I ran across a portfolio, nevermind where I'm not even going to link to the thing, which claimed to be about capturing true emotion in a series of (mostly) nude photographs of women. The photographer threw in a detail picture of a hand for each nude, as a sort of concession to Art, and, weirdly, they seem to be the same hands in all cases, and therefore not the model's hands. What now? Then she wrote a long tedious statement about how the models expose themselves to my camera and how awesome the true nature of the emotion ... yawn. The pictures, of course, are dead-eyed eastern European girls, mostly naked, staring desperately at the camera. The relationship between the pictures and the statement is nil.
So I said to myself, surely I can find something better than this to juxtapose and talk about. So I looked around a bit. I didn't spend hours at this, but I skimmed a lot of thumbnails, and dipped into a handful of portfolios with vaguely interesting thumbnails.
It's all awful. Good lord. Nobody has anything to say with nudes.
There are, basically, three looks. Dead-eyed and vaguely desperate. Seductive, with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Bold-and-brassy (you can tell by the cigarette, usually). Very rarely there is a "oh hey, I'm just cooking eggs or whatever and happen to be naked" but that's about it. If the portfolio claims to be about "Love" what that means is two dead-eyed female models cuddling like two complete strangers, because love=lesbian.
Occasionally you'll get a nude male, and then there's a sort of desperate effort to render the guy sculptural and abstract, because ain't nobody wants to see that, and now and again you'll run across a bunch of dance photos done in the buff, which are nice the first time around but then you see they're all the same. And then there's the fetish crew with their 2 or 3 tropes.
Virtually all of it is simply an example of what happens when someone with no idea gets some models out of their pants. The photographer falls back on a handful of basic tropes, and then perhaps writes an unrelated statement about empowerment or gender dynamics or rawness of emotion.
Let's take a walk back through time. I've probably going to entirely miss out on several enormously important movements. Sorry. Feel free to bring it up in comments.
Consider the pictorialists, I showed a couple of these things off the other day. These were usually very stylized pseudo-naturalistic things which, of course, tried to look like paintings. They're primarily studies in shapes and forms as much as anything else, although often they're really classic "figure studies" which, once invented, never went away because painters like to hang around with naked models. With the advent of straight photography, we no longer had the veil of painterliness to hide behind, so we got more abstract instead. Edward Weston did these sculptural things, studies of shapes and form, and lots of other people did similar work around the same time. We still see these sorts of studies of shape and form, male nudes almost always fall under this, females more rarely.
Regarding figure studies. Were these things not invented because painters "needed" to practice with the nude form before putting clothes onto it? If that's indeed the rationale, one wonders what on earth photographers are doing "figure studies" for. Well, one doesn't wonder much, to be sure. But still.
Moving onwards a couple more examples. We have John Lennon, nude, embracing a clothed Yoko Ono on the cover of Rolling Stone. It's iconic, you've seen it. Hold on to that one. Elsewhere and newer, we find Stone Nudes and we have ESPN's nude portraits of Olympic athletes. These latter two kind of fit in with the nude dancers trope that pops up here and there. There are some actual ideas in play here, which is nice to see.
John and Yoko, while I don't much like the people or the picture, is doing something interesting. Nudity can be associated with love, and here we have what sure looks like a genuine expression of love. It's solid work. It reads, it makes sense, it's minimally exploitative. Stone Nudes and the others attack from a different angle, looking explicitly at the physicality of athletic activity, and showing us the bodies, the machines that do these amazing things. These are, to my eye, less successful largely because they lack courage.
If you're going to go rock climbing in the nude, there will be bruises and scrapes. The idealized female forms of the Stone Nudes leave that out entirely, and are reduced thereby to just another series of studies in form and texture. Interesting, to be sure. Exploitative? Maybe. The perfection of the bodies and the uniformly female models leave me a little chilly. The Olympians are mixed in gender, at least, but cannot resist the urge to idealize and airbrush. While we celebrate the athletic form, we have to admit that athletes don't look like that. There are simply more bruises involved. Ditto the various dancers.
I'd love to see something about Love that really gets at it. There's a risk of making porn here, but then you're always rubbing up against that with nudes. I'd love to see some Nude Athlete kinds of things with sweat and blood and scrapes and real effort, not stylized prettiness. There's something to be done here, I think. Not by me, I have two small kids and a puppy at the moment. Getting my pants on the right way around in the morning is about the limit of my ability these days.
Probably someone somewhere is really doing these themes justice, the idea of genuine Love, and the idea of Physicality. I haven't found either, though. Let me know if you run across something!