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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My life in the nude

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Growing up, I had a stash of girlie mags. Didn't all boys? I think any kid with some combination of ingenuity, luck, older brothers, or light fingers and big jackets, had at least a small collection. Mine was modest, haphazard, and so thoroughly thumbed I knew the contents in intimate and repetitive detail. The Playboys were good; the Penthouses, for educational purposes, even better.

And, like probably all boys that age (and perhaps the girls, as well), I thought my furtive sexuality -- exploding, desperate, and hidden -- was a great secret about which my parents had little clue.

Not that sexuality, in general, had ever been much of a secret in our house. Thanks in part to older sisters, and in part to parents with a generous dip in 60’s-era ideals, I reached adolescence fully cognizant of both the mechanics and motivations of sex. Long before uncontrollable erections panicked my junior-high hallways, I got a lesson that removed all lingering questions of why people would do something so improbable and seemingly icky. “Because it feels goooood,” was the wisdom my mother dispensed, impromptu, at our kitchen table. My sisters were the intended initiates, but I emerged from rummaging in the fridge with a lot to chew on.

It should have been anything but a surprise, then, when I realized my secret wasn’t one. Whether Mom knew about the stash wasn’t the issue. The real secret wasn’t the stash, but what it represented: the growing, brain-eating parasite of my sexuality, quickly reducing me to little more than a hormone-bloated pubescent zit-bag.

The whole messy thing blew wide open -- uh, not the zit-bag, but the secret stash and all its attendant obsessions -- the day my mother came home from her weekly shopping with a gift. I don’t remember if there was an occasion. What I remember is her raucous grin as she reached deep into the paper grocery bag and pulled out the latest Playboy. I also remember that it wasn't just any Playboy. It was the mother lode: the Bo Derek issue.

If you didn’t just inhale sharply -- a frisson of nostalgia, eroticism and envy -- then either you aren’t a guy, or you were born after 1975. Today, it’s as hard to imagine the intensity of the Bo Derek phenomenon as it is to remember a time when the supermarket still used paper bags. Or sold Playboy. Bo Derek had jogged down the beach in "10" and knocked Farrah Fawcett off her pedestal as the icon of sexuality. The movie poster, alone, made her the third hottest thing an adolescent boy could imagine, trailing just behind the sun and molten lava.

And she was in Playboy. Naked. Really, really naked. And my mom bought it for me.

I think I should pause, here, for a moment, and just say this: My mom. She rocked.

Astonishingly, this was not the first time my mother and a naked Bo Derek had intersected in my life. My parents had taken me to see “10” at a drive-in theatre a few months earlier. It was a double bill with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. They wanted to see both films, but taking me presented a problem. They didn’t mind but, in Canada, R ratings prohibited a 12-year-old from entering even if his parents swore out an affidavit. So, mine snuck me past the ticket booth by stuffing me in the trunk of our Oldsmobile.

After transferring, commando-like, from trunk to back seat, I snuggled under a sleeping bag, keeping my head down, with candy and soda my folks had smuggled in with me. It was from that privileged bench seat that I watched Bo Derek run down the beach and into history, all delicious slow-motion, reflected in five hundred windshields, a Henry Mancini score dripping in through the tinny window speaker. I was transfixed.

(My parents huddled in the front seat against the Canadian cold. Their impressions of the movie are unrecorded.)

But when my mom came home from the supermarket with Bo Derek in the groceries, the jig was definitely up. Whether or not she knew about my secret stash, she surely knew the secrets of how I would consume Ms Derek, and that it wouldn’t be with the same lofty restraint offered to, say, a Florentine fresco. If I had even known what Florentine fresco was. Which I didn't. And nor would I have cared, unless Boticelli had somehow rendered Bo Derek's splayed Florentine labia.

Beyond the exceptional role played by my mom, I think all that is pretty typical of adolescent boys of my generation: the stash, the secret obsessions of emerging sexuality, and the dawning realization that none of it is out of the ordinary. So normal and unremarkable, in fact, you might one day write about it on your weblog.

Most boys grow out of that phase. In one limited sense, I never quite did.

The good news of new nudes

My interest in pictures of naked women never waned. It only evolved. The kinds of nude pictures I liked changed as my appreciation broadened beyond mammo-gynophilia, the disease of adolescent boys. But as my taste widened, an irony struck: finding nude images that weren’t pin-ups (or frescos, come to that) was awfully tough. “Dirty” pictures were easy to find. Nudes from any source other than girlie mags were rare.

