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The Fine Art Nude

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 aModeling 101article 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.


The Creation of AdamThe Dying Gaul sculpture









Formal Composition

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

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.









Marcel Duchamps' Nude Descending a Staircase

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 GuernicaPicasso’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.

Georgia O'Keefe's Blue Flower, 1918 Georgia O'Keefe's Black Iris

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.

The Mature Boudoir Client

When did “mature” become “irrelevant?”


Given that 5 of our last 9 boudoir clients have clocked between 48 and 55 years on their personal calendars, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the whole “what is glamour” question. It’s one of the first topics we deal with in Sourcelight Photo Workshops’ glamour and fine-art nude classes, and I’ve come to believe that the question is at the heart of more important issues than whether or not it’s appropriate for Nana to pose for a portrait in her underwear.

50 and fineCuriously, one of the things we spend the most time on during initial consultations with our more mature boudoir clients is simply reassuring them that they do, indeed, have the right to look and feel sexy “at their age.”  Occasionally, even when they love their finished photos, they still need another round of reassurance that feeling good about themselves—about this part of themselves—is okay.  Often, they express regret that they “didn’t do this 20 years ago,” not because they looked so much better at 30, but because they wouldn’t have had to explain why they wanted to have photos like this taken at that age.

Lovin’ your look at 29?  Celebrate it, and let’s see the pix on Facebook. Feeling foxy at 50?  Keep it to yourself.  Nobody wants to know.  Why is that?  Why is the right to experience, enjoy, and express the very core of your identity—your erotic sense of self—essentially forbidden to anyone over the age of 35?  Who made up that rule?

In our youth-obsessed culture, glamour is, almost by definition, reserved for the young and slimly beautiful, and the door isn’t open for anybody else to walk through.  It hasn’t always been that way.

For most of human history, youth was a relatively short stage that people passed through on their way to the more coveted adulthood.  It wasn’t—as it seems to be today—a permanent phase that people aspire to occupy for life.  The mid-life crisis that manifests itself in Harley-Davidsons and botox is a relatively new phenomenon, and we all know at least a few desperate middle-aged adults whose self-image and general perspective on life are so mired in their teenage persona that they’re still fantasizing random seductions with all the feverish preoccupation of a high school sophomore.  Unable to find a way to grow their adolescent libido into a functional adult version, they’re incapable of reconciling an active sexual life with a wrinkled face.  Again, why?

Sourcelight's mature glamour photography

Ironically, researchers report that, apart from the unreliable memory and the creaky joints, most older people are content with their age, a fact that younger people, many of whom are perpetually obsessed with being something they’re not, have a hard time imagining.  Even harder for youth to imagine is that many of those older couples are having rich, satisfying sex lives in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, just as they did when they were more “age-appropriate.”  There is one significant difference, however; after 40 it’s supposed to be a secret.

Overt sexuality is everywhere in modern media, including the “sexting” transmissions of Congressmen and teenagers over their ironically mislabeled smart phones.  It’s hip, it’s marketable, and it’s ubiquitous.  References to previously forbidden words like “penis” and “vagina” are now commonplace in primetime sit-coms, as are the less formal terms.  It’s good for a laugh, and clearly represents a shift in social attitudes that’s probably, for the most part, good for a society that has historically been too immature to describe in words what it likes doing with the body parts it can’t speak of by name.  Strikingly absent from all of this sexual frankness, however, is one key audience: the over-40 demographic.

What you’ll never see on television (other than the occasional gratuitous Cialis or Viagra commercial that only implies dysfunction) is a sensitive representation of a mature couple’s or individual’s sexuality.  If you see any reference to older sexual activity (or even interest), it will be for the sole purpose of inviting ridicule.

If you’ve carried a functioning libido into middle age, there’s no place for you in the culture at large.  You shouldn’t (still) be having these feelings at your age—it’s creepy, it’s gauche, it’s even shameful.  Even worse, it’s laughable.  In short, society has decreed that you have no right to experience these feelings and you should stop having them, or, at least, keep them to yourself.  No short skirts for you, and cover up that décolletage.

