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.
Dear Mr Leake, I find your 'art' very bland, basic, and boring actually, not much thought going on with regard to lighting, composition, posing or anything else like a message or statement in my opinion. Using a 10x8 and doing platinum prints of this stuff is beyond me....and to feel the need to justify your tepid work with this piece of writing is,to me, arrogant and laughable. Sorry but thats my opinion and Im sure many will disagree. I just thought the 'emperor has no clothes' situation was evident....No harm meant. best wishes.
Originally Posted by RichardWright
No harm may have been meant, but the tone of your post is unnecessarily rude and personal. It is possible to critique someone's work and writing without personal insults. A constructive critique will give all who read it, some thing to think about. Your critique, however, does not.
I'm reluctant to delete it since you are new here, but I hope in future, you'll choose to be more constructive and collegial when you post to APUG.
Amen, Suzanne. Let's keep APUG civil.
Originally Posted by SuzanneR
Originally Posted by RichardWright
Give us a break. Of course you meant harm.
If I had been present at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better arrangement of the Universe.
Alfonso the Wise, 1221-1284
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This is the reason I was reluctant to join this forum. I meant no harm, as I stated, though my way of expressing my sentiment could, on reflection, have been tempered and Id be grateful to you, Mr Johnny Walker, to not tell me what I meant or didnt mean to do. My comments were meant as constructive critisism, your comment, Mr Johnny Walker, was pointless. Since making my comment I was thinking of deleting it, but as a new member I dont know how to...!? And within the few hours that I wrote it I have been contacted privately by Mr Leake in a polite gracious manner asking me to elaborate on , not delete, my opinion....and only he, and perhaps the moderator, are the people whom I believe should be involved in my comments...unless of course instead of writing your pointless comment, you actually defend Mr Leake's images in a serious fashion, as I have critisised them privately to Mr Leake. Though Im guessing you will just tell me what Im thinking again...Look at the work, and defend it, praise it, or critisize it, but dont judge me for daring to do so...! If Suzanne (the moderator), or Mr Leake (whom Ive asked already but havent heard back from yet) wish to delete my comments then thats fine. If Mr Johnny Walker wishes to use his time to post again I truly hope he will use it to express an opinion on the work, as I did, instead of just trying, and failing, to read my mind. I stand by my comments and am happy to use my full name on my posts, are you Mr Walker...?Best wishes to all (or do I mean something else by that Mr Walker...!?)
Mr. Wright, it would be helpful for understanding a critique, especially one so strongly expressed as yours, to know the critic's background. Care to add a web-site link to your profile?
van Huyck Photo
"Progress is only a direction, and it's often the wrong direction"
I dont understand the apparent vitriol of RichardWright's first [critique]. I too would like to view his work and do a side by side comparrison, to try and understand where his opinion comes from, though,personally I dont care to look at nude work(except for the old masters).
Originally Posted by doughowk
Im 42 years old, Ive been involved in photography since I was 13....Ive worked in the fields of advertising, fashion,beauty, and portraiture, using 35mm up to and including 10x8. Im now concentrating on my own private work. I dont profess to know everything about photography as its an infinite curve on which I continue to climb, which is one of its many attractions, and frustrations!? Im not really interested in posting any of my images here, and to be honest showing my work would have no relevance whatsoever in relation to Mr Leake's images. I know the strengths and weaknesses of all of my images, both the many failures, and the few successes, and so I dont need the comments of others here, which may in reality be influenced by my comments about Mr Leakes work. I am my own harshest critic, and my own best teacher...However since Mr Leake has chosen to post his images, and his thoughts on art, here, he is clearly open to comments about his work, which he has confirmed with a private message to me. I made my comments, which I stand by, in a rather coarse manner, which I regret and here apologise for...so far I havent heard anyone defend Mr Leake's images as 'art' or great photography...My eyes and ears are open and ready to be engaged in that topic...Best wishes.
There's a RW wedding photographer in the UK, but I don't suppose that it would be you?
There was a recent article here on critiques, and my point in a comment was that one should know who is critiquing in order to better take advantage of the critique. Otherwise, its just another anonymous opinion of minimal value.
Last edited by SuzanneR; 01-19-2010 at 09:51 PM. Click to view previous post history.
Reason: Removed the link
van Huyck Photo
"Progress is only a direction, and it's often the wrong direction"
Dear Mr Rainphot, as a further reply to your comment, I dont see any 'vitriol' in my initial comments. They were perhaps alittle coarse, as Ive admitted,and apologised for, but vitriolic...no. As an admirer, and occasional user of large format equipment, mainly 5x4 (or 4x5 if you are an American...) I know the potential difficulties, and great rewards, involved in using that process, and I have great respect for the people who use that cumbersome, slow choice of equipment in the manner in which it CAN be used to sublime effect. I also have great respect for the tonal qualities available from platinum prints, and I admire the determination and will power of those who have taken the time to study, learn, master and print using that medium.
My initial comments about Mr Leake's work were based on my thoughts that the images he has created do neither justice to the format used nor the medium he is printing on. Sadly there are many who forget that technique and process are solely a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. I realise that if you wish to do platinum prints then you were obliged, in the past at least, to use a large format camera to gain the correct sized negative for your image. All of this technique, equipment, labour and effort I admire, if the images live up to that effort. Personally I dont think Mr Leake's images do justice to that effort, and perhaps looking beyond technique and equipment to composition, skilled use of light and shadow, perpective, pose etc etc would, in my personal opinion, make his images worthy of the equipment, effort and printing method used. My use of the words 'arrogant' and 'laughable' were, in hindsight inappropriate, and again (and for the last time) I apologise for their use. However, having read Mr Leake's lengthy and authoritative dissertation on the history of the nude in art I was hoping for, and expecting, some amazing, eye-opening images by him...I was sadly disappointed, hence my regrettable post. I am still eager to hear from those of you who wish to defend his work....though I mean no harm in this apparent attack on Mr Leake and his work. I have been honest and open with my thoughts, maybe too honest. Finally,Mr Rainphot, why would I consider posting you any of my nudes when you yourself state that you have no interest in that genre...!? I truly wonder if you have more interest in antagonism than photography as I see no other reason for you joining in on this topic...? I shall leave it there, and will not be playing this game any longer, Ive got stuff to do. Best wishes to all, and especially to Mr Leake who graciously asked for me to elaborate on my initial comments to him in private, a firm indication of his humility and a firm lesson for me in mistakingly calling him arrogant...