Category Archives: model

New book cover photo

I was recently asked by a publisher if I had an image that could be used for a book on sexuality and the churches.  The book title is “Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle” and as I understand it, the author, Savitri Hensman, argues for a more liberal understanding of sexuality in the churches.  The book is being published by Ekklesia, and Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate.  I didn’t have anything that I could offer for the cover, but I said I would think about it and see if I could come up with ways of representing these three elements in an image.

I suggested an idea that I thought might be a bit daring, but the publisher liked it, and so I contacted a model with whom I’d had a brief online conversation a few years, and she was happy to be involved: Tyne Roberts, a lovely person to work with, and a great pleasure to photograph.  I turned our dining room into a makeshift studio with lights, and she very patiently posed for me until I had just the pose I wanted.  This is the image that will now go on the cover of the book:

§Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

There may be another photo on the back cover too – I had another idea about the three key words that communicated a different aspect of struggle.  We made several images, and this is my favourite, though I’m not sure if this is the one the publisher will use, even if there is another photo on the back cover:

Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

Sexuality, Sainthood and Struggle (model: Tyne Roberts)

Once the book is out, I’ll put details up here.

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Nervousness and questions of interpretation

I should be finishing the first page on wind farms (or working on a lecture for tomorrow!), but I wanted to share some reflections that I have found I can articulate quite clearly at the moment…

There are good reasons not to publish photographs. Some are very good reasons – the best reason of all probably being that the photograph in question is rubbish! Rubbish? Is that too harsh? How about “does not correspond to the pre-visualisation”?! (By the way, Alan Ross has just written an interesting post about Ansel Adams’ first moment of real pre-visualisation, if you’ve not come across this story before.) Of course, some are just rubbish! 😉

However, many are not. Many might even be rather good: they are technically fine, they are reasonably well composed, and the exposure is sufficiently on target for it to be usable. And yet… and yet…

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

… I don’t then click that “Export” button in Lightroom – the first step in moving an image onto my website and making it available to others to see. It’s not that I worry about what people will think of it: there are a select group of friends, particularly on Twitter, whose opinion I greatly value, but I wouldn’t not publish something just because I thought someone might not like it, nor would I publish something just because I thought someone might like it! Those who know me personally will know that I’m not really that bothered by what it is that others think in this kind of context.

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

No, the problem – if problem it is – is that I am not happy to share the image. My finger metaphorically (and sometimes literally) hangs over Lightroom’s “Export” button, and I study the image once more. And thoughts appear, almost as involuntary spasms in my brain: “it’s just another hillside”, “haven’t I photographed XYZ frequently enough?”, “what do I think I’m really adding to the world with this?” – and so on. Whilst some of these stop me, none of them necessarily do so. But there is another thought that does. So I don’t then click that button – and then nothing appears for others to see. Others being people like you, reading this. What is that thought? Before I come to that, it’s worth taking a step back.

The problem – if problem it is – is simply that in the meantime I know I have sufficient technical ability to be able to produce a certain kind of image and for it to come out reasonably well. I have many technical skills still to learn and don’t deny that, but I have come a long way from relying on the ‘auto’ setting! Now I’m wanting to inject more into the image, more than compositional ability, exposure, and so on. Now I seek to impart meaning through it.

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

However, the problem – if problem it is – is that this meaning is not just down to me. Yesterday, the wonderful Deborah Parkin released this photograph, which I interpreted as the child (Deborah’s daughter, Fleur) being content and self-assured; Lucy Telford, another talented photographer, said that it “Captures that self-contained feeling – poignant – signs of growing up, going inside oneself, inevitable but somehow sad.” Deborah responded to us both, noting that we saw the image differently, but with some commonalities. It is stating the obvious, but so much of the interpretation of an image is down to the viewer. Sometimes this chimes with the intentions of the photographer (for example, I understand from their interaction on Twitter and the comment she left that Rob Hudson’s interpretation of Lucy’s recent new image corresponds closely to her initial vision), but sometimes it does not. And what makes me far more nervous than someone misinterpreting an image, is someone interpreting it correctly.

