Viewpoint: MOF on Nudity in Photography

If this conceptual drawing was photography would it be erotica, glamour or hardcore pornography?

Yes, there are traditional standards regarding nudity in art, and they apply to modern photography.

Years ago, a woman approached me on the street and told me that she was an artist and wanted me to pose in the nude for her. I told her that I am an artist too and she said, “No really, I am an artist!” as if I didn’t believe her. I did believe her but I never modelled for her. That brief conversation between the stranger and I began and ended right there on that street corner. I’ve never seen her again.

Before and since that encounter, I have been interested in nude art. Observing it and making it. As with most artists, I am mainly interested in the female form. I had never done nude photography but plenty of nude figure drawing and painting. Most of the time, I rely on my human anatomy studies and action comic book illustration experience. I always had an interest in photographing the female form but there have been a number of hang-ups.

Firstly, I don’t want to photograph a woman who thinks she’s mentally ready for such a socially provocative and personal art project, to only regret it later in life. I’ve heard so many of those stories over years, and I don’t want to contribute to the problem. It’s a prime reason why it used to be part of my policy to not engage in nude photography or illustration from using live nude models, even though I’ve been quite inspired by such work by other artists. I would much prefer that anyone who would pose nude for me would always be proud of their contribution, and there’s simply no way to guarantee that. Anyone who would pose for me would forever be treated with the highest respect from me but the rest of the world may unfortunately treat them differently.

Secondly, I don’t want to have to deal with some open mouth breathing cretin coming up to me with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, snicker-snicker type of reaction to my images. I’ve received that from many in regards to my drawings and paintings and while I’ve often just put up with it or cowardly gone along to get along, it’s really gotten on my nerves.

It’s important for artists and laymen to try to understand that there are always, even if sometimes narrow, differences between the four most common types of photography practised in the western world that involve nudity. I will define them here by using three-point explanations. Before I do that, however, it is important for me to define the term “fine art”:

  • Fine art is an art form mainly created for aesthetics and/or conveying and analyzing ideas instead of being mainly for consumption. Just because an art form is popular, and is executed with a high degree of skill doesn’t mean that it is a fine art form. Although they are categorized as contemporary art, sci-fi and fantasy art still are not considered fine art by the established art world simply because they are not displayed in highbrow galleries, recognized and funded by governments as intellectual creations, studied in art schools and recognized as being highly influential in shaping Western culture (although they should be).

This definition or perhaps philosophy is significant when dividing photography into dissenting practises that make the most frequent use of nudity to express ideas. Those four means of expression are as follows . . .

Nude Photography

  • Is a fine art photography style (artistic style means the values ascribed or aesthetics achieved in imagery as a result of using specific techniques).
  • Depicts the naked human body in whole or in part as a study (a study is a detailed and constructively critical survey of aesthetics).
  • Is not intended to be sexually suggestive in any way and occasionally incorporates a social, political or even spiritual connotation, message or theme (e.g., fighting or surviving breast cancer, racism or homophobia, promoting multiculturalism, raising awareness of ecological concerns, celebrating physiques that don’t meet society’s common and narrow perceptions of feminine or masculine beauty or health; bare breasts on representations of the goddess Parvati is a sign of divinity dating back to ancient India, etc.) or a composition exemplifying an intimate though strictly platonic relationship between lives (e.g., a mother proudly holding her newborn baby, dancers in pose, etc.).

Erotic Photography

  • Is actually a fine art photography style, apparently due to its connection to Renaissance artists like Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Francisc de Goya; such artists are referred to as “Old Masters”, but erotic photography is less viewed as “high art” when it’s produced by contemporary photographers (the term erotica is in fact synonymous with the term “softcore pornography”, and as art collections erotica is occasionally referred to as “curiosa”).
  • Depicts the naked or semi-nude human body or inanimate objects in ways meant to inspire libidinous thoughts and feelings and/or social notions based on aesthetics (e.g., supposed ideal body types, ideal traits of physical beauty, ideal signs of good physical health) in the observer with or without depicting simulated sexual acts; emphasis placed on simulated (sexual acts in erotica are never actually performed as they usually are in “hardcore pornography”) or simulating sexual functions.
  • Is intended to be sexually suggestive or provocative (to create sexual arousal).

