Life & Culture

The Story of Rick Castro, the Photographer and ‘King of Fetish’

We speak with the fetish photographer, whose work is being celebrated at a new exhibition at the Tom of Finland Foundation, opening this weekend

For Rick Castro, fetish is the ultimate manifestation of self; the very notion of perfection, if you will. The journey began one day in 1970, when the photographer – who has shot and interviewed Ron Athey, Alice Bag and Tony Ward for – discovered a copy of A Clockwork Orange in his aunt’s secondhand bookstore when he was 12.

“It shocked me and made my young wheels turn,” Castro says from his Los Angeles home. “I was trying to put it all into context. The idea of glamourised violence and scary dystopia – it seemed to ring true. I started to see that is going to be the future – and it was. We’ve surpassed it.”

And in doing so, we have embraced fetish in a broader sense. Castro explains, “For me it’s all-encompassing. The 21st century is all about fetish. On the positive side, it is the appreciation on a larger scale of things that would not have gotten a lot of respect in the past, but on the negative side it’s that cult of personality that I think is a waste of time and lead to the banality of America if not the world.”

Words of wisdom from ‘The Fetish King,’ a title Castro has fully embraced, and given to the title to a three-decade survey of his black and white BDSM photographs, opening April 6 at the Tom of Finland Foundation in his native Los Angeles.

Castro came to photography after working as a wardrobe stylist for George Hurrell, Herb Ritts, and Joel-Peter Witkin. “I was watching the photographers closely to see how they would do compositions and lighting,” Castro says. “When I started to take pictures I always treated the cameras as an extension of my eye. Having this personality that was already kind of obsessive – that’s what fetish is. You discover your fixation, which most time is prepubescent, and you hone in on it and perfect it, and it becomes your driving force.”

Castro took his first photograph in 1986 of Tony Ward, a then-unknown model who he introduced to Herb Ritts. “When I started to pursue my own photography, besides using Tony Ward, I was not going to waste my time with people who had agenda or fears, so I went straight to the streets. I was living in West Hollywood off Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the male street hustlers used to hang out in the mid-90s. That became my model of choice,” he says.

“I started to explore taking pictures on my own with no set idea, but it always leaned to what I realised was fetish. It tells you everything you need to know about yourself because you spend all this time on one fixation. Anything can be fetishised: from shoes, corsets, and bondage to someone’s pet, your wife, a glass of water. You can fixate on anything.”

Though he has a preference for BDSM, Castro takes an anthropological interest in it all. “I did a documentary on the furry culture, an exhibition about foot fetish, clown fetish, and amputee fetish,” he says. “It all swirls around me. Whether I document it or not, that’s a different thing.”

In the Decay of Lying, Oscar Wilde famously quipped “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” but that’s only because he hadn’t met Castro or seen the 1996 queer cinema classic Hustler White, the gloriously debauched sex comedy and homage to classic Hollywood cinema made in collaboration with Bruce LaBruce.

His interviews with the hustlers then became the basis for the film, which starred Tony Ward and LaBruce along with actual hustlers from the strip. “I’m actually in the porn scene,” Castro says of his Hitchockian appearance on celluloid. “I’m the clumsy cameraman that knocks over the bed when they’re fucking and they fall off. One of the porn stars says to the other, ‘Get out of me!’”

It’s a fascinating reveal for a man who assiduously avoids self-portraiture. “When I started my career, I wanted to have the idea that no one would ever know what I looked like. That was based on my obsession with Guy Bourdin – no one knew what he looked like,” Castro explains. “I think it’s a whole different energy, someone who is in front of the camera, someone who is behind the camera, and both of them take real commitment. 30 years in photography is a long time. The nature of fetish is consistent. It’s an obsession that leads to perfection. Like a fine wine, it ages gracefully.”

Fetish King: Seminal Photographs 1986 – 2019 is at the Tom of Finland Foundation, Los Angeles, April 6–27, 2019.