Thoughts on Nudes and Photography
Why do I create photographs of nudes? Is there a difference between what I do and what another photographer chooses to do? Does it matter how viewers of my photographs react? And if so, should that have an effect on what I do and how I do it? I’ve recently had cause to ask myself these questions about my work, and this article is my attempt to frame a coherent response.
I have no desire to trigger another endless rambling discussion, so please use the "Post Reply" button with moderation. I'm really interested in what you think about this article, but the topic is not really suitable for megaphone discussions. So if you think I'm right or wrong, out of line or spot on, or just want to let me know your opinions, then please PM me so we can talk constructively.
Two Fundamental Questions
There’s a fundamental question to address before discussing nudes: is photography art? Of course photography has many uses; and many are purely practical, such as scientific or judicial records, social documents, or communication aids. But I practice photography as a means of self expression, so it should therefore be no surprise that I consider photography to be an artistic medium and my photographs to be art. (Whether it's good art or bad art I’ll leave for others to decide.)
The other fundamental question is whether there is a difference between nude and naked. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines naked as an adjective meaning, “without clothes,” and nude as an adjective meaning, “wearing no clothes.” But it goes on to say that as a noun, nude means, “a naked human figure as a subject in art…” So although the OED doesn’t help much, it does suggest that the nude is an art form and “the naked” isn’t.
That sounds like common sense to me – few people would describe a photograph of a naked baby on a sheepskin rug as art, but the artistic status of Edward Weston’s “Neil, Nude” from 1925 is unlikely to be challenged by many. So it seems reasonable to state that the nude (whether sculpted, painted or photographed) is an artistic form differentiated from other representations of naked people.
Celebration or Challenge
Artists choose their themes for many reasons, but I think two are worth highlighting: the desire to celebrate something and the desire to challenge society. Although not entirely mutually exclusive, the extremes of these two motivations are to a large extent contradictory. There is, in essence, a continuum with Celebrationist at one end and Challenger at the other.
Many artists use nudes as a way to challenge society by asking taboo questions, shocking people, and stimulating debate. The best example of this philosophy I can think of was exhibited at Photo London in 2006: a mural-sized photo of a woman urinating into a drain on a London bridge (with everything on show and nothing left to the imagination). Whether this was important art or just disgustingly poor taste is beyond the scope of this article, but without a doubt it achieves the goal of challenging society.
Others choose instead to celebrate humanity with their nudes, showing beauty, or emotion, or strength, or grace, or whatever trait they wish to honour through their nudes. August Rodin and Ruth Bernhard are both artists whose work exemplifies this for me.
Personally, I believe there is sufficient ugliness in the world without me adding to it. I work almost exclusively with nudes because I find the body deeply emotive, visually fascinating, and sumptuously beautiful. I work primarily with women for the same reasons. So, in short, I’m a celebrationist.
Horndog to Robot
I have to thank Scott Davis for this concept. At any moment in time every human being is somewhere on a continuum from horndog to robot. While making out with a lover we’re likely to be more like a horndog, and during a job interview we’re more likely to be at the robot end of the scale.
For most of the time, most of us are somewhere in the middle. But external stimuli can move us rapidly and unexpectedly around the scale. Ever been cuddling up on the couch with your lover when your pet walks into the room and is sick all over the carpet? It kind of kills the moment doesn’t it. Or have you been in a meeting at work when a stunningly attractive person walks by the door? Just for a moment you moved a little closer to horndog didn’t you.
As an aside, a model I worked with also works as a dominatrix in a city dungeon providing unusual services for consenting adults. She told me that some of her best and most loyal customers are members of a strict religious sect which prizes family values and expects high moral standards from it’s members. I’ll let you decide on the morality of this, but I think it reinforces my point that we are all emotional beings (it’s part of the human condition).
While many of us are good at hiding where we are on the horndog to robot scale (sometimes even from ourselves), it exists and it effects how we act whether we like it or not. We may even be able to control where we are on the continuum to an extent, but it still exists. And, I believe, it’s a fundamental part of how we react to nudes.
Nudes and Sexuality
Are nudes about sex, or should they be devoid of sexuality? Is a photograph of a female breast sexy, beautiful, or boring? Is a photograph of a penis art or porn? Where does the sensual end and the erotic begin? Should “naughty bits” be shown? Is eye contact right or wrong?