Glamour Photography

  • Is a fine art photography genre (an artistic genre is a set of similar or clearly differing artistic styles that are loosely relied on to plan and arrange the aesthetic elements in imagery); the styles of portrait, nude, erotic, boudoir and bridal boudoir photography are frequently applied in varying degrees to create glamorous images.
  • Emphasizes the physical attractiveness of the model, and treats the model; not just his/her body, as an object of sexual or even romantic desire by displaying them naked, semi-nude or even fully clothed without depicting actual or simulated sexual acts.
  • Is intended to be sexually or romantically suggestive or provocative (to create sexual arousal and/or inspire romantic fantasy).

Pornographic Photography

  • Is commonly known as “hardcore pornography”; it is only seldomly and begrudgingly regarded as art although it is certainly not fine art photography (it may be a form of commercial art because it appears to be produced for utility as frequently or almost as frequently as it is made for aesthetics and/or conveying and analyzing concepts), and can be classified as a genre of photography.
  • Depicts the naked, semi-nude or even fully covered human body; in whole or in part, or animals committing sexual acts (intercourse, masturbation, oral sex, tribadism, frotteurism, exhibitionisim, sadism, masochism, rape, paraphilia, etc.), carrying out sexual functions (e.g., penile erections, ejaculations, vaginal secretions, orgasmic spasms, twitching, bucking, cavorting, etc.) for the purposes of inspiring libidinous thoughts and feelings in the observer, and creating scandal or social controversy (sexual imagery of this bluntness is also known as “hardcore pornography” to distinguish it from “softcore pornography”).
  • Is intended to be sexually explicit (to shockingly [some "hardcore porn" is eroticized by attempting to show romantic intimacy but the shocking aspect is never sufficiently muted] and/or mockingly show sexual activity, and contrary to the common belief of critics pornographers really don’t try to hide the fact that what they produce is “hardcore porn”); its overtly and unabashedly antisocial motives, like form, are not too dissimilar from grafitti (see Down with the Taggers).

Note the importance of intent in all aformentioned photography practises. Once you understand these definitions or descriptions, and the differences between these types of photography, you can’t simply lump all photography featuring nudity into one category, like porn; not with an educated and truly objective mind. The next time you see, produce or model for a photo featuring full or semi-nudity, and that you are certain is not part of photojournalism, documentary photography, urban photography or fashion photography you should be able to quickly sum up what type of image it is based on the above four definitions.

Directly–even though I’m not in any hurry to produce any artwork with nudity, which of these challenging forms of expression am I interested in pursuing? The answer is nude, erotic and glamour photography but mainly fine art nudes. I will definitely not make “hardcore porn”.

I was once asked if society’s love-hate outlook toward, and inability to distinguish between, erotica and “hardcore pornography” was a contributing hang-up. Obviously, I have to say yes but it’s actually a minor irritation in comparison to the first one. Yes, some people are put off by all or most such images because they see them as “dirty” and “exploitationist” pictures. Others are drawn to them for the exact same reasons. I am one of those of a much criticized and disbelieved third group who sees some nude art as beautiful, anything but dirty, and not even always about sexual fetish. I am fully aware that anything I produce that has nudity in it will be interpreted by someone in a positive or negative way, just because of the nudity or semi-nudity featured in it.

My intent is important, even if my best intentions go horribly awry. I don’t intend for my art to be seen as dirty exploitation. With or without nudity, sometimes I intentionally want my art to be titillating, and sometimes I don’t. This goes to both my photography and other illustrations. I never, however, want it to be something for someone to wink-wink, nudge-nudge and snicker-snicker about. As annoying as that may be to some, I am still quite content to not waste my time and energy arguing about it. Strangely, there is even some reprieve about knowing that even though someone and I will disagree on the motives behind nude art, at least we are free to have those dissenting opinions.

As for people’s opinions; I encourage all people to examine and critique all of my work but I’m mostly interested in women’s opinions of both nude photography in general and mine specifically. What do they like to see, and don’t like to see about it? I’m very interested in any female model’s creative input into my images too. Although I control the photo shoots I want to urge models to express a lot of their ideas about if they want to make nudes, erotica or glamour images. What creative concepts do they have regarding lighting, composition, texture, colour–if used (I love colour nude photography but I’m more drawn to black and white), setting, props and most of all, the message that is to be conveyed? The message or theme doesn’t have to be one of adventure but it is preferred. There are times that I want a lot of the model’s outlook toward things to come through my images. Such art projects would be near-collaborations.

It’s too easy to find all sorts of photography featuring various levels of nudity (yet another reason why I am usually discouraged from pursuing these styles and genre). There’s so much of it that images–even though most are quite impressive, have begun to seem unoriginal to me regardless of dissenting photographer and the great pains they go to in order to create original images. My hope is to create something original by drawing as much creativity out of the model as I possibly can, and merging it with my own creativity to polish each shot.

