The Model Mayhem interview: Ken Marcus (part II)

In part one of our interview with Ken Marcus we talked about the time he spent with Ansel Adams at Yosemite National Park and the early part of his career. We continue our conversation with Ken discussing the profound changes in photography and society since his early days at Penthouse and Playboy, before going on to talk about some truly iconic photos Ken shot, and then wrapping up with his current work.

We’d sincerely like to thank Ken for being so generous with his time, allowing us into his studio, sharing some of his legendary work, and being a valued member of Model Mayhem.

— MM Edu

Photo of Ken Marcus by: Jordan Stead

MM Edu: Photography has changed a great deal during your career. How have you been able to be so successful in such a competitive industry for so long?

Ken: Well, I work hard at it. I’m always looking for new approaches to the business. One has to be willing to reinvent themselves periodically. Our world is not stagnant, it changes. Society changes, the audience changes and their expectations change as well. As an example, Model Mayhem is filled with images that were once considered obscene, pornographic, and exploitative of woman not too many years ago. Now, hardly anybody would blink an eye over what is shown here.

I’ve always believed that it was important to be on the leading edge of change. I felt that even early on, during my first years of working with Penthouse.

Penthouse 2006 Pet of the Year magazine cover.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

“I’ve always believed that it was important to be on the leading edge of change. I felt that even early on, during my first years of working with Penthouse.”

There was one event in particular that has stuck with me all my life. I still get emotional thinking about that, because it’s that powerful to me. It was the moment where I decided if I’m going to be doing nude erotic photography, I better make dammed sure that I strive to represent the very best of what it is. I didn’t want graphic nudity to be perceived as something scummy that should be banned again, but I wanted to do whatever I could do to bring it into the mainstream: To promote erotica as art, to exhibit my images in galleries, to get published in books, to lecture about it, to get it out there and do my part to change negative perceptions were held in America for so long.

That event began one day, with an unexpected visitor. I was sitting in my studio, minding my own business, when there was a knock at the door. I went and answered the door and there was this thin, weasel-like guy standing there in an ill-fitting suit.

I said “Yes, can I help you?” He asked “Are you Ken Marcus?” I told him I was, and he goes on to introduce himself, and continues to say, “I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m here visiting my sister and about to leave town but I couldn’t imagine leaving without coming by and shaking your hand and telling you how much your work means to me.”

I thought, “Oh, nice.” I shook his hand and said, “Thank you very much, I enjoy what I do and I give it my all.” He then says “I don’t think you really know what I mean.” So I replied “Okay, so tell me.”

This is when he related how 16 years earlier he had taken a picture of his girlfriend laying down on his bed and her pubic hair was showing. He was an amateur photographer then, and had made a print to send to his cousin and brag about his beautiful girlfriend. His cousin lived in  New Jersey, so he put the print in an envelope, sent it off and it was promptly intercepted by the postal authorities who handed it over to the FBI.

He spent 15 years in prison for sending pornography through the mail, and had just recently been released for time served because of the change in the law. I was amazed at his story and then he shook my hand again and thanked me again. Then he started to leave, but stopped for a moment, hesitated and said “You know I think it’s fantastic that you’re able to make your living doing what destroyed my life.”

I’ve never forgotten the impact of meeting that man and realizing how repressed America was at that time. To this day I still feel ill when I look out and I see this new wave of moral conservatism that’s boiling up in our society. Fortunately, with the Internet and the accessibility of anything you can think of all over America—all over the world, we can maybe hold back those waves of repression and suppression. There is some light at the end of the tunnel, and the tunnel I believe, is the Internet.

Full page image from Muscle & Fitness magazine, taken on assignment in Tahiti, just as the batteries died in Ken's strobe.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

MM Edu: You talk about promoting your nudes as art, which brings me to your “Nudes in Nature” series shot at Yosemite. They were originally banned but are now part of the permanent collection. Tell us the story behind them.

Ken: One day I’m in my studio and I get this phone call out of the clear blue.

“Hello Mr. Marcus, I’m the curator of the Yosemite National Park Museum.”