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The problem – if problem it is – centres around how I deal with that. On the one hand, as I said, I am rather stubborn and that means I don’t worry about what other people think of what I do, but there is another side to that. I am aware that I see some things differently to others. In Assynt in autumn 2011 Bruce Percy looked at images I had made in one of the workshop’s critique sessions, and said something like, “ah yes, you see differently” – not as a judgement, just as a comment.  What I see, and what I want others to see, varies, of course.  All the images in this posting come from a morning last December, spent on the shore of Loch Leven, watching the sun come up – except that I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the sun itself, of course – and they communicate something for me. Should I give them titles that simply say “Loch Leven, 2012”, or should I give them titles that point to my mood at the time? Obviously, I have done the latter, but it takes effort. I was reflecting on a particularly difficult autumn teaching semester at the university – difficult not because of the students, of course, but because of management, and I was wanting to reflect on those experiences. Whether they communicate the same thing for you as they did for me, I don’t know. Do I want to explain what they do for me beyond what I have done here? No, I do not. But do I want to share these images in case you work it out? Of that, I’m not always sure.

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Despite what some may think, I’m a fairly reticent kind of person and do not like to give much away. Clicking that “Export” button in Lightroom is the first step not only to others being able to critique an image (“it’s just another hillside!” being an entirely fair response!), but more importantly, it gives others – that’s you – something of me. You get to see something of me, and I’m nervous about showing that, giving something of myself away. I’ve described a related issue in connection to photographing a model (the first image on this page), but my photography is also giving something of me. What you see might not be what I think I am showing, but… it might be. The danger – if danger it is! – is that you see what it is that I am seeing, as happened in the Lucy/Rob example given above, and that makes me nervous. My stubbornness means I don’t mind what people think of my images (good/bad/indifferent) because – as I don’t yet tire of saying – I am making photographs for myself, nobody else. They explore things for me, they explain and dissect and reassemble thoughts, they reveal hidden depths to me, and make me reflect on who I am and what I am doing. And now I’m supposed to share that with others, with you? Are you surprised I’m nervous about doing so, that I often can’t quite make my finger click that “Export” button?

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

And yet – getting over that and sharing images, sharing myself, is also a privilege. So thank you for taking the time to read this posting, to look at the images, to think about them. Now, I had better click “Publish” before I change my mind and delete this posting…

Musings on my muse

This title was just asking to be used…!

What is a muse? What is a muse for me? I have regularly referred to my good friend Stephanie Tait as my muse, and as I am presently hoping she’ll be visiting the UK again later this year (she now lives in Los Angeles), I wanted to reflect on what it is about her that makes me regard her as my muse, and what that means for me.

Stephanie

Stephanie

I have thought about this at various times over the last few years, and, unusually, I have not spent any time researching the topic by reading about it. What I mean by this is that I have not followed my usual academic-inspired route of studying the question of muses and how they have been seen and understood in the past by artists. This has been very deliberate: although I do, of course, have a general sense of the idea of muses and have regularly come across artists who have seen particular individuals as muses (for example, Harry Callahan photographed his wife Eleanor Callahan extensively: Suzanne Shaheen’s obituary in The New Yorker on 2.3.12 described her as ‘[o]ne of the greatest muses in photo history…’).  I have also engaged with artistic representations of the question of muses (narratives such as Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse comes to mind, for example).  However, whilst noting en passant that these are mostly gendered relationships – as is mine! – which almost automatically makes them an interesting object of study, I have not sought to actively research muses in a scholarly way.  Exercising such deliberate restraint is not that easy for me to do, but I have wanted to write this blog posting for some time, and I very consciously wanted to try and write it in such a way that it would be a reflection of and on my own emotional experiences, rather than a treatise on the place of artistic muses in history.  Doing the latter would be easy for me, whilst I knew that doing the former would be more difficult.  However, I was also clear that engaging my own emotional experience would be much more interesting – at least for me, perhaps for Stephanie, and possibly for others.

The idea of muses in western contexts comes, of course, from Greek myth: the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who are the goddesses of the arts are the original muses, though I would not have been able to name them all without a reference work (see, the academic in me breaks out after all…!): Calliope of epic poems; Clio of history; Erato of love poems; Euterpe of music and lyric poems; Melpomene of tragedy; Polyhymnia of sacred lyrics; Terpsichore of dancing; Thalia of comedy; Urania of astronomy. There is clearly an inspirational connection here, but until fairly recently it has not been very clear to me how this might relate to my own thinking about muses. To understand this requires a wider understanding of some personal history… indulge me…

My most beautiful model

My most beautiful model

Although happily married to the person I want to be married to, long before and throughout our marriage I have held – and articulated – the belief that one other person can never be a complete counterpart for anyone, at least, not in the sense of being someone who can reflect all their interests, needs and desires: maintaining otherwise is to create an idol of the other, leading to (self-)deception and unrealisable expectations.  All long-term relationships are unique creations built on certain mutually agreed foundations between individuals, whether spoken or unspoken, and in this case, this understanding about idolatry of the other is one that both of us in this marriage have always understood in broadly the same way, with a similar sense for the boundaries and parameters (of course, my wife might articulate these things slightly differently, but that doesn’t detract from the fundamental mutuality).  This understanding manifests itself in different ways, not least in the form of friends: we have mutual friends with whom we share a great deal, and equally, we both have friends to whom the other has less of a connection or affinity.  Exploring varying aspects of our personalities through relationships to other people is completely normal.

