Framing the Body: How have photographic nudes challenged perceptions from the human body?

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Throughout history, the particular nude has transitioned from the figure of anatomical interest to a token of beauty, and even a political device. From Weston to Mapplethorpe and into the present day, Frederick Glover unravels the then and now of the photographic nude

The photographic nude has been a driving force in shaping the connection we have between ourselves plus our corporeal understanding. Through anatomical photographs of the pre-modernist era, to modern day research of sexuality and identification, the nude has regularly enabled artists to challenge preconceptions of what the body of a human is, and how we view it.

Edward Weston’s Nudes , made among 1920 and 1945, is really a collection of photographs illustrating the strive of modernist photographers. It is a radical shift through pictorial or academic rendering (common to photography before the First World War) towards an approach concerned with aestheticised form. Often singular and impersonal, Weston’s photographs are proof of the beauty of the human figure.  

Weston’s nudes sit apart from those of his contemporaries’. His unique interpretation of type and his masterful recognition associated with light and shadow render images that are unmistakably his own. In looking, we are often left no room for your comprehension of anything aside from the rhythmic shapes which dance together to fill up the photographic frame. It is an oeuvre of a dedicated photographer, one who saw “life as a coherent whole, ” as he once wrote, in his Daybook of 1930. “And myself as a part, with rocks, trees, bones, cabbages, smokestacks, torsos, all related, interdependent. ”

In the same decade that Nudes was published, there is another drastic shift within the representation of the body. With the 1970s and 80s, Robert Mapplethorpe’s transgressive photographs raised the veil on lovemaking taboos of the time – fetishism, homosexuality and sadomasochism, such as. Unlike modernist photographers prior to him, Mapplethorpe’s vision of nude photography was politics. Yet, although his material was different, the intention was similar to that of Weston’s. “I am looking for excellence in form. I do that with portraits. I do this with cocks. I do this with flowers, ” he or she said, in the catalogue of the 1996 touring exhibition, Mapplethorpe .

“How is the nude depicted in today’s culture? And how have our photographic depictions and representations of the naked shaped our present-day awareness of race, gender, sexuality and religion? ”

The significant picturing of the nude by modernist photographers like Weston heralded a shift within our perception of the body. No more was it solely some anatomical intrigue, but something more, something beautiful, something to celebrate. But how s the nude depicted within today’s culture?

Identity national politics are now at the forefront of our own political discourse.   The way you see the nude has been indisputably influenced by visual tradition; we are taught how and what to see, in turn, telling us who and what we are. This season, John Berger’s iconic Means of Seeing turns 50, and an increasing number of contemporary artists are examining the potential of the naked – exemplified in Fotografiska’ s recent exhibition in New York, for example.

Exactly how have depictions of the nude throughout history shaped our own contemporary perceptions of the entire body today? One way to better navigate the particular murky waters of our long term comes from rereading the past. Taking into consideration the history of photography in a contemporary setting, we are able to learn about both the positive and negative impacts it has had on community. For instance, Weston’s depictions from the human form were through an inherently modernist perspective. But , in a contemporary evaluation of the photographs, it is difficult to dismiss the male look that punctuates each image. Has Weston’s framing of the model helped shape the existing undertones of how we picture women and their bodies? And has their own personal romantic history – secret matters with his sitters – contributed to the institutional maltreatment of photographic versions?  

Similarly, Mapplethorpe challenged our preconceptions of sexuality, but when re-viewing his fetishisation of nude Black males, we are witnessing the white-colored ideal – an imagination of what Mapplethorpe sees, or wants, a Dark man to be. Mapplethorpe saw his own nudes of Dark men as racist: “It has to be racist. I’m white-colored and they are black, ” he or she once said. Still, the particular photographer’s inability to understand the racially ingrained power powerful, and how he benefits from this, is apparent. “There is really a difference somehow, but it does not have to be negative. Is there any kind of difference to approaching the black man who does not have any clothes on and also a white man who does not have clothes on? Not really. ” Again, How have these processes of thought and practice transpired into our culture today?

Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes | 2020 to Present © Tarrah Krajnak.

Weston plus Mapplethorpe are only two little droplets in the wider notion of our photographic history, but they are examples that we should revisit in relation to society today. One hundred years since Weston marked a shift in between pictorial and modernist nude photography, the evolution from the medium is ongoing.  

Tarrah Krajnak’s body associated with work, Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes , seeks in order to destabilise this canon of photographic history. In positioning himself alongside Weston’s nudes, Krajnak reenacts the negation from the model in the original image. The performance questions both the historic position of the female design while referencing and affirming Kajnak’s Latin American identification. The photographs become instilled with a considered, multi-layered structure, calling the viewer not merely to comply with the pictures at hand, but to unweave the conceptual layers associated with thread which hold them together. They become, what Mark Sealy eloquently communicates in a recent interview along with Caroline Molloy for multitude of Words “a thinking with images, rather than thinking for them”.

Evolutions in the photographic medium, such as the nude, are full of essential discourses that will demand our attention. Krajnak’s images are an example of how artists can question the implicit structures embedded of all time, and how this opens brand new avenues of reference plus conversation, engaging our existing selves in the necessary job of continuing to see, think, and act differently. Tracing the then and now of this phenomenon illustrates how extensively our perceptions of the body of a human have progressed. Now, we can only revel in the concern of what may come next.

Joseph Glover

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Paul Glover is an artist and writer currently based in Bristol, where he is enrolled on the MA Photography course on UWE. His writing wants unpick our photographic histories through contemporary reflection.

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