The first thing that came to mind is “Oh they’re looking for a donation,” but then he starts talking about this new Artist-in-Residence program they have. Apparently they wanted to expand their program from just dealing with well-known landscape artists and photographers and wanted to bring in people from other artistic disciplines.

The idea was to invite other well-known artists and photographers and provide them with the Yosemite experience, and encourage them to produce some new work and see how Yosemite might influence what they do. I told him I thought that sounded like a wonderful idea.

When asked if I was interested, I responded, “Yes, I have had a lot of experience in Yosemite.” This fellow had no clue that I had ever been to Yosemite, let alone that I was a longtime student of Ansel Adams. He was quite surprised.

So, we had this conversation that culminated in him asking if I would consider being an Artist-in-Residence at the Yosemite Museum.

At that moment, I experienced this odd moment of inspiration. I said, with no prior thought, but with absolute certainty, “Yes I would consider it, if you will allow me to bring my Cherry Picker.”

The guy asked what a cherry picker was. I told him it was this big machine that raises you 40 or 50 feet in the air, and you can take pictures from it. He said, “Well I don’t know, this is a national park, you can’t just bring in heavy machinery, but let me make a phone call to Washington tomorrow and I’ll see if I can get some special visitations permit so you can bring your cherry picker.”

Again, I don’t know where that thought came from. First of all, I don’t own a cherry picker. Secondly, I’d never been on a cherry picker my entire life.

I had no clue where that came from, except that I always remembered Ansel Adams having this big old Cadillac with a platform on the roof. He could put his tripod on it and stand up on his camera case. That would allow his camera to be maybe 12-14 feet in the air. He spoke about the different perspective that height gave you. “You could shoot straight into the trees while at the same time look down on the ground and up at the sky”.  It provided you with a bird’s eye view of the world, and I think on occasion, he might have even referred to it as a “God’s eye view” of the world, because in a lot of his pictures there is definitely a feeling of “this is the way God saw nature when He created it”.

I guess somewhere along the line, as all those years went by, I figured if you’re going to shoot landscapes you’re going to want to be up there and a cherry picker seemed like a logical way to get you there. Like I said though, I had never even been in one.

The next day I get a call back and they said yes, they got special permission from Washington for me to bring a cherry picker into Yosemite. So the following year I was their Artist-in-Residence, complete with cherry picker. I arrived at the end of spring and worked through to the middle of summer. The museum provided me with a three bedroom house and complete access to go anywhere I wanted in the park and do anything I wanted to, even nudes.

The people at the museum knew full well that I was shooting nudes. Everybody there knew I was shooting nude models. Yosemite is a small community and everybody knew what we were doing each day. We would go into a restaurant late at night and the bus boy would say, “Oh how did your session in Glacier Point go today?” Word quickly got around as to what we were doing, so it should not have been a surprise to anybody.

I brought in a variety of models. I arranged for glamour models, fine art figure models, and several of the world’s top male and female bodybuilders. I shot a whole variety of different styles of figure studies, as well as some straight landscapes.

One of many "Tree People" images produced in Yosemite.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

The following winter we had an exhibition and opening party at the Yosemite National Park Museum. I had friends, models and people that I knew fly in from all over the country for the event. We had 75 – 80 people attend and we got snowed in that weekend, which was fun. It was a wonderful party they threw for us and a great event all around!

A couple weeks later the head of the parks department came in and saw my exhibit and got horribly offended that there were nudes hanging on the walls of the museum. He actually went up and grabbed some of my framed prints off the wall and threw them onto the floor. That behavior really offended the staff that worked in the museum, and one of them reported the event to a local newspaper, which happened to be the Fresno Bee which, by the way is a very well respected newspaper—they’ve had several Pulitzer Prize winning writers and photographers from there.

One afternoon, I get this call from a reporter asking, “Mr. Marcus how do you feel now that your pictures have been censored and removed from the museum gallery in Yosemite?” I knew nothing about it. But once again, that odd portion of my brain kicked in, and I blurted out: “Well, I guess this means I’m going to have to sue the Government.”

That’s just the kind of sound bite that reporters love to hear, and within a week, 1,400 newspapers across the country have my story as front page news. Some of those papers even published a few of my pictures. There was a large image on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle showing me in Yosemite holding one of the banned images that was clearly showing a nude woman. They put that on the front page of a daily family paper. TV’s Inside Edition did a seven minute segment on my story that included many of the images from the ‘banned’ Yosemite exhibit.

