Caroline Tompkins’ uncanny photos explore blurred boundaries of fear, pleasure and lust

The New York-based photographer takes us inside ‘Bedfellow’, her new book and exhibition, for woo’s fortnightly culture column

A couple embracing - image by Caroline Tompkins
A couple embracing - image by Caroline Tompkins

The New York-based photographer takes us inside ‘Bedfellow’, her new book and exhibition, for woo’s fortnightly culture column

By Gilda Bruno20 Mar 2023
12 mins read time
12 mins read time

Welcome to Stop Scrolling, where each fortnight, arts and culture writer Gilda Bruno will be bringing you a roundup of carefully curated exhibitions, art fairs and photo books to check out, as well as exclusive conversations with some of today’s most exciting emerging artists.

This week, Bruno speaks with Ohio-born, New York-based photographer Caroline Tompkins about her monograph and exhibition Bedfellow: a photographic exploration of a conflicted reckoning with sexuality.

As a portrait photographer, NYC-based image-maker Caroline Tompkins has lensed everyone from EmRata to trailblazing artist and urban planner Theaster Gates. The eclectic range of names in her kaleidoscopic portfolio is emblematic of the artist’s ability to capture the essence of her subjects with empathy, ease and confidence: be they fashion designers, actors or activists.

Characterised by the same natural, vibrant hues, Tompkins’ personal projects are as powerfully absorbing and thought-provoking as her portraiture. This is especially true of her 2022 book Bedfellow , a collection of photographs probing the subtle boundaries separating fear, pleasure and desire in her sex life.

We speak to the photographer about these contrasting feelings around sex and how they inform the uncanny atmosphere of the cinematic images in Bedfellow.

Couple kissing - Carline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow' photobook
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins
Male torso with leeches on for Caroline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow'
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins

When I first came across your photobook Bedfellow I couldn’t stop thinking about it, mainly because of its view of sexuality, which you have described as being characterised by equal amounts of fear, pleasure and desire. When did you first realise that you both fear and desire men? What sparked that realisation?

Caroline Tompkins: While I was still in college in 2013, I used to take pictures of men who catcalled me. Realising I felt a certain fear when entering the public space must have served as the underpinnings of Bedfellow. After graduating, I wanted to create images about sex and desire [from a heterosexual, female perspective], but I had no framework for what that looked like: any pictures of men that were supposed to be “sexy” were mostly read as homoerotic [rather than as a product of the female gaze]. Some images were intimate and loving but others had a certain darkness to them. I thought, “why is this picture of a boner scary? Why do some of my female friends like dick pics while some hate them?”

From there, I started to acknowledge the normalisation of fear and violence around heterosexual dating. Why is it normal to text your friend to let them know that you have got home safe after a date? Why have two different boyfriends of mine bought me pepper spray as a gift? I came to understand that the thing that separated homoerotic images from images of female desire was the recognition of the fear. Men own objectification. Images made by women take into account the fear, whether they mean to or not.

Did you find this fear to be quite widespread among other women, or not at all? How did those around you respond to the narrative presented in Bedfellow?

Caroline Tompkins: Back when I was working on the catcalling pictures, my critiques [in art school] would often evolve into a group of women discussing their catcalling stories. I remember feeling frustrated at the time because I just wanted to talk about the photographs. Still, that experience led to an intentionality in my work: I want to use photography to connect with the world around me. It has been interesting to do events around Bedfellow because they often turn into forums for women to come up to me and tell me their scary stories.

When I first started working on the book, I wanted to speak for the entire gender, but I realised that this specific approach created room for alienation. If I speak about my personal experience, then the viewer can decide to what extent they relate to it. The general understanding of sex today is so extremely varied based on factors including where you live, what kind of community you belong to and what education you receive, but I am interested in constantly questioning the norms around us, which is what led to Bedfellow.

Image from Caroline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow' photobook
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins
Image of the back of a naked silhouette in shower by Caroline Tompkins
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins

You shot this series over five years: what common thread shaped the final edit of the project?

Caroline Tompkins: One of my favourite things about photography is that it shows me what I think before I gain any recognition of it: I didn’t realise the thesis of this work until I had worked on it for three years. In that period of my life, I would often take any savings I had to travel somewhere just to take pictures. I didn’t think, “alright, now I need to make more scary pictures”. All I knew is that I needed to be out in the world and the rest would follow. Once I realised what I was up to, I spent time pulling the photos I thought applied to the series. I got it to around 100 images before presenting it to Lola from Palm* Studios – the publishing house behind Bedfellow – but only a selection of 60 photographs made the final edit: from the beginning, I had a very clear idea of what should be in the book and what shouldn’t.

