Despite its transgressive subject matter, extreme metal sometimes has a hard problem with sex and nudity. Sure, plenty of bands will adorn their album cover with a topless model covered in blood or wearing a nun’s habit, but seeing the figures behind the music nude or in a place of sexual honesty is often blushed at. This is in part due to raw sex being associated with the jock bullshit of hair metal, to which death and black metal formed in direction opposition. But as extreme metal becomes less of an insular boys’ club, and women being vital members of the scene becomes normalized, so too does being real about the human body and what we like to do with it.
“I think it depends on the genre of metal you’re listening to, and how they view sexuality or eroticism,” says Jeremy Saffer, veteran photographer and the mind behind the new photo book Daughters of Darkness. “Pornogrind and grindcore and a lot of death metal is about being brutal. I listen to all types of metal, but when you listen to a band like Cannibal Corpse or Lividity, every song is about brutal things and every time a woman is involved, it’s not going to go well for her. I think other genres such as doom metal and black metal aren’t looking to exploit or take advantage of or kill any woman who’s in front of them. They’re more about worshipping them. It’s very much more romantic than what you find in other genres of metal. Black metal, I find, focuses on nude women in occult settings, nude women in nature settings. Like, I’m a huge thrash nerd, and thrash is never meant to be beautiful. Ever. It’s just fast and awesome.”
Saffer’s pet project for the last 12 years, Daughters of Darkness sounds simple on paper: nude models in black metal corpse paint. But flipping through the book, one begins to see the subconscious depths that Saffer’s photos reach. Here are nude women — among them big names like New Years Day’s Ash Costello, horror icon Caroline Williams, and adult film legend Joanna Angel — wearing the war paint of metal’s most drastic subculture, looking as empowered and contemplative as any of the genre’s stars in their infamous woodland photo shoots. This resonant mixture of the sacred and the profane is what no doubt inspired Cradle of Filth’s Dani Filth and Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe to write a foreword and introduction for the book respectively, and what makes Daughters of Darkness the kind of tome you want to flip through again and again.
“One of the coolest things I was able to do while putting this book together — because I was doing nothing else in the pandemic — was reach out to every model and make sure I had their credits right and kept them updated,” recalls Saffer. “And some of these models switched their names to ‘Anonymous,’ but I didn’t really get anyone who didn’t want to be in the book anymore. After this many years and this many models, everyone was really excited for it. Many of them were really excited to see these photos that have basically been in a lock box for 12 years. They’re kind fo rallying as much as I am. “
Take us from the very beginning: where did the idea for Daughters of Darkness come from?
It starts years and years ago, when I was getting into black metal. I’d learned who Cradle of Filth was, I knew who Immortal was, but I didn’t really know the widespread world of black metal and all these other bands from the early to mid-’90s. I’d go to my local record store in Connecticut, and just dig through whatever CDs or vinyl they had in the ‘Metal’ section. I would just pick up whatever album’s art moved me, not knowing who the band was, and nine times out of ten it was either an amazing black metal or doom metal record. That’s how I found bands like Tristania, Sins of they Beloved, Gehenna, all those bands. I was really into that imagery and bands who really pushed the envelope, bands like Cradle of Filth, whose merch pushed the lines of fine art nude, fashion nude, and romanticism. And then you have bands like Satyricon whose “Mother North” video is basically worshipping this nude woman who is the embodiment of nature. And it just hit me that I really like that kind of imagery.
So fast forward many, many years, I’m a band photographer, 50% shooting bands for magazine covers and album covers, and 50% shooting fine art nude stuff with models for gallery shows, art books, art exhibitions, stuff like that. This dude Karim [Peters], who was a tour manager for many bands, he started this clothing line that was a black metal clothing line. And he asked me to replicate the Pulp, This Is Hardcore cover, a nude blonde woman laying in a red setting. He wanted it to be ‘This Is Black Metal,’ with a girl, nude, laying down in corpsepaint. So I did a shoot with a model and she was a black metal fan, so we ended up shooting a ton of stuff beyond that. And I just loved the aesthetic so much–it got me back to flipping through these albums, the Tristania cover, and thinking, ‘This is awesome.’ I figured I would do something with it — do a smell project of 10 to 20 photoshoots and make it kind of a group of images or a collection. And about a year later, I was about 50 deep, and I just decided to keep going with it. I loved my work, I was getting hit up by so many models who love black metal and wanted to be involved. And it just kept growing and growing.
