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.
Ha ha, no I dont advertise my services DougHowk, though Im honoured that you feel the need to try and track me down instead of reading again what I initially said then looking at Mr Leakes images, and then perhaps making your own comments about those images, go on, I dare you! And everyone is entitled to their opinion, as Mr Leake so graciously said to me...I dont need to justify my opinions by showing you how big my camera is...nor my images. That, as you should know, is totally irrelevant, and childish. My opinions stand on their own in relation to the work discussed, nothing else is being discussed here, in fact Im the only one discussing Mr Leake's work! Are you going to put your hat in the ring, sir, or am I going to be vilified for having an opinion!?
Let's start fresh, then.
Mr. Wright has apologized for the rather course manner in which he offered his critique. FWIW, he made some valid points about Ian's work, which I may not agree with, but I felt deleting the post was not necessary. We are, I think, interested in dialog that is constructive. I don't have to agree with all comments here, whether they are critical or not, and I think APUG would be boring if all that was offered in the form of critique was praise.
Ian's nudes are most interesting to me, when he uses the negative space around the figure well. Not all of them work for me, but some are really quite beautiful to my eye. I have one of Ian's platinum prints, and it's gorgeous... I imagine the prints of his nudes are rather more impressive in person than they are on the screen, so I'm reluctant to comment on his print quality here. That said, I don't find figure work as interesting as other forms of photography... I have a personal preference for more documentary work, but studying those who work in the studio in still life or with the figure can lead one to a greater understanding for organizing space within the framework of the camera.
Oops... didn't hear all the typing!!
Ps...I understand your desperate need to classify and categorise me and my worthiness to have an opinion by showing you a photograph or two...I went to college a long time ago to do a photography course. Every day for two years I asked to see the work of the teachers who were critisizing my efforts daily, so that I could judge their worthiness to teach me...and everyday they chose to forget to bring anything in to show me. After winning a number of external photography competitions I learned to stop asking to see their images, as it was irrelevant to my own progress, instead I continued to ask their advise and learn from them things that they clearly knew more about than I did, choosing also to find out for myself things that they had no interest nor knowledge of...I learned a great deal when I was eventually open to learning, and they, after years of blinkered teaching and drowning in bureaucracy, learned a few things too...
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Thank you for the personal response. As for my "not careing" to view nudes stems from my belief that there are no more new ways to pose a body that is "artful". Nearly every pose that I have viewed recently looks painful and awkward, for both the model and viewer. Years ago, I spent many hours shooting "the genre", and feel, for me, its become hackneyed. There are many of you out there that feel otherwise, and that is fine for you.
Originally Posted by RichardWright
My statement about your apparent vitriol is just an observation brought on by your dialog. I am, by nature, not an antagonistic person. However after reading your rant, I felt it necesary to question your motives. I do believe that when we view anothers work, find positive ways of responding, or be polite and just say it doesn't work for you. Is there any real need to disparage another?
Once again, I thank you for believing me worthy of a personal response.
Richard. As you have asked me to comment publicly I will.
1) My Prints. I know that what I do isn't to everyone's taste. That's fine. I also recognise that by choosing to post them here I am inviting other people to comment on them. That's fine too. And the same goes for my writing. Having said that, I would prefer people to be polite even if they do not like what I do. I accept your apology.
2) Your Credentials. In my experience, the value of someone's feedback is often (albeit not always) closely related to their experience of the subject being discussed. For example, Kim Weston's opinions and experience of photography, nudes and printing are on balance more likely to be valuable than those of Joe Schmo the wedding photographer. As you refuse to credentialise yourself people are entitled to assume that you are closer to Joe Schmo than to Kim Weston - and they're entitled to value your opinions accordingly.
3) Critique. I have managed, trained and coached people for many years in my corporate career. Believe me when I say that it is possible to be very tough and challenging to people while remaining polite, supportive and constructive. I suggest that you read Cheryl's article on critique (http://www.apug.org/forums/forum220/...critiques.html) and start again.
I don't particularly want to get drawn into a public shouting match because these are generally pointless and demeaning to all involved. So if it's OK with you I shall return to doing the more valuable things in my life.
P.S. "Mr Leake" was my father. My name is Ian.
Final comment on this from me then....Firstly, is 'credentialise' a real word?? Thats a new one on me...its true that in general the value of someone's feedback is closely related to their experiences of the subject being discussed. Lets say for the sake of argument that Ive never touched a camera, but that Ive studied the history of art, and specifically the use of the nude worldwide in photography, since its invention, up to and including the present day....would my opinion be less valid having never taken a photograph? You seem to imply that it would be less valid. How close would this imaginary person have to get to a large format camera, or for that matter to a naked woman, to understand your obviously deep and meaningful work? I have a friend who always says she doesnt know anything about photography so she feels her opinion on an image we may be discussing is invalid, I refuse to agree with her, and invite her comments, as perhaps someone who has fresher eyes sees things in a different way, and I value her comments, as I do my friends 13 year old daughter, who may like or dislike a colour or the specific placement of an object within the frame. She may not fully understand, nor have been taught, why she likes or dislikes something, or the rule of thirds etc, but inherently she may have the artistic temperament to see and analyse in a thoughtful way, and make a valid statement that may only need translating into adult 'artspeak' for it to be valued by those with minds and ears too closed to hear the comments of a naive child.
This theoritical situation is purely that. I have actually taken a number of photographs in my time, and studied the history of art etc etc but I dont need to walk around with my images or reference books glued to my back and front to justify my comments here or in an exhibition somewhere. Most intelligent mature people will listen to the comments of others and choose to dismiss or agree with them as they see fit, they may even admit that they, as we all do, have more to learn on the subject than perhaps they care to openly admit....Telling you how expensive my lenses are, or showing you my images has absolutely no relevance whatsoever on my thoughts on your images. If you put any piece of artwork on a wall it is up for discussion, by everyone who can see it, and the classism you imply in your comments is sadly what the art scene is all too full of, an elitism that tries to restrict the discussion of art from the masses, who then feel isolated and not allowed to enjoy that which they feel excluded from. If an image needs a lengthy written piece of artspeak jargon next to or underneath it to justify it, then it has failed entirely in its premise. If a young person casually walks up to it and it makes him or her smile, or frown, or question, or hopefully think, or even greater inspire then it has succeeded! Sadly, as I have said privately to you before, none of your images ellicit those emotions in me, and that dear sir is my priviledge....Good luck and best wishes. Richard
My patience is running thin... you've made your point in numerous posts, Ian is free to accept or reject it, as are the rest of us. Lighten up.
I find it strange and even suspicious the nude photography continuously needs justification.
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