Why do I photograph the female nude? How do I choose or find models? What kind of person goes to a stranger’s home and removes her clothes in order to be photographed naked? How do I help the model feel comfortable? What is going through my head (or any other part of me) while photographing an attractive young woman in her sublime nakedness? What’s going on in her head? Do I have any particular ethical code in place while in the act of photographing naked persons appearing to be female? How do I think about the fine art nude in relation to its trailer trash, nymphomaniac cousins, the erotic image and the pornographic image?
My turning to photography was a very organic and intuitive process: no plan, no goal, no particular aesthetic orientation or loyalty, no obvious talent, no financial expectation. It just happened, more or less. Same with my photographing nudes, which evolved out of portraiture. But at an early stage in my life as a photographer (two years in), I was given a strong push in the direction of female nudes by the late, great photographer Ruth Bernhard, best known for her sensitive female nudes. I'd made an appointment to interview her at her home in San Francisco for a book project, and while there she asked to see some of my work. I'd brought along a number of prints, which she studied very carefully. Her eyes were particularly drawn to some nudes, about which she said some very complimentary things.
During a subsequent visit, Ruth told me she wanted to exhibit some of my nudes along with hers in an upcoming exhibition. She explained that nowadays she was receiving regular invitations from galleries and museums to show her work (full recognition came late in life - she was now ninety-six), and she promised to include my work in a future show. I recall feeling a bit stunned. I hadn’t imagined that my work was gallery-ready, that any of my images rose to the level of collectable fine art. She also permitted me to photograph her posing with various animal bones, skulls and other objects which she collected and displayed on a large table in her living-room. When I returned a few weeks later with the resulting prints, Ruth seemed quite pleased. She particularly loved one image of her holding a bird skull in front of her face, declaring it my "masterpiece."
Not too long after that third visit, Ruth sank into a steep decline after losing a very close lifelong friend. She spent her last few years in semi-seclusion and, as her nurse told me, debilitatingly forgetful. I visited her once during that period, and she appeared very tired and week, though she was capable of being alert for short periods. In any case, it was clear that she was in no state to be reminded of her proposal for a two-person show, and I regretfully let the matter drop. Finally, at age 101, Ruth Bernhard departed to go “fly with the angels,” as she’d put it during one of our discussions, reflecting on mortality. Every now and then I think of Ruth flying overhead, and I thank her for her kindness and encouragement. I hope she’ll invite me, one day, to join her coterie of flying angels.
Anyone who knows Ruth’s work, and has read her words reflecting on her work, knows that she was an authentically spiritual person. She saw the human body as an element of the natural world, as well as a manifestation of Spirit. For her, everything is connected: all beings and all things linked downwards to the atom, and upwards toward the Sublime. I think she liked my female nudes in part because she sensed in them something of her own aesthetic and spiritual orientation. Back then, I might not have attached the word “spiritual” to any of my work, but in the years since I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between art and consciousness, Beauty and Spirit. While not interested in constructing a systematic theology or aesthetics of the nude image, I have evolved some impressions and ideas about the genre. While some of my thinking may reflect certain classic ideas in philosophy and aesthetics, I write here not as an academician seeking correspondences and comparisons, but as an introspective artist trying to make some sense of his own creative process. So, let me share a few thoughts with you concerning the work itself, and also offer some behind-the-scenes glimpses into the experience of working with living, breathing models.
How a nude-shoot comes to be
Whenever I’m out and about, my radar is up and open to the possibility of encountering a potential model. I tune my radar to the frequency of facial beauty, with hopes of finding a good portrait model, rather than to the wavelength of body form, in quest of a nude subject. I’m more enchanted by a beautiful female face than by the hypothetical (because concealed) body attached to it. To me the face is more visually stimulating, suggestive and mysterious than any mental image I many have of a naked body. To make art of that face is, for me, an end in itself. I can think of nothing as aesthetically charged as a lovely female face, and I’ve probably created ten portraits for every nude.
Facial beauty, however, is not sufficient in itself to move me to want to photograph someone. There are many fine faces out there that do not call to me, or if they do, don’t hold my attention for more than a few seconds. I need something more than obvious or superficial good looks. The vibe has to be right. I need to feel that the face is animated (perhaps very subtly) by a positive, or at least an interesting spirit. I need to sense, at the very least, that this is not an unpleasant sort of person. The perfect face, for me, is the beautiful face of a sensitive and intelligent soul, someone with a depth dimension, someone who’d be interesting to talk to.
My “ideal” face is related to my “ideal” body. I want to see or sense what I think of as “grace” - the body as expressive of a deeper humanity, a beautiful dance of human energy, an intriguing combine of matter and spirit. Laugh if you wish, doubt and scorn if you must, but to me photographing the nude is a spiritual act, or at least an act in quest of a spiritual end.
In any case, it so happens that once in a while (it’s relatively rare) a portrait session will evolve organically into a nude session. It’s never an expectation, as such, and only rarely explicitly hoped for. If a portrait subject seems particularly comfortable in her body, and if we’ve developed a very good rapport, I might decide to show her a few examples of my nude work, and then judge from her response whether or not I can comfortably raise the issue (partial or “implied” nudity is always an option). If the response isn’t quite right, I’ll drop the idea. I will never (as many photographers do) pressure a model into shedding her clothes. I happen to like and respect women, and dislike the idea of being manipulative. Many of my women friends, over many years, have sensitized me in these matters, in part by sharing stories of unpleasant encounters with predatory men - both the back-alley type and the garden variety. They’ve taught me to see the social world through their eyes, imparting a kind of transgender, bi-focal sensibility. For that I’m truly thankful.