I believe these are pointless questions, because the answer will be different for every person on the planet. But I also believe that to deny that sexuality has or should have a place in art is to deny our humanity. We exist as a species because of sex; and it’s one of the three fundamental motivations that direct most people’s lives - the other two being personal survival and survival of our children.
As a species, our sexual interests are, thankfully, very diverse (remember the dominatrix?). And as art is all about self expression it’s only natural that artists will seek to portray sexuality in all it’s technicolour glory. And long may that continue.
Nudes and the Viewer
Does it matter what effect my photographs have on the viewer? Of course it does. I’m a celebrationist, and if my work doesn’t communicate my passion then I’ve failed. So I want my work to have an effect on the people who see it. And I want that effect to be a strong emotional reaction. And I want that strong emotional reaction to be one that’s in harmony with my passion for humanity.
But of course I can’t control how people react to my work. Every person who looks at one of my photographs has a whole lifetime of experiences that filter what they see and how they subsequently react. And every viewer is somewhere on the horndog to robot continuum at the instant they see my photograph.
So while I hope that the most viewers will share my passion for humanity, I have to acknowledge that some won’t see my work in the way that I do. And I also have to accept that a strong emotional reaction will sometimes move someone closer to horndog than they or I expected, leading them to do or say things that they wouldn’t when they’re closer to robot.
I know sometimes I say and do things that with hindsight I think were wrong, so it would be hypocritical of me to expect perfection in others. Anyway, I’ve chosen to put my work “out there” so I have to accept how people react to it.
Nudes and the Model
How should photographers work with models in the studio? Many, if not most, people have an opinion on this. I don’t know whether there’s a “correct” way of working, but I suspect that actually it doesn’t matter how an artist and their model work together so long as both of them are comfortable with it and they trust each other.
I believe that if you’re going to ask someone to undress for you in the name of art, and if you want them to put aside their self image and allow you to mould them to your vision (whatever that may be), then they have to trust you. Without trust they won’t relax, and if they’re not relaxed then it will show in the photographs. And of course if they don't trust you then they’ll never work with you again, as well as telling other potential models to avoid you too.
Likewise, if the model thinks you’re too much of a horndog then their discomfort will show in the photographs, and if they think you’re too much of a robot they’ll be bored which will show too. But if you’re both in harmony then you’ve got a real chance of creating something significant.
As far as I’m concerned, the same principles apply whether you’re working with a professional model, a friend, or someone who just wants to broaden their horizons. Without trust and harmony between the model and photographer then you’ll fail to create significant artwork.
Nudes and the Artist
The nude as an art form was invented in Ancient Greece, discovered again in Renaissance Italy, and re-discovered once more in the early 20th Century by artists such as Rodin and Weston. In more recent times, I think the nude has often been swamped (shouted down even) by commercial sexuality and establishment art.
I believe that the human body is inherently beautiful, and I seek to celebrate this beauty through my photography. That is my purpose.
Some people won’t like what I do. That’s fine, but I hope that most people viewing my work will join me in celebrating the wonderful people I work with, and the wider circle of humanity that they represent.
Originally Posted by gandolfi
Originally Posted by gandolfi
I wasn’t trying to imply that “Celebrationist” and “Challenger” are mutually exclusive, just that the more someone celebrates the less they tend to challenge and vice versa (the more they challenge the less they celebrate). I must say that your work is very, very beautiful, and photos like Sad Angel raise lots of questions. But I don’t find the same level of challenge as I do with Mapplethorpe’s X portfolio which, in my opinion, is very far over on the Challenger side of the scale. That leads me to the thought that one person’s Celebrationist may be another’s Challenger… Does that make sense?
On your other thought about working with models... You’ve hit the nail on the head – the correct way to work with a model is to be honest, totally honest. Now I come to think of it, probably all the horror stories that models have told me are about dishonesty, hidden agendas, or breach of trust. Thank you. And now I need to work out how to re-write / update that section
Thanks again Emil for your contribution.
Curtis, you have an unusual and very challenging life story which has given you a unique perspective on life. If you want to discuss this, have your photographs critiqued, and contribute to APUG then there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. The right way is to start your own threads in the forums and subscribe to APUG so you can use the galleries. The wrong way is to hijack article discussions. Please use the right way.
Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley
my view is very simple, I feel a nude is a study of the form weather it be light over the form, the texture of the form the shape of the form etc. however one must read carefully into the realm of nudes and always make sure the image appears as though the nude is a consenting study, for too easily can an image be misconstrued.
