The Darkness Cannot Overcome the Light

by Joshua Kline

10/31/2011

Her plump, cherry red lips are parted and gripping a beige, freckled butt. She smiles saucily at the camera, her hard eyes daring the viewer to break contact as she takes a drag and blows a white, cloudy plume into the ether. She wears a black bra and panties, nude stockings, and a matching silver necklace and earrings. A labret—a sharp, silver, nail-like post— marks the soft spot between her chin and lips. She’s curled on a pink chaise lounge, legs seductively crossed and poised for the viewer. The owner of the lips—a blonde 19-year-old who calls herself “Nadja”—has the sultry look of a small-town sexpot and bears a striking resemblance to B-actress Jaime Pressly (she of Poison Ivy 3: The New Seduction and My Name is Earl fame).

Anyone versed in the aesthetics of late-night Cinemax programming might expect a lumbering, sweaty meathead to enter the frame and start pawing at the Pressly facsimile until the two are rutting clumsily on the pink chair, making fake moans and grunts, manufacturing banal ecstasy for 13-year-old boys everywhere.

Not in this case. Nadja keeps her top on, there’s no rutting, and the suggestion of sexuality is hidden in plain view, encoded for an ultra-specialized audience. It’s not the legs, the breasts, the lips, or the hips. It’s kind of the lips. More, it’s that cancerous phallus in her mouth, the cigarette. The money shot is that thick, white cloud, lit to emphasize its coherence and weight, billowing out of Nadja’s alimentary canal.

The images are the product of one of the Internet’s older and more obscure curiosities: Coherent Light Photography, aka www.colight.com. The “porn” CoLight peddles is made by and for people with a rare fetish—capnolagnia, defined as “a sexual fetish based on the sight or image of a person smoking.” Founded in 1995 out of Oklahoma City, Coherent Light was born when the concept of Internet pornography was still in its infancy.

The site’s layout is messy and unsophisticated. The streaming videos no longer work, but you can still purchase DVDs and scroll through image galleries, which are mostly video still captures. The films range from three to 30 minutes and are categorized by specific subsets of the fetish. For the uninitiated, category titles like “Dangling,” “Corks,” “Nostrils,” and “White 120s” command visions of things much more sinister than the mundane truth: the titles refer to methods of smoking and cigarette-type. The closest CoLight gets to the conventional notion of web pornography (nudity + sexual activity = traffic) is in a category called “the Dark Side,” which features videos of light bondage and humiliation (ashing, nipple clamps, and forcing the submissive male to breathe smoke through a gas mask) and the occasional smoking lap dance—like a normal lap dance, except the dancer blows smoke in her subject’s face.

The truth is, aesthetically, most of CoLight’s product is closer in spirit to the transgressive art films of Andy Warhol than any skin flick. Ironic, considering Warhol himself used the pretense of the art film to indulge his own fetishes. Ed Luisser, founder and sole producer of CoLight, uses his fetish to indulge artistic aspirations.

***

“After we eat, we’ll go out on the patio and have a smoke,” Luisser tells me. Over burgers and beer in a garish bar & grill in Oklahoma City’s Warr Acres neighborhood, Luisser explains to me the inception of Coherent Light. At 57, he’s a stocky man with white hair and a beard. An admitted “eyes man,” he maintains constant eye contact; his own are large and round, as if years of visual stimulation have imprinted on his face a look of permanent surprise.

He’s uncommonly eloquent, considers himself a wordsmith, and speaks with natural authority through a crisp, confident voice ready-made for radio. He’s also disarmingly honest and self-aware, and occasionally lapses into psychological analyses of his unusual proclivities, which he dates back to his early childhood in the late ‘50s, “the tail end of the golden age in America.”

To Luisser, cigarettes and beautiful women are inseparable. “Glamour was de rigeur,” he says of the ‘50s. “It was the standard, and that impacted me greatly. I was raised with women who didn’t walk out of the house unless the hair was perfect, the make-up was perfect. All the ladies in my family were very attractive, well-dressed, veils and red lipstick, and they smoked with style. At the time that I witnessed these things, they were taking care of me, providing emotional care. These things get sexualized down the road.”