I wanted variety, whether of ages, locations, type of images and lighting, as that would speak to the multifarious, lifelong experience the volume is about. I also wanted to strike a balance between “heaven” and “hell” photographs: I have a lot of images of my exes and my current boyfriend. Those images represent the intimate, safe, loving parts of sex (“heaven”). Some of the “hell” pictures were shot at a nudist festival I attended in Indiana, some are of strangers I met along the way and some are still life images. My favourites are the ones that feel like both heaven and hell – leeches on a stomach, a house on fire, blue balls hanging from a truck.

Part of the inspiration for Bedfellow came from past traumatic experiences, specifically of revenge porn. To what extent did working on this series allow you to reclaim ownership over your understanding and experience of sex?

Caroline Tompkins: In the introduction to the book, I write about a past boyfriend who uploaded sexually explicit pictures of me on Reddit without my consent. Now these pictures follow me and get reposted again and again. That experience happened about 10 years ago, but I was too ashamed to tell anyone for most of that time. It is an objectively bad thing that happened to me, but I see it as a really fascinating, funny story, and I think my perspective of it is interesting. Writing about it alongside the images gave that experience a renewed purpose that I am grateful to have had an outlet for.

I never want to come across as a victim. I loathe the “men are trash” narrative. While I have been in a lot of bad relationships, I have now been with the same person for six years, and that has given me the distance to see a larger picture; I don’t think I would have made this work if I was still in a cycle of bad relationships. I am hesitant to use my work as therapy. I pay my therapist a lot of money to do that work.

Did you have the chance to discuss the content of ‘Bedfellow’ with any gender-nonconforming people? If so, what were their thoughts on it?

Caroline Tompkins: How someone identifies and who they are attracted to are different things that evoke different responses. Something that keeps me interested in this body of work is that everyone has a personal response to it. [Cis] men have come up to me and said, “you know, I’m scared too”, to which I am like, “my point exactly!” What could improve these discussions on sex is a vigilance to question what we consider normal and what feels the most ingrained in our psyche. Everyone is carrying around implicit bias. We often use this bias to judge ourselves instead of challenging the framework for which these biases thrive. I don’t want to be a victim, but I also don’t want to be a girlboss. My hope for the work is that it deepens your curiosity for the ways we interact in our relationships and our genders.

Elderly hetero couple kissing - Caroline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow'
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins
Portrait of a person pressed against a sofa - Caroline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow'
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins
Portrait of a naked pregnant person - Caroline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow'
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins
Cold and dark empty room with a stripped mattress - Caroline Tompkins' 'Bedfellow'
Image courtesy of Caroline Tompkins

Scroll for an extra dose of art and culture news, curated for you by woo

When there's so much to see and experience, it can be hard to choose where to spend your valuable time. Below, Bruno picks a selection of standout shows and culture events to explore in the coming weeks.

Skin Deep, group show, Studio West, London, UK

Naila Hazell painting for 'Skin Deep' exhibition at STUDIO WEST
Naila Hazell, The bodily exertion of friendish enemies, 2022, Oil and Acrylic on Wooden Panel, 95 x 125cm. © Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST

Showing at London's Studio West, Skin Deep is a thought-provoking reflection on the body, with its tactile quality brought to life via the vivid brushstrokes of a cohort of emerging figurative painters. Here, the body is more than a flesh prison: it's a site of compromise between our internal and external selves and a living record of the “scars of experience, inner struggle and trauma”.

Inspired by Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal exploration of somatic trauma therapy The Body Keeps the Score and Melissa Febos’ candid and sensitive memoir Body Work, Skin Deep sees 11 participating artists engage with the bones, blood and skin of the body in deeply personal and contrasting ways.

Catch Ada Bond, Alice Miller, C Lucy R Whitehead, Iga Bielawska, Ki Yoong, Moussa David Saleh, Naila Hazell, Nina Baxter, Preslav Kostov, Serpil Mavi Üstün and Sophie Milner’s bodily creations at Studio West until April 5.

Hysterical, group show, Bermondsey Project Space Gallery, London, UK

'We Belong To The Land' - Frannie Wise painting for Hysterical Exhibition
Frannie Wise, ‘We Belong To The Land’

Following the success of last year's debut edition, curators Eliza Hatch and Bee Illustrates have launched a second iteration of Hysterical: a charity group exhibition born to “celebrate the work of women and marginalised genders, using their creative practice as a form of protest”.