The only exception to the above modus-operandi is if I arrange to work with a model I’ve encountered in a forum like Modelmayhem.com (a meeting-place for models and photographers, both professional and amateur, talented and otherwise), who has clearly indicated, in her bio, an openness to doing nudes. Even then, while scanning for models on that site I’m generally looking for portrait subjects rather than nudes. The idea of contracting with someone specifically to do a nude shoot has an unnatural, almost mercenary feel about it. For me, shooting nudes has always evolved naturally out of portraiture, as a further expression or revelation of the person I’m photographing. I do not count myself among the hoards of photographers who prowl sites like Modelmayhem in search of a woman or a girl who, for the right price, will come to their home and get naked for tasteless “erotic” or pseudo-“artistic” snapshots. Now and then a model will contact me (via Modelmayhem) who likes my work and asks about the possibility of doing a nude shoot with me. Almost always I decline because, even if she has a pleasing figure, if I don’t genuinely love (or really, really like) her face, I know that photographing her would be uninspiring. I find it difficult to look at a nude without considering her face (even if the face will not appear in the final photograph), and never want to be in the position of having to deliberately keep the model’s face out of the frame in every shot, as if concealing some defective body part.
The only time I have needed to go shopping, as it were, for nude models, was when I was invited once to lead a workshop on photographing the female nude, and needed to assemble a handful of models who were comfortable, and preferably experienced, being on display in that kind of multi-photographer, instructional setting.
More on model radar
Maybe once or twice a month, while out in public, I’ll notice a woman or girl of exceptional beauty and feel she’d be a wonderful model. Not being particularly extroverted, I need to overcome a good bit of inertia in order to approach this stranger. Depending on my mood, I might feel too timid to approach, or might decide not to approach because she’s engaged with friends and don’t wish to be intrusive, or because I’d have to exert myself to catch up with her as she briskly walks down the sidewalk, or, as sometimes happens, because a second, closer look reveals she’s not quite the beauty she first appeared to be. When the conditions are right and I do get my nerve up to approach the woman, I try to be friendly and professional. I tell her, simply, that I’m a fine art photographer who would love to photograph her at her convenience, at my home, and I’ll sometimes show her a bit of my work in portfolio or book form if I happen to have them with me. I’ll explain that within a few weeks after the shoot she’ll receive from me some beautiful images, original darkroom prints, along with edited scans. I usually add that the shoot will not involve nudity. I say that because I’m well aware that some women will assume the worst: that I’m some sort of pornographer, some species of dirty-old-man roaming the streets in order to entice innocent young women into sleaze and shame, or worse, some kind of sex slavery. Chances are that if I do end up photographing her, she’ll remain fully clothed. In any case, it seems to me that most women, even young women, are naturally intuitive enough to make a quick tentative determination that I’m probably not dangerous. Most women I’ve approached show genuine enthusiasm about modeling for a photographer who seems to have talent and a track record. I’ll give her my card, suggest she check out my website (especially if I didn’t have work to show her), and ask that she contact me if she’d like to schedule a shoot, or talk further. A hypothetical neutral observer of this typical encounter would be left with the clear impression that the woman I’ve just chatted with is definitely interested, even enthused about working with me. I usually leave these encounters with a sense of hopeful expectation.
My experience, though, is that only about one in ten actually follow up. Why so few? Well, here’s my working theory: When the girl or woman tells her friends or family or boyfriend about the encounter, they warn her that this is most probably a ruse to lure an innocent girl into making porno videos, or that the photographer could be a psychopath who will rape, murder and dismember her, perhaps even cannibalize her (with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti). Better err on the side of caution, therefore, and get rid of his card. Whatever the reason, I rarely hear back from my contactees. My wife assures me that many young women are simply too busy or distracted or paranoid to follow up. In any case, I experience again and again the heartbreak (not too strong a term, in some cases) of knowing that I will never have the opportunity to create art from that particular exceptional beauty, that one-of-a-kind manifestation of the Eternal Feminine. I feel it as a tangible loss, because I know that the latent image the woman has imprinted on my mind will never become a photographic print, that a divine visage will be lost forever to inexorable Time, extinguished, forgotten. If this sounds melodramatic, so be it. I can, whenever I wish, activate a mental slide-show of extraordinary faces seen once and never seen again. Floating images of those faces live permanently in my memory and imagination, forming a kind of interior cabinet of wonders, an inner menagerie of lost beauties. I wonder: is there some better way to communicate, during our brief public encounter, that I am truly harmless; that I do not have it in me to use, abuse, seduce or manhandle; that I’m a sincere artist who wants nothing more than to create a bit of beauty in this wicked, wicked world; that I am offering her a rare opportunity to be a living Muse, translated into a work of Art; to receive from this artist, at no cost or trouble to her, multiple archival documents of her youthful beauty - mementos she’ll cherish now and for the rest of her life? If there is some effective way to communicate these truths in a passing encounter, I would surely like to know what it is.