How did this 12-year project evolve into Daughters of Darkness as a book today?
Eventually, I started shopping it as a book, which seemed like the logical way to go. But when I hit up publishers who publish nude photography books, they were all like, ‘Nope, this is too niche for us, we don’t get the corpsepaint, hell no.’ So I hit up some record labels and clothing lines to do something dark and culty, and they said, ‘Nope, nude women, can’t do it.’ So I was getting “no”s all around until I was lucky enough to meet the publisher I have now, Rare Bird. I shot for a [Nekgrogoblikon’s book], and he put it out for Rare Bird. While I was doing the photos for it, I hit up Rare Bird being like, ‘Hey, here are photos for something I’ve been working on for 12 years, I don’t know if you’re interested in it.’ And they immediately were like, ‘Yup, let’s do it.’ When I went into my first meeting with the owner, he was wearing a Satyricon hoodie, and we talked about black metal for two hours before even talking about the book, so, that solidified that I’d found the right publisher. I could go on and on about them as a company.
Something I really love about the book is that the corpsepaint looks really genuine. It doesn’t feel like someone’s wearing a costume of black metal — it’s actual black metal corpsepaint.
One of the really, really cool things about this book is that all the models did their own corpsepaint. And of all the hundreds of models involved, all of them are for the most part into black metal, and the few that are kind of thrash-death-prog-industrial fans are at least well versed in Dimmu, Cradle, that kind of thing. None of them went in going like, ‘Like Kiss? Like Dia de Los Muertos?’ If you look at their tattoos, a lot of them have Darkthrone tattoos and Satyricon tattoos, which is awesome. This way, it’s their vision of what corpsepaint would be. We have a couple of models who are in the book more than once, and they did different corpsepaint every time. They’d said, ‘I’m going more for Viking metal corpsepaint here, I’m going more traditional raw thick-line black metal here,’ and so on.
That’s especially cool because of some of the big names in this book, like Ash Costello, Caroline Williams, and Joanna Angel. Were any of those hard to lock down?
Honestly, everyone in the book is someone I’m friends with, in terms of the big names. They’re people I’ve worked with a lot and are really close with. Ash and I have been very close friends for many, many years. Caroline and I, same thing, Jessie Lee is my old roommate, and that’s how I know Joanna so well. There were a lot of really big-name models involved, but I wasn’t surprised by the names involved so much as I was surprised by how much they knew what black metal was. They’re black metal fans! When this project started, and I’d have friends see shots from the project, and they’d be like, ‘Hey, I love black metal, I want to be involved.’ Sometimes they’d know more about black metal than people who claim they are adamantly into it. I’d be playing black metal during the shoots, and they’d be like, ‘Oh, I love Diabolical Masquerade! I love Limbonic Art!’ It’s awesome to see how far black metal reaches.
One edition of the book comes with a special vinyl compilation full of huge black metal bands — Abbath, Mayhem, 1349, Watain, and more. Was putting that together the coolest thing in the world for you?
Oh, absolutely. The way it came together was unreal. Rare Bird usually does vinyl with their books, but it’s usually an author reading a chapter. At first they were like, ‘Let’s have Dani Filth read his Foreword, or have Randy read the intro.’ And I said, ‘What if we did a black metal comp, if I could make that happen?’ So it took a little bit of doing, but I reached out to Season of Mist, who I have a great working relationship with. I expected them to give me their 10, 15 newest singles — These are who we have coming up, here’s who we’re trying to promote. And I’d be cool with that. But instead, they’re like, ‘Here are the keys to the archive. Pick whatever songs you want, whatever bands you want. So I basically got to live out my childhood dream of putting a comp together. And I grew up on those–Deathmeister, Firestarter, Gods of Darkness, all those comps got me into black metal. So when I put it together, I got to pick my favorite bands playing my favorite songs. Immortal’s my favorite black metal band, so getting to have Abbath kick it off with “Count The Dead” was incredible. The owner of Rare Bird is a huge black metal fan as well, so he’s freaking out that this is happening. He’s like, ‘Oh my God, we get to live out this high school dream of putting together our dream compilation!’
Jeremy Saffer’s Daughters of Darkness comes out Friday, October 30th, on Rare Bird, and is available for preorder.
Words by Chris Krovatin