I am mainly interested in women’s point of view because from time in memoriam, they have always been the subject of or inspiration behind the vast majority of nude art that the world has ever seen, regardless of whether the art has been produced by males or females. Women’s role in such art’s effectiveness and progression is unequivocably supreme. So, their opinions count.

Some time after that street encounter, I met my would-be wife and after courting for a while she asked me about my opinions on nude art and modelling. She kind of toyed with the idea of me being an erotic pinup (I’m flattered but this I can’t see), but she’s definitely not seriously interested in that becoming reality. Kim’s largely not thrilled about the idea of her man’s nakedness being put on display for all to gawk at–perhaps especially by people she knows (unfortunately, she also will not pose nude or semi-nude for me; I didn’t have to ask, she made a point of telling me before I ever had the idea), but she claims to understand my point of view. She recognizes that my considerations and intentions are genuine. This is really something because no one else’s opinion of me and my art means as much to me as her opinion.

In consideration of all my hang-ups while being determined to push myself into at least experimenting with nude photography, I’m considering taking a risk on modelling for my own work. Composing self-portraiture without being nude is an overwhelmingly uncomforatble task. So, making self-nudes is so much more of an enormously difficult decision for me because so much of it screams, “This is disturbingly vain!” or “This is just plain wierd!” and I have to seriously consider how it might make friends and family members uncomfortable. At the same time, the way the exercise is unconventional and challenges me as an artist to be a bit more uninhibited and vulnerable to the observers of my work is oddly irresistible. This is where I hope to see completely unbiased constructive criticisms.

So yes, even today, I would still pose nude for other artists who would dare be so interested. Of course, they would have to really convince me to trust them and their artistic vision.

I categorize body builds, male and female, this way; obese, Rubenesque (voluptuous-female), endomorphic-male (chubby), average, ectomorphic (skinny), mesomorphic (svelte or naturally athletic) and robust (muscular). Western body conscious culture tends to view some of these terms as insults but I understand their definitions from their true English dictionary and artistic historical contexts. All of these types of physique are capable of revealing tremendous aesthetic beauty, and I’m interested in shooting all of them.

I’m not inclined to deliberately image the human form as a landscape as many artists do but I am interested in seeing if that or some other phenomenon occurs inadvertently. I’m disposed to shooting an entire figure, or parts of it, as they actually are while playing with natural and unnatural light, shadows and tones.

Posing is whimsical. It may be preconceived with a strict meaning before a shoot, completely candid or developed impromptu as the model and I work, thus creating one or more meanings through the image’s creation.

13 thoughts on “Viewpoint: MOF on Nudity in Photography

  1. If I were a child; innocent and nonjudgmental and I viewed a naked body for the first time, I would think it strange since I had not seen a naked adult body before. My second thought would probably be that (if it were a beautiful woman or man) the adult human body was natural and perhaps even beautiful. If these naked humans came toward me to hug me or touch me; I may run away. If I accidentally saw them making love in the forest and had never layed eyes on the naked body (ies) before, I would run away; knowing immediately that it was a sacred and private connection that I had no business witnessing and absorbing. But, all is in faithful timing. If I were a young boy or girl of 18 and had run upon a couple making love in the forest, I may watch as to educate myself. If I were a young child and I came upon a man raping a woman in a pornographic “hard core” way, I would assume hate and violence and I would, perhaps, kill the aggressor out of instinct. But now, since I am an adult and have my mind full of ideas imposed upon me by media, etc. I say all artists should be faithful. If your creative energy is birthing the pain of being raped or a person cannot get past the idea that the body is only for pleasure and not love; let them create it and beget the consequences visually. In time, all will be healed and come to know that love is really all that matters.

  2. I would have talked a little more about how nudity is considered a no-brainer in the art world. It lacks originality on every level and for the most part it’s all D- work. I have no idea what your work is like and I am not really interested in seeing it, but this nude “art” thing has been beaten into the ground by every culture since the dawn of man. It’s so old hat it puts me to sleep.

    • Frankly what I think you’re trying to say is that you are disgusted by nudity and you somehow find it dirty. Typical words coming from a closed mind person and not in keeping with having a sense for art. I understand the concept of not fully appreciating some art forms and expressing an opinion on it. But to have such distain towards any given form, is somewhat is confusing.

      If you take away the “n” word and instead view it as the human form. See how it is shaped by light and colour. Look at the detail in the tones, how the light reveals the curves and lines. Try to see what the photographer, artist and subject is trying to express.

      I’m a photographer and I live to create and appreciate.

