(This post contains nude images, but no adult content.)
The camera was invented in the early 1830s and the next day some guy asked a woman he knew to pose without her clothes on. And undressed photos of women have proliferated ever since. I say undressed (or naked) rather “nudes” because here is a big difference between naked and nude. Art historian Kenneth Clark wrote in his book The Nude: A Study In Ideal Form:
The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art.
The nude body is one of the most traditionally and enduring subjects of art. The Venus of Wilendorf is a statuette of a nude female figure estimated to have been created 22.000 to 24.000 years ago. The Ancient Greeks introduced a more realistic representation into their depictions of the nude human body – featuring heroic, athletic male figures and softer more idealized images of women.
Actually, the male nude was a much more popular subject in art rather than the female up until a few hundred years ago. Michelangelo sculpted figures of both men and women, but his women are more like the idealized Greek ideal while his statues of males included the incredibly detailed and defined David. But from the 18th century on we’ve seen much more focus on the nude female body.
But the problem, from a photographer’s point of view, is that shooting nudes is one of the most difficult of all subjects in terms of producing an image that represents the body in an interesting, aesthetic and artistic way. You generally have only the pose and the lighting to work with. Props help, but too many props, too much styling and it is no longer an actual study of a nude. And it’s easy to attempt to do a photograph of a nude and end up with just nakedness, despite best intentions.
There is also the problem of sexuality. Clark pointed out that it is impossible to totally eliminate the sexual aspect of a beautiful nude body. But that element, he insisted, must be secondary in order to successfully create an artistic figure study. There is, of course (as in most things) a spectrum here. At one extreme you have images in which the only consideration is sexual arousal (pornography), at the other end the least sexuality explicit work of fine art. In reality, most photographs that contain nudity fall somewhere between these two pure extremes.
If you attend galleries and photographic print shows nowadays you see very few modern nudes. Most on exhibition are vintage by photographers such as Edward Weston, Bernice Abbot or Helmut Newton. I think there are at least two basic reasons for this. For one, thanks in large part to the Internet nakedness is no longer as special or exciting as it once was. Religious scholar Alan Watts once remarked that the reason people tend to treat sex as dirty is that it makes it more exciting. Well, in the age of free porn on the Web we still find naked bodies arousing but not to the same degree. Nudity is just business as usual in today’s world.
Another reason is that artists have been depicting nudes throughout history and photographers for going on 200 years so it is increasingly difficult to fine anything new to say on the subject. In his book Full House, Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that cultural niches get filled up much the same as environmental ones. There are no more composers like Bach and Beethoven because genius classical composers spent 400 years trying every variation of certain musical forms they could think of. So there are no more major innovations possible in that style of music, just as there are no more continents for explorers to discover.
I believe the depiction of the nude has run into the same level of diminishing returns. There are still new ideas to be developed. Painter Lucien Freud painted odd, fat and often grotesque nudes. But his work was very personal, subjective and idiosyncratic. Not in any way a step forward on a pathway other artists are likely to follow.
In the case of my own photography, in the early 1980s I suddenly realized there was a way to do something new and innovative in the creation of photos of the female nude. It involved using female bodybuilders and other muscular and defined women as subjects. There have been plenty of images of muscular males throughout history. But as Pumping Iron author Charles Gaines pointed out, these new kinds of bodies were a totally “new archetype,” something never seen before in any culture at any era of history. What this means is that any serious figure study of any highly developed and muscular female body is by definition new and hasn’t been done before. Of course, whether it is actually a fine work of art, whether it has great aesthetic quality, is another topic. But the potential is surely there.
I started doing figure studies of these women with two basic approaches. One was deliberately using established, traditional motifs which contrasted this kind of body than the type you see in the art of the past. I remember once using La Grande Odalisque by Ingres as a kind of art director sketch. Working this way I had all of the history of art that featured the nude to choose from and use as inspiration. And the images were made new by the fact that the bodies were new.
Another approach I used was treating the body as landscape, lighting and posing the model to capture super detail the way Ansel Adams would photograph the hills, valleys and canyons of Yosemite. My models have sometimes said that posing for me is difficult – but they don’t generally mean that I’m difficult to work with. But the eye sees in three dimensions and the camera only captures two. Everything gets flattened. But I’ve found by how I pose the body – often in a way that feels weirdly contorted to the model – can bring at least a sense of that missing third dimension into the picture. It usually isn’t obvious in the photos that I’m doing this. The whole point is that, however strange it may feel to pose this way, it doesn’t look as if you are doing anything unusual. And as Fernando said on Saturday Night Live, it is better to look good and to feel good.
The muscular physique in general can be an anatomy lesson to viewers of art that depicts it. When it comes to the women, we not only get to see aspects of the female body that have never been observed before by anyone any time, but this is also a wake up call that our assumptions regarding the female body, gender identification, femininity, morphology and physical potential all need to be reexamined.
Of course, I sometimes shoot female nudes of women who aren’t “hardbody” models. But I find the experience of shooting female muscle has given me a set of tools I didn’t have before. I am more aware of posing and find that some of my “tricks” of bringing out the third dimension work just as well for standard nudes, or even fashion and other commercial work. I’ve developed lighting techniques that work for all sorts of photographic subjects. I’ve simply become a better photographer.
But I get asked by photographers quite often about shooting nudes and I don’t often talk much about lighting and posing. Instead I give them the most important advice possible. When a photographer (especially a heterosexual male) is photographing a beautiful nude female body, he needs to keep in mind that the point of the exercise is the photo! The model is just a subject. What counts is what you see through the viewfinder, what kind of image you are able to capture. You need to be able to relate to your models, be personable, make them comfortable. But any personal attraction you feel needs to be directed toward making the best possible photograph. The worst thing you can to is to make your model in any way self-conscious or defensive. You need to be complimentary and supportive, but not like a suitor but more like her gay hair dresser.
It’s all about the photograph. Don’t ever let your personal response make you think you’ve captured in the picture what isn’t really there. Nudes are the most difficult of subjects. Take this seriously and concentrate on looking through the viewfinder and deciding it the image you see is what you are looking for. If not, keep making changes until it is.
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