Who are these women?
Despite that tale of woe, now and then the photography gods do send me a genuine beauty to serve as portrait subject, and in rarer cases, someone ready to bare it all for Art. Such barers usually are free spirits, comfortable in their skins, happy to participate in the creation of something beautiful. But every model is different, and every circumstance of setting up a shoot is unique, so let me offer a few examples:
One woman whose images appear frequently in this book is my dear friend Elisabeth. I’d already known her a number of years before I began photographing, and she offered herself as my first serious model (first clothed, then unclothed). I’d met her as a gorgeous, waifish, blond 18-year-old art student. We developed a close platonic relationship based on a mutual love of nature, art, and visionary experience. As an art student she’d modeled for some classes at her school, and was supremely comfortable in her body. Though her psyche was prone to turbulence, she had tremendous physical grace and would simply melt into one beautiful pose after another. I was very fortunate to have Elisabeth as my first model, not only because of her beauty and grace and our pre-existing friendship, but because she herself was/is an artist, sensitive to aesthetic nuance, intensely visual and emotionally expressive. Because our work together was not erotically motivated (we were and are intimate friends, never lovers), I was able to begin my work in the nude genre with purity of intent: the nude as compelling aesthetic subject; the nude image as high artistic expression. I have many beautiful images of Elisabeth (clothed and unclothed and in various settings) and hope to create a book exclusively of our work together.
Another well-represented model in this book is a young woman I met at a grocery store in suburban Boston not long after I started photographing. Arleen was a slim, very pretty Puerto Rican girl studying opera at a local conservatory. She enthusiastically agreed to a photo-shoot, which we scheduled for later that week. After a brief period of portraits, she brought up the idea of doing some nudes. I was surprised and not sure how to respond. Her seeming eagerness to take off her clothes was not, as one might understandably surmise, due to the overpowering attractiveness of my physical being, but because she was a very free spirit, pure-hearted, happy, innocent, and as an art-minded person herself, liked the idea of getting some beautiful photos done of her young form by a reasonably talented, non-psycho photographer. She shed her clothes without fanfare and I made some of my all-time favorite images. We met again for photos a few times over the next month or so, and over time became close friends. After she later resettled in San Juan, now a wife and mother, I visited her again a few times and made many additional images of her. She’s a wonderful mother and an inspired voice and music teacher. She loves Jesus, and me as well, as I do her. We think of ourselves as eternally bonded soul friends. I plan to publish a collection of our cumulative body of work.
Then there are two dread-locked girls encountered separately, at different times, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Rayne is a train-hopping, vegan, straight-edge, zine-writing, hobo waif who lives in the moment, in squats, and in principled defiance against corporate Amerika. I was her first photographer, apparently, but she’s had many since. In my photos she is who she is: a street-kid anarchist antichrist who is also a beautiful young waif with unrecognized grace and a powerful gaze. The other be-dreaded Telegraph girl is Suri, beautiful in a simultaneously feral and angelic way, her spirit both elemental and aerial. She’s a latter-day, live-in-the-moment hippie, as well as nature mystic, gypsy, card-carrying Priestess of Isis, denizen of mountaintops, street-seller of handmade jewelry, avant-garde musician. She brings an active spirit and imagination to our shoots, a willingness to inhabit diverse beings: forest sprite, fairy priestess, femme fatale, shaman, yogi, goddess. Her clothes didn’t come off until our third or fourth shoot, and nudity has not dominated our work together.
Then there is Heather, whom I met on an airplane journey from San Francisco to New York. She loomed over my seat while standing in line for the bathroom. I vaguely recognized her from some television program I’d seen, and she confirmed the connection (she’d been interviewed for her reminiscences of a dead comedian who was an acquaintance). We chatted, discovered we had a common friend (a dancer whom I’d photographed), and she agreed to a photo-shoot once we were both back in San Francisco. During our few times together she revealed herself to be fiercely intelligent, spontaneous, charming, uninhibited, funny, warm-hearted, and edgily bi-polar. She had a lovely girl-woman face, a beautiful petite body, the perfect pale-skinned pixie redhead. We enjoyed each other’s company, and were on our way to forming a solid friendship when she decided to move (or move back) to L.A. I wish there could have been more images and words between us.
Then there’s Gabriella, a young woman from Hong Kong attending a local art school. In exchange for a photographic documentation of her senior project (abstract glass constructions), she worked with me a few times. Warm and friendly, while also deeply intuitive and mysterious, she evaporated after a brief but fruitful collaboration.
Next is Angelica, who I found working in a women’s clothing boutique. Her compact but statuesque body was meant to be drawn and sculpted. She knew her body was a work of art, worthy of being depicted and memorialized. She told me she’s been paid by some other photographers to do cheesy pin-ups, sexy-tease work, and now appreciated the chance to be part of something more artful. We did a shoot in a large cemetery, then a studio portrait/nude shoot, and later a nude shoot deep in a forest just outside San Francisco. She merged with the elements beautifully, a naked human animal in perfect harmony with the welcoming wilderness. When I photographed her with Kodak infrared film, she glowed with the unique halation characteristic of that now-obsolete boutique film.
