The Nude in Photography

Creative black and white nude

The nude female form elicits a number of, sometimes conflicting, potential responses from the viewer of an artwork. It can be seen as the depiction of a human being as a sex object, an anonymous manifestation of beauty or the nudity can be used to foreground aspects or themes within the picture. The most common criticism levelled at photography is that it simply imitates another art form.

The painted figure is regarded in modern Western culture as further removed from reality and therefore requiring more creative input from the artist to produce than a photograph. Conversely viewing nudes as paintings in an art gallery is often perceived as a more intellectual activity than viewing nude photographs. 

Photographs hung in the same gallery may almost be elevated to the same status as the paintings. When reproduced in books, magazines or on websites even the most literal representations of the female nude in paintings retain their status as art whilst photographs, to many viewers,  are seen as demeaning of the subject.

Two topless women in masks. Inspired by the painting by an anonymous artist of Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters.
Two topless women in masks. Inspired by the painting by an anonymous artist of Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters.

Early photographers used classical paintings and sculptures as guides as to how to create artistic interpretations of the nude. The results often looked cold and statuesque, over erotic or sentimental;  criticisms that were sometimes applied to the original artworks when they were first created. Paintings that were thought shocking when they were produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth century are now regarded as ground breaking’ even if the motivation behind their creation was sometimes less than artistic. Goya’s La maja desnuda, which was probably created for the Spanish Prince of Peace to hang in his private collection of nudes, now hangs in The Prado.

Francisco Goya La Maja Desnudac. 1797–1800
Francisco Goya La Maja Desnudac. 1797–1800

The use of photography as a stand alone medium with its own unique constructs has made photographs more real and successful, This has in turn stimulated its acceptance by viewers as an art form. 

The acceptance of the erotic.

There are few photographs of the nude which would induce an asexual response in all viewers. The level of sexual response of individual viewers will depend on their cultural background and the social context in which the picture is viewed. For a nude photograph to sustain interest it must have other qualities. As photographers we must be aware how much we want the sexual content to dominate the image.

Reclining figure nude in black and white

Presented with a series of images many viewers, both male and female, will look at the ones depicting nudes first or longest. If these contain a subtext or message the nude is effectively foregrounding, drawing our attention, to this. In a world dominated by images the nude, or the erotic, still captures out attention quicker than a beautiful landscape. This is something advertisers are still exploiting; although outright nudity is usually banned the attractions of everything from perfumes to clothes and cheese are foregrounded by subtle and sometimes not so subtle erotism.

The eyes have it

Eduard Manet Olympia 1863 Musee d'Orsay Paris
Eduard Manet Olympia 1863 Musee d’Orsay Paris

The degree to which a nude photograph is erotic or sexual depends on not only the viewer, but the subjects pose and context within the image. A model looking directly at the camera immediately connects with the viewer of the image and their relationship becomes more personal and intimate. Manet’s Olympia shocked audiences not because of the nudity but because the models direct gaze confronted the viewer. Within the painting contextual elements such as the orchid in her hair defined her as a demi-monde or prostitute. That such a person should challenge the artistic elite caused outrage.

As in nineteenth century Paris nudity alone is not enough to shock or stimulate discussion in much of the modern world. Erotism pours from our TV screens and nudity is available on our phones. To be seen, to be heard above the digital noise photographers need to produce something creatively different.

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