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Often considered taboo in North American culture, photographing the human body is actually one of the most respected professions in the art world. Photography in the period between the two World Wars was in a period of transition, reflected at least as strongly in photography of the nude as in other subjects. The nude was still an area where a 'Victorian' prudery enveloped much of society. Nude photography existed in several distinct but occasionally overlapping areas - in the bohemian realms of fine art, in a politer and more socially acceptable form in amateur and pictorial photographic circles, and under the counter as pornography. Most interesting of these is the fine art work, on which this feature will concentrate. I also intend to look more fully at the male nude in a later piece, and have left out some fine work in this area.
One of the greatest of the American nude photographers of this period was of course Edward Weston. Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) was a friend of Edward Weston, but had made her first nudes before coming under his influence, flinging her own unclothed body onto the ground in front of her camera in a forest glade in 1906. She was also one of the first women to photograph the male nude, with pictures of her husband, the artist Roi Partridge. Her work from the 1920's clearly shows her working with the same ideas and approach as Weston, but adding something of her own to it. Jackie #2, 1928, shows the model's torso closely cropped and on a diagonal in the frame, playing with triangles in the top corners of the picture and elsewhere, not least in the shadow of the model's left breast. The cutting off of her arms gives a resonance of the Venus de Milo, although the moderately hard and fairly oblique directional lighting leaves us in no doubt as to the substantiality of the flesh; Cunningham's women have a personality and particularity about them - we notice the line leading down from her navel, the slight curves in her skin - and a sensuality that many of Weston's nudes evade.
In “Triangles 2”, 1928, the title implies geometry, but the dominant lines are the curves of the woman's back and neck, viewed from the side, and its repetition by the shadow of her right arm cast on her body. There are triangles to be found, but they are largely implied, incomplete or interrupted. The model holds her head down to her knees, wrapping her arms around her shins, creating a triangle of white background between the top of her arms, legs and bowed face, which is disrupted by her silhouetted nose. Moving down toward the centre of the picture, the background visible below her arms is cut into by the jutting cone of her right breast, almost but not quite touching her shadowed leg, virtually creating two triangles above and below it. Seen from this angle her breast also creates two sides of a triangle.
The sensuality of Cunningham's works is perhaps at its most explicit in her several pictures of two sisters from the same period, the curves of their bodies mirroring the intimacy of their relationship.
As you can see, there is an art to photographing the human body (much more tasteful than the smut that has been circulated throughout our culture – but even this is a reflection of culture today). When done with care and by focusing on setting, you will find nude portraits to be among the most telling and captivating works of art anywhere.