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.
Who was it, that when asked, "Do you think your art is sexually exiting?" - answered, "If it isn't, I've failed miserably" (I think that was Picasso).
I suppose it is possible to produce "works" without either being involved with the subject, or deliberately avoiding emotional content ... I run across those from time to time - but - the great question: WHY? In what way are they useful?
Do they fire up imagination? - or a sense of "escape"? ... or empathy to, and displacement with, the elements in the scene?
Ed Sukach, FFP.
VISUAL PLEASURE AND NUDIE PICS; LAURA MULVEY
The idea of 'the male gaze' in the essay I have linked to below - I read as basically that throughout time the main purpose of the nude is to perpetuate the dominant social order. Mulvey also talks about scopophilia: looking itself as a source of pleasure. (Read: boner city!)
Perhaps as artists we wouldn't want to rehash this same old story, or participate in the objectification and exploitation of others - and maybe, if so, whatever value the 'nude' has in terms of inherent beauty, is worthless relative to it's power as an instrument of oppression.
Everything's subjective of course. If we were really able to be objective about it we might see that all humans are actually nasty monkeys and we just like nude pictures for the normal reasons. (Boner city!). For me, Weston's work is a good example of this; his peppers and seashells are sexier and better looking than his nudes, which aren't hard on the eyes either. There's nothing wrong with visual pleasure exactly, it's just a little problematic as art nowadays. Anyway, this essay is the last word on the subject as far as I am concerned, and every nude shooter should definitely read it, at least to get an idea of the argument. It's a little intimidating/academic looking, but it's actually an easy read - I promise.
Replace or imagine 'cinema' as 'photography' as needed in the essay below.
VISUAL PLEASURE AND NARRATIVE CINEMA - Laura Mulvey
Link to essay:
Wow, that article is a real product of its time (1975). As for being an easy read, that depends on how much tolerance you have for the academic butchery of language. This sort of writing shares a lot in common with the worst kind of art commentary. Speculative overanalysis is often tedious; Freud might even have called it masturbatory.
Originally Posted by stinkyprofessor
In any event, still photography and cinema are very different media, but the range of effects (from oppressive, through tacky, to beautiful) that are capable of being achieved by each are evident to just about anyone from simply looking at a wide range of work.
Goodness, what an astonishing piece of prose. I can only presume that the author is neither an artist nor an art-lover because she clearly has no grasp of the many pleasures of making, sharing and viewing art.
Originally Posted by stinkyprofessor
Why not? The making of an artwork which shows a human is necessarily the objectification of that person: where there was a person there is now an object. And why your assumption that a nude is necessarily exploitation? Who exactly is being exploited? The model certainly isn't because she (or he) is a willing participant. Isn't it more exploitative to make a photograph of an unknowing subject than one of a knowing one? Or are you suggesting that all images of humans should be banned from art?
Originally Posted by stinkyprofessor
There is nothing 'problematic' with visual pleasure. Visual pleasure is a fabulous thing. There should be more visual pleasure in art, not less. The idea that art must be an intellectual / political / didactic experience is about as tired and worn out as that old boot rotting at the end of my garden. Art is about expression, and as such it necessarily covers the whole panoply of human experience. And that includes sex. And it includes beauty. And it includes pleasure.
Originally Posted by stinkyprofessor
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Doesn't discrediting 'visual pleasure' only really serve those who have very little artistic or aesthetic sensibility, i.e. justifying bad work by writing about it?
I think discrediting visual pleasure is very much a sop to the academic/theoretical/political discourse on art that has so thoroughly divorced aesthetic appreciation from the understanding of art that accretions of trash are now given aesthetic and intellectual prioritization over something that demonstrates craft. It is a sign of the apocalypse that someone with enough discretionary income to consider buying Damien Hirst's pickled shark in a tank can buy a Rembrandt for less.
Well: You really should get out and read more.
Originally Posted by stinkyprofessor
Otherwise, it's hard to see how one could consider
a 35-year-old essay built on quasi-Freudian psycho-
analytic argument to qualify as the "last word" on
anything at all. The author herself lays no claim to
objectivity. In her first paragraph, she writes:
"Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here
as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the
unconscious of patriarchal society has structured
film form." Her thesis receives its first articulation
in the following sentence: "The paradox of phallo-
centrism in all its manifestations is that it depends
on the image of the castrated woman to give order
and meaning to its world."
How about a photograph of Damien Hirst's
Originally Posted by TheFlyingCamera
pickled shark, cross-processed no less?
See below for a photo of a naked shark.
[Ceci n'est pas un raquin nu.]
The ability to accumulate money and aesthetic appreciation are by nature incompatible; so the Hirst purchase befits the buyer. What is less understandable is the aesthetic devaluation being taught in art curricula by those who sneer at beauty and denigrate past masters of photography.
As to the nude, Kenneth Clark said "no nude,however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals."
van Huyck Photo
"Progress is only a direction, and it's often the wrong direction"