So how does all this connect to Stephanie? Without wanting to elaborate on the details, a few years ago, during a particularly stressful and difficult period, Stephanie became someone I found I could rely on and relate to as a good friend: the kind of person who really was there when needed, if that’s not too much of a cliché.  That this happened is all the more remarkable in that she is (and, I hasten to add, was already at that time) a former student of mine – it cannot be taken for granted that a connection initially based on a structured power relationship (such as lecturer-student) can be transformed into one that is more about people relating to one another as equal human beings.  She knows that she has my immense gratitude for her kindness to me in this period.

Stephanie

Stephanie

As I have described here, it was Stephanie who first suggested I might work on portraits, and she has been a source of inspiration to me ever since (it’s interesting to me that this was a hurdle to her too, but she didn’t give that away at the time – I think she knows that would have intimidated me even more!).  Given that Stephanie is a script-writer, film-maker, and film-scholar, it is perhaps appropriate that she reminds me of Radha Mitchell’s Syd in one of my favourite films, Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art.  For sure, it is rather presumptuous to compare myself to Ally Sheedy’s Lucy, the photographer in the film, but my comparison rests loosely on the inspirational role that Syd plays in relation to Lucy.  Long dormant, Lucy rediscovers her desire to pursue her photographic life through her encounter with Syd, although this has tragic consequences for the main protagonists of the film, especially Lucy and her partner, Patricia Clarkson’s Greta (I’ll say no more, but I do highly recommend the film!). I don’t think I had realised how much I wanted to photograph people until Stephanie more or less made me photograph her.

Now, I’m aware that this perhaps sounds a bit like a teenager’s first proper kiss, with Stephanie taking the role of my first true love!  That is not what I’m seeking to suggest here.  Of course, at the risk of veering into psychobabble, all relationships also involve some form of physical connection, and it would be completely naïve to pretend that didn’t exist: yes, I see Stephanie as a beautiful woman, and in other circumstances I may well have been very attracted to her – but that is not really the issue here.  I encounter a great many people that I think of as beautiful in one way or another, both male and female, but I don’t want to pursue physical relations with all of them.  In that sense, I tend to take a broadly conservative attitude to my marriage! 🙂

Stephanie

Stephanie

Furthermore, I have photographed many other people, and I have enjoyed the engagement with both friends and professional models who have been tremendously forthcoming in their openness to my photographic ideas.  I very much want to continue to do this.  But… but… photographing Stephanie is somehow qualitatively different to all of this.

Initially, I can identify two significant elements that make photographing her such a different kind of experience for me.  Firstly, I have an intimate relationship to Stephanie based on our profound empathetic encounter from a time of adversity that fosters and encourages an almost totally free exchange of thoughts and ideas (insofar as such freedom is possible; even if it is, some ideas are never meant for sharing, even with the most intimate of confidantes).  Secondly, her role as my muse is an active one: she is herself an incredibly creative person who brings her tremendous energies to bear in all areas of her life.  Photographing her becomes an active process of cooperation in transforming ideas into photographs.

These two elements – her profoundly sensitive nature and her own rampant creativity – mean that when I’ve described ideas to her, or developed ideas that she has brought, they suddenly seem totally natural, no matter how crazy they may have seemed at first: I feel as if she intuitively and intimately understands where I am coming from and what I am trying to do, often without too many words needing to be spoken.  Injecting her own personality into the process, she is, for me, an inspirational woman who engages in intimacy with me on a level that makes the attempts to create something just work. The end-result may not always quite reflect the extent of the initial vision, but that is probably down to my technical failings rather than her lack of engagement or understanding.  So Stephanie is not only one of my best friends.  Stephanie is also, for me, an inspirational goddess, a muse: the one model above all others who makes these things imaginable in the first place.

