An Explication on the Essence of Nude Photography
If anything can be said generally about the nude in art, it’s that it demands to be noticed; it commands a certain attention and cannot be ignored, as the advertising market knows all too well. Whether this attention is favorable or disapproving depends as much on the exact subject matter as upon the viewing context, and all is relative to the mores of the time. A nude painting, prominently displayed in public, kindles a variety of emotions in all who pass by: from adulation to anger, admiration to embarrassment, envy to arousal, the only certainty is that the painting is noticed by all.

Beyond that, there is little room for further agreement, as opinions concerning the nude vary perhaps more now than at any time in recent history. Even in this current period of comparative moral permissiveness—relative to the earlier half of the previous century and the century before—nudity in art remains a controversial subject, though today’s concerns reflect our modern ethos: objectification of women, negative body image, child pornography, exploitation, violence, and a host of others.

Why does nudity in art elicit such intense and morally polarizing emotions? Well, think what makes a nude so different from a still life. (Has anyone ever come to blows over a bowl of fruit?) Foremost, it is that a bowl of fruit cannot say much about the human condition. The nude however, can reveal naked humanity, stripped of societal uniforms, psychological masks, and the other costumes of convention—those contrivances that artificially segregate individuals. Underneath all that, we are all so much the same. Thus the nude figure represents each one of us, and so all of us collectively.

But what is a still life? Just that: a snapshot of inanimate things in a purposefully contrived, motionless setting—a captured moment frozen in time. How is that different from a nude photo? Whether the action is suspended by the sustained pose of a model or ultimately by the click of a camera shutter, in viewing a nude, we are scrutinizing a fleeting moment. We are voyeurs in a way that transcends the mere prurience of spying on a naked figure, we are free to indulge in a type of examination that is not possible in the realm of our everyday world: we have stopped Time and removed ourselves from its inexorable pull. For the moment, we are as utterly alone in our frozen Now as that Twilight Zone character with the magical pocket watch. We can stand there patiently looking, watching—beyond all accusations of impropriety that modesty would impose on a real-life confrontation—till at last the moment of insight arrives when we begin to identify with the subject and perceive the truth of what we are witnessing. For the moment, the viewer has become the photographer and has entered into this privileged relationship with the model; a direct experience—the photographer’s impression—is communicated through no less than an empathic connection between the person behind the camera and the person standing before the photographic image. This is the photographer’s role—to capture this model, this setting, this precise instant for an eternity of reflection and contemplation.

The nude is also capable of moving us emotionally in a way that few other subjects can precisely because it is a reflection of our inner being. And the nude offers itself as a subject to be portrayed in an infinite variety of ways: from static, posed, artists’ studies to captured dance motion; from abstract extractions of body parts to complex scenes that tell a narrative. It can arouse or disgust and to a degree unattainable by art-forms that do not directly represent humanity. (Indeed, I would even suggest that the more abstract arts succeed only through direct reference to our place within humanity.)

Running the gamut of human emotions and experiences—from suffering to joy, from oppression to freedom—the art of the nude figure is as powerful a means of expression as any I know, and that is why I often find myself as an amateur photographer turning to this form as a means of revealing what otherwise would remain cloaked beneath the shrouds of conventionality. Even within my landscape, nature, and portrait web pages, you’ll notice the appearance of nudes; in the most natural and subconscious way, the nude figure has insinuated itself into my visual vocabulary to the extent that any self-censure would impose creative restrictions tantamount to a lexical abridgement, much as we over-simplify our explanations for the very young. But even within the confines of a thoroughly planned shoot, the best images are often serendipitous: having set the conditions, when I do glimpse “that” moment—that brief instant when some insightful truth is revealed—my aim is merely to lay it bare, capture its essence, freeze it in time. That it should later be categorized as a nude photograph is purely a matter of abstract taxonomy—the classification of a creative idea born outside the compass of labels and preconceived artistic conventions. Perhaps that is why my interest is in what is described as “Fine Art Nudes”; I find much of the so-called calendar, pin-up and to a large extent, glamour photography, each with its own formulaic language—its particular idiom—to be limited in scope of expression and hence tedious to create or view.