Getting his work banned in Yosemite made front page news in over 1400 newspapers and helped Ken's print sales immensely.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

“One afternoon, I get this call from a reporter asking, ‘Mr. Marcus how do you feel now that your pictures have been censored and removed from the museum gallery in Yosemite?'”

Most people don’t go to Yosemite to look at the Art Museum; they go to Yosemite to look at nature. So maybe my show would have been up for a month or so, and maybe 300 people would had wandered in there and seen my photos, and that should have been the extent of it.

But, as a result of this bureaucrat censoring my work, and my offhand comment about suing the government, millions of people got a chance to see these pictures and learn about them. It was great publicity and resulted in some excellent print sales.

There’s an old saying that, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” As long as people are talking about you it’s helpful. I can attest to that through certain instances in my career.

As kind of a side note, at that time my folks were out of town—they were on a cruise somewhere in the Caribbean—when this whole thing went down. They came back, landed in Florida, got off the boat, and my father said, “I haven’t seen a newspaper in a week, let’s see what’s going on!”  He drops a quarter in the newspaper machine, he pulls it out, and there is a picture of his son standing there with nudes in front of Yosemite, with the headline “Photographer Censored.”

My brother had also just come back from being out of the country with his wife, and they slept in the next morning because they were exhausted from their plane trip. He woke up and went out front and picks up his morning paper, then goes back to bed where he opens the San Francisco Chronicle with my story on the front page.

During his time as Artist-In-Residence at the Yosemite National Park Museum, Ken produced many images combining Nature and Nudes that were later banned by the government, but eventually restored to the museum's permanent collection.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

MM Edu: What an incredible sequence of events. I bet you never thought you’d return to Yosemite and stir up such controversy?

Ken: I have always loved Yosemite and have always imagined that it would be great someday to go back and photograph there again. But the thing about Yosemite is, you can’t just go there for more than a week. You get a permit allowing you to come in and then you have to leave; you can’t just hang out there. Ansel was able to hang around because he owned a home and business in Yosemite.

In a million years I would have never thought that, as an adult in my 40s—and at a point where I had already had a whole career, I would be invited to come to Yosemite. That I would be given the opportunity to do whatever I wanted anywhere within the park, and I could bring in a goddamn cherry picker! Who would have ever though that?

I was so appreciative of that at the time because I had been doing lots of high-end large production shoots all over the world, but Yosemite was an off limits place, you can’t just get into there. This is a showcase national park and very protected. Yet here I was, invited to bring in my staff, my cherry picker, champion body builders and some of the most beautiful nude models I could assemble and allowed free access to create whatever I wanted. This was like a dream come true!

Inspiration Point at Yosemite National Park.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

“In a million years I would have never thought that, as an adult in my 40s—and at a point where I had already had a whole career, I would be invited to come to Yosemite. That I would be given the opportunity to do whatever I wanted anywhere within the park.”

MM Edu: You must have loved the freedom to do anything you want, but was there ever a time you pushed things too far to get that perfect shot?

Ken: You know, sometimes when you think of an artists life or career, it seems that they hit a peak and then they die. Well, I almost died in Yosemite.

One day, I was shooting down on the flowering tops of some Dogwood Trees surrounding a small natural spring. I was up on the cherry picker at full extension when it started to tip over, and if wasn’t for the fast thinking and quick reactions of my friend (and fellow photographer) Steve Anderson I would not be here today. I was seconds away from plunging to a certain death onto the jagged rocks below.

It was really all my fault, because I was careless and didn’t check to see if we were on completely level ground. You have to make sure these things are level before you raise them up. It was slightly off and I was eager to get up and shoot.

As it was starting to tilt, and two of the wheels had come up off the ground, Steve saw it and jumped onto one of the back tires, and his weight and the angle that he grabbed it at was enough to bring it back down to level. I had no idea what was happening, I was busy looking through my camera, paying no attention to what was happening on the ground.

