No kit required - mastering the art of the nude
Photographing the naked form has been around almost as long as the medium itself. And a great deal has changed since then, or has it? Sophia Hawkes sheds light on the practice, challenges, and how best to overcome them in the age of social media.
In 1964, Peter Lacey published his book, The history of the nude in photography. He suggested that photography is “the last refuge of the nude”. If indeed the nude can still find shelter in photography is questionable considering current censoring policies on social media.
How did we end up here?
Photography’s first and most faithful love affair is with the nude subject. Since the invention of the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in 1839, images of nude women have circulated in society. But images cost a week’s salary, and did not exist on film negatives. This meant that the audience of these images was always going to be limited. “In the prevailing moral climate at the time of the invention of photography, the only officially sanctioned photography of the body was for the production of artists’ studies. Many of the surviving examples of daguerreotypes are clearly not in this genre, but have a sensuality that clearly implies they were designed as erotic or pornographic images”, says Peter Marshal, in his book, Nude Photography 1840-1920.
In 1841, William Fox Talbot invented the calotype process, which produced a glass negative from which multiple copies of an image were cheap to make. Consequently, nude and/or pornographic photographs became readily accessible. In France, erotic postcards spread widely and wildly and soon began to cross borders into other countries. At this time, the first issues surrounding the sharing of nude images surfaced, and became a legal matter. Decades later, the magazine La Beaute was published in France targeting artists looking for nude poses. Prior to this, most of the nude images had shown models in awkward poses copying or resembling nude classical paintings. However, this changed with the work of E.J. Bellocq, during the earth 20th century, who took relaxed photographs of New Orleans’s prostitutes in domestic settings.
In the book, 1000 Nudes, Hans-Michael Koetzle and Uwe Scheid wrote that the human body is the only subject that has enchanted photographers for such a long time, over 150 years. “No other motif is as prevalent as this one during all the phases of development comprising the history of photography”. Australian photographer, Cam Attree pays homage to this timeline. “I see artistic nude photography as continuing a long history of using the human form as a source of artistic inspiration. Since the invention of photography, the nude has continued to be a source of inspiration, but has never been as accepted as the more traditional art forms, due to its inherent realism.”
What’s the point?
Working in the field of nude photography is making your way through complex terrain. “No other photographic field of application has inspired as much desire as it has awakened official wrath,” Koetzle and Scheid wrote. Danish photographer, Thomas Holm is no stranger in this wild terrain. Despite living in culture saturated with naked or half-naked bodies, he still frequently encounters the dualism attached to nude photography. “When I tell people I photograph naked women, almost always, people act disturbed, but also interested. When I show them my images, most are really relieved and say something along the lines of, ‘Oh, but these are not sleazy at all’. The general perception people have is that nude images are lewd or something that should remain hidden.” Regardless of his work being met with either distress or praise, Holm sees a common trait in people he meets. “Humans, both men and women, have a huge fascination with the nude body. It’s likely genetically based, but, either way, it is undeniably there.”
When shooting nude images you’ve got to be willing to become a trigger for contested issues. “A photographer pursuing the artistic nude needs to be prepared for the possibility that their work, at best, may not be accepted. Or worse still, they may be ostracised by some family members, friends, and segments of the general public,” says Attree. It’s impossible to understand why the nude is such a contested branch of photography without considering the sexualisation and objectification of humans in general, but particularly women, as women’s bodies are more widely viewed as a commodity. But instead of perpetuating subjugating practices, the artistic nude can counteract them. “Nude photography can be used as a vehicle for social commentary and as an expression of humanity. When the human body is portrayed as art, and not as a commercial product, it has the power to fight against unrealistic beauty standards, support body positivity, and potentially help both women and men be more accepting of their own naked bodies,” Attree explains.
It’s because nudity is such a controversial topic that nude photography, if done with respect, is powerful. “I think it is extremely important to keep exploring the boundaries of what is socially accepted as an art form. But more importantly, to keep sending the message that nudity is not a crime, that the naked human form is beautiful and should be respected, revered, and celebrated through artistic photography,” Attree asserts. He takes pride in his photography. “Modelling nude can be a powerful healing process for victims of physical and mental abuse, as it gives them a means of taking control of their own bodies and taking the power back from their abuser,” he says.
Holm too believes the artistic nude helps in normalising nudity. “To my mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with nudity, but rather with sexualisation and thus objectification, especially of women because they are nude,” he says. In a culture saturated with objectifying images of, in particular, women, Holm has become an implicit activist. “I will do my part and just continue to create beautiful artistic nude images so there is something to counter the huge amounts of sexualised nudity and porn flooding the Internet,” he says.
Similarly, Australian photographer Lori Cicchini says that the human, and in particular female, body is generally sexualised, rather than simply admired. “Society has been manipulated into losing the ability to look at the human body as a natural raw form. Photographing the naked human form is a way for me to explore and discover the many truths and disguises of our human personality,” she says. Indeed, nude photography is so much more than images of gorgeous young females. For example, David Jay is a prominent photographer shooting subjects deviating from mainstream beauty standards. His work includes images of men with amputated body parts, women with scars and no breasts after surgery to treat breast cancer, and women in the last stages of life.
