I want to return to some issues relating to responsibility in portraiture that I have touched on briefly before (for example, here and here). In particular, I want to offer some reflections on the photographic portrayal of nudity, or semi-nudity. This posting is to be read as an expression of impatience with what I see as the self-deceit and hypocrisy of many practitioners of what is often called ‘art nude’ photography. I’ll steer clear of explicit discussions of critical theory… but it’s there if you’re looking for it! 🙂
Let me ask to begin with: what do these two images bring to mind?
The first is a photograph I am extremely attached to, for reasons that are very personal: it does what I want it to do, and the model is a good friend who is largely responsible for making me realise that I enjoy creating portraits, and that these can even be rather good. I think of her as my portrait muse (that’s a topic for another day!). It’s not a perfect image by any means, as I have acknowledged in my description, but it is special to me. The second image is part of a slightly mad photoshoot: as I described here, this woman is a professional model who wanted a ‘different’ kind of snow shoot for her modelling portfolio, and all the images from that day are… well, ‘different’ snow images.
Neither, of course, are completely ‘normal’ photographs: both models are revealing more of their naked skin than they might normally do in these settings. The lilac dress doesn’t fall away quite as much in other photographs from this shoot that I’ve published, and the other snow images include a couple more bikini shots, but are mostly of the model wearing dresses (albeit light summer dresses in order to contrast with the snow). However, it would be very naive to suggest that these images do not also involve a sexual element – especially because of the poses and the fact that both women are revealing more of their breasts than we might expect – and in both cases that’s part of the intention behind the images.
Increasingly, it seems to me, women’s breasts are seen solely as sexual symbols (and capitalism exploits this to great effect – think back to the Wonderbra advertisements with Eva Herzigova, and many similar advertising campaigns). This frequently goes to extreme lengths: breasts are abstracted from the rest of the body to the point where they are all that matters (and the taste/level of violence employed in the endless terms used to describe breasts goes rapidly downhill from the almost-endearing language of ‘boobs’). They become fetishised objects in and of themselves: so-called ‘lad’s magazines’ (like Zoo and Nuts) feature endless photographs of naked breasts, often without the women’s faces or the rest of their bodies (interestingly, these magazines are regularly left on the train I take to and from work, so their viewers – I really cannot bring myself to call them readers – presumably don’t want to be seen with their purchases when they reach their destination). Breasts, big breasts, are what men want – apparently – and photographs of such breasts are meant to link directly to thoughts of sex (though in general I suspect they just lead to lonely acts of masturbation). The women the breasts belong to are often only valued in terms of their (abstracted) breasts. This is simply pornography – depictions designed to arouse and elicit a sexualised response. Although I’m happy to debate the artistic merits of almost any human creation until the wee small hours, I do not see such depictions as art in any helpful or meaningful sense.
However, abstraction doesn’t need to be as dramatically obvious or deliberate as the pornography I’ve just mentioned. Although the first image at the beginning of this post reveals more of the model’s breasts than might be expected, I think it does work, whereas this second image of her does not (which is why I have not published it before). She wanted to create an image that communicated feelings of loss and abandonment: she described it in terms of being deserted at a party. The high heels she is holding, the partially-visible but unopened bottle of champagne, the downcast look – all were meant to be a part of this, along with appropriate post-processing (that I have not carried out). But her dress did not co-operate: it fell away from her breasts too easily, and her pose, leaning to her right, means the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to what happens to be at the very centre of the image: her almost-completely naked breast that her left arm, reaching across her lap to hold her shoes, is inadvertently pushing out of the dress and towards the camera. With the almost-naked breast the (unintended) central feature of the image, all the other elements become secondary, and so the image as a whole just doesn’t work for either of us. It’s not that the model is ‘too naked’ or ‘too sexy’, it’s that the way the nakedness is created defeats the original intention of the image, creating an abstraction of her breast that then detracts from all the other elements of the photograph. I don’t want to create abstractions of breasts like that: after several attempts, we knew at the time of shooting that this idea would require her to be wearing a different dress. Neither of us wanted to create an image designed solely to offer titillation.
Of course, there are whole genres of photography that deliberately reveal much more naked skin. The term ‘art nude’ is often used in this context. I am deeply sceptical of much of this genre. It is surely no coincidence that an awful lot of ‘art nude’ photography involves older men photographing pretty young women, and no matter how technically accomplished the photography is, much of what pretends to be ‘art nude’ is simply stylish pornography: the focus on particular body parts seems designed to titillate more than anything else. This is very noticeable on photo-sharing sites, where comments regularly descend into raucous objectification of the models’ bodies or parts of their bodies. Such images are everywhere: a cursory look at the constantly-updated ‘popular’ collection of images on 500px.com will easily demonstrate this (I am a member of this photo-sharing site): it is a rare day indeed when the first page or two of ‘popular’ images do not include breasts, often cropped in such a way as to exclude the model’s face. This phenomenon is also observable in some ‘analogue process’ contexts: images of naked women made using Victorian wet-plate methods can be just as abstracting as ones made using a top-of-the-range digital Nikon (as an aside, it seems to me as an outsider to this field that much of this ‘vintage photography’ is really rather tedious, consisting of repetitive motifs displaying little artistic imagination or compositional ability, and though there is a great delight in the method, the process of achieving an image in and of itself does not give the end result artistic merit; nudes photographed with antique cameras still need to communicate more than just the abstraction of a breast etc.). I don’t see any point in linking to more examples, but I would nonetheless maintain that much ‘art nude’ photography is simply stylish (stylised?) pornography – a form of imagery whose primary function for the photographer or the viewer is to elicit a sexualised response.
