SHE and ‘the nude’

Being a teacher is an everyday learning experience. We’re challenged in very different ways: either because we need to learn how to teach, either because we need to find ways to potentiate their vision. They trust us and that’s a huge responsibility. When I started at it, 6 years ago, I struggled to find my place, but students helped me figure out how I could be most helpful and since then I’ve tried to push them (I’m aware sometimes in a harsh manner), to help bring to light what seems to be, at the time, most truthful to them. Of course this happens only with a few: those I’m able to understand. I think when we fail to understand our students, we also fail at teaching. Although I try my best to help them articulate their voices, at the end of the day I still fail to understand some of them.

As I’ve mentioned here before, some themes are recurrent amidst visual art students and the nude is one of those. Often we start to see some nudity when students are asked to create self-portraits. It’s not gender specific, both boys and girls seem to equate nudity with what they consider to be “most authentic” about them. Having said that, it’s more common to see that kind of nudity in female self portraits. Talking to a friend and colleague, a couple of days ago, we were precisely acknowledging how much we, as women, are taking a step backwards in our understanding of how the notion of empowerment relates to the promotion of our nude selves. If we have a quick look at facebook profile imagery, we’ll quickly realize how nudity plays a decisive role in it. 

In general, I’m very empathetic with the self-portrait of the nude, for I was one of those students – for years obsessed with the idea that portraying the nude was somehow a way to a more universal representation of me, as a young female struggling to find her place; mainly because clothes have the particularity of situating us in a more deterministic dimension. Clothes have the power of giving us a cultural identity as if, somehow, without them, we were suddenly undressed of (part of) that cultural burden.

Although I’ve stopped showcasing photographs of the nude, I never stopped photographing my undressed body and I still feel, when looking at those portraits, that they are the most genuine representations of how that corporeal matter relates to who I am. But this is just one side of the relation with the nude, meaning: the relation of the author with the representation of his/her own body.

© Sofia Silva, Land of branches, from The Orchestra, 2011.

In one of the schools where I teach, students are given an assignment (by another tutor) to photograph a stranger, nude, in a studio setting. They often end up showing me what they do and not once was their approach anything but unoriginal and, sometimes, awkward. Could it be any different? Maybe, considering that particular setting, the answer would have to be ‘no’, but in a different school, a student has proven that photographing the nude can be done in a very different way.

Bárbara is a fragile figure, with her long face and hair hovering over her tinny body. Last year she showed us a series of photographs she had made with her mother and grandmother (four of those photographs are reproduced bellow) and it was one of those challenging moments, for we were forced to consider HER, in all seriousness, maybe for the first time. Who was her? How could that girl express herself with such honesty? How could she relate to those familiar bodies in such a truthful way? What was she able to see that the majority of us don’t? We ended up helping her transform those photographs into very dark and dense platinum & palladium prints, wish we feel highlighted some of the darker qualities that are characteristic to her approach to the nude.

What surprised me (us) in these photographs is how soulful this tension is and how fragile it becomes in the darker images. How dramatic, yet simple. And yes, I feel they sort of replicate an idea of fading. Not death, per se, but an idea that something is on the verge of being lost or decaying. As far as I see it, whether these bodies are fading into shadow or into light, they all fade into blue.

This year, Bárbara came back with a different project about the nude. This time she decided to address the objectification of the male body, mainly in advertisement. She felt disgusted by those artificial shapes and so she decided to photograph the male nude, to challenge her perspective and see what she could see. What is featured below is just a very small glimpse into that work, but enough to showcase her approach. To sum it up, in a way Bárbara ended up projecting female forms into the male body (the framing, the color cast, etc.) and that posed another set of questions about the various dimensions that are contained in the representation of the nude.

Although this is not disruptive work, in respect to the specificities of the medium itself, I’ll try to argue why her perspective challenges our notions about the photographic representation of the nude. 

In the West, most of us live in a phallocentric society, where cultural myths associate man with life and woman with death. Eroticism is a dimension that we also associate with vitality, whether it tends to promote desire, to act as a subversive social critic or if it is intended to disrupt political concepts. Whether we’re talking about female or male bodies, in the sphere of the public eye, that gaze is almost always a male one. It’s not our fault, though that doesn’t mean we’re not responsible for it. When I mean it’ not our fault is because both genres grew up seeing women’s bodies objectified, though the consequences for men and women are quite different. For women it creates pressure. For some women, who fall victim of that stereotype and who aren’t given the opportunity to have a critical approach to their existence, it also sets their place in society, in a submissive position to the male gaze. For men, on the other hand, growing up in a culture that promotes the objectification of women legitimates their dominant position towards them (of course, a critical make existence will be emancipated as well).

