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  1. #1
    Ian Leake's Avatar
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    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.

  2. #2
    Thomas Bertilsson's Avatar
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    Thank you Ian for sharing that with us. I am on the verge of getting some nudes done and I appreciate your insight.
    - Thomas
    "Often moments come looking for us". - Robert Frank

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  3. #3
    Vaughn's Avatar
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    Well, as an art form, the nude vastly pre-dates the Greeks...in the form of fertility figures and other religious/spiritual contexts. To say it was the Greeks seems to show a little cultural bias.

    The use of the word "horndog", while descriptive, cheapens the over-all effect of the piece in my opinion. And "robot" (devoid not only of sexuality, but also free thought) doesn't quite seem to be right either.

    Perhaps a paragraph differentianting between sexuality and sensuality would be helpful.

    Vaughn

  4. #4
    copake_ham's Avatar
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    I certainly would disagree that the nude as an art form originated in Ancient Greece and did not resurface again until the Renaissance.

    Certainly, following after the Greeks but within "western" culture; the nude was prominent in Roman sculpture. Even more ancient, nude renditions have been found in ancient Egyptian art - including fertility renderings that include outsized penises and female breasts etc.

    Further, one can find nude art in ancient India and China etc. And the nude carvings from Africa that inspired Picasso are also ignored by your statement.

    Moving to the Western Hemisphere, various Mezo-American cultures regularly depicted nudes in their art including, famously, "action shots" of young men competing at various sporting games.

  5. #5
    Ian Leake's Avatar
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    In many ways art is evolutionary: most artists build upon and extend the cultural and artistic legacy they’ve inherited. But what the Ancient Greeks achieved was revolutionary not evolutionary: they created a new art form distinct from everything they’d seen before; one that transcended their specific culture to influence many, many generations of future artists.

    The Romans took the nude directly from the Greeks, but the form died out with the Roman Empire. It took a thousand or so years for the form to re-emerge: re-discovered, re-interpreted and re-vitalised by Renaissance artists. And these two highly significant eras were a fundamental force behind much of 19th and early 20th Century Western nude art. For example, the nudes outside the New York Public Library can clearly trace their heritage to Ancient Greece via Renaissance Italy (but no further than Ancient Greece).

    By contrast, the many representations of partial or complete nudity and sexuality created in other times and places throughout history have generally been culture-specific. Once the specific culture has disappeared the artistic form has died too.

    My understanding is that it’s slightly different with Oriental (e.g. Chinese and Japanese) art, in that the nude as a subject didn’t appear until relatively recently – perhaps as a Western influence. In traditional Oriental art, naked people were depicted as part of scenes of everyday life but not as subjects in their own right. If I’m wrong then I’d be more than happy for someone to educate me about this.

    (Vaughn: as an aside, if the “horndog to robot” continuum had been my original idea I would probably have used different words too. But it wasn’t so I didn’t.)

  6. #6
    TheFlyingCamera's Avatar
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    The Horndog to Robot continuum was so named in another discussion here, with the intent of giving a humorous spin to what had become a rather contentious discussion about the degree of engagement of ones' sexuality while photographing the nude. To make a nude that is a successful work of art, neither prurient nor clinical, a balance between the analytical and the erotic impulses needs to be found. Too much of the erotic impulse, and you end up with bad art and good porn. Too little, you end up with a medical textbook illustration.

  7. #7
    Ian Leake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    Absolutely wrong. Not even close. No great fine art nude has any engagement of sexuality. That is why humans wear clothes. Humans can't seem to keep those issues separated. The human figure is just a masterpiece by God like like Half-Dome, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Photos of those are always nudes!

    Sorry - at least you are trying.
    Thanks for Trolling, but please try somewhere else next time.

  8. #8
    TheFlyingCamera's Avatar
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    My point was specifically in relation to the original conversation here on APUG, vis-a-vis the "Horndog to Robot Continuum", and specifically as it relates to the human nude. If looking at half-dome gets you aroused, you've got other issues. While arousal does not need to be a component of viewing the human form, denying that it happens, or photographing it in such a way as to prevent it from happening, is anti-art, as is photographing it in such a way as to guarantee that arousal is the primary, if not only reaction to the image.

  9. #9

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    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    Absolutely wrong. Not even close. No great fine art nude has any engagement of sexuality. That is why humans wear clothes. Humans can't seem to keep those issues separated. The human figure is just a masterpiece by God like like Half-Dome, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Photos of those are always nudes!

    Sorry - at least you are trying.
    Goya's The Maya Nude and The Maya Clothed?

    Which are you saying: that the former is not a great fine art nude, or that it's devoid of sexuality?

    Sorry, you're not even trying.

    Or, of course, using 'trying' in the other sense, you're very trying indeed.
    Free Photography Information on My Website
    http://www.rogerandfrances.com

  10. #10
    Ian Leake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    Neither Goya's The Nude Maya, or Goya's The Clothed Maya are photographs.
    That’s true, neither are photographs. But you were the one who said that, “No great fine art nude has any engagement of sexuality.” This pair of paintings simply shows how specious your statement was.

    Of course a nude doesn’t have to engage sexuality: take Frank Sutcliffe’s Water Rats for example. Or it may do so in a confusing manner – is Jock Sturges’ “Marine” sexual or not? (Dare I mention Nan Goldin’s “Klara and Edda belly-dancing”?) But engaging sexuality is always an option when working with nudes.

    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    I like neither.
    OK, you like neither: I like both. We’re both right.

    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    The nude Maja is not even a FigureNUDE painting because Maja is interacting with the viewer.
    All successful art interacts with the viewer in that it triggers an emotional response of some sort. To proclaim a rule that nudes should not interact with the viewer is as equally specious as claiming that, “No great fine art nude has any engagement of sexuality.” You may prefer work that follows this rule: that’s fine, but it’s just an opinion not a rule.

    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    Neither of them seem to have much of a sexual purpose in my opinion. Who knows? I bet they may have in 1800? I am sure Goya "knew" Maya more than Joseph "knew" Mary before Jesus was born?
    I’m not sure what you mean by, “sexual purpose”. The paintings exude sexuality. In fact they were both confiscated by the Spanish Inquisition who considered them to be obscene. So if Goya’s purpose was to celebrate the sexuality of this woman (or women in general) then he certainly succeeded. Indeed, your conclusion that he had a sexual relationship with the model just reinforces this point.

    Quote Originally Posted by CurtisNeeley View Post
    They are both too analog even for here.
    Nonsense.

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