In the course of developing curriculum and materials for Sourcelight Photo Workshops’ first “The Formal Nude” seminar, I had the opportunity to spend some time theorizing about a photography genre that I normally just do without much thought. I’ve shot fine-art nude photography off and on for over 30 years, and the process of spontaneously shaping the elements of a session, including how and what I communicate with the model(s), has become fairly routine. However, the first step in teaching any complex skill is being able to define what it is and what it isn’t, followed by breaking the process down into repeatable steps.
So, what is the Fine Art Nude? How does it differ from, say, the Glamour nude or just outright pornography? Is it really just a matter of perspective—that is, what’s art for one person is porn for another—or is it, as Justice Potter Stewart famously put it, clear but indefinable (“I may not be able to define pornography, but I know it when I see it”)? It is a fairly complex question, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be answered, and I think the answers are actually pretty straightforward.
First, let’s acknowledge that nudity in art is complicated at least in part because the nude human figure is a problem in general, particularly for Americans. As I said last year in a Modeling 101 article on nude modeling:
We are, flat out, schizophrenic about the human body here in the Colonies. Our no-compromise options seem to be limited to either legally suppressing and culturally censuring any exposure of the body that suggests its innate sexuality, or wantonly demeaning it through tasteless, explicitly sexual imagery as a provocative over-reaction to censorship. The one perspective we rarely seem to embrace is just a neutral acceptance of the body as a natural, physical form with an implicit erotic energy.
In fact, after participating in various frustrating discussions on serious photography sites about the fine art nude genre, I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that serious discussion about nude photography is rarely possible in any sort of public forum. Even people who claim to participate in shooting nudes are often threatened when you ask them to discuss their motivations, as immediately becomes apparent whenever the topic comes up.
My sense in participating in and occasionally moderating such discussions is that in America our historically Puritan attitudes about nudity and sexuality almost always corrupt our ability to create sensual art without some emotional dissonance. Moreover, our predominant religious traditions formally define self-awareness as expressed in sexuality as forbidden fruit, and Genesis clearly spells out the divine consequences of having an unhealthy interest in it. As a result we’ve spent the last few thousand years having arguments about just how much and under what conditions sexuality could be considered healthy.
The fact is, no matter how progressive we might each think we are as individuals, I suspect most Westerners are subject to that nattering voice in the back of the head that says gazing on the forbidden parts will turn us into a pillar of salt. In other words, it makes it kind of hard to simply create art picturing the naked human form without some unidentified static influencing the process. Or without a fig leaf.
I think we can do a better job than that.
I have a simple working definition that distinguishes the implicit sexuality of the fine art nude from that of the various glamour genres, whether clothed or nude. Most glamour photography (though not necessarily at Sourcelight—see our blog post on “The Mature Boudoir Client”) tends to be created for the very specific purpose of triggering an erotic response from the viewer of the work. In other words, glamour photography usually has an ulterior motive, and while the best practitioners—photographers like Playboy Magazine’s Arnie Freytag and Ken Marcus for example—do produce work good enough to be contemplated on its own merits as art, let’s be honest: the brain is not the organ that a Playboy centerfold is designed to stimulate.
Fine art, on the other hand, as distinguished from the glamour genre or, say, commercial art has only one purpose, and that is to be contemplated for itself. Like the glamour genre, commercial art intentionally directs the viewer’s attention away from the work itself to something outside the frame—it’s designed to assist in the selling process. Regardless of how beautiful a restaurant-menu food photograph might look, its purpose is to make your mouth water so you’ll order food, not to generate an appreciation for what a fine photograph it is. Notice this has nothing to do with quality—it could be an extraordinary photograph—but its purpose makes it commercial, not fine, art. By contrast, fine art (with the notable exception of architecture) has no external reference or purpose; it exists solely to be contemplated and appreciated by the viewer. That can be somewhat difficult with the fine art nude image, for a variety of reasons.
Characteristics of Art
Art subjects are typically based on and/or exhibit one of three characteristics: narrative (or documentary), formal composition, and innate sensuous interest.
Narrative art sometimes recalls an event, whether real or mythical, like the famous Dying Gaul sculpture or Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Formal portraiture is designed to tell the story of an individual subject’s character. Even a simple landscape suggests a narrative about the land itself, and if you add a crew of field workers the story becomes even more explicit, suggesting references to agricultural enterprise, labor issues, or even just the elemental process of providing the necessities of life. A city scene might remind you of the last time you were in an urban environment, and evoke all of the memories associated with that experience. The content of narrative art tends to be literal so that the story will be clear and unambiguous.
By contrast, formal composition art tends to be much less literal and more abstract. This tradition consciously arranges the formal elements of art—line, shape, form, color, texture, and space—within the frame of the artwork in ways that evoke our innate responses to basic patterns. When a composition of basic elements suggests patterns that are universally recognizable, they’re called archetypes. Rather than telling a complete story, formal composition art creates an abstracted version of reality and invites the viewer to fill in the blanks using the mental warehouse of archetypal patterning that we’re all, presumably, born with. We see a suggestive portion of an image—just enough elements arranged in a particular way—and our brains intuitively scramble to complete the picture by associating the elements with one of the infinite number of patterns we all have tucked away in our subconscious.
