Martha Casanave


 NAKED WOMEN, The Female Nude in Photography from 1850 to the Present Day, ed. by Phil Braham  (2001, Quarto, Inc.)

(Unedited version of the “Forward”  by Martha Casanave)

            When most of us hear the word “Nude”  (with a capital “N”) we automatically see in our mind’s eye naked women.  And  not just any naked women,  but naked women belonging to a statistically insignificant segment of the female population:  women of  certain age,  attractiveness and  proportions.  Most of us aren’t even aware of   this reflexive thinking;  it happens below the radar screen of consciousness.    A 1963 photograph by Diane Arbus says it all:    a middle-aged nudist couple,  gray-haired, overweight and soft, sits in armchairs in their modest home.    On the wall between them hangs a 1950s style pin-up picture of a  female figure.   Here we have:  two naked people and a Nude !

            For this reason, whenever I begin a photography workshop on the human figure, I  query the participants about their interest in this topic.  Quite often  I hear the following response:  “I want to portray the beauty of the human body.”  I allow time for a dramatic silence,   then I ask,  “Whose body?   Yours? ....  Your wife’s?... Your husband’s?“      The room is silent.   I look around and see a field of furrowed brows.  

            The genre of the female nude in art is a  tradition so deeply imbued in our consciousness that we aren’t in the habit of questioning it.  Photography itself is too new to have deeply embedded  traditions;  the medium acquired its pictorial conventions from  painting.   Female nudity has always been an acceptable theme  in painting, even in  religious art,  but the kind of nudity---the way it was used--has always been open to controversy. In other words, the arena of the Representation of  Woman has always been a battlefield.   A well-known  example is Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1863) which  generated negative responses  when it was exhibited in the Paris Salon  of 1865.   Manet slightly altered the well-worn and accepted “odalisque” theme:  he had his beauty  reclining  in the usual submissive, sexually available manner, but  departing from convention, he painted her as a self-possessed individual, looking straight  at the viewer.  This  individual’s head isn’t coyly tilted, isn’t lolling on the pillow or resting in her arms,  but is held high.  This  departure from convention---portraying a female nude as an individual whose gaze rivets the viewer’s--was enough to cause hostility among viewers and critics.      Greg Freidler’s contemporary image in this book  has the same combination of elements-- a relaxed , sexually available posture (but much more revealing than was acceptable in Manet’s time)   together with a self-possessed,  “don’t-mess-with-me” gaze.  This kind of image might still make some viewers uneasy!

            An astute observer will notice that the majority of photographs in this book were made by men.  Historically,  the majority of all pictures of naked women--painted  and photographed-- have been made by men, for male viewers.  The female nude in art has conventionally been an idealized  sexually available object, to be gazed upon, desired and fantasized about  by heterosexual males.  Susan Sontag wrote in 1999:  “The traditions regarding men as, at least potentially, the creators and curators of their own destinies and women as objects of male emotions and fantasies.....are still largely intact...”  .*


             The  convention of what the ideal female body should look like  evolves  with time and clothes fashion:  for example, only in the 20th century did thinness become fashionable, as well as long legs and an emphasis on feet and high-heeled shoes.  Nevertheless, the male-generated ideal  still pervades our consciousness --along the continuum of Hollywood,  glamor,  fashion,  art, pornography,  and advertising.  This all-pervasive ideal  has placed the woman artist working with the female nude in a vague and undefined place.  There is no historic precedent for her.  Her stance as an artist  (and viewer) is problematic;  how are her images to be “read?”  For example, Tracy Lee’s self-portrait conforms to the  stereotype of the  Sleeping Woman:  a passive,  unchallenging, and sexually available naked woman. Lee wants us to know, however, that this image “is not the subjective creation of a male but a carefully constructed act by a woman who is both author and subject.”

            This volume contains an immense variety of images of the female nude, some of  which conform to well established stereotypes, such as  Woman and Water (Woman and Nature);  Woman as (Sexualized) Child;   the Captive Woman (Woman Bound or Wrapped);  Woman  Distorted;   Woman as Object, the Fetishized Woman; the Sleeping Woman,  Woman on Pedestal,  etc.   Many of these stereotypes  were especially prevalent in 19th century salon painting and  literature, and were therefore  ripe for picking by the astonishing new form of imaging  which was announced to the world in 1839.

             On the other hand, many of the images in this book either do not conform to the familiar  stereotypes or they  jar viewers into an  awareness of  stereotypes by playing upon them.    Larry Fink’s “Lunch” is an unusual image  in a contemporary art context because it  depicts the breast’s  biological function, rather than its decorative, sexually alluring form.     Early  Italian Renaissance images of the Virgin with one exposed breast, though they might have an erotic tinge for  today’s viewers,  also  alluded to the breast’s  nourishing function. (Feeding an infant animal milk was not yet accepted practice.)  It is uncommon to picture milk spurting from the breast, even though a number of paintings dating from the 13th century  do show St. Bernard  receiving a stream of milk expressed directly from the Virgin’s breast.  Fink’s  image departs further from convention in that a  collecting jar is pictured instead of a nurtured  infant (or a monk in religious trance).   Emily Andersen’s “Jackson Twins”   spoofs the stereotype of the pin-up nude:  the clothed twin sits naturally, hunched in an armchair, while  the naked sister poses in a stereotypical posture of display.   Jan Zwart’s “Two Women” is a startling comparison of a naked woman wearing a blindfold and a woman wearing a djellaba covering everything except  her eyes, prompting viewers to think not only about cultural differences but also about  the  overt and covert messages sent by clothes.

