The Nude and Photography: That Was Then, But This Is Now…

There are few areas of photography as contentious, and ethically important as the representation of the naked form. For decades the female nude was a consistently repeated trope in photography magazines, and books, images primarily created by men. Today such imagery can be seen as gratuitous, manipulative or disrespectful. Published to provide titillation for the viewer. Such work often makes the informed photographer today feel uncomfortable.

The representation of the male nude is more complex and nuanced. Traditionally less accepted within mainstream media, today the male nude is seen as often within contemporary photographic practice as that of the female form, perhaps even more so.

In an increasingly sexualised world, where pornography is so available online that it can be hard to avoid, (Just ask a Conservative MP looking for tractors how tricky it can be!) the innocence of the nude in photography as previously represented may seem pale in comparison. If you want to see naked bodies for sexual titillation you no longer need to purchase a photography magazine to get your fix, or explain your personal predilection as an appreciation of the artistic form.

We know that many of the recognised greats of photography have created images of the nude just as artists have throughout the centuries. These have often been romanticised images, based on shape, form, light, and suggestion. The work of male photographers such as Edward’s Weston and Steichen, Bill Brandt, George Hoyningen-Huene and a few women photographers such as Imogen Cunningham have become recognised as acceptable practitioners of this approach. Evidence of its new found acceptability can be seen in the adoption of this aesthetic by mainstream fashion photographers such as Paolo Roversi, and throughout the 1980s and 90s by Peter Lindbergh amongst others.

Photographers such as Duane Michel’s, Helmut Newton and Ralph Gibson brought narrative to the documentation of the nude, Harry Callahan, the personal, whilst Robert Mapplethorpe adopted an in your face approach that caused outrage and controversy. I have no intention of listing all of the photographers here who have photographed the nude, there are too many. However, there are a group of photographers who act as markers in its evolution at the end of the last century. Photographers such as Sam Haskins, Helmut Newton, Jean Loup Sieff and David Bailey have been at the forefront of  criticism for their 1970s and 1980s work that launched a thousand hobbyists and camera club members into the sometimes seedy worlds of amateur nude photography. Men photographing women as sexual objects? Sexy or sexist? Consensual or exploitative? Interestingly Ralph Gibson’s work was highly revered by many photographic students in the 1970s, despite travelling similar roads to some of his contemporaries when documenting the nude. I wonder if the representation of work within the book form rather than within a mass market magazine has something to do with this.

The ideal of the ‘perfect’ nude was being challenged by a few, but it was rare to see work that documented a ‘real’ figure with all of its blemishes, physical eccentricities and ‘non-model’ shape and weight. One exception to this was Irving Penn’s 1949-50 series of nudes, but that body of work was rare in its honesty, although elements of his approach can be seen in Brandt’s 1961 Perspective of Nudes.

Today, photographing the nude has been reclaimed. The nude has become a political symbol within photographic representation, with photographers such as Laura Aguilar, Mona Kuhn, and Pixy Liao, creating images that challenge societal beliefs relating to beauty, gender, sexuality, race, and class. The idea of photographing the nude for pure titillation is now clearly identified as soft-core pornography, whilst the hard core variety sits firmly online where those who want it know where to find it.

Honesty within the documentation of the nude has recently seen many photographers turn the lenses gaze upon themselves, creating self-portrait images that do not attempt to hide from the realities of their bodies. Just look at the work of photographers such as Elinor Carucci, or Cecilia Di Paolo for examples of this. We are becoming more comfortable with the idea of the nude within photography when it is not being presented as a symbol of idealised perfection.

Evidence of this new approach to the nude is clear in the Thames & Hudson book simply titled The Body published in 2019, edited by Nathalie Herschdorfer and including images by photographers as varied as Nobuyoshi Araki, Bettina Rheims, Lauren Greenfield, Viviane Sassen, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Daido Moriyama, Sally Mann, Pieter Hugo and Juergen Teller, Sølve Sundsbø and Daniel Sannwald. The observant amongst you will have noticed how many women photographers I have mentioned as part of this reclamation of the nude in photography, and that are included in Herschdorfer’s book. However, male representation of the female form can still present controversy. Araki is always a controversial inclusion within such a conversation, as his work and approach could be easily aligned in my opinion with David Bailey’s equally controversial images of his wife, Marie Helvin, included in the 1981 book Trouble and Strife and similar work from the 1970s.

My intention in writing this article is not to pass judgement on the work of others, but to identify the changing nature of the representation of the nude within photography and the rise in women photographers bringing creative insight to the genre alongside posing important social political questions. The writer and photographer Bill Jay in a 1980s lecture asked “what is wrong with photographing someone just because you like the way they look without any clothes on?” There is of course nothing wrong with that, whether male or female, as long as the photographs are consensual in making and showing. However, to do so purely on that basis reduces photography to a series of purely aesthetic judgements. Again that is not wrong, but it is limited in both impact and reward. Impact on an audience and reward for the photographer and audience both intellectually and creatively.

When I studied life drawing I was taught to begin with structure and not surface. To identify what we are and not how we look. To build the drawing on a foundation of anatomical understanding. I suggest that photographing the nude has now reached that point of practice. It now begins with a premise, an intention, and a desire to go deeper into the psychology of both the photographer, and the sitter. That may not work for those looking for glamour, but it does allow the documentation of the nude to evolve, and remain relevant to ethical, social, and political discourse within visual communication.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

Image: © Pixy Liao

You can hear what photography means to Pixy here:

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