French photographer, Olivier Valsecchi, who is represented by Opiom Gallery and Art22Gallery, says nude photography is valuable because it represents freedom and unchained self-reflection. “Nude photography has always been very popular, probably because it is a reflection of ourselves, and our freedom. That’s why nudity is so taboo in dictatorships, because this is the expression of freedom at its peak. So, an important and worrying trend is banning art that contains nudity on social media.” Cicchini expresses the freedom achieved by removing the masks of fashion. “Take away the clothes and you are left with the raw outer ‘blueprint’ of a human,” she says.
Challenges facing nude photography
When social media bans nudity, it makes it more taboo, and with that comes problems. For example, nudity is prohibited, while objectification and sexualisation is not. “There should definitely be rules, but the problem with the current implementation is that sexualisation of women is fine, as long as you don’t see female nipples or genitals. An elegant, non-sexualised art nude image must be censored, but a woman in the world’s smallest bikini sucking on a phallic object is just fine,” Holm elaborates.
Likes on social media appear to rule the world. Well, not quite, but it seems that way at times. Commonly, people post the pictures they think will get the most likes. And, posting images with sexual connotations get a lot of likes. Perhaps, if nudity was allowed on social media, artistic nude images would beat sexualised images in the likes game. “The frustrating thing is how much horrific, hateful, and abusive content is allowed to be shared and deemed safe for public consumption, yet a tasteful, artistic nude photograph that celebrates the human form is unacceptable,” says Attree.
However, as it stands, nude photographers can’t post their work on social media, at least not uncensored. “Art needs a medium, and today social media is it. Most social media platforms prohibit nudity and/or forces artists to censor their own art,” says Holm. All photographers interviewed agreed that censorship is the biggest challenge nude photography is facing today. Although, it’s not only restrictions on social media that make it difficult. “Censorship is unfortunately trickling into other areas associated with trying to work as an art nude photographer or model, with some website hosts, book publishers, and printers of greeting cards, calendars, et cetera, now starting to impose heavy restrictions on content that contain nudity for fear of backlash from other customers,” Attree says.
As photographers often self-censor, this results in less artistic freedom. “Social media’s censorship has led to self-censorship. You have to share your work to sell it. In order to sell and keep doing what you do, you may think in advance of what you can or cannot show on the Internet, and then adjust your ideas to fit social media’s image policy”, Valsecchi states. Right now, the social media climate treats artists like criminals, temporarily blocking, or even banning people’s accounts. Valsecchi has been blocked many times. “Social media makes you feel like you are a pornographer. That is really violent when you think of yourself as a poet, right?” Valsecchi proclaims. Can the artistic nude progress as a genre in such a regulated space? “So now what? We should return to working around the problem of nudity by using vine leaves perhaps?” Valsecchi asks.
Overcoming social media obstacles
Naturally, photographers can still use social media to attract an audience as long as they carefully select what images to share there. “I try to specifically shoot some implied nude and bare back images during each shoot, then use those images on social media as a kind of preview to the fully nude images which are posted on my website, or other more forgiving platforms,” Attree explains. Still, Attree has run into problems as the guidelines are arbitrary. “I’ve recently had three photos removed from Instagram because according to their guidelines, close-up images of fully nude buttocks is not allowed, yet a full length photo showing fully nude buttocks is.” Cicchini has also had images removed despite her best efforts to follow guidelines. “Each and every one of those images were censored to meet their strict guidelines and yet they were still labelled as ‘offensive nudity’. I could not believe it had come to this point where I would have to question everything I do, to the point where I was almost ready to throw in the towel,” she says. But Cicchini didn’t give up. Instead, she used the limitations imposed to fuel her creative fire. “The restrictions actually opened the door for me to discover and create a beautiful body of work, Wall Flowers.”
The ethics of it all
Ethical considerations are the bedrock of nude photography. As with all things evolving, the relationship between social media and nude photography has a flip side. “The changes in the digital landscape have led to photography being a more accessible medium. This makes it easy for photography to be used inappropriately, impacting on the broader reputation of photographers and models,” Attree suggests. Although, this isn’t due to nude photography per se. “Unfortunately, there is a growing trend of non-consensual image sharing. This may result in photographers and models never exploring this style of photography out of fear of being labelled or accused of doing it for the wrong reasons,” explains Attree. Cicchini, too, points to the fact that a digitised world has tarnished the reputation of nude photographers. “The explosion of images through social media has opened up the gates to protection concerns for the under-aged, and issues around unwarranted or unsolicited participation and use of images. In effect, this has tarnished the genre,” she says.
Another challenge nude photography is facing is that some sub-genres may be considered degenerating and compromising in nature. According to Attree this may lead to public aversion towards the genre in general. “A lot of the issues stem from the inability to distinguish between artistic nude photography and other nude genres which, historically, either correctly or incorrectly, have a reputation of exploiting their subjects,” he says.