            And what about pictures of naked old women?    Most viewers of  the female nude want to idealize, desire,  and fantasize;  they don’t want to be reminded of their own  mortality.   Nadav Kander’s “Irma”  will make some viewers squirm, challenging their assumptions about the female nude,  especially since the subject is a named individual,   and  also holds the viewer’s gaze.                


            This book testifies to one certainty:  The Female Body  remains a battle-site.    Today’s media-conglomerates have joined the fray,  perpetuating stereotypes while simultaneously seeming to encourage freedom of choice.  On the other hand,  feminism, postmodernism, and gay/ lesbian theory have cut the barbed wire of convention and expanded  the definition of what is acceptable.   Economic realities are changing women’s roles.   Digital imaging, the  internet,  and globalization,  all of which  loosen boundaries of all kinds, have blurred the line between mainstream and fringe. The wired world  has made possible a speedier evolution of acceptability, and also made possible a niche for almost every taste.  I am eager to share this book, which runs the gamut from tradition to innovation,  with my students, to encourage thought and discussion about  where they will choose to stake their positions in the   arena.

* Susan Sontag,  “A Photograph Is Not An Opinion.  Or Is It?”, WOMEN, Annie Leibowitz, 1999.  Random House, New York.

  Connie Imboden’s BEAUTY OF DARKNESS (Book Review by Martha Casanave, published in the July/August, 2001 issue of PhotoVision magazine)

Some photographers find images everywhere.  Then there are photographers like Connie Imboden who seem to pull their images from inside themselves.  This  work  from within has a narrower scope, but deeper origins, than work inspired from outside.   To simply describe Imboden’s subject matter---  nudes and their reflections in water and mirrors-- gives no idea of what these images really look like or, more importantly,  what it is like to experience them.  In fact, if I weren’t already familiar with Imboden’s work, I would be put off by such a description.  I would imagine  stereotypical pictures of women in water (an age-old association in art) and  cliched distortions of the nude figure.  But these images are unlike any I have seen, and they have an honest, idiographic quality to them that is hard to find in many of today’s photographs.  Imboden uses women and men as models, and many of her figures look androgynous.  But the gender is secondary.  These are images of flesh and they are about mortality.  Also,  this work is no flash in the mirror for Imboden;  she’s been working with this subject matter for over a decade.

The book begins with two eloquent essays,  one by A.D. Coleman, whose writings I always look forward to reading, and the other by Arthur Ollman.  Both writers use the word “horrific” in their essays when referring to Imboden’s work.  This prompted me to go to my bookshelves and look up Georges Bataille’s words about Beauty: “There is always the transition from compression to explosion.  The forms may alter but the violence is constant, at once horrifying and fascinating.”*   Indeed, Imboden portrays bodies and parts of bodies floating in blackness--fleshy, liquescent forms merged, elongated, replicated, or sliced in two by water’s surface. They evoke the dark waters of the womb and as well as all creatures’ ultimate liquefation. Once into the images, I became immersed in the book, as one would in water, caught up, swept along,  transfixed.   The phone rang, and I found it hard to come back to my daily life, even to speak.  That interruption made me realize how dangerously alluring these images are.

Though I am not sure it is necessary for  photographers to explain their  images, I found Imboden’s explanations at the end of the book, accompanied by thumbnail images, illuminating.  And it is perhaps unfortunate, but a sign of the times, that A.D. Coleman felt obliged  to inform us that all of the images are “straight.”   I, for one, am glad to know.   Had I known, or even suspected, that the photographs were digitally altered, I’d have experienced them very differently. 

The book, with black cover and jacket,  is simply and cleanly designed. The sixty eight reproductions are high resolution spot-varnished duotones on  a heavy, dull-coated paper.  The presentation is so well-done that  when I came across a couple of typos, I felt  disappointed.  Such a lavish production warrants vigilant proofreading.   The book’s sections are prefaced  by the words of wise men.  Altogether there are seven wise men’s words in this book, including the essays.  Their words are profound and relevant, but I couldn’t help wondering:  where are the wise, articulate women?

This book needs time to be experienced;  it’s not a thumb-through book.   One needs to   slow one’s pace, read the text and  follow the chronology of the images.  And  turn the phone off.

* EROTISM----DEATH AND SENSUALITY  by Georges Bataille (City Lights, 1986, trans. by Mary Dalwood


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