Suddenly I hear Steve screaming and yelling “BRING IT DOWN, BRING IT DOWN,” and I brought the thing down. When I realized what almost had happened, it was pretty shocking. Steve Anderson saved my life!

Asked about this image of Fern Spring and Flowering Dogwood Trees, Marcus related: "This would have been my very last photograph if it had not been for Steve Anderson leaping into action and saving my life as the cherry picker was tipping over. There was nothing to stop me from crashing down onto those jagged rocks 40 feet below."

Photographer: Ken Marcus

MM Edu: We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Anderson and he said wonderful things about working with you, how you influenced him, and the time he spent with you at Yosemite, but he never told us that. No wonder you’re so close.

Ken: Steve is one of the most important people in my life, because without him I wouldn’t be alive. We’ve remained good friends ever since and I’ve been very pleased to see his many successes. I’ve had a wide variety of assistants over the years and not all of them go on to any level of greatness, in fact most of them disappear from the business rather rapidly, but Steve has certainly been one of the more successful. Arny Freytag is another. I can’t say enough about the great work he has done over the years. He remained with Playboy after I left—he was my assistant there for a short while and then went on to prove himself as a great photographer. He’s been there ever since I left, and became their most prolific centerfold photographer.

MM Edu: You also shot some of the biggest stars during Rock & Roll’s heyday in the late 60s and early 70s, including the iconic shot of Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Tell us about that.

Ken: My girlfriend’s cousin was a music producer, and he was involved with putting together the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. That was the worlds first pop festival. This was before Woodstock.

He called one day and asked if we were coming to the festival, saying he would give us a place to stay, just bring your cameras and take some pictures and have fun. So we figured it’s not going to cost us anything, so lets go. We drove up to Monterey and had a nice place to stay.

We spent this elongated weekend up there taking pictures of everything. Lots of interesting people, hippies, Hells Angels, pretty girls, and a lot of musicians that were hardly known outside a small group of diehard music fans. You wouldn’t have heard them on mainstream radio—in fact, nobody had ever heard of Jimi Hendrix at that time because he had never played in America, only England and France.

It was early in the evening and people were getting up and leaving the outdoor amphitheater area to go and get food. When Jimi Hendrix first came on stage, nobody knew who he was, and yet within a few minutes he became a Rock & Roll legend. The thing that made him that legend, in addition to his great skills with the guitar, was when he took his guitar and set it on fire.

Now there were maybe two or three photographers around at that time to take pictures of it. I was up on the stage, a few feet away shooting color, while one of the other photographers was out in the audience area with a long lens shooting black and white, and someone else was shooting color from the front audience area. Now if you were out in the audience area looking up there, there was this spotlight on him, so he was very flatly lit. Well, from where I was on stage—shooting from a 90 degree angle, that flat light coming in from the front was now side light, and it gave an entirely different perspective to how that moment looked.

I actually shot several pictures of him at that time, but there is one in particular that captured the quintessential moment, and that’s the one that I released for use on the cover of the 40th anniversary album commemorating Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival.

Jimi Hendrix at his careers most defining moment during the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

“When Jimi Hendrix first came on stage, nobody knew who he was, and yet within a few minutes became a Rock & Roll legend. The thing that made him that legend, in addition to his great skills with the guitar, was when he took his guitar and set it on fire.”

For many years I didn’t even know that image existed.

After the festival was over, and for years afterwards, many people spoke about how significant it was. I would always be thinking in the back of my mind “Oh, yeah, I was there, it was fun.” Occasionally I would see that documentary movie that was made about the Monterey Pop Festival on television, and I would say to whoever I was watching it with, “Oh you see that shadow back there, that’s me;” “Oh look, there is the back of my girlfriend’s head;” and “Oh look, there we are off in the background.” I remembered it as: “Okay, that was fun,” but that was about it.

But then, at the end of 2004, while in the process of moving from my house to the living loft area I built in my studio, I came across a storage box that had old job files and negatives from the 60’s.  In that box were the original negatives that I had shot of the Monterey Pop Festival.

My thoughts at the time were mostly just amazement that the film managed to survive in my garage for so long. These were color negatives—actually color transparency film cross processed to a color negative. I never printed them back then, because it was too expensive to print color, so I just packed the film away and forgot about it.

