and couldn't relate to living, breathing women," says Archibald. "But no -- they were just like me. OK, not just like me, but I could relate to the tension between their ordinary lives and their unusual fascinations."
Archibald traveled around the country, shooting both machines and makers. When the idea for a book project materialized, he approached photography book publisher Taschen.
"I can still remember the rejection letter," he says. "It went, more or less, 'For us to publish something it must have high artistic merit but be hot enough to jerk off to. This book is the former, but not the latter.' As disappointing as it was, I felt like I'd finally hit just the right tone."
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