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Self Image and the Artful Nude

May 19, 2008

My boyfriend M. and I are both trained photographers who studied under a wonderful mentor, Jack Radcliffe, for many years. Somehow M. and I ended up in a discussion yesterday about posing nude and whether, if Jack wanted to photograph us, I would consider posing nude for him.

Jack likes to photograph people who have strong personalities, especially if those personalities somehow manage to exist together in a relationship of some sort. M. and I both have strong, sometimes differing, personalities and M. likes to tease me that if we ever ended up married it would be a household of me, him, and Jack, as we wouldn’t be able to eject Jack and his Hasselblad from recording our lives. Part of me is incredibly honored by this as I greatly respect Jack’s skills. Part of me wants to remain blissfully anonymous.

I did a whole series of nude B&W self portraits when I was a student photographer so I have no illusions about what my body looks like in photographs, but these were self portraits that only a few other people ever saw. It is quite different being nude in front of your own camera compared to being nude in front of someone else’s camera. It means handing over control to someone else, which is an area where I struggle.

On the one hand, there is my body. Jack has never really photographed a body like mine before, which is one reason I would seriously consider posing for him. My body is natural…covered with the scars and the stretch marks that are signs of a fully-lived life. There are peaks and valleys, smoothness and wrinkles, moles and pock marks…everything you’d expect from a body that has survived the trials and tribulations of 35 years of living. The long, fading scar under my arm where a twisted wire fence tore open my flesh during a childhood game of blind man’s bluff…the burn scar on the top of my belly…the chicken pox scars on my face…the way my pinky finger bends awkwardly under my other fingers after healing from a bad break…the blemishes and scars from living for decades with a hereditary skin disease…the dented shins from surviving floor hockey in high school gym class…the innumerable knee scars from wrecking my bike and being a general klutz…these are all part and parcel of me. So why should I second-guess this opportunity if it comes along?

You see, M. has posed nude before for another photographer friend and the final image from that shoot is one that makes me laugh hysterically each time I see it…a headless M., naked except for a pair of black socks and a strategically-placed can of spam.

But in that image, M. is still anonymous, his manly bits are covered, and the image never made it to a gallery wall. M. was in the classroom for the critique of the photographer’s work and about 20 pairs of eyes saw the photograph that day, including me. Almost all of them couldn’t identify M. as the subject of the image. For M., posing nude was a liberating experience and he believes that it would be the same for me, hence his encouragement. I am not sure I agree with him on this, hence this meandering little personal essay. I’ve always been more of a voyeur than an exhibitionist, which is why I’m usually the one behind the lens instead of in front of it.

On the other hand… How would I feel if images of my body with all of its perfect imperfections ended up on a gallery wall? How would I feel knowing those images could be sold to collectors to be displayed wherever it struck their fancy? How would I feel knowing my name and face were attached to something so public? Would my mother and father (who aren’t artsy folks at all) be appalled? Would I care?

My gut tells me that I’d do it. There’s something very appealing to me in being the subject of a work of art, but I’ve never really thought that I photographed well. I mean, I think I photograph myself very well and I always think I look fabulous in photos others take of me where I am obviously happy. And it wouldn’t just be me in the photographs, it’d be M. as well and there is something comforting about that.

I think of all of the great photography projects that have included fat women and part of me would like to add an image of myself to that impressive set of work, but actually doing it…well…the most I can say at this point is…probably…but I think I’m gonna need at least two glasses of wine first…

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