Jade: a young-looking nineteen-year-old with a lovely, vaguely Latin face (mother from Colombia), slim lithe body, small chest, a faerie-like creature with mermaid tendencies. I happen to like photographing mytho-poetic women: mermaids, forest nymphs, sea silkies, trickster naïfs and so on. I first encountered her on the Modelmayhem site. I apparently was the first photographer to notice her special type of beauty, but many followed. Most of that subsequent work was of a commercial nature (fashion, editorial, etc.), most of which failed, I think, to penetrate beyond her surface. She tells me she doesn’t do nudes anymore - that she needs now to be respectable for employment and career purposes. I’m happy to have captured her image at what might have been the finest flowering of her loveliness.
And then there’s the Playboy Playmate-of-the-Month who wrote and said she liked my work, and we arranged a shoot. I travelled to L.A. to photograph her in a cramped hotel room with her supportive mom in attendance. Still bound by a one-year contract with Playboy, she was confined to doing “implied” nudes (nude, but concealing the illegal parts). With conscientious vigilance she shielded her substantial Playboy-certified breasts from the camera’s view, which was fine with me because I never quite know what to do, aesthetically, with big boobs. They can be intrusive attention grabbers.
Next there is the young Asian exotic dancer: she arrived with her pink frilly striptease costumes (she called it "whore couture”), which I asked her to put away in favor of our doing some nice classic nudes. During the shoot she asked if I had any wine, then got herself plastered, sat down on a fragile coffee table breaking it, then went to sleep, slept it off, got up and went home. She was only 4’9” (she was proud of her “almost dwarf” status), but somehow in the photos looks long and sinuous, positively serpentine - some rare kind of optical magic which I cannot explain.
Then there’s my friend Laura, a gifted silversmith, maker of beautiful nature-inspired, nature-incorporating jewelry. Years after our first portrait shoot, she announced her newfound comfort in and appreciation for her own body, and suggested a nude shoot. She posed with various animal skulls gathered from around my house - artifacts of the natural world, reminders of her love of nature’s mysterious forms.
Another sitter was a recent cancer survivor in her thirties, bald and breast-less, wanting to document, embrace, and aestheticize her survival body.
Another model was a recently retired ballet dancer from a major European company. She took pride in her dancer’s body and wanted to have artful documents made, mementos of her now-fading youth.
One nude shoot (of a kind) was with an established modern dance group. I’d already worked with them several times, and they’d used my images for promotion and publicity, to good effect. On one occasion, the director and lead dancer asked me to photograph, for publicity purposes, a new semi-nude piece they were working on. I did so, producing some particularly vivid images: dark, dreamlike weavings and tumblings of silk-wrapped bodies - arms, legs and torsos in strangely patterned, graceful chaos. Later, the director, without explanation, denied me permission to ever use these images (I haven’t). Her change of mind is still a mystery to me. It’s a shame - almost painful to think that this suite of images must remain forever hidden.
And then there are those portrait subjects who were interested in the idea of having art made of their naked forms, but finally decided not to. For some it was fear that such images might one day endanger job prospects, reputations, or family relations. In these instances, sometimes “implied” nudes were acceptable, or nudes minus identifiable face - but often any degree of nudity was simply too far a stretch. One of those was a psychiatric resident, concerned lest some future client see his therapist in the raw; another was a young woman with a dream to act for Disney, and thus needed to retain a sweet, virginal image. In other cases, reluctant decliners were those who, for one reason or another, felt their bodies did not rate as art objects. Nothing could convince them otherwise.They tended to magnify in their minds some minor or imagined imperfection, which they felt made them unworthy of art.
Why I prefer working with amateur models
As I mentioned earlier, virtually all the women I’ve photographed are not professional models. Most are young women I’ve approached in public who agreed to model for me; the remainder are amateur models contacted through the website modelmayhem.com. [The site also includes many part-time or full-time professional (paid) models.] Though some of the modelmayhem amateurs I’ve worked with aspire to become paid professionals, most model for fun, or for art, or adventure, some for an occasional bit of cash. Only once did I hire a genuine professional, a young woman from Hungary. I did so because I absolutely loved her looks. She let me pay half her usual fee in exchange for hosting her for the four days she was in town. She turned out to be a great model - fully present, creative, sensitive, able to pose in a natural, intuitive manner.
On a few occasions I’ve worked with amateurs who, in their aspiration to become “professional,” had clearly memorized a roster of standard poses, a personal modeling catechism drawn from studying other model’s photos. Pros and pro-wannabe amateurs tend to lack naturalness, tend to be over scripted, unable to relax into their own bodies and moods. Their concept of modeling preempts naturalism, spontaneity, and intuition. As a photographic artist, I want to create images of a real person who is comfortable in her essential humanity, not a paid mercenary. Fortunately, many of the women I’ve worked with in the nude genre are themselves artists or craftswomen, or lovers of art and craft, or creatrixes of other sorts, as well as bohemian types who see nudity not as provocative but as natural and beautiful, who feel honored to embody Womanhood, channel the Goddess, pleased to be transformed into art - monumentalized and eternalized in an image made of silver and light.