Of course, there are notable exceptions. In some ways, photographs of men can subvert such understandings of the ‘art nude’: these (from Redbubble, another photo-sharing site I use) play too much into the über-masculine virile alpha-male understanding of masculinity for my liking (though note that when shown, the penis is flaccid rather than erect). However, the photographer also includes nude images of herself in her portfolio, and so I presume these photographs do speak to her, at least (interestingly, she doesn’t include identifiable faces in these images, but her photographs don’t focus simply on breasts or genitalia). More interesting to me are attempts to subvert classical images of masculinity, as Alex Boyd has tried to do in his fourth image here, for example (I have tried similar images, also using myself as a model, but I wasn’t happy with them; perhaps I should revisit this theme). Another form of subversion is the inclusion of scars and visible disability: it seems to me that this photographer’s work (also on Redbubble) is pushing at the boundaries of art nude, but it intrigues me nonetheless – a woman, over 40, using herself as a model, including scars from her breast cancer surgery in her image-making. Of course she is still beautiful with the scars, but this kind of imagery confounds the heteronormative stereotypes of beauty and the traditional ‘art nude’ style of photography that I have described above.
I am not, of course, saying that images should never elicit a sexual response. It is when that is all they do that I think they descend into simply being pornography. What I want is for an image that elicits a sexual response to also do more than that. This is not necessarily difficult. For example, this image, that I created for a book cover about worship in churches, uses a corset to communicate something radically different to the clerical shirt that is depicted in the mirror. The corset communicates something about sex and intimacy and perhaps does so even more obviously from the back than it would do if we could see the model’s breasts and the cleavage created by the corset: her naked back and the elaborate ribbons are – I think – suggestive enough of an alternative milieu to the church’s clerical clothing (it has even been suggested that she looks like a ‘working girl’ – perhaps the term ‘sex worker’ was too much for that commentator – I was present when the model was told this, and she thought it was hilarious!). Here, a suggestion of sex is created through a combination of partial nakedness, and the contrast between the corset and the stuffiness of the church ‘uniform’.
If you’ve managed to read this far, you’re perhaps wondering if I have some kind of problem with nudity and sex. I don’t think I do, or at least, no more so than most. I see myself as having very broad and liberal understandings on these questions: nudity can be completely wonderful and liberating on many levels, as a physical, emotional and even intellectual expression of self. Sex can be exhilarating, intimate, varied, generous and completely appropriate in a multiplicity of contexts, and the source of great pleasure to those involved. So I am not criticising nudity and sex in photography as such, rather the frequent objectification of a stereotyped image of women’s bodies.
Such objectification is almost always also an abuse of power: abstraction of particular body parts such as breasts or genitalia denies the model’s personhood, their identity as a whole human being. If feminism has taught us anything, it is that power distorts relationships, and performing gender (to use Judith Butler’s language) with a clothed older man wielding a camera in front of a naked younger woman almost invariably leads to asymmetrical power relationships, especially when the focus is simply on certain body parts rather than the individual as a whole. I think photographers and viewers – especially men! – who think otherwise need to reassess their understandings of relationships, and think long and hard about the reasons for wanting to make or view such images.
Because of the pornographic nature of much of what is supposedly ‘art nude’, the exceptions can be dramatic when we encounter them: there are the examples I have given above, but I have also written before about the brilliant image by Richard Avedon of Nastassja Kinski naked with a serpent: ‘Kinski communicates phenomenal serenity, control, and even power in this photograph, despite being completely naked…’. A friend of mine is in the process of making a series of female and male nude photographs that primarily communicate mystery and longing: very human emotions. And this is what photography should be about: I want it to elicit some kind of emotional response – and an erection doesn’t count as an emotional response! If a photograph only elicits titillation for either the photographer or the viewer, then we should call it what it is – pornography and not ‘art nude’. If it does more than this, then we can see it as moving into the realm of art.
A little bit of honesty here is all that’s needed.
Warm thanks to Alex Boyd, who read an early version of this text and offered feedback; I am, of course, entirely responsible for the end result.
As always, I welcome comments, but please do not include links to supposedly ‘good’ ‘art nude’ sites – I will not approve them. Thank you.