Tony Ward reimagines erotica for the 21st century

Philadelphia photographer Tony Ward has led a charmed life, moving as he has from the documentary style reportage of his youth, snapping church life at 16th and Fitzwater, to the deeply grainy black-and-white erotica work that made him famous. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Ward was a fixture of glossy high-minded photography, often involving alternative lifestyles, graphic sexuality and, in the case of his monograph, “Obsessions,” many local faces and bodies. Since 2010, Ward has taught photography courses at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, and this weekend commences a softer, more PG-rated exhibition of new work, “Persistence of Seduction,” at the Jed Williams Gallery in Bella Vista.

How did you make the transition from corporate work to the racy, erotica work you’ve become known for?

I had an epiphany in the spring of 1993 that revealed a destiny to explore elements of life that are indivisibly linked to humanity. In many ways during this period I felt a kinship to Alfred Kinsey, the legendary investigator of human sexuality. That led to the exploration of sex in its innumerable manifestations. Fortunately, I had a patron, a publisher that supported my vision: none other than Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse.

Was it a big deal that you used so many locals within the pages of your books?
Philadelphia is my hometown which served as an enormous laboratory. By the early 1990s I had plenty of subjects to select from in our extensive multicultural community. At first, I began by photographing my former wife, and that established a certain amount of credibility in exploring the subject with friends and acquaintances. Displaying and exhibiting the intimacy I explored with my wife led to countless other women and men who wanted to explore their sexual limits before the camera as well.

What is the mainstream porn biz like now compared to how it was then?
Individual adult-related businesses have been on the decline since the internet and digital revolution began to impact magazine sales. I suppose there are companies making money in creative ways using the best support internet developers can offer. Big players like Playboy and Penthouse were forced to pivot away from print publishing and focus their working capital in developing brand recognition via digital media.

What does teaching photography in Philly consist of? How do young students wish to photograph in the era of cellphone cameras and selfies?
I have had a distinct opportunity of working with students at the University of Pennsylvania since the fall of 2010. I have found it to be quite challenging and in many ways fulfilling to explore the minds and innate talents of some of the best and brightest young people from all walks of life, and from all over the world. We discuss fundamental things like the history of photography, the evolution of analog photography to digital capture. We also explore the invention of the camera obscura and its impact today on contemporary culture. Modern photographic devices, including cellphones and tablets, in some ways may have contributed to the existence of a narcissist culture.

How does any level of heteronormative female nude photography with an erotic edge operate now in an age of enlightenment?
I think we are unfortunately far away from an “age of enlightenment” when we still operate under the present restrictions of when and how we view erotic images. The big players in mass media today, like television networks and publishing houses, sanction carefully what they allow the mass public to view. Their direct ties to the advertising dollars of major corporations that support these media entities and our provincial social ideals leave us far behind European cultures in accepting nudity and eroticism.

What can we expect from this new show?
I’ve known Jed Williams for years as he is a neighbor in Bella Vista where I lived for 25 years and created many of the works that are represented in the show. This show represents a coming home — a visit to the old neighborhood. There are subtle differences between hard-core pornography and eroticism. I believe I’ve honored my models by presenting them in beautiful images and relevant tableaux.

What’s your favorite photo in the new exhibition?
I have been asked this question many times and it’s always the same answer. Pictures that we archive are like children. It’s a sin to say one is the best.

“Tony Ward: Persistence of Seduction’s” opening reception is Saturday, Feb. 18, from 5-7pm. The show runs Feb. 18-24 at Jed Williams Gallery, 615 Bainbridge St. Visit