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The Art of Seeing  #08: The Nude in Photography


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Since the ancient years, the ‘nude’ in art constituted a distinct category of artistic expression. The earliest versions of art that depicted a nude human body had as a theme the representation of heroes, Gods, mythical figures and generally characters intended to surpass the common aspects of human dimension. They were featuring an ideal form of the human body. In order to achieve this, the artist was trying to create a distance between the viewer’s eye and the naked human body. The real subject was not a disclosure or an awareness of nakedness but rather a transformation into a symbolic, noble and ideal form. Beauty, strength, immortality, power, human qualities and emotions became central elements in the intentions of the nude in arts. The nude transformed into a kind of dress rather than being an enactment of nakedness. It was Kenneth Clark that first discussed thoroughly and defined the difference 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 modern times of course, the line between the ‘nude’ and ‘naked’ have been repeatedly and intentionally blurred, while artists attempted to diverge from the philosophy of classical nudes of the past. As George P. Landow notes, contemporary artists have chosen “…to confront the viewer with all the sexuality, discomfort and anxiety that the unclothed body may express, perhaps eliminating the distinction between the naked and the nude...” and to bring forward issues like race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and gender.


In the case of photography the nude has been a subject almost since its invention. Due to its inherent realism though, the nude remains a controversial subject, even today, as it is very difficult for the viewer to overcome that the subject/model is actually a real man or woman standing naked in front of a camera. Additionally, many modern photographers discovered their themes and inspiration exactly where social norms and ethics are questioned and overturned - and that is one more reason that makes it even harder to draw line where photographic art ends and pornography begins.


Considering the short foresaid framework of how the nude in art can be interpreted we are going to showcase below nude photographs from certain photographers of 20th century that are established as fine art photographers.


Ariadne, Oscar Gustav Rejlander, 1857. The Metropolitan Museum of Art


In this photograph one can argue that the female body is being presented as object of desire. There is a clear focus in the lines, shape and texture, while the model’s identity is being concealed and the female body is being represented as an object of subtle sexuality and desire. Critic A. H. Wall defended the propriety of Rejlander’s work on nude, saying: "Refined and ennobled by art, real beauty, palpable flesh and blood, speaks of nothing but its own inherent loveliness." For the same photographic work though, Thomas Sutton, the editor of ‘Photographic News’ magazine stated that: "…there is impropriety in allowing the public to see photographs of nude prostitutes, in flesh-and-blood truthfulness and minuteness of detail" (!).


Portrait of Georgia Engelhard, Alfred Stieglitz, 1922.

© 2016 Estate of Alfred Stieglitz / Artists Rights Society (ARS)


We witness above an allegorical photograph of Alfred Stieglitz’s niece, Georgia Engelhard, with a handful of apples to her naked bosom. Stieglitz took a number of nude portraits of her niece’s white and pristine adolescence body, denoting “a lyric celebration of young flesh”.


Neil, Weston, 1923. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS)


“...A successful photographer in the Pictorialist vein in the 1910s, Weston went on to become a primary exponent of "straight" photography in the 1920s… Here, Weston captures his young son Neil in a pose that conveys both youthful ease and sculptural equilibrium. If the painterly approach and poetic overtones evoke Weston’s earlier work, the simple but dramatic composition places it firmly within his later oeuvre...”

(text retrieved from www.metmuseum.org)


Triangles, Imogen Cunningham, 1928. © The Imogen Cunningham Trust


“...Imogen Cunningham's unique botanical and figure studies made a significant contribution to the aesthetics of Modernism… …This sensitive rendering of the feminine body is a complex intersection of angles, the result of careful positioning of model, camera, and lighting...”

(text retrieved from www.getty.edu)

Male Nude, George Platt Lynes, 1930s.

© Estate of George Platt Lynes, Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.


“...Though George Platt Lynes was renowned for his celebrity portraits of cultural icons like Diana Vreeland and Salvador Dalí, the American photographer’s male nudes—largely hidden during his lifetime—were strikingly provocative and ahead of their time. This particular photo is less erotic than his other nudes, many of which are surrealist visual interpretations of Greek mythology. Here, we see a nod to classicism as the model contorts his body like a discus thrower...”

(text by Lizzie Crocker from www.thedailybeast.com)

Nude on Sand, Edward Weston, 1936. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS)


“...Charis Wilson, the model for a series of nude pose in sand, admitted that, "I couldn’t get past the simple amazement at how real they were. Then I began to see the rhythmic patterns, the intensely perceived sculptural forms, the subtle modulations of tone, of which these small, perfect images were composed. And I began to appreciate the originality of the viewpoint that had selected just these transitory moments and made them fast against the current of time..."

(text retrieved from www.metmuseum.org)


Navigation without Numbers, Wynn Bullock, 1957. Museum Of Contemporary Photography (MoCP)


“…Bullock concerned himself more with the mysterious and mystical aspects of existence. His photographs challenge the viewer to relate directly to nature, and to explore the significance of light and shadow. Juxtaposing the translucent smoothness of human skin and the rougher, natural grain of the wall in the background, Bullock's Navigation Without Numbers (1957), delves deeper than the surface textures. The combination of the crouching woman and the sprawled baby suggests the consequences of the passage of time, while the transitions between the dark and light areas and the stark figures in the foreground underscore the contrast between innocence and age.”

(text retrieved from www.mocp.org)

Figure, Frederick Sommer, 1965.

© Frederick and Francis Sommer Foundation


Frederick Sommer after experimenting with intentionally blurred photographs of statues he begun using the same technique with real models attempting to make living bodies seem like sculptured stone.


Untitled Torso, Chuck Close and Jerry Spagnoli, 2001. © Chuck Close


“...Chuck Close created a series of portraits and figure studies in collaboration with the daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli… Close, mostly known for his variations on the human face, here experimented with skin as pure form. In choosing a small-busted woman as his model, Close blurred the line between female and male...”

(text retrieved from www.getty.edu)


Mala Noche, Antoine D'Agata, 1991-1997. © Magnum photos


We close this article with a photograph by Antoine D’ Agata, a remarkable modern photographer whose work lie somewhere between fiction and reality, embodying an inner perspective of an illusory world blended with agony and ecstasy.

“Photographers have to accept they can just convey fragments of illusory realities and relate their own intimate experience of the world. In this process of fictionalising an unreachable truth, it's up to them to impose their doubts about any photographic truth, or accept being impotent pawns in the mediatic game.” (Antoine D’ Agata)


References

  • Berger, John. (1990). Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books (first published 1972)Bunker, Gerald E. Clark's Analysis of Nude Balances Real and Ideal. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from www.thecrimson.com/

  • Clark, Kenneth. (1972). The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Book 2). Princeton University Press

  • Crocker, Lizzie. (2012). ‘Naked Before the Camera’: Nudes at the Metropolitan Museum. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from www.thedailybeast.com/

  • Landow, George P. Kenneth Clark on Naked, Nude, and Ideal Form. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from http://www.victorianweb.org/

  • Martinez, Ricardo. Wynn Bullock and his erotic art – one of the photographic masters of the 20th century. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from http://www.widewalls.ch/wynn-bullock-masters-photography-20th-century/

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art. History of the Nude in Photography in ‘Naked before the Camera’ exhibition (March 27 - September 9, 2012). Press release. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from http://www.metmuseum.org

  • The J. Paul Getty Museum. (2008). “In Focus: The Nude” exhibition. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/focus_nude/

  • The J. Paul Getty Museum. (2007). “Edward Weston: Enduring Vision” exhibition. Retrieved at 17/12/2016 from http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/weston/

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