Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Anatomy of the Nude

In someplace I frequent (slum) someone I don't respect recently asked about nudes, essentially asking why most of them are so tawdry. He got a lot of answers like "Weston was a master" and "read Paglia" and the inevitable "female gaze wot wot" but nothing actually on-point because photographers, for the most part, don't have any ideas.

It did occur to me that this is a topic I have not revisited in a while, as my thinking about photos has evolved and changed, so now seems like a reasonable time to approach it again.

Unless otherwise stated, the gender of the subject doesn't matter in this discussion.

Confronted with a photo of an unclothed person, we enter the scene in the photo in some way. We are in a sense present and in the presence of an unclothed person. One naturally wonders why this person is unclothed.

The obvious answer, and this usually is painfully obvious, is that it is because the model has removed their clothing at the behest of a photographer, for the purpose of being photographed. In these cases, we must set aside this story, suspending our disbelief as we would for a movie or a novel, and proceed into the fictional story we're being asked to partake of.

At this point we can begin to enumerate possibilities. I think it is fair to suppose that it's enough to simply articulate possibilities, the details of converting a description into a photo are essentially technical (acting, direction, lighting, etc.) and to be honest I don't much care.

The first and most obvious story is that the subject of the photograph is sexually available. Possibly to me, the viewer, but also possibly not to me. Perhaps the point is that the model is sexually available but explicitly not to me. This is the fiction embedded in almost every nude photograph, this is the point. This is what we think of as tawdry or shallow, even though there's no particular reason to suppose any such thing. Sex is a pretty big deal.

It is here that the gender differences arise in a big way. Sex is asymmetrical, both physically and politically (yes, yes, with certain exceptions) and so the nude woman, presented as sexually available, is different from an equally available man. So be it.

Photographers who want to be seen as serious, or who are genuinely just not much interested in the sexually available subject, can deploy a bunch of strategies to negate the story of sexual availability.

You can stand the model atop a rocky pinnacle, place them pensively in a snowy landscape, depict them in the throes of athletic strain, or simply put them in a box. All these things can be mechanics which disrupt or negate the notion that the model is sexually available. Frequently they're just weird. The main trope here is to negate the sexual availability by replacing it with a mystery. Why is she sitting down in the snow? Why is he rock-climbing naked?

Another option is the candid, or the faux candid. The model is shown to us in a natural state of non-sexualized nudity, and we as viewers are placed in the position of a voyeur. Nothing in the picture explicitly welcomes us into the scene, we're not supposed to be there. Therefore the model is not presenting themselves as sexually available — they are "not aware" of us. This tends to be a little creepy, but can be charming if we can manage to set aside our role as voyeur.

But the truly warm and non-sexual nude photo is a rarity.

Those of you who have been in relationships may have noticed that nudity is not strongly correlated with sexual availability. I venture to suggest that many close relationships, whether between sexual partners, or between a parent and a child, or even some close friendships, involve quite a bit of non-sexual nudity.

The genuinely intimate nude strives, I think, for that.

These nudes are not candid, but nor are they built around sexual availability.

In these photos, the model is engaged; the model "sees" you, as in any non-candid portrait. Sometimes the method is to place the model in a situation where they are more or less naturally unclothed, but engaged in something that makes sexual availability ludicrous. This does tend to blend over into the "stick the model somewhere weird" but there are ways to make it less weird. It is, I think, also possible to accomplish this without artifice, but the model has to be able to project pretty specifically.

Another trope to deploy here is to use unattractive models. Old men are rarely seen as sexually available, no matter how naked. Nudes of children, when not kiddie porn, are also a kind of "not sexually available" freebie.

Regardless of how accomplished, the model in these pictures is not specifically available for sex but is nevertheless unclothed. This implies an intimacy, a warmth, a closeness. We are present with a person who is open to us, who does not hide their body. Since they are not unclothed for the purpose of sex, they are not merely making their genitals conveniently accessible for use, and so perhaps we imagine that they hide nothing at all from us.

I think at this point, having articulated the situation, the mechanics perhaps come more easily.

We know the difference between the body language of sexual availability, and the other body languages. This is a problem of acting and direction. We know the tropes of porn, of candid photography, of the intimate portrait. Deploy them accordingly, in the proportions you're looking for.

Another great victory for the Molitor Presence Theory of photography.


  1. Indeed interesting . . .

    The spectrum of the Nude and to do it well is perhaps one of the more challenging forms of photography because of societal mores as well as religion/theology and the concept of first sin (otherwise known as becoming self-aware). Advertising and Marketing have tapped into the subliminal since the beginning of time; thus polluting the visual field.

    I guess the challenge becomes the mutual ability of the model and image-maker to divorce the final product from any religious / societal campaigning and elevate it to a state of perceived grace - that's tough to do . . .

  2. "Old men are rarely seen as sexually available, no matter how naked". Well, that's why I always keep my socks on! Works like a charm. That, and turning off all the lights.

    Most nude photography is not so much tawdry as ridiculous: why anyone sees value in hilariously pious genres like "naked woman draped over a rock" is beyond me. To employ the Molitor Presence Theory, what would any sane person think, coming across such a scenario in real life? It's a useful test.

    The clearly widespread idea that monochrome, glossy presentation, dramatic studio lighting, and bizarre quasi-yogic poses raise soft porn into "art" is as delusional as most landscape photography, though probably just as harmless as a hobby, provided everything that takes place is between consenting (and possibly well paid) adults.

    There is a curious Nordic / Germanic "naturist" tradition of regarding the naked body as signifying "health" (physical and mental) and clothes as a form of civilisational sickness which is probably as responsible for much of the pictorialist posturing that lies behind "nude" photography as anything to do with "fine art" or sex, as such. Naturally, in France and Britain this naturist tradition is regarded with amused skepticism.


    1. The "sculptural" nude (i.e. transparent copies of Brandt or Weston) seem more and more ludicrous to me with each passing year. Yes, it looks kind of like a green pepper in a funnel, doesn't it? Why making a girl look like a pepper is a good thing to do remains elusive.

      Ditto the sad-girl-in-snow trope (or whatever).

      My personal take is: either get erotic, or don't. I don't mind either way, but pick a side, and go for it.

  3. I remember before I ever got into photography I was interested in the hobby, but every time I picked up a magazine there was something off about the way women were photographed so frequently as sex objects. Basically extra soft porn. The truth is though, most movies, even smart ones, still do it today, lingering over the female body in a way never done with men. Forums are full of guys shooting and sharing photos of models, usually cliche images like landscape photographers sharing the millionth photo of that barn in front of the Tetons.

  4. "I'm sensing anger and hostility." -- Deanna Troi

    1. On the one hand, accurate. On the other hand, that just means I'm nearby and not dead.