Until we’d recently reconnected through FaceBook, Laura Clements and I hadn’t talked to each other in well over 25 years. We’re the same age; we grew up in the same central Georgia town, went to the same high-school, and shared many of the same experiences unique to life in a small southern town. After graduating high school, Laura went to school to become a professional photographer and I set out to see the world. Eventually, I did go to college, but…let’s just say it wasn’t for me.
This past week she posted the following comment to the blog:
I really like the new stuff. And by that I mean the abstracts. Maybe it’s because I am female or my small town upbringing. But the full nudes make me feel somewhat of a voyeur. And having said that maybe you could explain Art Nude to me. Yes I am one of those” I may not know art but I know what I like.” people. Almost from the beginning of time mankind has reproduced the human form. But why? What are they trying to say or convey. I’ve looked at other art nude sights and have seen countless nude paintings and sculptures over time but the real point eludes me. Here’s a beautiful thing let’s put a naked person next to it. Or naked girl at a table eating an apple. What is she like me too lazy to put clothes on after her bath? Art vs. Playboy. Pinup girls bla bla bla. Believe me I am not trying to test you, just wanting some commentary on the subject.
Her comments address some interesting questions, questions I’ve heard many times before. At the root of them all is ‘why?’
The nude human form has not been my only subject. I’ve photographed many different things over the years; landscapes and sunsets; still life and architecture; kids and pets; and so on. I’ve published and sold many of those images. I’ve worked as a professional and shot for advertising and brides to be.
Through it all, I’ve never been asked ‘why?’ Why did I photograph that mountain, that waterfall, that wildflower? Why did I want to take a picture of that boat, that building, or that car? I’ve wracked my memory; I’ve gone back through publisher’s rejection letters and thank you cards sent by collectors, and not one single time was I ever called to explain one of my ‘non-nude’ images.
The question of ‘why’ happens much more frequently with nudes; often enough to cause me to ponder many of the same questions Laura asked. I’ve thought long about it this time, and for once, I did so with an answer in mind.
One point Laura makes right away is that abstract studies ‘feel’ more like art than full figurative studies. She eludes this may be because of her gender or because of her ‘small town upbringing;’ that seeing full nudes makes her feel voyeuristic. This is commentary I’ve heard before; almost from the time I began working with nudes – and I think that Laura is on point – not with gender, but with what she calls her ‘small town upbringing.’
This is a cultural phenomenon, cultural meaning ‘American.’ I speak from experience when I tell you that as children of the American Bible belt we were brought up to believe that the body is dirty, bad, and evil. It was vilified to us. We were taught that to look upon a nude body was a demeaning act, an act for which we would be punished. Geography notwithstanding, these are widely held ideals by those of our parent’s generation – those born in and around the Great Depression – as a whole. It is especially pervasive in the American south.
Once we’ve grown up to be free thinking adults, free to make our own choices and form our own opinions, these ideals that nudity is evil remain deeply entrenched in our system of morals, often like a raw, irritated nerve. Images of the nude form touch that nerve. Viewing the full nude figure reminds us we are, according to the way we were raised, doing a bad thing.
From this perspective, the abstracted figure presents little or no challenge to the viewer. There’s no confrontation with a nude body as such as the body is not immediately recognizable. The viewer can appreciate the curve of a breast, the sweep of line between hip and thigh, the muscular tension of the back and shoulders and voila – it’s art!
Also rooted in this same mindset is the philosophy human sexuality is a dirty and bad thing, directly linked with the nude body. Southern comedian Lewis Grizzard once said ‘there’s ‘naked’ and there’s ‘nekkid’. Naked means you don’t have any clothes on. Nekkid means you don’t have any clothes on but have intentions.’ I’ll go out on a limb here and say most of us can likely attest that one need not be nude to be sexual.
In my travels abroad, I’ve not encountered these same philosophies regarding the body, nudity and sexuality. In fact, sexuality hasn’t entered into the equation when figurative art is in question, regardless of the medium. I’ve visited European cities where figurative photographs of the same style as mine, some abstract and some not, adorn cosmetic counters in mall department stores. They often appear in magazine advertisements and less frequently, in newspapers. They hang in family’s homes. To say that European attitudes towards the body are generally less conservative is an understatement.