Stephanie

Stephanie

There is, however, a third element beyond the intimate empathy and creativity Stephanie embodies: when I say she is “the one model above all others who makes these things imaginable in the first place”, I find I want to ask both how this manifests itself, and why it might be the case.  When I seek answers to these questions, I find that they are, unsurprisingly, dialectically related to one another.  For a long time, I wasn’t completely clear about this.  However, what has recently helped me understand this is a very simple realisation: whenever I have an idea about something I want to do that involves a model, it is always Stephanie who first comes to mind.  As I seek to try and envision an image, she is the one I imagine posing, she is the one I imagine wearing whatever garment I am thinking of, she is the one who is asking the questions about how and why something should be done one way and not another…  I suppose I am conducting long conversations with her about my images, even when she isn’t there.  She may not be the person who appears in the final image – and given the distance between us that is increasingly unlikely! – but she is always the one I am thinking of initially, to the point where my sketchbook of ideas is, in fact, largely a collection of sketches of her.  In so many ways, she is not only a model for me, she is my model model, as in: my model for other models, irrespective of gender or appearance.

This can sometimes have interesting and slightly strange repercussions: I have a small series of images in mind that picks up on something important that has happened to me, but I very much want to ask Stephanie to be the first model in that series.  I haven’t spoken to her about this yet so she doesn’t know what I’m thinking of – that’s something I’ll describe to her when I see her – but I have already partially created the second and third set of images.  What is rather strange about this is that I feel I can’t show these other images until I have created the first one, ideally with my muse, my inspirational goddess, addressing issues of pain and beauty that are very personal for me.

Incidentally, I have long been enticed by her online name: in various places, such as her blog and her Twitter account (do read and follow!), she uses “Queendom of Mab” to identify herself. From Shakespeare’s description of a fairie who comes to lovers in Romeo and Juliet, to some of the stranger usages by other authors, there is something about the inspirational, unexpected, and supernatural in her usage of this moniker that really appeals to me – but perhaps that’s just my own view, coloured by the emotional attachment I have to my friend.

I would like to think that this muse-relationship will continue: that when we’re both old and rickety, even though we will perhaps still live on different continents, I might see Stephanie every once in a while and want to photograph her – and she might continue to be happy to be photographed. We’d spend time discussing and gently exploring our way forwards in the mutual transformation of a particular vision into a photographic reality – and we’d enjoy doing it.  After all, the inspirational goddesses don’t stop inspiring just because time progresses…

Stephanie

Stephanie

Before concluding, I think it is important to note that muses can take many different forms.  For some, it is a person, for others it can be a place: I don’t know if he would use the term ‘muse’, but a landscape photographer I know has spoken of a particular hill that he has photographed in numerous different ways almost as if it were a person.  When I look at his photographs, which are connected to poems, I feel as if I am eavesdropping on an intimate conversation he is having with the landscape.  It seems to me that ‘his hill’ is a place that he ascribes with conceptions of intimate refuge, occasional struggle, and substantial creative energies – perhaps it is a kind of muse to him?  There are undoubtedly many different forms that such inspiration can take.

Stephanie, muse

Stephanie, muse

I’m interested in other people’s understanding of their muses…

Nakedness, breasts, ‘art nudes’, sex and photography

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! 🙂

Nakedness

An intimate portrait

An intimate portrait

Let me ask to begin with: what do these two images bring to mind?

smiling

smiling

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.

Breasts

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.

Not what I was hoping for...

Not what I was hoping for...

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.

‘Art nudes’

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.

Sex

Imperfect mirrors

Imperfect mirrors

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.

Photography

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.

‘Imperfect Mirrors’ book available

‘Imperfect Mirrors’ by Kevin Scully is soon to be released (2. July) and is now available for ordering, e.g. from Amazon.  This is the book with my photograph on the cover (clicking the image takes you to the Amazon page):

Kevin Scully: Imperfect Mirrors

Kevin Scully: Imperfect Mirrors

I sent the designer/publisher three versions of the image, one in colour and two monochrome conversions – and they have chosen my favourite of the two monochrome versions.  I’m delighted to see this now available, as is my wonderful model, Fran Whitton.

Exciting news – book cover commission

I’ve had some very exciting news – the author of the book mentioned in my last posting likes my proposal and the image that I created, and it will therefore be on the cover of his new book.

A friend of mine, Simon Barrow, is involved in a publishing house, Shoving Leopard, and a new book by Kevin Scully is due out shortly (shortly being… a launch on 2. July!).  The book is called Imperfect Mirrors, and although I’ve not had the opportunity to read it, Simon has talked to me about it, and the advance blurb gives some indication of the book’s contents:

What can be brought to the liturgy by the disciplines of dramatic performance? How are the respective theatres of daily life and worship to be seen and experienced together? East End priest, playwright, actor, writer and broadcaster Kevin Scully is very well placed to tackle these issues. In this eagerly awaited forthcoming title from Shoving Leopard [he] does so with insight, humour, a sharp eye, and a well-crafted turn of phrase.