But now, 37 years later I was looking at these old negatives and thinking I’ve got a computer, I’ve got a scanner, and these are color negatives—I wonder if they can be usable now?

The first negative that I scanned was the one of Jimi burring his guitar and when it came up in Photoshop, my jaw dropped!  I immediately knew what I had in front of me. Even though I was not a big fan of Rock & Roll during that era, I would have had to live in a cave to not know the significance of this image.

Those pictures that just sat unseen for 37 years, existing in a box without anyone knowing it also contained images of Janis Joplin and many other great stars from that era that are no longer with us.

George Harrison, Ringo Star and other notables for Harrison's album 'Living in the Material World' shot on 8x10.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

MM Edu: Quite a few jaws will probably drop reading that! Nowadays you do a lot of BDSM and fetish photography, and there’s a lot of equipment here in the studio, where did that interest come from and how has your work evolved?

Ken: Well it’s stemmed from a few different areas. For many years, I’ve been pushing boundaries by presenting beauty and sexuality in my work. One of the areas that that was still taboo in America was alternative sexuality, especially anything to do with BDSM combined with sexuality and fetish. There just wasn’t a legal outlet for that sort of imagery in the US. Well, not until the Internet came along.

When I first became interested in doing a website I had 30 years worth of pictures: beautiful nudes, fine art nudes, glamour nudes, all various different types of things I had shot over the years and I just assumed that I would be able to just take all those pictures and put them on a website somewhere.

It was pointed out to me by some very prominent lawyers that worked with Penthouse at the time, that there were a few rules and regulations that covered the Internet. Such as, you can’t put pictures on the Internet unless you have model release and proof of ID. That if you put someone’s picture on the Internet that’s considered publishing, and if you don’t have a model release they can sue you.

The vast majority of the shoots that I had done for 30 years before that did not have proper model releases, or if they did they were specific to a certain job, to a certain magazine for a certain thing. It was sort of understood and sort of common practice that if you were doing a book of your work you did not need model releases and that if you were doing a book of a certain genre of stuff you didn’t need model releases. Books were exempt. Of course now they’re not, but back then it was thought that they were.

So all of a sudden here I am 50 something years old, learning how to put together a website—learning all this new stuff myself, and realizing none of my pictures are useable, with the exception of one job that I did.

It was a bondage book that I had shot for a Japanese publisher. I was doing a lot of work for Japanese publishers in those days. All different kinds of things, and they had asked me to do a book on bondage. I took Japan’s greatest bondage master and put him together with one of America’s greatest bondage masters, got bunch of beautiful models and we shot in various Southern Californian locations. We produced all these great pictures, and published a book. There was a film crew from Japan doing a behind the scenes video for use in Japan to promote our book. The film crew had used the right kinds of model releases and got the IDs on all of the models.

So, as I was feeling this kind of loss for not being able to use all of my favorite pictures, I realized that I at least had these kinky pictures, and I put them on my website and wondered what people would say. The response was extremely positive and people were writing, “Gee, Ken, we didn’t know you did this type of work, it’s really great. We love your bondage photos; we love your fetish images! Can you do more?”

Around the same time, there was a segment on 60 Minutes about the Internet and how some people were actually able to make money with these niche websites. Porn was no big deal, you could get that everywhere, but niche websites that featured bondage or fetish or something unusual like that were thriving on the Internet.

I watched this and thought, “Well, I’ve got a website and I’ve got bondage pictures on there, so I’ll just continue to do this and let’s just see where it takes me.”

My site soon became successful.  I decided at the very beginning that if I was going to have a website I wanted to do business in a way that was different than what I had been doing all these years prior to that. I was tired of billing clients, I was tired of having to wait on getting paid, I was tired of paying bills. I was tired of the business end of commercial and I wanted to do something different. The website offered me a creative alternative.

I thought it would be a sort of semi-retirement project, something I could do in my spare time that would be fun. I didn’t want to get involved in the business bullshit. I decided to work only on a trade basis with people that were interested in doing the same.

This was just going to be something to do for fun, and I was going to make it as low impact as possible. That was 1996. So fast forward 16 years, and I still work on a trade basis and I’m still having fun doing it.

