Three Dollar Bill: Road to Cape Town

Road to Cape Town

I have a soft spot for Zimbabwean photographer Herb Klein, whose work I discovered alongside his contemporaries Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber in David Leddick’s great 1998 compendium The Male Nude.

Mostly I love Herb because the gay gaze of his best photography and pornography is a thorn in the side of Zimbabwe’s iron-fisted dictator Robert Mugabe, who has famously called gays and lesbians "worse than pigs and dogs."

Last week Herb, based in Montreal (and my friend) the last five years, returned to his homeland where his family’s 5,000-hectare cattle farm was seized after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980. As recently as the mid-’90s Zimbabwe was the granary of Africa, but today, debilitated by AIDS, corruption, poverty and drought, the nation is teetering on the edge of ruin.

Herb’s mother now divides her time between neighbouring Botswana and the city of Bulawayo in northern Zimbabwe. (When I drove through Bulawayo years ago I was just jubilant the city had an ice cream parlour.)

"Bulawayo is Matabele for ‘A Place of Slaughter,’" Herb says without a trace of irony (he speaks Matabele fluently). "My family’s farm was stripped under Mugabe. We had to leave because all our neighbours were murdered. But basically all material things in life can be replaced. You have to move on."

Herb, 50, no longer mourns the loss of his family’s farm. But he’s travelling and working in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa through next spring because he loves the land.

"I’ve always been a people photographer. I picked up a camera when I was 6 because Dad was too drunk to take a photo."

Herb’s been snapping ever since. He moved to South Africa in 1987 and began shooting male-physique calendars and mail-order photo sets in a region where erotica – especially homo-erotica – was ruthlessly crushed.

"I shot the first full-colour gay nude magazine on the continent, I’ve launched the modelling careers of many black men in South Africa," says Herb, whose first-ever gay porn, Here Comes Santa, filmed in Montreal this past summer, has just been released (Herb’s porn director name is the suitably cheesy Flash Conway). "Now I’m going back to shoot films of South African guys because there’s no decent gay porn films from out of there."

There was a time when many American outlets wouldn’t buy his photos. "I tried to sell pictures of black men to The Advocate years ago and [my contact] said the photography was beautiful but the models were too National Geographic. That was the way he put it."

Today Herb is much in demand and expanding to film. "It’s my calling card, it’s opening doors and allowing me to travel and shoot more pictures. The problem with porn today is when people focus on volume they get a checklist: blowjobs, rimming, 15 strokes and the cum shot. There are over 1,000 porn movies produced every month. It’s a billion-dollar industry. They just churn them out. They’re okay but nothing special."

Herb makes his real.

"You need the element of chemistry. If they wouldn’t give each other a second look in the real world, they won’t have that look – unless they’re hardened hookers. So I try to partner them up with people they want to have sex with."

All said, it’s a long way since director Wakefield Poole’s pioneering 1971 gay porn Boys in the Sand (last I spoke with Poole he was a chef for Calvin Klein) and even Chi Chi LaRue, whom I met shortly after the release of his 1996 big-budget masterpiece Lost in Vegas (made for $75,000 and loosely based on Oscar-winner Leaving Las Vegas).

"If a film is well made – Chi Chi LaRue still sells films he made five or six years ago – you can sell your back catalogue," Herb explains. "So I retain my rights. They revert back to me after a couple of years. I will have a back catalogue so one day you can download digital DVD-quality video from broadband. That’s coming."

As for all the anti-porn moralizers, Herb says, "You’ve been to Pompeii, you’ve seen all the art in the bathhouses and brothels from two thousand years ago. It’s the same with porn today. Viewers are voyeurs. Anyone who looks at a video is to some degree. It’s human nature – we like to watch."


Essential buttplugs: Purchase Here Comes Santa at

Another fab holiday stocking stuffer is tix to L’Opéra de Montréal’s eighth annual all-star benefit concert, Dec. 7 at PDA. OdM box office: 985-2258.

Finally, check out the December 6 Meow Mix for bent girls and their buddies at Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent), marking the 14th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. Showtime: 10:30 p.m. $7.

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