“I found out later in life that I’m very—well, obviously—a very visual person,” he says, then coughs a violent, wheezing cough— smoking has taken its toll over the years. “So that kind of embedded itself pretty thoroughly in me.”

Luisser was raised Catholic in a mostly Italian neighborhood in northern New Jersey. He says he was subjected to psychological abuse at the hands of authority figures in the Church (he’s now an atheist), and throughout our conversation, he alludes several times to a specific childhood trauma that he won’t fully reveal. He believes that years of therapy have helped him understand the connection between his intense childhood and his sexual quirks.

In the early ‘70s, Luisser joined the Air Force as a firefighter and was stationed in Vietnam. After his tour, he followed several of his ‘Nam buddies to Oklahoma and settled down here in the capital, where he continued to work as a private firefighter at both of the City’s airports. “Almost every freakin’ reporter that’s ever talked to me about this said, ‘Oh, so (did you work at) the Fire Department because of the smoke?’ ” he says with a laugh. “I said, ‘No, that’s a little different. I just like pyrotechnics.’ ”

As a young man, Luisser didn’t have much luck with relationships. “I think you can imagine what it’s like being a person who has an unusual preference, and how the hell do you broach that with someone who you want to date? I mean, it severely impacted my ability to … I’m not an aggressive type. Ya know, I don’t get a hard-on when the wind blows.”

In 1993, while hunting for vintage photographs of mid-20 century women smoking, Luisser made his first connection with another human being who shared his fetish. That guy knew another guy who liked the same thing, and so on. A small club was formed. After a lifetime of isolation, Luisser had found communion with men who understood him. “When the word came through that other people existed with this preference, even a handful, it was validation. Emotionally, my self-confidence went up, self-esteem went up. I’d spent my entire life (alone) wondering what the origins were of this.”

Invigorated by the camaraderie, he spent the next two years exploring his new art, shooting on a borrowed VHS camera and using, as he puts it, an “idiot-grade” still camera to capture photographs from the video work. He devised DIY lighting techniques to fully capture the smoke in all its billowy, pillowy glory. “To catch the light of the smoke, where you can exhale it in any direction and catch it instead of just in profile, required specific lighting that they didn’t really have. So I built my own little light-heads, or funneling devices.” As his network of smoking connoisseurs grew, demand for videos and photographs increased, and Luisser realized there was money to be made. In August of 1995, he founded Coherent Light Photography in his living room. It was easy to find girls to perform in the videos—Luisser was only interested in smoke, eye contact, and “glamorous” make-up and costumes, so no nudity or sex required. And the girls were always paid. That year, Luisser married one of his models.

Then a journalist came calling, and everything changed.

“In late ‘95, I got a call from a buddy who said, ‘This reporter wants to do a story.’ I didn’t even know who she worked for at the time. I was one of the only ones who was actually willing to put my name out there and my ass on the line. So I gave her the story.” Turned out, the reporter was Suein L. Hwang from the Wall Street Journal. “Next thing I know, it’s the end of January of ‘96. Front page. And all hell broke loose.”

The page one story ran with the headline, “Drag Queens: Paula Puffs and Her Fans Watch, Enraptured,” and the subhead, “‘Smoxploitation’ Films Signal That Smoking Is Becoming A Fetish Among Many.” It featured an illustrated rendering of one of Luisser’s video stills of “Paula” smoking. The thesis of Hwang’s article—which Luisser calls “wholly erroneous”—is that the marginalization of smoking as a social activity gave rise to its fetishization, a gross over-simplification that ignores what clinical psychology treats as common wisdom—that sexual fetishes manifest themselves based on strong emotional associations formed in the early years of childhood.

“There are websites devoted to the fetish of inflatable pool toys,” Luisser offers. “If it can be fetishized it has been. [Smoking] has just been an undiscovered one.”

The morning the WSJ story broke, Luisser’s phone began ringing and didn’t stop. Media outlets around the world called wanting a story—The Times of London, Fox News, papers in Italy and Russia. Even Oklahoma City’s Channel 9 got in on the action. With each new story, the demand for Luisser’s product increased. Just a few weeks after WSJ, CoLight’s website was hastily launched to capture the influx of orders. He began acquiring more repeat customers—respectable, wealthy, some famous. “When it first broke, everybody wanted some, because it was unusual. The only continent I never shipped to was Antarctica.” According to Luisser, his clientele included the eponymous founder of a certain popular cyber-security company, a retired Japanese billionaire, and a mainstream film director, the latter of whose office is adorned with smoking photographs.