Forget about the semi-retirement stuff. It’s a full time job—I’m working as many hours now as I ever did in my previous incarnations, and I’m loving what I’m doing.

I’m mostly shooting for myself now. I don’t have to be concerned about what an editor, art director, client, designer, printer, or any other person has to say about my work. I do take on private commissions occasionally, but the majority of my work revolves either around my erotic website or my portfolio site:

No more clients, art directors, editors, or designers to please.

If I produce an image and I like it I’ll put it online and let other people like it or not.

If I produce an image that I don’t like, no one is ever going to see it or complain about it.

The Internet reinvigorated my love of photography. Over the years, I’ve gone through some ups and downs about what I’ve been doing and, like anyone else and any other business, there are times you love what you do and there are times you don’t. I’ve been loving what I do now for many years, so that’s a good thing.

Ken's easily recognizable Model Mayhem avatar of Brittany Andrews.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

“The internet reinvigorated my love of photography. Over the years, I’ve gone through some ups and downs about what I’ve been doing and, like anyone else and any other business, there are times you love what you do and there are times you don’t. I’ve been loving what I do now for many years, so that’s a good thing.”

MM Edu: Let’s talk a little about ModelMayhem. What do you get out of it personally and professionally?

Ken: I’ve had a profile on here since 2006, but really wasn’t paying too much attention to what I thought Model Mayhem was originally. My studio manager put up my profile and posted some photos. As a result, we found some excellent models wanting to do erotic TF shoots, so my initial impression was that this is good place for finding models.

Then one day I happened to notice there were these forums. That very day, I had been working on a difficult Photoshop technique and here was this forum about that very same technique. “Oh, that’s very helpful,” I thought. “That extra little bit of information will save me some time and make my job easier.”

It wasn’t very long before I became like a “forum junkie,” and I would visit quite regularly. I try to check out the forums on a daily basis, now. I find it satisfying.

I think in some ways, that the forum section in Model Mayhem has replaced something that used to be part of the photographic community before this digital age. Back in the film days, professionals and amateur photographers would congregate on a Saturday afternoon and talk shop at the local camera store. We’d discuss what’s going on in the industry, what the latest lenses are, what do you think of this, what do you think of that, and it was very useful and had a community sort of feel. In a way it was like what the old country store would have been in a rural community, where farmers would get together and talk.

That sort of interaction seems to have disappeared. Photographers don’t hang out and meet each other much these days.

But Model Mayhem offers these open forums that make it possible to communicate and learn about all sorts of things. I found it very helpful and rewarding in two diverse ways. One is I feel like I have a lot to offer, particularly in the business and legal end of photography, and what it’s really like to work in the real world for large clients, and I hopefully can provide an overview of what the real business of photography is all about.

On the other hand, I am not a technocrat, yet there are many people on Model Mayhem that are—people that know every lens, camera, and more about Photoshop techniques than I do. It’s very helpful and useful to have access to this information, and that’s primarily the area of my life that Model Mayhem fulfills, and that’s why I’m there as often as I am. It’s a distraction, but at least it’s an educational distraction.

Having fun in Ken's Dungeon.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

MM Edu: The old camera store analogy is fascinating.

Ken: Model Mayhem encompasses so many different aspects of our business and the world of photography. There are some lovely things that Model Mayhem has to offer, like the technical forums and this and that. There are also some people out there that will fuck with you because they can. When you get into anonymity of the Internet, you know they are not going to come up to your face and get into your noise and say, “rah, rah, rah”, you know, but if they can hide the privacy of their homes or whatever and throw out all these little barbs at you it’s easy to become negative.

I don’t appreciate all the negativity. What I try and do with Model Mayhem is to maintain some sense of reality and be a calm voice in the face of various storms that go on there. Sometimes it gets a little absurd, and at times I’ll think I’m going to try to end this issue here by telling it like it is, and occasionally that will settle it. It feels good when I’ve offered some insight that may have changed someone’s perspective, challenged their position or produced a positive effect.