So much depends upon comfort and trust
If the woman I am photographing is not at ease, if she cannot relax, settle into her flesh and be herself, then she must be something other than herself, a rigid imitation, humanoid rather than fully human. I cannot imagine working with a subject if she does not feel reasonably comfortable, or is on her way to feeling comfortable over the course of a shoot. Otherwise, an aura of tension and artificiality hangs over the proceedings and nothing seems right. And if beauty is (as I imagine it to be) the natural glow of a thing when in its most primal, organic state, then beauty quickly dissipates under conditions of artificiality. Whatever natural beauty may exist in the model (beauty projected from soul to the screen of flesh) is now hidden, concealed, obscured.
Many women have told me they feel very comfortable working with me (and many viewers of my images have commented on the apparent rapport). They feel confident that I’m not a threat. They see that I’m respectful and serious about what I’m doing, enthusiastic to collaborate and create. They sense, I think, that I see them not as mere bearers of bosoms and buttocks, but as existential beings, living souls (which ought not require an act of multi-tasking). It is an extraordinary expression of trust that a woman will remove her clothes before a man she doesn’t know, or know well, and so I feel deeply honored by that trust. For many it may be the first time they’ve been in a situation of high vulnerability without being fearful. I feel privileged to participate in an act that may actually increase their faith in humanity, or at least the humanity of some men. How could I ever violate that trust? I’m blessed (and also harassed) by a vigilant, domineering conscience. I simply couldn’t live with myself if I violated the sacred artistic and spiritual contract between me and my model. A man capable of enjoying a sexual prize won through stealth and manipulation is a scumbag (to use an arcane technical term).
The chaste photographer
One reason I’ve never been tempted to exploit the intimacy of the situation, is that when photographing the nude, I’m not really thinking or feeling in sexual terms. Though art history and pulp fiction describe sexual doings between artists and models, working with a nude model need not imply erotic adventuring. I can only speak for myself: while I’m in the act of photographing, I am seeing and feeling aesthetically — an artist in love with plastic form, a slave to my eyes, which have a life of their own — a rather chaste life of beholding, contemplating, re-visioning, and re-creating. It is sensory thrill enough for the eye to be fully awakened, charmed and seduced by the goddess Beauty in her various manifestations. Though I acknowledge that the boundary between the aesthetic and the erotic may sometimes seem porous, I know that while I’m photographing, I’m clearly aware of the theoretical tipping point where one may progress (or digress, or transgress) from one to the other. Looking through the lens of the camera at a human body as a multiform aesthetic object is one sort of visual attention; looking upon that body as a desirable woman, a potential lover, something to get my hands on, is a very different kind of visual attention. The former I do not feel in my loins, my flesh, my solar plexus. I don’t find myself longing for the touch of that body on the other side of the lens. I could, if I really wished to, switch into and re-inhabit that desiring state of mind, but I don’t want to. It’s simply not relevant to what I am trying to do at this moment, which is to open myself to the tangible/intangible nebulous mysterious thing called Beauty, to allow it to fill my sensorium, resonate within deeper consciousness, then grasp from the flow of time a perfect aesthetic moment - an instant of ideal perception of ideal form.
Physical, erotic desire can quickly dissipate that lovely state of aesthetic contemplation, block the flow of creativity, and draw me out of what amounts to a pleasantly altered state of consciousness. I view that “altered” state as an ideal condition, something to aspire to, described in Buddhist and Taoist texts as a form of awareness that transcends the structured rationality that divides raw consciousness from its object - us from our immediate environment. There is something about photographing (not only the nude) that lifts me out of the reflexive observing mind and drops me into the wordless fluidity of the present moment. If the thought-addled mind (or physical desire) reasserts itself, I lose my concentration and, with it, the flow of inspiration. Perhaps it helps that for many years I practiced celibacy (as a Hindu monk), and even now do not find it difficult to invoke a certain state of sensual detachment.
The aesthetic, the sensual, and the erotic
That said, I’m going to add some nuance to the discussion: Other than to guide ethical behavior in working with models, it is hard to make a clear, firm demarcation between the aesthetic and the sensual, the sensual and the erotic. It is therefore difficult to create a bullet-proof conceptual, divide between the aesthetics of fine art, erotic imagery, and pornography. It’s hard because the eyes do not operate in isolation from the senses and the mind, as if vision were some pure, transcendent faculty. Still, I would make this distinction: The erotic and pornographic mentality almost always sees women in terms of a certain functionality — for the male — that is, as an object of sexual gratification (actual or imagined). Woman is depicted as an alluring receptacle for male sexual intrusion and domination, a prize to be won, an adventure to be had, a mystery to conquer and lay bare. Her beauty, either facial or bodily, is subsumed under an aura or rubric of “sexiness,” and is processed and packaged to do its work as stimulator of the male libido. Most men, it appears, want or expect women to be “sexy." But what does that mean? What is "sexy"? Here’s my take: Woman as embodiment of sex, as sexual functionary, sex-partner, sex-toy, sex-bunny, sex-slave, sexpot, seductress, babe, bombshell, hot girl, a live naked woman, a piece of ass, a good lay. In my humble opinion, “sexy” is a juvenile and narcissistic (not to mention obsessional and fetishistic) category for conceiving the female form (and the person who animates it). It is seeing the body not as the beautiful thing-in-itself, a self-contained, self-manifesting expression of the Beautiful and home to a unique soul, but, instead, as the desirable thing for me, the object I crave, the thing I must have and somehow must get, my own little piece of sexual real estate. The “erotic” image, especially the pornographic image, is simply a tease, meant to thicken the juices of desire. It is meant to close the eye and harden the erection, not to open the eye and fill the heart. It is not about actually seeing, but about harnessing vision to lust, reducing the eye to an antenna of the sexual apparatus, an extension of the genitalia.