In an article by Griselda Pollock, entitled Photographing Atrocity: Becoming Iconic?, the author evokes Freud, Aby Warburg and Didi-Huberman to argue that some of the most iconic photographic registers of atrocity are “bearable” because they equate death with the feminine. Reflecting on the imagery that survived the concentration camps, Pollock questions the “erotic connotations” that seam to make a photograph of naked women about to die, a “bearable tragedy” (instead of “an unbearable horror”, as she puts it). At some point, calling to mind Kevin Carter’s famous Pulitzer image of the vulture and the famine Sudanese girl, Pollock suggests that the phallocentric myth that is encrusted in our society is also present in the “gender relations” that are usually depicted in Photographs of suffering and/or atrocity. 

It may seem that I’m deviating from the subject – the subject being the nude and, in particular, Bárbara‘s take on it -, but I’ll soon make my point. Throughout the (yet) brief history of photographic expression, the portrait of the nude has served different ends, but rarely does one come across a representation whose dynamics aren’t based on the idea of desire, being that the dynamics of such desire are mainly masculine. Even if we think about the cliché of the maternal portrait or the pregnant woman, I think it’s fair to say that the subjective eye usually falls on the male gaze. I also think it’s fair to say that the portrait of the nude has been tinted by an invisible problematic, that of nude bodies being objects that “belong” to someone. Let’s try and look at two examples: 1) Alfons Walde‘s portraits of naked women, c. 1940; 2) Jodi Bieber‘s project Real Beauty, c. 2008.

In an article by Rebekka Reuter about Walde’s photographs of the female body (You’d have to dance first), Reuter states that he used the camera “not only to interpret, but to stage, indeed to a certain extent to penetrate”. The author goes on to contextualize Walde’s approach to his subjects (his wives and lovers), stating that in his Agfacolor portraits we can see the artist’s critical take on “monogamous, strictly bourgeois conventions” but, as she then adds, “awareness of this comes more with knowledge of Walde’s relationship to women than in what is depicted itself, which, for all its eccentricity, is characterized by a peculiarly cranky conservativeness”. What Reuter calls “conservativeness” is precisely the phallocentric symbolism that is all over his photographs. In her own words:

The appearances of these women, their anticipation of the image in putting their bodies on show, can be taken as classic examples of the gender-specific differentiation of the gaze, of the dichotomy of gazing male subject on the one hand, and of observed female subject on the other.

So what can one find in Walde’s photographs that could exist beyond that dimension of the male gaze? What aesthetic qualities make these portraits original besides the novelty of the color? Are they “authentic” works of art or should we see them as artifacts that serve a specific finality, namely his erotic desire?

Jodi Bieber‘s project Real Beauty proposes a reflection around the stereotypes that tend to dictate how women “should look like”. She sets on to do a collection of portraits of women of different ages, ethnicity and body shapes. But what does she accomplish? Is the intention to make the viewer think that they all look alike, that “all woman” have “the right to feel sexy, that mature human can be beautiful in very different manners? But what about those poses and that lingerie, what stereotypes are those choices intended to question? And why are they trapped in a domestic environment, against wardrobes, over their couches and beds or lying on the ground? Doesn’t this construction replicate the male voyeur? Isn’t the distance between the photographer and the subject just too ordinary? Shouldn’t the framing of these bodies matter and be a statement?

To cut this short, my perspective is that Bárbara is able to do something that for her is “just natural” (it really is) and for the majority of us proves to be quite difficult: she is able to live outside the phallocentric dimension. In doing that, not only does SHE reject (in an unconscious level) the capitalization of the nude and the power relationships that derive from that, but SHE also manages not to project a feminist take that could easily provoke a need to emphasize the female body and its sexuality. On that note, something that is also very clear in Bárbara‘s photographs is that they live beyond the erotic, their soul and truth may be potentiated by the nude, but it’s almost as if the nude was not its subject. It’s about mutation, transformation, tension to arise and to fall, but it’s not about a sexual energy, albeit the dynamics are sometimes the same.

I grew up in a very masculine environment and today I’m very much aware of how that impacted my relationship to other women. My father was and still is a well-intentioned man but with very low emotional intelligence. I have a brother and most of my friends were men. My brother’s friends, with whom I spent a considerable amount of time, were and still are mostly men. I was part of two all-men bands. At some point during my teenage years I became more comfortable dressing like a man, smoking like a man, drinking like a man. I used to enjoy this connections to the male universe, as if that was proof that I wasn’t interested in girl’s issues (now  I understand the meaning of all-girls schools). What I see now is that being around boys all the time brought me to internalize the male gaze and how sexual desire is such a big part of it. That gaze goes between us women. Well, some of us.

Bárbara, being from a different generation, context, etc., seems to live beyond this male gaze. It’s as if she escaped the realm of male desire. One doesn’t need to be an object of that desire to make sense of it. It’s everywhere in our society, but somehow SHE escaped that realm. What stance is she in then? We don’t know, but we’re hoping SHE continues to challenge our perspective on the nude.