My first year at university, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, changed that a little. There was a little bohemian gift shop across from campus. I think the place was called the Tivoli, for no good reason I ever discovered, and it delivered on the promise of its European name. I wasn't too interested in Bohemian gifts, but I spent hours in the Tivoli that year studying at a table groaning under bins of postcards.

These weren’t postcards like I’d ever seen before. Those bins hosted an orgy of the collective daydreams of the Art faculty nearby. I skipped the paintings entirely, but nearly memorized the photography section. I went back every few weeks to thumb them again, from A-Z, to see if anything new had arrived.

I always wound up at the cash register with a handful of postcards - - all nudes but for the occasional photograph of Einstein. I never mailed a single one.

It was in the Tivoli postcard bins that my brain began to see nudes differently. Those cards offered my first exposure to Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Ralph Gibson, Herb Ritts, Jan Saudek, Patrick Demarchelier, and dozens of others. They immediately felt important to me, and my postcard collection grew.

I get nostalgic, sometimes, about Bo and Farrah and all the nameless, and thankfully shameless, women who heaped fuel on the fire of my adolescent fascination with women’s bodies. But it wasn’t Playboy and Penthouse that set me on the path to photographing people naked, which I have now done for twenty years, on and off. It was those postcards: the stack of them in my drawer, and the few dozen that adorned office and bedroom walls throughout itinerant university years. The only thing that fends off nostalgia for the cards, themselves, is that I still have many of them. They have lived on four continents. They are sitting in the desk drawer by my left knee, right now.

Of porn and not porn

Famously, porn is everywhere on the ‘net. You can’t avoid it even if you try. Not that I’ve strained. This is mostly a boon for adolescent boys, everywhere. Previous generations' secretly stashed mags are a thing of the past, I imagine, wherever bedroom broadband has obviated the need. In my pro-sexuality view, getting this most common form of sex-ed out of sock drawers and out from under the bed is a good thing. The ubiquity of porn on the ‘net makes it obvious that one’s dark sexual places are hardly unusual -- however else they may be disturbing to the newcomer. (Ahem.)

Whether it gives those same boys a positive view of sexuality or of women is entirely another matter, of course. I, for one, am happy I didn’t grow up under the impression that vulvas should be hairless, or that the anus is the sine qua non of sex. Whether porn will influence teenagers to grow up, sexually, in any fundamentally different way is a big question, but whether or not teens will access it no longer is.

Off to one neglected side of the ‘net porn boom, however, has been a simultaneous flowering of non-porn nudes. Or, perhaps I should say “qualitatively different nudes”, since one person’s porn is another’s Christmas card. Indeed, let us now pause for the requisite aside about whether what we’re talking about is (or isn’t) porn. Sadly, no discussion of nude photography can avoid this fundamental distraction: the age old definitional question, “What is porn?”

It’s an issue the ‘net has simultaneously inflated and negated. The unprecedented volume of sexual content on the net amplifies all questions about porn by thrusting its extremes at us more than ever before. But it's the stuff that’s hard to classify that makes us ask about porn's boundaries: the material that challenges our comfortable, but often fuzzy, definitions of concepts like art, erotica and pornography. Not that those definitions were ever particularly helpful. Academics and Supreme Court justices, among others, have gone to great lengths pointing out just how unhelpful concrete definitions are when trying to classify something as either “porn” or “not porn”.

At the same time the ‘net’s river of porn eddies into spaces between conventional definitions, it also dilutes the political importance of porn’s definition in the first place. There may be more porn than ever, but it is bought and consumed out of public view. Now, nothing between the porn producer and the porn consumer has to exist in a physical public space -- only cyber space. As a result, by stripping away porn’s public context, the ‘net has made porn much less attractive as a political issue. On the ‘net, there’s no place to picket. If there is no “adult book store”, then it cannot infringe the community standards of the neighborhood in which it trades, or offend the morals of the voters who live there.

These issues still matter on the net; after all, the web is just another kind of store-front. But it's a store-front in private bedrooms, and western countries are generally intolerant of campaigns that extend politics into the bedroom, so long as what goes on there doesn’t harm children or frighten the horses. In short, the ‘net has replaced many of the venues in which porn’s precise definition previously seemed necessary. That has made the question of what porn is less pressing, even as porn has become more prevalent.

My first nudie pic

The question of “porn” or “not porn” was the furthest thing from my mind when I first picked up a camera and pointed it at a naked woman. I was halfway through being 18, and it wasn't long after my first Tivoli postcard binge. Yet even as I admired those nudes, I never actually considered taking any.