That said, I am not able to control how the nude image I have made is seen and experienced by the viewer. The image itself may embody and reflect my own aesthetic, my own state-of-mind, but it is not immune to contrary perception (or even to my own divergent perception at times). I never mean to titillate, but the eye will see what the eye wants to see. But the eye (and the mind behind it) should at least know this: there are aesthetic and spiritual pleasures that trump scratching sexual itches on the eye’s surface. The French art historian and essayist Jean Clair calls the aesthetic gaze “the erection of the eye” (“Le regard est l’érection de l’œil.”). True vision has its own crescendos and climaxes.
Three levels of perception of the body
While not wanting to propose any particular theory of vision, I notice that when working with the female nude I experience an interesting dynamic or interplay between three levels of vision: Observing the nude 1) as pure simple form, an object in space, a lump of matter having a certain form, mass, texture, tonality, reflectivity, and so on; 2) as the physical home of a particular fellow human, an abode of personhood, the soul’s outer covering; and 3) as a symbol or archetype of something beyond itself: some larger cosmic principle: Beauty, the Feminine, the Soul, Ultimate Reality. [One can, of course, apply this threefold model to any object of artistic contemplation: 1) the object as literal, physical thing; 2) the object defined in terms of its purpose and functionality; and 3) the object as a symbol of some abstract idea or ideal (e.g., objecthood itself, the malleability of matter; human creativity, industry or resourcefulness, etc.).] I experience this three-tiered perception not as a contradiction, tension, or challenge, but as a rich, complex complementarity - three intertwined threads of a golden string. All three aspects are, after all, always present, but the mind and senses at any one moment, or series of moments, may focus on one or the other or the other. I experience this multi-level dance more unconsciously than consciously, a natural dynamic or rhythm of the perceiving consciousness. All this may sound like after-the-fact intellectualization of the process, a flight into bloodless abstraction, but it is as straightforward a description of my experience as I can offer.
Phenomenology vs. Symbology of the female nude
The first and third items of that triune may seem particularly contradictory: the nude body as pure form (a self-contained lump of matter, a perceptual thing-in-itself), versus the nude as an external expression of some universal or transcendent principle - in other words, the perspectives of Phenomenology and Symbolism. When in a phenomenological frame of mind, I’m drawn to the notion (or feel instinctually) that a thing is most clearly observed and comprehended “in-itself” or “as-it-is,” free of any speculative contextualization or subjective projection. The idea is that one should not impose conceptuality, theoretical constructions, upon the literal, pristine object, but rather see the object in its own “suchness" - let it “speak for itself,” so to speak. It’s a kind of Zen orientation I suppose: this place and this moment (the here and now), constituting the fullness of reality, one should deal directly with the thing before ones eyes - not burden it with pre-formed ideas about its being and meaning. By suspending judgment, by rising above the compulsion to lay my own subjective and speculative template on the thing itself — on being itself — I can now deal with reality directly (rather than through filters), and experience it fully, authentically, and with an intensity bordering on ecstasy.
At other moments, however, I seem to be a full-bred Symbolist (or Platonist, or Idealist, or some breed of Magical Thinker) who imagines the perceivable world to be an emanation (however dim) of some higher reality, of some more subtle and sublime state of existence. All things in the universe being connected in a cosmic continuum, the world before our eyes — ephemeral and always in flux — suggests the existence of some ideal, ultimate, eternal world. In that scheme of things, matter functions as a kind of “index of spirit” - the visible realm spread out before us as an endless “forest of symbols” (Baudelaire). This literal naked body before my camera is therefore serving as a “hierophany” (Mircea Eliade), a sort of spilling over into the mundane world of transcendent energies, an “irruption of the divine” on terra firma - the body now sacralized as an embodiment of Spirit.
Are these two apparently opposing modes or models of perception necessarily contradictory, even antagonistic? Must I claim loyalty to one or the other? Can the two not exist in some kind of harmony, or at least creative synergy? This is where logic and rationality seem to run aground. Is the nude body before my eye and my camera a “thing-in-itself" - pure form, something to be seen in absolute conceptual innocence as a light-reflecting object in space? Yes, it is indeed that. On the other hand, is that body perhaps a symbol (an expression, or projection, or revelation) of, say, the Divine Feminine, or an embodiment of Sophia (wisdom) or of Quan Yin (compassion)? Can that fleshy form be in fact the penumbra of some distant Sublimity, an Avatar of Beauty, the word of God made flesh - an arena, therefore, for the free play of the mystical imagination? Yes! Is there some contradiction between those two orientations? Perhaps, at some logical level, but not for the artist who, while in the midst of creating, finds himself operating from within a pre-conscious, intuitive state - an inner realm where different levels or planes of consciousness operate simultaneously and experientially. It’s no good being a philosopher or an intellectual, a seeker of conceptual understanding, if one is unable to feel, at a visceral level, what one thinks one knows. “Knowledge” not rooted in tangible, felt experience is but a spectral breeze in a hollow head, a tinny clang rising from an empty abyss.