Model Mayhem is also a place where I can pass on my experience of doing business and some of the technical information I’ve gained over the years, as well as pick up hints and ideas that other people have to offer. I find it exciting how many truly creative and wonderful photographers there are in this world that put their work up on Model Mayhem—I look at their pictures and go “Wow, look at this!” There are some truly talented people here.

In recent years, Ken's work focuses more on erotic studio portraits and pictorials of some very kinky people.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

“Model Mayhem is also a place where I can pass on my experience of doing business and some of the technical information I’ve gained over the years, as well as pick up hints and ideas that other people have to offer.”

MM Edu: Photoshop plays such a huge role in the photo editing process now. What’s your take on it?

Ken: I do use Photoshop—every picture that I put up on the Internet comes under the heading of being retouched.  I don’t like using the word “editing”, because it’s a misuse of the word. I may shoot 600 to 1000 images then I edit that down to 50, or whatever the final number is. Editing means you keep the good ones and take out the bad ones; it isn’t a process you do with something that is kept and used.

Somehow the word “editing” took over for the word “retouching.”

Today retouching an image is a whole different experience and technique —it’s part of the entire creative process. Instead of spending three weeks to shoot the same picture over and over to get the perfect combination of pose, expression, lighting and exposure, you can just say “Well, we can fix that in Photoshop. I’m not going to worry about that problem; it can easily be taken care of.”

You can dodge and burn in Photoshop very easily, but in the old days to create depth and mood, we would use massive amounts of lights and dozens of flags, and C-stands with sandbags and arms. All of these things meticulously set to throw shadowing in, so all you had to do was expose your film to make that image look exactly how it will appear, because it will never be retouched. It might take a couple of weeks of shooting to get one 8×10 transparency that would be accepted as a centerfold.

I come from a generation of photographers, especially those of us that shot for Playboy where the edict was “pre-touch vs. re-touch.”  The idea of retouching a picture implied you made a mistake.

Thankfully, I enjoy the new technologies. I’ve gotten involved in conversations with people in various forums when they talk about Ansel Adams and the zone system, and the purism of doing it this way or that way, and I feel compelled to respond. I knew Ansel. If he were alive today I’m certain he would love Photoshop. He repeatedly spoke about how it’s not about the technique, it’s about the vision. Photoshop, like the Zone System is only a tool that can be used to achieve the results you pre-visualized.

One of Marcus' covers and pictorials featuring kinky fetish fashions.

Photographer: Ken Marcus

MM Edu: So, you’re saying it would be absurd to not take advantage of all the tools available now?

Ken: The most important thing that I’ve learned, that I try to pass onto others, has to do with the concept of Pre-Visualization—it’s about knowing what you want your final image to look like.

Knowing what you want it to look like, and then working backwards from there.

Thinking: I want it to look like this, and in order to do that I need to do this, and in order to do that I’ve got to do this first, then I have to do go from this, to this, to this, to this, which means the camera has to be set at that, and the light has to be this. If you plan what to do every step along the way you’ll be getting the results that you wanted, instead of what a lot of people to do today: Spray and Pray.

MM Edu: Well, thank you so much for your time, I thoroughly enjoyed coming to your studio, seeing some of your work, and talking to you.

Ken: Thank you, it was my pleasure to have you here in my studio.

The Model Mayhem interview: Ken Marcus (part I)

Ken Marcus

Ken Marcus

Ken Marcus is a photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. His work has been featured in Playboy, Penthouse, Muscle & Fitness, and many more publications. He was an artist-in-resident at the Yosemite National Park Museum, where his "Nudes in Nature" series is part of the permanent collection. His website is

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21 Responses to “The Model Mayhem interview: Ken Marcus (part II)”

  1. June 10, 2012 at 6:16 pm, Angelina1 said:

    I love your work!


  2. May 25, 2012 at 7:48 pm, Andre said:

    Wow You guys got to interview some one who knows what is going on with photographing models not some want to-be photographer. Very cool!


  3. May 19, 2012 at 12:06 pm, Joseph De Sciose said:

    A great interview, I had no idea about his Yosemite series. Inspirational and encouraging.


  4. May 08, 2012 at 4:09 pm, Dr Raj said:

    Inspirational and provides a long perspective in the industry, rarely seen. Its great to see that “traditional” film photographers can embrace the digital medium and see it for what it is: just a tool to create a vision.