Picasso’s Femme, for example, needs only four curved lines on a plain white background to suggest everything the viewer needs to be able to recognize an entire female form.
By contrast, Marcel Duchamps’ famous Nude Descending a Staircase is a complex assemblage of forms that appears to depict a figure walking down… something. The recognizable* body parts of the figure are implied by abstracted cones and cylinders, composed to suggest the dynamic, swaying rhythm of a human figure walking down steps. The various versions of the figure have a gradient that ranges from dark at the rear to light at the front, which injects a sense of time passing from the faded “older” to the increasingly bright “newer’ image.
* The body parts were hardly “recognizable” to everyone. After viewing the painting, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that the Navajo rug in his bathroom was “a far more satisfactory and decorative picture,” and ridiculed the formal composition of Duchamps’ work by suggesting that his bathroom rug might just as accurately have been titled “A Well-Dressed Man Going Up a Ladder.”
Picasso’s Guernica combines formal composition with a narrative backdrop. The painting graphically indicts war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians, by telling the story of the terrorist bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The visual elements are not literal, however; instead the work is a collage of abstracted shapes, including simple forms representing heads and body parts, all presented in a gray-scale universe that calls on the viewer to fill in even the color, which would presumably at least include lots of red for the blood spilled. Clearly, Picasso wanted to engage both your intellect through the formal elements of the work and your emotions through your awareness of the story being depicted.
Innate Sensuous Interest
When a restaurant chain runs a stylized television commercial featuring a plate of steaming food, they’re making a direct appeal to your senses, specifically, to your innate desire to eat. As in the menu example above, they’re literally counting on making your mouth water with an unconscious response to a sensuously evocative visual image. And, as also suggested above, most glamour-oriented photography is based on an innate sexual response to a scantily-clad human body in a provocative pose. Cute photos of babies and puppies are no less dependent on predictable unconscious responses. Art based on innate interest has it easy—it trades on primal responses that we have little control over.
As the Guernica painting suggests, it is possible to combine two or even all three of the subject types in an artwork, although the formal composition genre often shuns the other two as a matter of principle. Innate sensuous interest tends to overwhelm an aesthetic appreciation for forms. The formal art study of the traditional bowl of fruit is intentionally not designed to make your mouth water. You should be thinking about the interplay of light and shadow and the color and universally pleasing appeal of a banana’s curving shape, not about how tasty it looks, and certainly it shouldn’t be evoking a story-telling memory of that trip you took to the Farmer’s Market down on 8th Street. Achieving that level of aesthetic distance—of intellectual detachment—for the human nude, however, is a whole other degree of difficulty.
The great attraction—and challenge—of the nude in fine art is that, perhaps more than any other genre, the nude has the capacity to blend the formal-composition and innate-interest motifs in ways that are virtually inseparable. The body is an undeniably rich collection of lines, curves, textures, and spaces whose archetypal resonance readily lends itself to being visualized as an abstract study in formal composition. We all have bodies, which makes it relatively easy to invoke our intuitive interest in completing this particular pattern-puzzle. Yet unlike the static bowl of fruit, the human form is just as undeniably a repository of dynamic energy, and depicting it as an organic whole with all of its humanness, including its sexuality, intact and recognizable is also an irresistible challenge.
Sometimes as artists we feel like playing with the formal elements by constructing an archetypal puzzle for the viewers of our work to complete. At other times, we’re more interested in using art to simply express our appreciation for the holistic beauty of our favorite form in all of nature. We just want to make a portrait, not of an individual model, but of the universal human being.
In fact, I find the portrait analogy to be a particularly interesting aspect of the fine art nude. If the pinnacle of the portrait artist’s ambition is to discover and reveal the inner truth of the subject, then there is nothing more revealing than the nude. Its total lack of concealment creates a sense of vulnerability that is both humbling and disarming. Real life is often, more or less, about protecting our identity by concealing our vulnerabilities from others, by pretending to be stronger, braver, more competent, and more in control than we really are; in viewing the formal nude artwork, we are freely granted unprotected access, not just to the unadorned body, but to the more general concept of unadorned truth. There is a fierce, courageous nobility in the sharing of that kind of voluntary exposure, and it is a rare privilege to be able to participate in capturing it as a work of art.
So the last rhetorical question is, which is the chicken and which is the egg? Do we instinctively love and respond to the human form because it subconsciously reminds us of archetypal forms like lines, curves, colors, textures, and spaces; or do we love the elemental forms because they remind us of the exquisitely beautiful architecture of the human body?
Much to her chagrin, early viewers of Georgia O’Keefe’s sensual flower paintings often responded by exclaiming how “sexy” they were.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, O’Keefe’s abstract use of intricate curves and textures in her flowers was clearly tapping into some deeply rooted archetypal patterns that suggest the nude human form.
Ultimately, who cares? Clearly, our historical fondness for the nude in art would suggest that the two are inextricably related, and worrying about which came first is probably not very useful.
Except for people who teach the subject, of course.