I’ve noticed a similar attitude among the twenty-something’s that model for me today. Their views of nudity and the body are typically much more open and relaxed. Perhaps the generational and cultural negative views have seen their day.
My portrayal of the figure has been taken to task by many of my mentors. Some would emphasize a less is more approach to the figure, to keep the body abstracted while others pushed me to show the body as a whole. Much of this, I believe, boils down to personal preference. For example, one photographer in particular who coached me in much of my printing techniques pushed the abstract approach – and her work with architecture and still life studies was quite abstracted.
However, none of this answers the ‘why’ part of the question. ‘Why’ is a more elusive, more personal matter.
My mother often said to me “you’re an unusual person” and I suppose she had a point. For many years, I avoided photographing people. I am something of an introvert. When I received my first camera as a Christmas gift in the early 1970’s, I didn’t turn my lens towards my family and friends; instead, I ran into the woods with it. Force me to pick between solitude and a crowd and solitude gets it every time.
That avoidance didn’t change too much for a couple of decades. I didn’t avoid photographing people completely, but given the choice, I would always gravitate to the non-human subject. I enjoyed my time alone in remote locations shooting landscapes and vast sweeping scenic vistas as much I enjoyed working alone in studio with still life subjects. Landscapes were never late and flowers didn’t protest my direction. Though I work alone less frequently these days, I do still enjoy it. However, even the most severe of introverted souls need occasional human interaction.
For whatever reason, I’m perfectly comfortable working with nude people, much more so than I am with clothed people. Family portrait scenarios scare the hell out of me. I’m much more at ease with a nude model. I can speak to them in a normal tone of voice while looking at their eyes. I’m not nervous. More often than not, they aren’t either. Seeing the body as art is a two-way street.
We are our own favorite subjects. “Look at this picture of me” or “guess what I did today” are things we often say in our conversations with others. Cave dwellers drew each other in the hunt and many of the world’s religions portray their deities in human form through all manner of art. We are the best and only reference we have.
For me, it’s not a long stretch to attach that self identifying reference to other important aspects of our life. Our art is how depict who we are and what we experience.
Unfortunately, the cultural damage would seem to be done. One of the first models I photographed nude, a beautiful young lady that happened to be a photographer herself, confided after our session about why she chose to model. This is not a question I often ask models, though perhaps I should. She said she had suffered for years with severe and destructive eating disorders. It was only through very intensive therapy and self-determination that she recovered. She told me her self-image was the best it had ever been when she heard I was looking for a model for my work. She jumped at the opportunity.
The cultural ideals that the nude body is something to be ashamed of and shunned are ridiculous and damaging. They serve no purpose other than to wound. If my encounter with this very successful, bright, and beautiful young woman doesn’t illustrate that our cultural perception of the body is flawed, what will?
Of course, the question I’m asked most often is whether or not I become sexually aroused during a photo session. I find this to be amazingly absurd on so many levels, least among them the fact that someone would even think to ask such a question – and the answer is no. Anyone that believes otherwise should give figure photography a try. It’s a lot of work.
So: why do I photograph nudes? And can I explain what ‘Art Nude’ is?
I photograph nudes because I like to. I appreciate the body; I didn’t believe for a minute any of the cultural horseshit about the body being dirty, evil, and ugly. As a young boy, the first photograph of a nude woman I saw wasn’t in Playboy or some other men’s magazine. It wasn’t in National Geographic either. It was in a published portfolio of photographer Imogen Cunningham. In fact, it was a self-portrait, full figure, made in 1920. The nude form, presented beautifully as an expression of art.
Photographing the nude allows me to portray another human being in the way I see them – as line and form, shape and texture. It is an opportunity to show that the body is not bad, dirty, or evil and can and should be appreciated from the perspective of artistic beauty without projecting sexuality. The nude presents the best canvas for the job; a way for me to show others the body as I see it. I also seem to be reasonably good at doing it.
People often tell me they find some of my work to be erotic. A few have even said they find all of my work to be erotic. This really surprises me, as nothing about my work approaches what I consider erotic. It doesn’t even come close.
If that’s not enough, I’m sorry. It’s the best I can do. I can only tell you what Art Nude is to me.
Art Nude is what Art Nude is.