What the author wanted was something that represented the idea of an imperfect mirror as a way of thinking about how theatre might impact on the church.  Simon initially asked if I had an image he could use, but nothing really suitable came to mind: an image I sent him of a church reflected in a lake received a lukewarm reaction when sent on to the author.  So something else was needed.

For quite a while I’ve had an idea I wanted to play with questions of how we understand and interpret reality.  I imagined someone looking into a mirror, but whilst the pose would be identical (I had thought of applying make-up or brushing hair or similar) the mirror image would not be an exact reflection: from the back they would be naked/dressed in one way, but in the mirror they would be dressed/dressed in something completely different.  From this it was a short step to suggest to Simon and Kevin theatrical clothing of some kind for the image from the back, with a reflection of the same person in a clerical shirt in the mirror.  But what kind of theatrical clothing?  What would obviously communicate drama when all that was visible was the back?  The back of most clothing is often rather boring… The obvious solution was to think of something with representational detail on the back, so some kind of vintage dress with ribbon ties at the back seemed like a good option.  But aside from being potentially rather expensive, I thought a full dress might detract from the image in the mirror, and so I decided that a corset would be better: (a) it would leave naked skin visible above the fabric providing more of a contrast with the clerical shirt, (b) the ribbons would contrast with and provide shadows on the skin, and (c) the suggestion of sex that a corset makes would contrast nicely with the power of a clerical shirt to kill off any sensuality on the part of the wearer.  After visiting the wonderful Armstrong’s Vintage in Clerk Street I was the proud owner of two different vintage-style corsets.  The clerical shirt was even easier to procure as I’m married to a church minister!  My friend Fran Whitton, who quite a while ago said she would be happy to model for me (though we never quite managed to organise it), was happy to be drafted in at short notice, and with a little bit of help from my friend Photoshop, she makes for a perfect corset-wearing actor as well as a church minister (warm thanks to Mabel Forsyth who acted as my assistant, and to my wife for helping Fran with the clothes as well as assisting me):

Imperfect mirrors

Imperfect mirrors

Interestingly, after sending a first version of my image to Kevin Scully, he told me that he had suggested René Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite to Simon a while ago as the basis of a cover image – though Simon had completely forgotten to tell me about this.  Though I had come across it years ago, I had not consciously thought of it at all in my plans.

Of course, I’m delighted that my image is going to be used for a book, and I can’t wait for it to come out (and then read it!).  But one of the interesting issues for me here is the question of inspiration and ownership.  Whilst Magritte’s painting must have been buried somewhere in my subconscious memory, the idea for such a reflected image had been with me for a while. Kevin Scully’s book – even though I haven’t read it! – provided that last little prompt to come up with something a bit different.  I keep my browser’s internet history for a year, and on skimming through it there is nothing that looks like this.  But there are clearly multiple sources of inspiration in each image we create, and in this instance I am happy to acknowledge René Magritte’s painting, Kevin Scully’s book theme, and Simon Barrow’s blurb writing skills – and of course, Fran’s posing.  Whilst in western thought we have created an ideology of ‘intellectual property’ that means this photograph is my copyright, the inspiration and ‘intellectual ownership’ for almost everything we create surely belongs to a much wider circle of people.  A reflective little essay on inspirations is beginning to come together for release here.

P.S. I’m sure someone will add a comment with a link pointing to an image that does just the same kind of thing with distorting reality in a mirror… if you know of one, please do add it below! 🙂

Book cover commission

At short notice, and with a tight deadline, I’ve been asked to provide a book cover for a friend’s publishing company, which I’m delighted to do.  As it happens, my sketch book includes a certain set-up with a model, and it just so happens that a little development of this idea could suit the book very well.  My thoughts about this set-up are not necessarily very original, but I nonetheless find the idea interesting (I’ve looked online and recalled a related image, but – though it sounds immodest! – mine is still different, so perhaps it’s even a little more original than I’m giving myself credit for!).  There is something really stimulating about finding inspiration in the creativity of someone else and using that to develop an idea, and it impinges on questions of ownership (more on this shortly).

So, a model has been booked and time has been set aside for the editing… details of all this, including an image or two, to be posted here before long…