The body has been a source for artistic inspiration for centuries – from the Venus de Willendorf- a small statue estimated to be over 20,000 years old, to the Greek and Roman period of idealizing the body, Michelangelo’s David, Edward Weston’s famous nudes, Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicitly erotic nudes and the late 20th century views of sexualized images influenced by Madison Ave, Hollywood and Playboy sensibilities. There are so many images of nudes, and so many idealized representations of nudes, that our subconscious is full to the brim with assumptions about how the body looks. With all of these preconceptions as to what a nude should look like, what is beautiful, what is appropriate, offensive, etc, it can be challenging to see the human form for what it is and approach it creatively.
Often times, there is some level of satisfaction in making an image that we “know” is good either because we have seen it before in books, magazines (Playboy for stylized nudes,) museums (we assume that images in print or formal exhibitions are automatically accepted) or it fits a social definition of what a good picture should look like. We might be responding to a compositional principle, some lighting style, or a specific element of perspective that we have seen previously. There are “how-to” books on photographing the nude that read like instruction manuals – where to position the lights, how to pose the model and where to set up the tripod. These books will certainly show you how to make a typical mage of a nude, but they won’t lead you to creating new and powerful work through your own exploration.
The nude has been used as a vehicle for expressing the most profound emotions – love, sorrow, anger, ecstasy, sex. It is a powerful subject that can force us to confront ourselves and how we see the body; our reactions, our discomfort, or our attraction. It has the potential to push us to witness the depth of our own humanity, provided we have the courage to look and the capability to see past our initial judgements, preconceptions, and visual assumptions.
My favorite workshop of the year, The Human Form at the Maine Media Workshops, is just around the corner and addresses these issues in approaching the body as a subject. Every year, I have a variety of students – passionate amateurs, photography professors, and experienced commercial photographers- who are all looking for a fresh set of eyes. In all cases, everyone is eager to not simply learn how to photograph the body, but how to see it in a new way and be truly original with this most popular subject.
It blows my mind that I am consistently astounded by the work the students produce at the Maine Media Workshops, that year after year I see new and exciting images of the body, and I can’t wait to see what 2014 has to offer…