Is that reasonable?  It certainly isn’t fair, and over time, it’s definitely not healthy.  Listen to this long enough, and you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the constant insinuation that having erotic impulses at your age is clear evidence that there’s something fundamentally, shamefully wrong with you.  Unless you’re really an emotional warrior, you’re going to stop having your own feelings and start resigning yourself to remembering what feelings felt like in the past when they were still okay.  Inconveniently, the feelings themselves don’t go away—just the joy in having them since they’re now tinged with so much awkwardness and embarrassment.

We create these arbitrary categories of acceptable behavior all the time, and sometimes it’s even reasonable.  Small children dressing up like adults is charming; 14-year olds “sexting” provocative snapshots of themselves is not.  Wishing you were 18 when you’ve just been grounded at 16 for breaking curfew is understandable; wishing you were 18 when you’re 40, however, is lamentable.  It’s also unnecessary.

Sourcelight Photography's Dance of the Older Glamour ClientThe Boomer Generation has never been very good at accepting arbitrary limitations, and now that they’re entering the 3rd trimester of life, Boomers are standing most of what we always thought we knew about aging on its head.  What we’re discovering in one area after another is that a lot of the deterioration that we assumed was inevitably linked to aging really isn’t.  Diet, exercise, and, above all, mental habits and attitudes have an incredible influence on the quality—and esthestics—of our lives as we age.

Exercise, for example, has always been prescribed past a certain age as maintenance only, based on the assumption that old joints and circulatory systems could only manage limited stress.  What we’re increasingly learning is that these limitations are often unnecessary and self-imposed.  In fact, if older athletes train, not merely for physical maintenance, but for competitive activity, their bodies respond to the stress by getting stronger, not by breaking down.  You can still run a marathon at 70 if you train for a marathon, but not if you settle for walking around the block 3 times a week.   You have to think—and train—like a marathoner, not like an old person just trying to buy a couple extra years of walking without a cane.  While your aging body may impose some limitations on your activity, it’s your attitude that’s making you old.  Change your mind, change your life.

In fact, research into brain function is confirming that the neural network that we assumed was mostly fixed by genetics and early experience is in fact almost infinitely malleable.  Our brains are constantly being rewired into shifting patterns of feelings, beliefs, and behavior as a result of our experiences, both physical and mental, and contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t have to change as we age.  You don’t get cranky, inflexible, and unhip because you’re old; you turn into a mental lump because you stopped allowing yourself to have new experiences that would require your brain to continue rewiring itself.  If you’re not going to think outside the box anymore, the brain will happily nail the box shut and your world will contract to fit inside the confines.

Literally, you are what you think you are, and if you accept the culture’s insidious proclamation that your self-image, your feelings, and your expressiveness are irrelevant past a certain age, you will become irrelevant, and the biggest limiter of your potential will be your own adopted feelings of inappropriateness.  To bring this back to point, if you buy into the discriminatory notion that still having—much less displaying—your sexual identity in middle age is something you should feel guilty about, you might as well get out the shuffle board and the Mah Jong tiles.

Okay, so we can exercise ourselves into a 10K run and even think ourselves into a good frame of mind.  But what about these wrinkles?  This stocky midsection and the varicose veins?  How are we supposed to overlook the fact that, as one of our clients put it, “gravity has had its way” with us?  You’re not going to try and tell me that that’s glamorous, are you?

Well, actually, I am.  The real beauty of the mature glamour-photography client isn’t in denying your age—it’s in embracing it.

Sourcelight Photography's Luxurious Glamour ClientsIronically, during our pre-shoot consultations, older clients often confide that the reason they’ve come in for a boudoir or even a fine-art nude photography session is that they’ve never felt more comfortable with themselves. The broader perspective of their extra years has allowed them to refine their priorities, and they’ve realized that they’re tired of being stuck in “acceptable” roles that don’t fit a mature understanding.  Sometimes the motivation is a change of circumstances—shedding a bad relationship (or a few pounds) or gaining a good one—and sometimes it’s just realizing that this crippling fear of expressing their middle-aged joy in their own bodies isn’t really all that different from the self-imposed censorship they’ve lived under their entire lives.

They realize that the mature glamour photo session isn’t just about titillating the spouse or the boyfriend with a sexy picture; it’s about asserting their right to experience their own sensuality on their own terms.  It’s about taking control of their own image and confidently expressing it, perhaps for the first time, however they damn please.

That’s sexy.  And good luck figuring that out at 18.

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