      • You’re rebuttal is apt but I’m afraid that phatfly is long gone. I was able to track this person’s online footprint for a short while after they left this coment here.

        phatfly made several similar scathing remarks on other blogs that discussed nudity in art. All of phatfly’s comments were harsh and slanted. You should read those. I believe that the comments here are by far the least casutic of all the remarks that I found.

        I’m personally reluctant to calling phatfly “closed-minded” as I do understand the circumstances that can unfortunately and inevitably trigger such hostility (it’s been a long time since I’ve written this post, and I still have yet to shoot anyone in the nude despite my love for nude illustration and photography). I do question; however, the person’s motives for literally targetting only such blog posts and leaving such comments. It seems more likely that they weren’t just giving a dissenting opinion but deliberately seeking out blogs and artists to spit on and then run away from. They got off on doing this.

        • I had the guy figured out after reading his reply. I apologize for the choice of word I used in my reply, I have to admit the first draft of my reply was much harsher in tone.

          I have a Model Mayhem account if you are interested in checking out some of my work my account # is 1462821…

          • I just went there. Very, very nice work! My MM account is 2300731 if interested (not much there at the moment).

            What are all the ways that you market your nudes? I’ve been considering re-writing this post, and doing another on marketing nude work. In some of my blog series I interview other artists to get their perspectives as well as my own. I may call on you in the future.

            Also, do you find it more beneficial to do hair and makeup yourself, contract someone else to handle it or shoot whatever you get?

  3. “No brainer?” Seems like a valid point. I thought I actually had covered that indirectly. Being that it is a recurring topic, my approach was only to indirectly talk about nudity in art in general and mainly talk about MOF’s POV of nudity in art; spcifically photography. My entry was looooong enough. I’m surprised it alone didn’t put you to sleep. I never thought that expressing that point directly was necessary. I thank you, however, for doing it for me. I’m also glad that you actually took the time to hear me out.

    Even though it certainly is an old subject, generally speaking, people from artists to non-artists still keep talking about it. I actually liken the phenomenon to loves songs. There’s so many of them; people keep writing them and listening to them. What for? My guess it’s because love, as old and tired as it might be, is a matter that people still want to try to get right. It’s important to them.

    The subject of nudity in art, generally speaking, is apparently important to you. Or is there some other reason as to why you spent time and energy offering your opinion to a “no brainer” concept that’s so old that it puts you to sleep? What visual art subject would you prefer to discuss? There really are many others to choose from.

  4. Having worked in hospital in a former life, I learned that nudity/partial nudity in and of itself is not sexy, exploitative, inapporpriate, or anything else, either positive or negative. It is situational. I also think intent is critical, as you have stated. If you need help out of the bath, let’s say, that is not in the least about nudity, but still is very embarrassing to some.

    • I totally agree with your situational consideration. Most people in the “developed world” get it when they view members of “primitive” African and Central American tribes, in which members habitually live nude or semi-nude, on the covers and pages of National Geographic. When the situation changes to that of Demi Moore posing nude while pregnant on the August 1991 cover of Vanity Fair, Jessica Simpson doing likewise on the April 2012 issue of Elle or Kerri Walsh Jennings posing nude with her newborn daughter on the cover of ESPN “The Body Issue”; however, the same people are inclined to find the images controversial.

  5. As members of a society, we tacitly agree to live our public lives within the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or appropriate. It is easier to accept a cultural/societal (“primitive”) difference than accept someone who challenges, disregards or denigrates the culture/society they live in. This does not mean we understand or appreciate that other culture or society, only that we accept it as different.

    I find people who fly 20 or 30 national flags on their front lawn (as if they were patriotic) as offensive as somone who flaunts certain other behavioral norms in pulblic spaces.

    In effect, we tacitly agree that certain cultural or societal behaviors are publicly acceptable and others are not. I see this the same as voting, we ive in countries that have reasonably non-restictive voting, so we have tacitly agreed to accept the outcome of elections, whether we vote or not.

    Allan, you might notice I didn’t say this was either good or bad, but simply what we have agreed to by living within a particular culture or society, as we all do.

    Also, I don’t wonder why change comes slowly. Change challenges the tacit agreements of any society.

  6. Nudity does not equate to sexuality. Clothing does not equate to the absence of sexuality. Therefore I consider discussion of sexuality in this context way off the mark. I am a 74- year old woman who paints from nude models of all physical descriptions, and “it’s all good.”

    • I totally get that, and yet there are many who will insist that you are either insincere or just not in touch with reality with that assertion. I’ve run into it many times.

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