Naked Portrait of a Liar

I’ve been sexually exploited and, let me tell you, it’s not a good feeling. It wasn’t one of those situations where somebody whom I thought loved me for my mind wanted my body instead. I should be so buff! No, I was the victim- and not the only one-of Mark Helfrich, the author of a randy coffee-table book entitled Naked Pictures of My Ex-Girlfriends .

I learned about the book from my editor at Penthouse magazine, where I write a monthly column. He’d read a cheerful “Talk of the Town” piece about the book in The New Yorker and thought it might be up my alley. Indeed it was. The attractively packaged volume, published by Rat Press, featured 32 of the photographer’s girlfriends from the 1970′s frolicking naked in the leaves, playing ping-pong in the nude; there were even a couple of snapshots of the fun-loving English teacher with whom Mr. Helfrich had had an affair the summer after junior year. And the photographs were accompanied by thumbnail sketches of Mr. Helfrich’s relationship with each woman, so innocently evocative of that sexually carefree era you could almost hear their Joni Mitchell records playing in the background and smell the Herbal Essences shampoo in their hair.

It was love at first sight between me and the book-as I suspect it was for writers and editors of a certain age not just at The New Yorker but at Time , which also ran a story. Not only did I come of age during the 70′s; I had a collection of naked pictures of my ex-girlfriends, though on a far more modest scale than Mr. Helfrich’s.

I called the author at home, as much to bond with him as to ask him a few questions for my piece. These included how he’d persuaded his old girlfriends to allow him to share their loveliness with the world (I could only imagine the class-action lawsuit I’d trigger were I to broach the subject of publication with my former girlfriends), and perhaps even more pressing-at least from the perspective of the average horny Penthouse reader-what was the author’s secret that allowed him to score with so many beautiful chicks? There wasn’t a facial blemish in the bunch, or a pair of breasts that were anything less than perky.

Mr. Helfrich told me that a lot of his old girlfriends had forgotten he’d even taken pictures of them. “But when they saw the pictures, I think most of them were really flattered,” he said over the phone from L.A., where I’d reached him as he was feeding breakfast to his two-year-old. “The passage of time helped in my quest. They’re captured on film when they were at their peak.

“You don’t have to be amazing-looking to go out with amazing-looking women,” he went on. “I was brought up well. I’ve always been polite. Women have responded to that. I don’t know if I had a secret. I had charm in an everyman kind of way.”

The author’s wife, Alexandra, even got on the phone to attest to Mr. Helfrich’s all-American charisma. “I found my Jimmy Stewart,” she said. “An honorable, stand-up guy-that’s Mark.”

Well, not exactly. The reason for my feelings of sexual exploitation: Shortly after I turned in my Penthouse column, I received a call from my editor suggesting I have a look at a follow-up “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker . Some changes, it turned out, would have to be made to my story.

It seems that a painter named David Glynn was browsing through a copy of Naked Pictures at a Soho bookstore when he recognized three of Mr. Helfrich’s “girlfriends,” two of whom were models who had also posed for Mr. Glynn-not in the Age of Aquarius but within the last few years, which would make them not much more than toddlers back in the 70′s. He wrote The New Yorker with his information and they contacted Mr. Helfrich, who confessed that he’d used models after his real girlfriends quite understandably refused to let him publish their nude pictures.

What surprised me more than the hoax was my reaction to it. I think of myself as pretty jaded, particularly when it comes to the all-but-evaporated distinction between fact and media dramatization. But I felt personally betrayed, and not just because I’d have to go back and rewrite part of my story. Mr. Helfrich hadn’t just lied to me, he’d also screwed with my past.

Even though I rarely look at my own pictures of old girlfriends, I consider them quasi-sacred artifacts. I preserve them for the same reason the United States keeps the Declaration of Independence in a climate-controlled vault at the National Archives. They’re historical documents.

What is more, it turns out that Mr. Helfrich wasn’t even a fully fledged member of the 70′s. He isn’t 47, as he first told me, he’s 42. “I thought Romance In the 70′s had a better ring to it than Sex ’75 to ’85 ,” he would admit, referring to the book’s subtitle. “Which is really the period of time that I experienced this carefree, wonderful time. I just upped it five years for artistic reasons, artistic license.”

How could someone who sounded so honest and likable over the phone rationalize such deceit? That’s why I called him after I read the second “Talk” piece: not because I was looking for an apology, or because I needed him to react to The New Yorker ‘s revelations- my piece in Penthouse had always been more about the larger male naked-girlfriend picture-taking phenomenon- but to understand the workings of the criminal mind.

“Originally, I wanted to put on the very back page, in very small print, ‘Photography/Fiction,’” he said, coming as close as he would to a mea culpa . “But the publishers talked me out of it.”

In the next breath, probably unsurprisingly, he claimed he always knew the hoax would be discovered sooner or later. In fact, it was part of the book’s marketing strategy.

“Now we’re in the second phase of the promotion,” he explained. “How many photography books get written up twice in The New Yorker ? I’m looking at all this as a positive thing.”

I read back to him the quote about his ex-girlfriends granting him permission to use their pictures because they were photographed at their “peak.” “All the women I photographed are at their peak,” he asserted. “All the women in the book are attractive, right? Not all the photographs in the book are models.”

This appears to be phase three of the publicity campaign: Can you guess which of the women are actual former girlfriends and which are impostors? “This is what makes it fun now,” Mr. Helfrich claimed.

I wondered what Mr. Helfrich’s wife thought of his lying. My wife serves as my moral compass, whether I like it or not, whenever I’m tempted to cut corners. “She was completely supportive,” the photographer said.

The problem with writing about the book, of course, is that it only gives it more publicity. Its first two printings are almost sold out, according to The New Yorker . Perhaps most insidious of all, its success is tempting Mr. Helfrich to think of himself as an artist.

“It makes one look at my photography the way I wanted it looked at-that I was able to take photographs that actually look like they were taken 25 or 30 years ago,” he stated cheerfully. “So it sheds a real good light on my photography.”