Viewpoint: MOF on Nudity in Photography
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 . . .
- 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.).
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.