The woman was a friend of mine, an ex-snog I’d desperately wanted to sleep with the year before. We had stayed friendly. She knew I was a keen hobbyist photographer and approached me one day. She just came right out and asked if I’d do some photos of her for her boyfriend. Just like that. She was slightly odd looking, but had large eyes and a lean, swift body I knew would be a pleasure to photograph.

When the day came, I wasn't at all concerned about whether I was creating porn. I was just worried about the pictures being any good. I wanted her to like them and feel good about giving them to her boyfriend. I feared I’d screw up technically, or offend her by saying and doing stupid things.

The moment she took off her clothes, I forgot all that. She was lovely, but that wasn't it. Her shirt had concealed a formidable technical challenge: her breasts weren't a matched set. She had two perfect, youthfully up-turned, tear-drop breasts, but there were several cup sizes between them.

It completely focused me: not the oddity, but the compositional problem. She was thoroughly comfortable in her body, but I had an 18-year-old’s idea of beauty and wanted the pictures to idealize her, for her and her boyfriend. So, I spent the next two hours trying to shoot in ways that might balance her out.

In that time, I went from admiring nude photography to creating it. I never looked back. With varying intensity, it’s been a part of my life ever since.

It was only when we finished, as she dressed, that I realized my worst fears hadn’t come to pass. Not only didn’t I screw up technically or say anything stupid, I hadn’t had to fight back an erection, either. I was in the flower of my youth, as they say, and it bloomed inexplicably (and irrepressibly) at improbable moments: say, for example, during calculus exams. I was pretty sure being in a room with a naked woman for a few hours would get to me. But no. Packing up my equipment and putting the film in the fridge, I realized I was just exhausted from the work: from simply trying to make decent pictures. Sex just hadn’t been the thing I was trying to get at in that room. It was something else I was after with that naked woman: something I hoped would find its way into those pictures.

That’s the idea that still shapes my view of what is or isn’t porn. I call pictures porn if they seem to have been created with the primary intent of stimulating a sexual response. This is admittedly messy and theoretically unclean. You have only to consider the extreme subjectivity of notions like “seem”, “primary intent”, and even “sexual response” to see that it would fail any standard as a taxonomic sorting mechanism. But it works for me, and I don’t have to worry about its application to any head other than my own.

Besides, I look at images relatively unconcerned about whether or not they’re porn. I’m more focused on whether I like them. Whether they’re beautiful. Whether they move me. Some images I'd call porn nevertheless work for me as pictures. Conversely, a lot of stuff that isn’t porn still fails to offer any aesthetic thrill. Some dirty pictures are good; a whole lot of un-dirty pictures are crappy.

Billions and billions of breasts

Porn or not, the ocean of nude imagery on the web immerses even the casual web surfer in the naked bodies. But pick through those that wash up on your screen, and it's obvious the web hasn’t changed at least one thing about nudes: It’s still a whole lot easier to find titillation-centric girlie-mag aesthetics than it is to find the descendants of my Tivoli postcards. In relative terms, good nude photography is just as difficult to find as it has always been.

In absolute terms, however, there’s a feast out there. The digital photography revolution has seen more people taking more pictures of all sorts of things. Happily, naked bodies are no exception. Nude photog wannabes have benefited, in particular, as digital has released them from dependence on photo labs, which was always expensive, sometimes embarrassing, and occasionally risky.

The web gives nude photographers their own publishing platform, too. And, unintentionally, it has offered them the same positive reassurance it gives horny adolescent boys: "You’re not alone." In pre-‘net days, a photographer of un-porny nudes could easily have thought his only kindred spirits were a few art photographers in New York and Milan subsisting on fashion shoots and doing nude work on the side. Now, websites and discussion groups galore.

I have sat in the middle of all this with a very big grin on my face. I am an enthusiast, after all. I am a fan of photographers who go against the grain of pin-up aesthetics to make images that embrace the nude even as they zoom by it. The nudes I love are not shy about being pictures of naked people; they celebrate the physical. But they also usually offer something more, something that makes my eye linger for reasons beyond the happy event of a naked body.

What that “something more” is varies a lot. It might be a palpable humanity -- like that hard-to-define quality in great portraits. Or it might be strength and power. It might be architectural or organic geometry laid out for our eyes in unexpected ways. Or it might be that we see the nude in a context that challenges our comfortable presumptions about bodies and nakedness. It might be as simple as a profoundly moving beauty, the kind that shakes us momentarily: the kind that reminds us what’s possible when physical and spiritual realms converse. Or, it might be something altogether un-nameable.

