Sunday, October 16, 2016

The State of Nude Photography II

I've been reviewing work by various and sundry other artists, thanks commenters! I have not been particularly organized about it.

Here's what I've seen.

At the higher end, the serious and successful artist end of things as opposed to the amateur, we see some differences. This is not a surprise, of course.

What I got out of my survey is a basket of tropes and themes. Visual ideas include pictorialist softness, abstract isolations, classic figure studies, classic movement/posing studies, surrealist elements, juxtaposed textures, straight documentation. thematic ideas include eroticism, empowerment, 'this looks beautiful', 'this looks interesting'.

Mix and match create a signature look, and away you go.

Nudity implies a certain energy. Often erotic but not necessarily; always basic, animal, I think. Consider the Sally Mann photo "the last time Emmett modeled nude." You'd have to be pretty far off the mean to see anything erotic in it, but there's no way it's the same picture if he's wearing swim trunks. There's a feral energy there.

Contrast with anything by Ralph Gibson. Everything he did seems to be on the edge between smut and art; he's all about that energy and is very up front about the erotic aspects that emerge when your models are adult women in provocative postures.

And again, look at the Lennon/Ono Rolling Stone cover. Energy!

Contrast this with a lot of other nudes. The plan is, altogether too often, to deny the energy: hide it with pictorialist softness, it's just a figure study, we're empowering women (never men, hmm), look, it's a study in contrasting textures, and so on. Any sexy stuff you see in here, dear viewer, is just you being naughty.

The goal seems to be to make something appealing to look at without ruffling any feathers. An interesting picture, a beautiful picture. That's not a bad thing, as such, but it's not going very far, is it? We might as well be shooting sunsets. This is, after all, Art, and Art should never be unsettling or exciting.

Now, this is obviously only a some of it, I've already cited some people who do different things (Gibson, Mann, Leibovitz) and there are surely others. Jock Sturges seems to be to combine the energy with a goodly dose of the erotic with pictures of kids, which is problematic, and surely deliberately so.

So while the dominant, the most common perhaps, format is to deny the energy and pretend that it's just Art (when in fact there are naked people here), there's a strong body of work that embraces the energies inherent in the nude. That's pretty much a good thing.

The problem, as I see it, is that without embracing the energy you haven't much hope of making any larger statement. I don't know if that's true. If you're covering up the energy inherent in what you're shooting, does that in fact get in the way of making any kind of substantive statement?

Contrariwise, if you do embrace the energy, there is a temptation to assume you're done at that point. So we wind up with masses of work that says nothing and hides its face behind prettiness and interestingness, and then a smaller but still substantial body of work that stops short. Gibson and Sturges are good examples here, they're up front and honest about the erotic power of what they're doing, but they seem to simply stop there. It's erotic and powerful. So what? Do you have an opinion or idea beyond that Jock? Ralph? Hello?

There is also a substantial subgenre of work out there that's doing a sort of documentary/empowerment thing (as noted, always with female nudes, which makes me itch slightly). There is a genuine effort to make a statement here, but it's a statement specifically about nudity and beauty. The goal is to normalize, well, the normal, the common. While this is a fine thing, and I approve of efforts to push back against the media's stylized and often ridiculous notions of beauty, it's a bit self-referential and narrow. We're using nudity to talk about nudity, rather than something else, eh?

Is it even really possible to do a photo essay of real meaning that involves nudes, or is the viewer just going to be all distracted by the nakedness anyways?

1 comment:

  1. "Is it even really possible to do a photo essay of real meaning that involves nudes, or is the viewer just going to be all distracted by the nakedness anyways?"

    Gregory Crewdson and Duane Michaels come to mind.