The visual and the visceral: seeing is feeling
There is a tendency to talk about the visual sense in mechanistic terms: the eye as a scanning device that sends images into the brain, where sense and meaning is made of them - the eye serving the role of a servant bringing objects of interest to its master for the master’s delectation. I think of visual experience as directly and inextricably permeated by the aesthetic, the emotional, and the spiritual - not an operation apart. This observation itself may seem an act of intellectualization, but I am trying, in fact, to describe as directly as I can a felt experience: the visual as visceral, the act of looking/seeing as engaging our deepest feeling selves - vision as (lo and behold) a spiritual experience. Long before I reflect on the meaning of beauty — the significance of some particular object or experience of beauty — I am wordlessly enveloped by it. The seen object makes an immediate, tangible impression at a deep level of consciousness.
As a photographer (and free-lance looker) I don’t scan the world for objects that fit into a pre-determined category, such as “the beautiful.” I just follow my eager eye - a tail-wagging dog that pulls his master along at the end of a leash. I have learned to trust the instincts of that impulsive creature, to grant it unbridled freedom to wander and explore. But I still insist upon the leash, lest I, the ruminator and creator, be left groping. This canine image reminds me of an equine one from the HIndu Bhagavad-gita, wherein the five senses are compared to wild horses that must be reigned in, controlled, lest the chariot of the body and mind be taken for a dangerous, perhaps fatal ride. The higher self must control the lower self: the locus of authority must remain in the executive branch of the mind/body complex. The sensory world, according to this teaching, will endlessly pull at one, distract one, and one must not allow oneself to come under its sway, lest one lose sight of the unchanging, transcendent Divine. I know, now, not to sever, or artificially demarcate, the visible from the invisible, the manifest from the unmanifest - to sunder the wholeness of being into two fictional warring hemispheres. I have learned, in my freedom, the pleasure of losing my way, of wandering unselfconsciously wherever I wish, running after every little sparkly thing, endlessly filling my cabinet of perceptual wonders. I’ve learned (I am always learning) to experience the world aesthetically, and to listen for its messages of more subtle and sublime realms.
The paradox of the nude photo-shoot: natural/unnatural
As “natural” as the unclothed human body is, photographing it is, in a way, “unnatural.” The idea of “the nude” as a subject for art, including photographic art, is an abstraction that leads to a contrivance. One can walk out into a landscape, observe it, and photograph it. One can go into public places in search of subjects — people and things — to photograph. But one does not venture into the world in search of nudes or “the nude” to photograph. Other than rare, specialized gatherings of transgressively naked people (nudist colonies, clothes-optional beaches, Doukhobor protests, and so on), nudity is not a feature of public life, nor a part of the natural human scene. One doesn’t encounter nude people walking down the street, sitting in cafes or on trains, wandering museums (even art museums), cavorting in parks, and so on. The photographer of the nude does not hit the streets in hopes of spotting a particularly attractive or interesting specimen of the nude to lure into his studio. One does not photograph a nude woman in her “natural surroundings,” as if chancing upon an elk or caribou in the deep woods.
The photographic nude image therefore begins as an abstraction, an act of imagination, and materializes only as a contrivance of the “studio” - a specialized setting and situation created for the purpose. There, the concept, the fantasy, the abstraction of “the nude” becomes an immediate, living object of contemplation and artistic re-formulation. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, and in spite of whatever awkwardness or discomfort is present, the woman has removed some or all of her clothes in order for her body to be looked at, studied, appreciated, and committed to film. This unique arrangement presents a paradox: The photographer wishes to memorialize and pay tribute to what is “natural” (the human body), but by means of an invented habitat (the photo studio) wherein an ambiguous, potentially highly charged encounter occurs.
The onus, then, is on the photographer to create, allow, or encourage as much “naturalness” and “reality” as is possible under those circumstances. I cannot imagine how any measure of naturalness can come about unless there exists a quite extraordinary rapport between photographer and model. Without genuine rapport, the photographer will succeed only in making images that appear stiff, stressed, cold, blunt, awkward, inorganic, tasteless and graceless. Some photographers are content to repeat the conventions of the “erotic” image: clear views of highly-eroticized body parts, the body itself posed “suggestively,” a heavily made-up face contorted into clichéd “sexy” and “seductive” expressions. If the photographer is in any sense an artist, a sensitive creator of expressive images, he must find a way to create a favorable atmosphere, which can only occur, I believe, if 1) his motives are genuinely artistic, and 2) he can look upon the model with humanity, as one human beholding a fellow human with tenderness and respect, appreciation and gratitude. That attitude on the part of the photographer should be so apparent, so transparent, that the model is put at ease, comfortable in her nakedness. The photographer should have such a light touch, such a gentle gaze, that his presence is like that of a disembodied eye hovering unseen over a body at rest — examining its architecture, its terrain, its meadows and mountains, gardens and grottoes — an anonymous reconnaissance on a cloudless day, a night journey cloaked in invisibility.