My technique, nowadays entirely digital, typically involves much post-processing in Photoshop. That is how the photographer approaches the creative control enjoyed by the painter who selectively adds or removes items according to his vision. On the computer, I can remove all the noise extraneous to the message I wish to convey. I can blend elements or juxtapose the discordant, and I can certainly correct the technical imperfections that would detract from my statement… all this to a degree unattainable in conventional chemical photography. (Though I do miss those late nights, red-hued and happily spent at the enlarger easel, interrupted not by email notifications but only by birds outside heralding the sunrise.)

As for the initial inspiration, that can come from anywhere. Some ideas evolve over time while others spark to life spontaneously, the result of a stimulating locale, prop or model. Some concepts are suggested by models, friends or clients, but by far, my most successful collaborations are those shoots involving my muse, Amber, whether in the role of model, conceptual designer or co-director.

Finally, there remain three interrelated aspects to consider: power, vulnerability and sensuality. Central to the portrayal of the nude in any medium is the notion that a person—the artist—has created this representation of another human being—the model—and in doing so, has necessarily intruded upon that person’s private domain. (We are after all, clothed in our natural state within our social order.) This action in itself can be regarded as symbolic of the surrender we associate with love in that it requires a suspension of defense while in a state of vulnerability. This is a rather unique situation, however, for in this case we are speaking of a unilateral vulnerability: the model is naked, the photographer is clothed. Professional conduct and congenial considerations all but disguise this disparity. The model reveals herself to the photographer whose power lies in the fact that he has ultimate control of her depiction in the final image. (Excuse the gender bias of my example.) What private secrets of her inner nature will he reveal? In such a position of trust, will he represent the model to her best advantage? That of course depends on the subject of the assignment or the artist’s vision, but when placed in such a position, it is natural for the compassionate human being to lean toward a sensitive portrayal. Further, I think it is human nature for the photographer to desire to bring out the sensual aspects of his subject, as a tender gesture, precisely because the whole situation is so intimate. Thus sensuality is the natural tendency; nude art is predisposed to a treatment evocative of those sensations associated—even subconsciously—with love and sex. To push the imagery further, to avoid the ambiguity of subtlety, one concentrates on the latter and erotic photography is the result.

In reviewing my photographs, I see a range of aesthetic treatment of the subject, but the sensual predominates. To this end, I often seek out those models, lighting schemes, and poses that accentuate the sensual—usually feminine—qualities and I cast them in contrasting settings that further underscore the feminine aspects, creating a tactile illusion on flat paper of a voluptuous, three-dimensional form. But this practice of contrasting the soft with the hard readily lends itself to a treatment that focuses not on the tender aspects, but on the dynamic opposition of forces—the yin and yang of human existence. This is where my work crosses into the domain of fetish photography, where the masculine is manifest in the strength and severity—even cruelty—of the scene and props; and the feminine in the soft curves of the model’s form. It is an expression of the tremendous power and tension of confined opposites—instable, volatile, but omnipresent.

But labeling a photo ‘erotic’ or ‘fetish’ places unnatural limitations on its content, or at very least, predisposes the viewer to some preconceived experience in which the nuances of novelty would be lost. In reality, such distinctions are difficult to make and one can as easily classify an image in any number of ways. In listing it one way, are we to ignore those attributes that would place it in another category? To do so would perhaps be to ignore a vital piece of the story it has to tell. But such is the necessity when presenting subjective offerings to a public that is so easily offended by nudity in art. That is also why I have devised a secure, multi-level, password access feature to expose only certain areas to the appropriate viewers. Nothing would please me more than to open access to everyone who passes by my site, but in the interests of decorum, I restrict access; sensationalism is not my intent.

However, if you are interested in viewing the galleries, you have but to request a free password using the on-line form.

-- Brian Zegarski

Copyright © 2004 - 2011 Brian Zegarski, all rights reserved.

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