I feel photographs of the nude can become photographs of the naked and that the key difference between a photograph of the nude and a photograph of the naked is when a sense of subject vulnerability, photographer / viewer voyeuristic intrusiveness and subject dis consent is introduced into the image.
Both images have their merits in appropriate grounds and may warrant praise. However I feel too often both realms
can slip into the Why factor? cliché images often draw me to this thinking, and all i am able to settle upon is reasons of a less tasteful nature.
my point is I think the defining of an image is essential before its construction and its exhibition must be carefully chosen when it is of The Nude and The naked or it may find itself in the pits of porn.
Last edited by Stephen Frizza; 02-04-2008 at 01:54 AM. Click to view previous post history.
Cliché, the bane of all art… The world is awash with “me too” imagery and with photos where the photographer believes they’ve created art just because they’ve made a picture of a beautiful subject (though mostly they’ve just managed to make a beautiful subject look mundane).
Originally Posted by Stephen Frizza
Eddie Ephraums has said that every photographer should be able to sum up their guiding principles in three words (see Ag #50 for a very interesting and though provoking article). My three words are Explore, Reveal and Celebrate. Knowing my purpose helps me avoid cliché (or at least, I hope it does ).
But I’m inclined to be more generous about why people make clichéd images: all violin makers can make violins, but only Stradivarius could make a Stradivarius.
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Emil- the "horndog" label was an attempt at putting a bit of a humorous spin on the label. A "horndog" is a (usually) man who allows his sexual response to a subject to overpower all other responses. Perhaps then the better label pairing is "sexual/clinical". Does that make the continuum I spoke of make more sense?
Originally Posted by gandolfi
thanks for the explanation. I kind og thought it was something like that, but the word isn't in my dictionary..
I once had a conversation with a girl, interested in modelling (she was thinking about it)
I told her, that deep down, the reason I wanted to photograph her was, that i would like to have sex with her.... in a passive sort of way..
First she was schocked - then she thanked me for my honesty, and agreed to pose for me..
(we didn't have sex at all... but good pictures came out of it..)
was I a horndog - or just honest? is a honest horndog a horndog?
To me "horndog" implies a lack of control or a conscious attempt to manipulate. What your describing Emil is honesty, openness and self awareness - not characteristics that I'd apply to "horndog".
I've done few "personal" nude studies, but quite a few commissions for individuals who, for various reasons want nude B&W photographs of themselves. I frankly find these very difficult sessions because there is a very fine line between "evocative" and "provocative." Clients
I think it's essential that there be an honesty between the photographer and model - nude or not - otherwise any uncomfortableness, (different to discomfort!) is clearly evident in the eyes.
I usually give the negs to the model as a form of adding comfort. None of them figure in my portfolio as, for commissions at least, I believe that while I may well have the legal rights to the images I should not ethically show these photographs to others. In fact I think a photographer should never display or show images that may embarrass a subject. This does not apply to photojournalism, of course; although even here I believe that the photographer should exercise some integrity.
"Why is there always a better way?"
Originally Posted by BobNewYork
I agree and disagree with what you're saying. As far as my nude work in general (and I think I can speak for Ian on this count as well), my models are fully cognizant of the fact that this work is being done to show in a public forum. I do give them my assurances that I will not place it in a forum that they might find distasteful or inappropriate.
As far as commissioned work goes, I don't give away the negatives because I would not want my work being reproduced during my lifetime in a way that might discredit me, either through mis-placement or through poor reproduction. I also would not want clients who ask for me to shoot them, and ask for the negatives begging privacy, to turn around and sell those images without proper credit and compensation (this has happened before!). As to boudoir or other kinds of "edgy" work that someone might commission, of course I would ask permission from the subject to include said work in a portfolio, but if it was a service I wanted to sell, I'd not give away any and all rights to the work in such a way that I could not use it to promote (discreetly) the service. Maybe in a book form only that is shown to clients in face-to-face meetings. Maybe on a password-protected website (most likely not though). Regardless, it would have to be model-released to show it to anyone, but I'd always ask for the release. Your work does you no good if you can't use it to get more work.
Yes, all my published models are paid and have signed releases. Useage on the Internet is explicitly stated in my release and I've never had a model query this.
Originally Posted by TheFlyingCamera
I have done a small number of "commissioned" nudes (some with and some without releases). But these, by their very nature, shall remain private. I still keep the negs though.