Hosted at Bermondsey Project Space Gallery, the interdisciplinary showcase spans painting, photography and sculpture by female and gender-nonconforming artists. Throughout the exhibition, notions of the dramatic” and “hysterical” are reinterpreted in a subversive, at times parodic, exploration of gender, identity and politics.

You can see work by participating artists Ciara Mohan, Maggie Williams, Aashfaria Anwar, Abby Richard, Simone Yasmin, Frannie Wise, Salt & Sister Studio (Halah El-Kholy and Heidi El-Kholy), Laurent Yee, Maddy Page, Fiona Quadri and Creaming Strawberries (Naïstini Valaydon and Coco Warner-Allen) until 25 March.

Thin Air, immersive art experience inaugural event, Beams, London, UK

Image of Beams' new immersive exhibition space
S E T U P, BORDERS, photography Dmitry Chuntul. Courtesy of Beams

Get ready for the ultimate immersive art experience. Located in London's post-industrial Royal Docks area, Thin Air encompasses 55,000 square feet and uses digital technology and large-scale installation (including an entrancing maze of light) to explore the hidden complexities that shape the world we live in.

Powered by Beams – East London’s Centre for New Culture, best known for music programming featuring the likes of Skepta and Honey Dijon – the exhibition brings together a (quite literally) kaleidoscopic group of international contemporary creatives including the collective 404.zero, multidisciplinary artist James Clar, computer music pioneer Robert Henke, laser installation artist Matthew Schreiber and UCLA Arts Conditional Studio.

With an accompanying programme of curated panel discussions featuring industry leaders, globally acclaimed creatives and special guests, the ongoing art project is the perfect opportunity to dive into the future of culture while catching up on conversations on the implications of an algorithm-generated world, the link between art, science and philosophy, and the inner workings of new media and technologies.

You can get your Thin Air digital art fix at The Beams until 4 June.

Queer intimacy, group show, Cromwell Place, London, UK

'Queer Intimacy' London exhibition image of two lovers embracing
Giorgio Ermes Celin, ‘The Lovers’. Courtesy of the artist

Opening at Cromwell Place’s Pavilion Gallery on March 22, Queer Intimacy immerses visitors in the universe of 13 international artists whose figurative practice centres around the evolving experience of queerness.

Accompanied by a text written by Russell Tovey and hosted in collaboration with London’s contemporary art gallery Taymour Grahne Projects, the group show offers each exhibiting artist the opportunity to visualise their own unique interpretation of themes such as love, sex, intimacy and identity

Whether depicted in communion with others or indulging in blissful solitude, the protagonists of these artworks grant viewers an unfiltered, candid glimpse into the personal stories, emotional sphere and sensibility of the creatives behind them – as if each brushstroke corresponds to a chapter of their life – evoking an instant, yet indirect connection between the public and the talents at the heart of the exhibition.

With contributions by Alvin Ong, Anika Roach, David Weishaar, Giorgio Celin, James Bartolacci, Justin Yoon, Kyle Coniglio, Logan T. Sibrel, Morteza Khakshoor, Brea Weinreb, RF. Alvarez, Nicko Ceccini and Sola Olulode, Queer Intimacy continues through March 26.

Claudia Andujar, The Yanomami Struggle, The Shed, New York, US

Image of indigenous person submerged in blue water for 'The Yanomami Struggle' exhibition
Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle. © Claudia Andujar. Courtesy of the artist

Claudia Andujar: The Yanomami Struggle:, the latest exhibition at NYC culture hotspot The Shed, welcomes images by 91-year-old Swiss-Brazilian photographer and activist Claudia Andujar and places a focus on her life-long advocacy work on behalf of the Yanomami people.

The Yanomami are an Indigenous population living in the Amazon forest at the border between Venezuela and Brazil. Alongside spotlighting Andujar's decades-long photojournalistic career documenting the Amazon rainforest and her relationship with the Yanomami, the exhibition presents intermedia work from a panorama of Yanomami artists.

You can see work by Andujar, André Taniki, Ehuana Yaira, Joseca Mokahesi, Orlando Nakɨuxima, Poraco Hɨko, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, Vital Warasi, Aida Harika, Edmar Tokorino, Morzaniel Ɨramari, and Roseane Yariana until 1 April.