  5. May 08, 2012 at 10:28 am, Larsen222 said:

    As I finished reading the interview, I found myself thinking Ken’s photographic skill was just a small component of his success – his attitude and energy were also key to putting him over the top. Thanks for he interview!


  6. May 08, 2012 at 9:23 am, Vertical_0002 said:

    Excellent interview, inspirational for sure – and great images by the way. Gives a good lesson as well early on – and know that not only what we do, but every image may well change someone or something even if in a small unknown way.

    Photoshop is an awesome tool and also helps with production and speed. And in todays world most business just wants quality results by a deadline rather than an image based on our own emotional connection to proper, or what we might feel Art is – in my experience anyway.. err.. so yeah, I agree about the photoshop thing 🙂



  7. May 08, 2012 at 3:49 am, Dgart50 said:

    One of the best interviews that I have read in quite a while. Thanks MM!


  8. May 07, 2012 at 3:17 am, Psroberts7 said:

    VERY good interview—it’s refreshing to hear from a ‘old school’ photographer who understands the need of visualization over the use of software to come up with a image…..and, what’s more (if I understand correctly), the work of a photographer is always evolving—the eye always changing—and is NOT a matter of whatever medium the photographer chooses to use…..this interview was most informative, and I look forward to seeing more.


  9. May 07, 2012 at 12:44 am, Wayne Cutler said:

    Enjoyed the interviews, especially comparing the past to the present.  Your thoughts on Photoshop might upset some of the old timers, which I am one of, but I feel you are absolutely right about how Photoshop aids the photographic process rather than hinders it.  Digital photography is not revolutionary but evolutionary.  I’m sure the wet plate photographers were saying the same about film.

    In closing, I have always thought that you were the best photographer that ever shot for Playboy and Penthouse.  I could always tell your work without seeing your name.

    Always stand by your guns.



  10. May 06, 2012 at 12:57 pm, Michael Corbin said:

    Thank you, Ken, for your words of wisdom as gathered from years “in the trenches.” I, for one, appreciate your experience and expertise, both here in this interview, and on the forums. Keep on truckin’, bro!


  11. May 06, 2012 at 7:59 am, Jim Marcus said:

    Mr. Marcus, many thanks for your insight and perspective to the art and industry. As always, I am a huge fan of yours. I always look forward to seeing your latest work and revere over your earlier images. You are a gracious and true professional.


  12. May 05, 2012 at 11:40 am, Lone Leaf Photography said:

    Excellent interview!! 🙂


  13. May 05, 2012 at 7:32 am, Thrills Seeker said:

    Thanks Ken. Wonderful perspective. 


  14. May 05, 2012 at 12:59 am, Doug Snyder said:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the interviews. Thanks so much for sharing.  


  15. May 04, 2012 at 11:03 pm, Professor Oni said:

    Great interview.  Thank you so much Ken for your contributions to the field, the site and to the world of erotic art.


  16. May 04, 2012 at 6:25 pm, Andy Pearlman said:

    I liked the analogy of the Saturday camera store chats. I used to run into photographers at camera stores and especially the pro labs all the time. We’d be waiting for test strips or huddled over light boxes and someone would call you over for an opinion (or hide their images!). Ken certainly was in the right place at the right time, many times! Hey, just noticed Steve Anderson posted below me, hi Steve, long time no see!


  17. May 04, 2012 at 4:34 pm, Steve Anderson said:

    Nice interview, and Yosemite!, that was a great time and can still fill an evening with amusing stories!


  18. May 04, 2012 at 2:22 pm, Keithdewey3 said:

    I enjoyed this immensely!  Thanks for taking the time and your willingness to share.


  19. May 04, 2012 at 8:36 am, Kuriheartsyou said:

    So much muscle D; Egad. Though I’d hardly call America being “Repressed” for the guy getting arrested for sending porn through the mail. More like America being “Classy” back in the day. 


    • May 04, 2012 at 10:36 am, Bill R said:

      Being sent to prison for a photo that showed pubic hair is pretty repressive in my opinion. 


  20. May 04, 2012 at 8:29 am, Kathy Jean said:



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