Prices of the videos ranged from $20 to $50, and the sudden increase in orders allowed Luisser to quit his day job, save money, and live a comfortable existence. In 1999, Coherent Light was featured in the found-footage documentary, The Last Cigarette. Business boomed, and Luisser’s life flourished for a time.

Then everything fell apart.

***

In late 2000, his marriage was in its death throes. The divorce was messy. The newly single Luisser rented a large space for cheap at 24th and Western, in a comfortable Asian neighborhood in west OKC. He had ample room to create an in-home studio complete with costume and make-up stations. But money became a strain. “In terms of gross income, it might look impressive for one person. But this is an expensive hobby. The computers, the software, the Adobe products, and keeping them upgraded. My cameras were $5,000 a piece.”

Copycat smoking websites began to pop up and eat into his business. In 2004, the online pay service that Coherent Light used to facilitate order payments got entangled in a messy lawsuit and went down for eight months. Luisser estimates that little hiccup cost him $20,000. To make up for it, he worked longer hours and pushed himself physically. As his health deteriorated, the old demons from his formative years began to appear. He sought therapy. “I don’t remember a lot of my childhood,” he says. “As I worked more and more, like seven days a week, I found myself thinking more and remembering things. Little clues were popping up more intensely until by the end of 2005, I was remembering things I’d forgotten completely.”

In early 2006, he had a major breakthrough in therapy. He was living a monastic existence and focusing on personal healing. “I never left the house, no vacations, nothing.” Things were on the upswing, but his business was still ailing. In July, he decided to get out of town and take the rare vacation. While he was gone, his studio was burglarized, a rarity in the normally quiet neighborhood. The intruders took his computers, his cameras, his lights, his kitchen appliances. “The cops never found a fucking thing.”

Devastated, with little money and less reason to stick around, Luisser fled Oklahoma for southern California. In a small town outside of San Diego, he attempted to pick up the pieces of his life and rebuild his business. The cost of living combined with Luisser’s limited funds and lack of equipment made it difficult. Online orders had tapered to a slow crawl. He was dissatisfied with the quality of his work. “I tried to shoot out there, but I found the personalities somewhat at odds with those that I had worked with in Oklahoma. There just wasn’t a lot of soul.” CoLight’s former glory was never restored, and its resigned founder took a job as a staff member at a yoga retreat in the middle of the desert.

In January 2010, California’s “bloated sense of economic self-importance,” as Luisser puts it, forced another move. He came back to Oklahoma City. “Thirty years as an official ‘Damn Yankee’ in Oklahoma gave me a few of those rare good friends, and a home I knew.”

He’s been couch-surfing since his return. He still receives and honors online orders, but business isn’t steady enough to provide any stability. He’s also dealing with some serious lung issues directly related to his smoking. The doctors aren’t sure if it’s cancer.

Still, Luisser remains optimistic. He’s a rationalist, and he speaks of his current situation with awareness and candor. But he’s not broken. He hopes to get his business off the ground once again. And he’s still shooting.

Several weeks after our beer and burgers, I spoke with Luisser over the phone. He went back to 2006, what he calls his “benchmark year”—his year of professional devastation and personal rebirth. He’d found himself through therapy, discovered the source of his pain, and learned to love himself. But he’d all but lost the business built on the backs of his personal demons.

“I started to appreciate a regular life, instead of just focusing on the only thing I knew as a way to mitigate the losses in life. And that, I think, is a lot of what we do.We try to find a way to make up for the things which didn’t quite work out. For me it became a matter of work.”

Coherent Light was founded as a means for Luisser to find acceptance, and turned into a point of convergence for a community of like-minded people around the world. But unlike many of his fellow fetishists, he refused to hide from the light, repress his urges, or lie to his partners. Even many mainstream pornography consumers tend to be surreptitious about their activities for fear of shame or divorce. Luisser doesn’t find shame in his condition, and he’s offended by conventional pornography. “What differentiates my work from others is to me, the eyes are critical. I want to communicate with the person, not with their body parts.”