PRINT September 1988


The News and Its Pictures

THESE ARE THE OUTLINES and accessories of transgression: an empty chair, a paper cup, and a used condom discarded surreptitiously in shame and disgust on the carpet next to the chair. A hanky furtively swiped across the shriveled member. A jogging suit with easy frontal access. And a woman who was badly paid to perform a series of naughty poses and meager costumings. A woman with a memory that had recorded, in seemingly exacting detail, the verbal commands given and obediently obeyed, perhaps because they were so simple and pathetic. Down goes another televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart this time, a multimillion-dollar gilded goose slaughtered on the altar of voyeurism, masturbation, dirty words, and short-term motel rentals.

Oh sure, it’s easy to say in hindsight that it all makes sense. These taunting, prancing preachers, these wailing maws of money lust—it stands to reason that they are hypocrites, scam-mongers, and opportunists through and through. And so the longings of Swaggart, however sad and puny, were bound to make the news. The news in this case takes a particularly interesting route through varied venues. From the local media outlet that first “breaks” the story, it then progresses through the national network newscasts, daily newspapers, and national news magazines, and into the secondary purveyors such as news-oriented talk shows, late-night talk shows, life-style magazines, and sex rags. Round and round the news of Swaggart’s misdemeanors goes, swelling with conjecture and ridicule and embellishment. Once hidden from all but a single observer’s eyes, the small and shameful ejaculations in hastily arranged encounters are magnified into major events that audiences across the land could almost see. Events that they would lust to see, would pay to see. Events that they, predictably, can see, for the cost of the July issue of Penthouse: The International Magazine for Men.

In more ways than one, Penthouse is a public-service publication. Suspecting that its readers’ minds might be less than razor-sharp, Penthouse (like Playboy) helpfully characterizes each listing on its contents page. Some pieces are called “Comment,” while others are “Article” or “Service.” Most popular, probably, are those sections called “Pictorial.” A pictorial is what “Debbie Does Swaggart” is, but what it was called by Penthouse was “Reportage,” a term that usually means “the act or process of reporting the news.”

Jimmy Swaggart getting “done” was certainly news. A rival televangelist’s son snapped pictures of Swaggart outside a motel with a prostitute, evidence that placed him in a compromising position. Unfortunately, no original photographs that we know of were taken of the encounters between Swaggart and Debra Murphree, a self-admitted worker in the sex industry—not a church secretary claiming wanton violation or an aspiring model/actress who likes to party with the powerful and randy, but a woman who makes her living servicing the unmet needs of men you wouldn’t usually hear about.

But in this richly fictionalized era, just as documentary proof of presidential lies is totally ignored, so can documentary proof of just about anything be materialized from thin air. A reportage can be created in both words and pictures. So Debra Murphee re-posed and re-cited for two Penthouse writers and a photographer the things that Swaggart had her do that brought him down. Presented as a two-part package, an article included a detailed narrative of Swaggart’s “secret sex life” as described by Debra Murphree, while a series of black-and-white photographs, isolated in a sealed section of the magazine that had to be cut open after purchase, provided the reenactment of the sordid scenes.

But what kind of pictures are these—as either “reportage” or pornography? Shot in square format, they are printed full-frame with black borders in the self-conscious art photo style that was popular in the 1970s. Oddly, there is no photographer’s credit given, leading one to suspect that someone intimately familiar with both this artful style and this kind of cheeky trespass has taken these snaps.1 Odder still, they are ironic and untitillating, like medical photos or pictures from a women’s self-examination manual. Murphree faces the camera and pantomimes her dirty deeds with a knowing, bemused expression. Or she lies back and demonstrates, with clinical precision, the moves and positions that Swaggart wanted to see. Rather than being exploited by the anonymous shooter, Murphree is in cahoots with him, giving a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek performance that is cool and unseductive.

Penthouse’s reasons for producing this parodic piece are perplexing but hardly indecipherable. The magazine’s editors must have realized that Murphree doing Penthouse was not going to be convincing in the cheesecake marketplace. A plain woman, she lacked both the trashy stylization and pendulous physical endowments of a Jessica Hahn or Donna Rice and would thus have limited charm for a jack-off clientele. Still, because she was an upfront sex-worker and not a supposed innocent trying to recover her self-respect through extortion, Murphree would feel freer to enact for the camera what had transpired in private. She didn’t need to be portrayed, as Hahn was, musing soulfully—and toplessly—in healing waters and open fields. She issues no disclaimers, although she clearly judges most of Swaggart’s desires as sick, thus separating his twisted needs from her own more pragmatic motives. Unlike the typical pictorials, where Penthouse supplies brief, suggestive captions, the editors here could flesh out the entire sordid scenario: Murphree’s words printed beneath became the dirty images that defined the otherwise schematic visuals.

What could Penthouse’s readers gain from seeing this “reportage”? We are positioned as viewers, as surrogates for Swaggart. We look across a car seat at this woman, with her blouse unbuttoned and her shorts pulled down in order to display and rub herself. We take his position on a bed as she stands over him and we peer up her skirt. We watch her pull her panties up her “crack” and kneel, “doggie-like,” on a bed. The chill, antierotic staging of all these pictures, coupled with Murphree’s almost condescending “memoirs,” tells us that this is the performance of a woman who has contempt for her spectator’s incapacity to join in the performance. And this message makes us question Swaggart’s sexuality even more strongly than we mock his hypocrisy.

And this might be the rationale behind the pictures. For consider this man’s television performance before his fall. Striding back and forth and back and forth across his stage, he was like an animal in heat. Strutting and shouting, he appeared in cheap-looking suits that weren’t necessarily cheap (this man had money but he had to appeal to his mainly lower-middle-class constituents), with their fabric often drawn taut across his thighs and his crotch. A pimp for Jesus. A cock of the walk. A cock that walks and throbs and thrusts itself, again and again, across the stage. It shouts and moans and yells its incantations of sin and lust and god and hell, its moving, brutal mouth pulled wider open and snapping shut, again and again. But words are secondary here. What mesmerizes and what really counts is this motion, this ramming plunging power. More than the logic of the words, this motion is convincing—so powerful, so demanding, so essential.

A man of insatiable desires could have been imagined, a man of many lusts. Yet the “truth” as it’s staged and framed in Penthouse presents us with a lust so diminished, so stunted, so repulsive. More than bringing Swaggart down as a holy roller of a preacher, these pictures bring him down as a sexual performer. “I don’t think evangelists mean to be sex symbols,” says University of Alabama historian David E. Harrell Jr. in Newsweek magazine, “but they are frequently handsome and highly masculine in behavior. The audience response is not unlike bobby-soxers swooning.” Among those who most demanded and elicited that sublimated swooning was the unfortunate Mr. Swaggart. But the boys at Penthouse figured how to stop the swoon and chasten that high-stepping cock. Mere scandal in the pulpit is now old hat. The stakes are higher, and the market demands a more profound, more permanent psychic disgrace.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator and an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.



1. In his “Real Life Rock Top 10” column of June 21, 1988, in The Village Voice, Greil Marcus mentioned that David Kennedy was the photographer.