© Filip Naudts
Belgian photographer Filip Naudts says the prevalence of online porn has 'polluted' nude photography, and it's easy to see where he's coming from. Porn has sexualised human flesh to the point that nudity is now near synonymous with eroticism, and where images of naked children once summed up innocence, they are now invested with fears of paedophilia.
But is this notion a universal experience? Attitudes in America and the UK remain, literally, buttoned up but beyond Anglo-Saxon culture, nudes signify naturism or hundreds of years of art history. We asked three continental photographers to give us their take on stripping off.
Filip Naudts is based in Lochristi, Belgium, where he has shot several projects with nude subjects, dating back to the series Pictures for my Soul (1993-1994), which included both male and female models. His most recent project, La cle du boudoir, includes a self-portrait and a shot of his child, but concentrates on female TV celebrities, of a variety of ages. 'I can cast them perfectly with my slippers on my feet, a Belgian beer in one hand and the remote control on the other,' he laughs. 'How comfortable can it be?'
'Nude photography is a polluted branch, unfortunately, and with the sexualised nudes in pornography it's even worse,' he continues. 'I try to keep myself and my work on a safe distance, a distance that allows me to avoid being categorised in either. In another life, or maybe even later in this one, I'd like to focus fully on nude and/or porn photography, and try to strive for aesthetic redemption in them. I think there's so much potential.
'[For La cle du boudoir] I wanted to create a pictorial atmosphere, as if the models were sitting for an 18th century portrait painter rather than a photographer. I sent them a few examples of paintings by Jan Van Eyck, Johannes Vermeer and so on, to give them an idea of what I was striving for. When they arrived at the studio I talked through my ideas and, if they agreed, got to work on the hair and make up. I worked on the clothes with a young stylist, but the models also sometimes brought along costumes. Each shoot took about three hours, and there was always a sense of improvisation.
'I used the same camera every shoot, a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm Canon zoom. I used only one Bowens studio flash with a small soft box and reflectors, depending the setting. I wanted to recreate the gentle daylight of the Dutch Golden Age painters, so I imitated the light as in a daylight studio. All the images were retouched to make them look more painterly.
'I wasn't aware of taking nude pictures until I was almost halfway through the series, and I don't consider the images erotic at all. If other people do I think it's less to do with the models' nudity than the atmosphere - the light and the sense of expectation as the model waits and stares into the camera. I admit that this stare tickles my senses too, but not in a specifically erotic way. I get a similar feeling when I'm photographing men, children, animals, plants and objects, trying to find the best angle and allow the subject to 'speak' to the viewer.
'Having said that, for this series I wanted to work with female models most of the time, because I felt the style suited female subjects best. The style also demanded that the models be scantily clad, and I wasn't shy of accepting that. Why should I be?'
Young German photographer Kira Bunse shoots fashion editorial for magazines such as Electric Youth, the New York Times Magazine and Candy, a newly launched style title for transsexuals including work by Tim Walker, Bruce Weber and Terry Richardson. Bunse's fashion film, Desire is War, has also been shown on Nick Knight's ShowStudio. Bunse co-founded the modelling agency Nine Daughters and a Stereo with Eva Godel, one of the most popular male modelling agencies in the world.
'I have always been interested in portrait photography and for me, shooting fashion is a way to shoot portraits. But I don't like fashion photography when there are too many clothes - I like it to be about the person, not the fashion. Less is more, and it's more natural too.
'I started photographing young men by chance - Eva and I were casting models for our agency on the street in Cologne and we just found more interesting men than women. But I think it's easier to photograph male models, because they don't pose as much. I prefer models to be natural, but with women there's always a lot of posing. They're used to seeing women in OK! or Hello! who present themselves like that, and feel they have to do so too.
'When I first started shooting boys I was very shy - I was the same age as them and knew many of them personally. But they are only 16 or 17, so now I'm much older than they are. I also hold a lot of power because I'm the photographer. I try to use it in a good way. Perhaps the fact that a woman is taking the picture makes them feel at ease, but I think the photographs I take could also have been taken by a gay man.
'The girl I shot for Candy was very different to most female models - the first time I saw her was on the street, and she was dressed in a very masculine way. When Candy asked me to the shoot for them I immediately thought of her. The idea was that we shoot a female model as a male icon, so we had a photograph of Johnny Depp up on the studio. Johnny had his top off in the picture, so I asked her if she'd do it and she said "No problem". She was really perfect.
'I've never thought of my work in political terms - there are a few women photographers now, for example Collier Schorr and Ines van Lamsweerde. But there is definitely more androgyny now, particularly in style magazines such as Dazed & Confused. I first noticed its prevalence about two years ago. It's an extension of a more natural look.'
Born in Italy, Marco Sanges has been in London for the last 10 years, creating an esoteric personal style that evokes surrealism, neorealism and Weimar Republic cabarets. Sanges often uses nudes in his work, working with young female models as well as subjects who are older and larger than the norm. Sanges has published one book, Circumstances, and directed several films. On 11 February he will recreate his image Unchained Melody as a living tableau to launch his show at the Hackney Empire.
'When Auguste Rodin created his sculptures, he never thought his work was going to be classified as erotic. The curvaceous presence of nudes in my work is always in harmony with the geometry of the scenes I create. As Gaston Bachelard says in his essay, Phenomenology of Roundness, images of full roundness help us to collect ourselves.
'Since an early age I've been fascinated by films and I wanted my photographs to talk in cinematic style. While growing up I was introduced with all other 'isms' and forms of art, and Surrealism was the one that captivated my imagination. This influence is strongly visible in my present work, particularly the world of Luis Brunel and his films Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or. The surrealistic feel of my work represents the liberation of the unconscious, as a means to create art outside the boundaries of official culture.
'I'm also inspired by other artists - in fact the 'Gallery of Inspirers' is endless. My brain stores artistic or cinematic works into a violent tormented waterfall of conglomerate characters, scenes, colours, geometric forms and narratives. And I use non-professional models too - I'm inspired by the new verismo style (in neorealistic film direction) of Roberto Rossellini or De Sica, who preferred to work with non-professionals to bring the atmosphere of real streets filled with real people.
'I talk with them, paying attention to their features and mannerisms, then work out what type of role they could play in my composition. When we were children my father always booked us in the first seats of the opera and I became totally fascinated by how the conductor directed the musicians.
'My next solo exhibition, Big Scenes, will be at the Harold Pinter Room Gallery at the Hackney Empire and on the preview night I will reveal a live installation co-devised with director Alberto Bona. The show will make the spectator enter a night of decadence, and performances will unveil an exhibition that will awaken the viewers' desire, awe and lust.'
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