This is not everybody’s idea of what makes a good nude image. A few years after my maiden outing among the lop-sided breasts, and emboldened by a string of successful shoots, I asked one of the most beautiful women I knew if she would model for me. Her name was Julia. Normally quiet, and possessed of a Southerner’s modesty, she initially demurred. But she was also an athlete, and body-proud. And that won out.

On the day of the shoot, Julia arrived with a duffle-bag full of lingerie: fish-nets, Victoria’s Secret corsets and high heels. As I set up my gear, we talked about the kinds of images we were going to make. She had clear ideas, and they were ripped straight from the pages of Penthouse. She wanted to look sexy; she wanted the pictures to be erotic. Maybe she just wanted her day as a centerfold. Or maybe that was the only kind of naked picture she knew. Regardless, she wanted to look sexy in that blatant, conventional way.

Shooting Julia became an important milestone in my nude work. It was the first time I didn’t do exactly what my model asked for. It was also the last time I failed to talk with a model in advance about both her ideas and mine. Julia wanted lingerie-fuelled boudoir eroticism. I had never aspired to make that kind of picture. I didn’t judge her vision, I just wanted something more subtle. And I was paying for the film.

The 20th century master photographer Minor White, remarking on his own work, once said , “It’s not what it’s about. It’s what else it’s about.” That idea, that a good photograph might offer more than the obviousness of its physical subject, nails what I experience in great nudes. So much so, I have White's words, aspirationally, on the home page of my own photography web site. They pose a simple question to the viewer of any nude: Is it worth looking at as anything more than a picture of a naked person? Julia didn’t care if her pictures were about anything more than her sexiness. I did.

Not quite ecstasy

It’s always been hard to find pictures of naked people that are about more than the bodies on display. It was slim pickings even in gift-shop postcard bins. Fortunately for me, the ‘net has changed that. A few minutes online yields photographers I've never heard of pursuing their visions of the nude in a kaleidoscope of ways.

That doesn’t mean it’s all good. The down-side to the free-for-all art library of the ‘net is that there’s a lot of pap out there. So long as the Tivoli’s buyer, or editors at art-book publishers, were standing guard at the door to the temple, then most everything inside was worth considering. The web, of course, has no editor, and it shows. The huge quantity of amateur -- or, more to the point, amateurish -- work, and the absence, even on professionals’ web-sites, of the guiding hands of photo editors -- one of the least understood and most under-appreciated roles in media -- means it’s a good thing that clicking through the web is free. Because that’s a fair price for the vast majority of the work.

Amid the mountain of nudes on the web striving to be good, few are technically or aesthetically bad. It’s just that so much of the work is mediocre: well-executed but bland. That makes enthusiasts like me shake my head. Nude photography already has to fight an uphill battle to be considered by most people. Serving them mediocrity only reifies presumptions that viewing nude work isn’t worth the effort.

One prevalent problem is that there are simply too many of the same ideas being done again and again. There’s nothing wrong with unoriginal ideas -- Picasso, that paragon of radical originality, was a great borrower -- but beyond the limited utility of practicing technique, doing the same things the same way, over and over, dulls the eyes, the mind and the soul of both artist and viewer, alike. It works, in other words, precisely against all that art hopes to do.

There are also a whole lot of nudes that present bodies as little more than hunks of smoothly carved stone: graceful, perhaps, but disappointingly sterile, treating the body as a static, shrink-wrapped form. Done masterfully, these types of figure studies can make stunning statements. The more common result, however, is a cliché that sucks the life out of the subject: the human body proferred as merely a framework of lines and shadows. This is objectification at the extreme opposite of porn. When such “pure form” images fail to achieve profound graphic impact, they leave us with something that might as well be stone.

Perhaps I should have taken the opportunity, with Julia, to document her lines: the join of her granite thighs to the curving form of her strong, alabaster ass, and the swaling saddle between the dunes of her still-girlish hips. It’s an appealing image. It’s also less than I hoped to capture.

In a nude photograph, I’m usually hoping for something more than I can find in a statue. Stone-like formalism across a photographer’s work makes me wonder if he fears what his images might become if he didn't contain them tightly within sculptural bounds. They might become personal. They might become erotic. They might become emotionally messy. These are things abstract figure studies usually are not. They’re also risky. They risk revealing the photographer even more than the subject.

Many nudes striving to be art also studiously avoid engaging the model, effectively sterilizing the image in a whole different way. Conveying something of the person in the photo, rather than just displaying their body, almost always increases a picture's impact. So many of my favourite nudes are really just portraits -- but they’re great portraits: images that immediately and obviously reach beyond their subject’s nakedness to engage the viewer on more than just a body.