Happy models, great results
What about likely challenges and ethical dilemmas you may encounter while doing a nude shoot? Valsecchi says the first thing to do to avoid challenges and ensure you get the most out of your time spent shooting is to be clear on what type of nude images you want to create. This also ensures that your own integrity and that of the model stays intact. “It’s a thin line between artistic and erotic nude. Artistic nude is a creative process that often tells a story. The erotic is entertainment, meaning it just needs to be beautiful and sensual. First, you want to decide what kind of photography you want to make, and then you just need to focus on that,” Valsecchi explains. Holm agrees. “What exactly is the purpose of your photography? Do you want to make a poster that can hang on your wall, that your mother will eventually see, do you want to be published in Playboy, create implied nude images that can be shown uncensored on Instagram or [something else]?”
Attree adds that pre-planning is the same for all genres of photography. “Most challenges in photography can be overcome with preparation, having a good understanding of the subject and how to portray it in its best light, and by having a clear message that you want to portray. Nude photography is no different.” Although being well prepared goes much further than just knowing what type of images you want to create. “Have some inspiration images to share with the subject prior to the shoot and make sure they are totally on board with the style of images that you intend to capture. If the photographer is nervous and unprepared, the model will quickly lose confidence in them, which will negatively impact on the shoot experience and show in the images,” Attree says.
When it comes to being nervous, Holm suggests that it’s those just starting out who are most likely to experience it, although it’s not unusual to initially feel awkward around nudity. “Many men have a hard time actually looking at a nude woman. And you can’t photograph someone without looking at them.” Holm once held a workshop with ten photographers and two nude female models. “The model steps on the background and I’m about to start demonstrating working with light. The model disrobes and ten men are instantly looking into the ground or fiddling with their cameras.”
Valsecchi has an interesting suggestion as to how to familiarise yourself with nude modelling. “Let yourself be your first nude model. You have to understand what models are living through in front of your eyes when they are naked, the awkwardness, and the anxiety. It will help you help them get rid of their apprehension. And it’s a good exercise anyway. You may even like it, and you may even feel the freedom I was talking about earlier.”
Apart from a photographer’s nervousness rubbing off on the model, it also leads to rushing things along on a road ending in mediocrity. “Slow down, have a coffee with the model, and take all the time you need to get the posing, lighting, and composition just right. And shoot many variants of the same scene,” Holm advises. Cicchini believes many challenges are overcome by creating trust and confidence. She creates safety by setting a clear intent of the shoot, welcoming feedback, and only having on-set people who really need to be there. Also, in order to minimise nervousness and maximise quality, hire a professional model. “I’ve heard the argument, ‘I’m inexperienced so I don’t need a good/expensive model’ so many times, but that is like the blind leading the deaf. It’s so much easier if at least one of you know what you are doing,” says Holm.
When shooting outdoors other challenges arise. One problem is privacy, but Holm gets around this by shooting at sunrise
when fewer people are out. “Also keep the model hydrated, warm, and happy. Water, chocolate, almonds, and a wind/waterproof blanket works wonders. Famished models with red and blotched skin are rarely good subjects for nude photography,” adds Holm. If shooting outside, Cicchini brings an extra person, approved
prior to the shoot, to cloak the model and keep a lookout for unexpected onlookers.
Technological advances have played an important role in how nude photography has developed. In the early days, technology led to rapid progress of the genre, but, somehow ironically, in a world saturated with nudity and pornography, technology has led to artist self-censoring. So, will the 150-year-old love affair with the nude end here? Most likely not. Nude photography is not only valuable to the arts, it’s a respectful antidote to sexualisation and objectification. Maybe Lacey was right after all, and photography is a final resting place for the nude. Despite everything, the love between photography and the nude is alive, evolving, and resilient.
Top tips from a top model.
Australian-based travelling model, Sylph Sia has close to a decade of experience in front of the lens. Her advice is invaluable for any photographer shooting nudes.
Hire a professional nude model. They will be comfortable posing nude, and know how to follow a brief, work with the light, and pose freely, allowing you to focus on the technical side of things and develop your style.
Communicate clearly with the model. Discuss and agree upon ideas and comfort levels beforehand to avoid making your model feel uneasy during a shoot. Formalise agreements in writing, being clear on the sorts of images to be captured, and how they’ll be used.
Make your model feel safe. It will increase their comfort level. Not only is this the ethical thing to do, it also creates a productive photoshoot. Offer the model the option of bringing an escort to the shoot, or having a same-gendered makeup artist or assistant on hand.
Provide a respectful environment with a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, have a private space for the model to get dressed and undressed in. Look away and give the model a moment if they need to get into/out of, or move between comprising positions. Let the model know who will be present on the day of the shoot, and don’t have unnecessary onlookers.
Never touch your model unless absolutely necessary. And always ask permission first. If needing to adjust a pose or move a strand of hair, it’s better to use verbal communication or visual examples.
Use non-objectifying language. If offering encouragement or compliments, commend the job the model is doing, not body parts. Praise “the great lines of their posing”, rather saying she/he is sexy.
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