The “nude portrait”
We have the term “nude portrait,” which I take to mean a portrait (formal or informal) of a person who happens to be naked, with the face remaining the main focus of attention. It’s a challenging genre, because the novelty of nudity can overwhelm the face, which is always open to view and therefore more commonplace. In our culture, the naked body is so hidden and hyper-sexualized, that it seems to stand apart from the expressive human face as a cordoned-off erogenous zone - not merely erotically charged, but provocative, immoral, illegal. The nude portrait says, among other things, that we are all, by nature, naked, and our physical being is not limited to the topmost part of the body, the rounded, bulbous portion that grows out from the tops of shirts and blouses, dresses and suits. The nude portrait thus brings our humanity into the realm of our nakedness, and our nakedness into the realm of our humanity. It encourages a healthy nonchalance about the naked body, which is a good thing in a culture as sexually adolescent and volatile as ours.
There is another type of nude portrait, a variation on the first but with its own unique dynamic. Here, while photographing the nude model, I rotate the barrel of my telephoto lens to focus exclusively on the model’s face. Usually she is unaware of the new focus, the different framing, and so continues to feel whatever sense of vulnerability and raw openness she’s been feeling all along. That vulnerability, that rawness, that nakedness, continues to play upon her face, which remains charged with the intensity of her heroic self-revelation. The viewer of the resulting image sees only a face, another portrait, unaware the subject is without clothes - yet senses, perhaps, the underlying intensity.
The aesthetic, the erotic, and the nostalgic
When I was young and driven by so many passions and expectations, I did not take enough time to simply contemplate the beauty of my young lovers, some of whose attractiveness was exceptional. In the heat of the moment, the passion of the relationship, the awkwardness of youth, I could not, at least most of the time, simply observe and appreciate. To oversimplify, I could touch, but not truly see. Now, I can see but cannot, dare not, touch the nakedness before me. At times I return, in my imagination, to that younger self, when youth and passably good looks brought me into the presence of girls in the flower of their maidenhood. Re-inhabiting that younger self, replaying scenes of sweet intimacy, I try to see as I now am able to see: with contemplative detachment and calm awareness, by which I mean pure immersion in the pristine act of seeing, unclouded by physical or emotional craving. In that state I look upon her exquisite youthful form, but with a far deeper and fuller appreciation of the wondrousness of that body - its sheer sensual loveliness. How, at times, I wish I could return in the flesh to those rare and exquisite moments in order to re-experience them with greater sensitivity and clarity - not only aesthetic clarity, but emotional and spiritual clarity well. If that were possible, I would certainly bring my camera to the scene and capture on film some of that wonder and ecstasy.
In any case, now, so many years later, I find I am able to look upon an unclothed female without being distracted by covetous yearning - harboring only a desire to engage the mysterious, amorphous thing we call Beauty. That is more than enough pleasure for me. Though perhaps one can never entirely separate the aesthetic from the sensual or from the erotic, I am convinced that it is possible to view a beautiful naked body with "aesthetic detachment" - meaning detachment not from the aesthetic sense, but from anything other than the aesthetic sense: a capacity to behold beauty on its own terms, rather than as something to covet. A body can be, after all, a truly beautiful “object.” Not “object” as in “objectification,” but as a focus for appreciative aesthetic contemplation.
I readily admit that not any body will do. It is difficult to see the human body (i.e., all human bodies) as inherently beautiful - miraculous certainly, but not necessarily lovely to look at. I make images of bodies that, to my subjective (and culturally conditioned) eye, are ideally beautiful, that bespeak a certain movement toward perfection, that serve as symbols and suggestions of some ultimate, archetypal perfection. Though a body’s proximity to an aesthetic ideal is not unrelated to its sexual allure, I find I’m able, while photographing, to focus on one and ignore the other. But even if I’ve ever inadvertently or clandestinely lusted during a shoot, I have never, could never, and would never act out erotically. I can’t even imagine doing so. It helps, of course, that I’m a middle-aged man with ample girth and an abundance of facial hair, whose lustful acting-out would be received not as the welcome attention of a handsome young prince, but the lustful leering of a gray-haired ogre. I enjoyed my princely years, all those years ago (however cut short by celibate monkhood starting at age eighteen!), and know that I can never return there in this lifetime. Fortunately, I have the decency and self-respect never to make a sorry spectacle of myself - to subject beauty to beastliness.
I photograph the female nude . . .
Because beauty is sublime but ephemeral, and one wishes to seize it in its brief, passing moment and preserve it in some form that will remain, a form that one can revisit and thereby extend the aesthetic moment, prolong the ecstasy;
Because a photograph of a nude is more than a mere document of passing beauty, but is itself a new creation, a new object of beauty: an alchemical transformation of light into silver, lead into gold, matter into spirit, the temporal into the eternal;
Because humanity is an infinitely rich mystery, and the naked body is one access point to that mystery;
Because in a clothed culture the nude form is so rarely seen, and therefore is a novelty for the eyes, an object of wonder, a source of aesthetic delight;
Because the body is a complex, fascinating three-dimensional object, a self-contained floating world, a kinetic sculpture, a shape-shifting miracle, a never-ending story, container to a unique soul, and for all these reasons a gift to vision - an aesthetic treasure;
Because it helps me understand how the female body is so much more than a sexual object;
Because it connects me to the feminine part of my being, completes me, provides insight into the fullness of myself;
Because others have said they love these images, and it is pleasurable to give pleasure.