And no list of complaints about nude photography would be complete without this: how few men are in the images, and how few women behind the camera. You just don't find great nudes of men that often. Thankfully, the world of homo-erotic art has thrown up some beautiful work, but it’s only a comparative trickle. As heterosexual men, sure we enjoy looking at naked women more than at naked men. As photographers, shooting women to the exclusion of men is a ridiculous conceit. We’re missing half the landscape.

When I started photographing men, it was to smack myself out of habitually making pictures of good-looking women. It was a nice rut to be in, but my photography wasn’t getting any better. I figured if I could make a satisfying image of something that wasn’t so easy on my eye, that would really be something. That goes as much for looking at photographs as it does for making them. Finding a great male nude is, in some ways, a more fulfilling surprise because they’re relatively rare.

But there’s a whole lot of baggage for us to get over if we’re going to see more good nudes of men. And it isn’t just photographers and viewers carrying it. It’s the subjects, too.

Getting straight men to pose is a challenge. Women have lots of precedents for nude imagery, and they live under the constancy of the male gaze. Men, not so much. The idea of being objectified in an image sits less comfortably with men. One model, who had agreed to a series of shoots to take place over several months, stopped returning my calls after the first couple sessions. Later, he admitted that seeing the proofs had spooked him. They were good, he said, but he hadn’t realized how confronting it would be to see himself through others’ eyes.

As for the dearth of women behind the camera, that’s as easy to explain as it is to lament. When serious amateur photographers line up, they’re mostly men. Of the relatively few women who pick up cameras and point them at naked people, most focus their lenses on other women. So, both sexes have the same bias about nude pictures. Blame the contemporary ideal of human beauty, blame fear of the blatantly sexual male appendage, blame the cultural inculcation of the male gaze, or blame market forces driven by the dominantly visual half of the species. Whatever we blame, it’s high time we got over it.

Lastly - - and here I really will be howling in the wind -- we need to overcome our obsession with beauty. Or, more precisely, we need to get beyond demanding, and being satisfied by, prettiness. Pretty pictures may seem an odd target for ire. They are, after all, pretty. The problem is that, so often, pretty is all an image is.

So many blandly pretty nudes are like countless photographs of sunsets and kittens: There’s nothing wrong with them, but there’s nothing special about them, either. Were Minor White to ask, “What else is it about?”, the answer would usually be “not much”. Simply pretty pictures are rarely powerful. Pretty isn't striking, or humbling, or moving, or contemplative, or sublime.

…but it’s all good

Don’t get me wrong: Even with all that’s amiss with nudes on the web, I’d never go back to my days at the Tivoli. That there is a lot of dross out there just means lots of people are doing their thing, even if it isn’t particularly good. That makes nude photography no different from the rest of the art world.

The sheer mass of work has made nude photography more vibrant than at any time in my long obsession with it. The quantity of work, the variety of creative vision, the breadth of international representation, and the crazy quilt of technique are all exciting. The state of the art is very healthy.

I may no longer stash Bo Derek’s nipples in my sock drawer, but I’m no less excited about naked pictures than I was then. Even with less promiscuous taste than I had in puberty, the numbers game of the web works in my favour. I discover great new work all the time, hoarding it to my hard drive just as I used to hoard Playboys under the bed, and Tivoli postcards in my desk drawer. And unlike at the Tivoli, new discoveries don’t cost me a dollar apiece.

I keep adding to the flow of nudes on the web, too. I pick up my camera a little more sporadically, now, but it’s never far off. When I do, it feels like a long way from clumsy struggles in the valley of lop-sided breasts twenty years ago. But not much has changed in some ways. My most recent model was an ex-snog from college. I photographed her -- now one of my oldest friends - - to celebrate her beauty in age, rather than in youth. Down the hall, my Flame-Haired Angel -- the most persistent and indulgent of my models - - waited for us to finish so we could all go have dinner together.

A few days later, having sorted and fiddled, I posted some of the images on my website. They’re there 24 hours a day, unsecretive, part of the world’s largest postcard bin. Waiting for some porn-tired teenager to stumble in and thumb through them.

* * *

I have endeavoured to credit all the images illustrating this piece. Sadly, my incompetence as an archivist has left some uncredited. All are someone's hard work, and their presence here indicates my admiration. I will immediately credit them or remove them upon their creator's request. If not otherwise noted, the images are my own

Here are links to some of the photographers whose images appear in this post

Jim Adams

Gavin O’Neill

Bryon Paul McCartney


Jay Hilton

Christoph Gamper

Scott Church

Grzegorz Szczerbaciuk


Lawrence Winder: Sited Figures


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