The paper attempts to critically examine, albeit briefly, the impacts of socio-cultural structures in the development of nude photography as an art form. It highlights the broad comparison of Asian and Western nude photography by showcasing some leading photographers specializing in nudist photographs. The workings of the social norms and societal structures, including conservative state apparatuses in some cultures, will also be briefly illustrated as far as they affect the form and content of works of the respective artist-photographers. A. Development of nude photography across cultural divide and time
Nude photography is a distinct branch of art photography using humans in still position as subjects. Majority of art critics hold the dominant view that nude photography studies the human body and not the person. The latter pertains to portrait photography, which is a significantly different form. As will be illustrated later, this dominant view is being continually challenged, notably Araki Nobuyoshi, a controversial and highly prolific Japanese photographer. Nude photography is dissimilar from erotic photography, which is actually suggestive of erotic and sexual contents.
Although there are established criteria in differentiating one from the other, an evaluation of whether a photograph is a valid nudist photo or a pornographic material remains largely with the viewer. More liberal and aggressive photo styles and techniques blur further the already thin dividing line between art and pornography. Nude photography did not develop as one single movement. It began as separate changes in individual preferences of various notable photographers, particularly in the early 20th century.
Nudity, however, has been a favorite subject of paintings and sculpture, famously beginning with classical Greek sculptures and Renaissance paintings. Admittedly, artist-photographers in Western countries were the first to explore the use of nude women as subject, owing largely to more liberal atmosphere compared to their Asian counterparts. Some of the leading initiators of the new photography art form were Felix-Jacques Moulin, Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard and Jerry Avenaim. Asian nude photography developed albeit later than its Western counterparts did.
Conservative mores and restrictive culture impeded smoother and faster evolution of nudity as both an art form and content. Societies that were largely dictated by highly formal familial structure did not provide the ideal environment for the rapid development of nude photography. Such situation can be viewed differently, however. On the one hand, the restrictive atmosphere discouraged many promising professional photographers in exploring the use of nude subjects, fearful of being rejected by the society and ostracized in the art community.
Since most of the photos were featured in local photo exhibits, they took the limited form of publication, allowing the government to exercise prior restraint measures, such as censorship. The case of Nobuyoshi is particularly interesting, because no less than the literal physical might of the Japanese government, supposedly as a repository of public interest and welfare, prohibited the exhibition and publication of some of his relatively controversial art works.
On the other hand, the earlier social restrictions on nudist art photography unwittingly provided also a good breeding ground for defiance, with varying outcomes. Nobuyoshi, aside from being a highly prolific photographer, emerged as a controversial public figure because of his experimentation of nudist photos, sometimes including sado-masochistic contents and strong visual imagery of the human genitalia. Extending the limits of the society is still a powerful weapon of the oppressed. Economic development also came much later among countries in Asia.
Most of these countries experienced socio-political upheavals as they strived to free themselves from colonial bondage. They also struggled in eventually demolishing whatever remaining post-colonial structures controlled by local elites who replaced their previous colonial masters. Art, in general, was just one of the tools used by those who wanted to reform their societies. Photography, along with other visual arts, is a powerful medium that could effectively increase the potency of the message reformists want to embed in the public psyche.
One study conducted by Willem van Schendel of the University of Amsterdam and International Institute of Social History is particularly enlightening. The study involved a minority indigenous group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a district in Bangladesh. The study reveals how photography was utilized as a potent tool against the localized colonial onslaught by more economically dominant Bangladeshi districts and cities—a grim reminder of the country’s colonial history. It also showcases the adverse impacts of what Schendel calls as “enforced nudity”.
B. Edward Weston and other leading Western nude photographers Edward Weston was an American photographer born towards the end of the 19th century. He was born at the time when the artist community started reviving the Renaissance cultural legacy and reached the zenith of his career as an artist-photographer at the time when the so-called “Sexual Revolution” was slowly beginning to invade the United States. Weston started exploring photography as an adolescent using a camera given to him by his father.
Although born of a family with a relatively strong intellectual tradition, he dismissed the virtue of completing formal education and began concentrating on photography and exploring various techniques that eventually led him to fame. When Weston was already embarking on his photography career, the prevailing art genre was pictorialism. Pictorialist photography is characterized by the suppression of finer details through photo manipulation. Some people called it as the abstract painting version of photography.
Photography then was not considered strictly as an art form, unlike the typical paintings and sculptures. Pioneering artist-photographers wanted to emulate the painting as a legitimate art form, hence the manipulation of the photo outputs to mimic abstract paintings. Pictorialism was essentially used as a critical vehicle in the eventual acceptance of photography as a valid art. The leading figure in the said art movement was Alfred Stieglitz, notably starting with his Camera Work publication from 1913-1917. Weston eventually abandoned Pictorialism in favor of straight photography.
Together with other notable colleagues, such as Ansel Adams and William Van Dyke, Weston founded the Group f/64, then initially composed of seven 20th century-photographers based in San Francisco, US. The group wanted to offer an alternative paradigm, employing unadulterated and purist version of photos, with subjects usually confined to those naturally existing objects. Western nude photographers were relatively not adversely affected by socio-political upheavals experienced then in less developed societies around the world.
They enjoyed more liberal atmosphere, allowing them wider breadth to explore unusual and more controversial subjects. One specific issue, however, hounded Weston, in particular. At the time when he was slowly building his budding career, he was relatively located apart from his fellow photographers, mostly living and exhibiting in New York and other areas in the east coast. At that time, Weston was living in California. Photo reproduction was then still a developing technology, mostly relying on photo templates that required greater task in reproducing them.
The state of technology and his physical location provided the fertile ground for the development of his unique ideas on photography. To a certain extent, Weston is considered by art historians as the primary precursor of purist nude photography in the United States. C. Araki Nobuyoshi briefly showcased Nobuyoshi is a leading and highly controversial Japanese photographer born in 1940 in Tokyo. He started his passion in photography when he was employed by Dentsu, Inc. , an advertising company.
Soon, he embarked on a more independent career path, submitting majority of his works to leading magazines and other publications in Japan. Nobuyoshi is a seemingly interesting case. Despite living in a much-developed country compared to Japan’s neighboring countries in Asia, he was not exempted from the restrictive government regulating arms, largely influenced by the dominant socio-cultural and moral tenets. In fact, as recent as 1992, police officers raided a photo gallery where his famous book by Nobuyoshi, entitled “Erotos”, was being sold.
Police personnel arrested various people behind the event on obscenity grounds. A year earlier, he was slapped with a 300,000-yen fine because of erotic photos in a photo exhibit titled “Photo-maniac Diary”. In stark contrast to the repressive state censorship of his works in Japan, “Erotos” was widely acclaimed in Western countries, with the book’s Austrian publisher expressing shock and utter disappointment. Weston and Nobuyoshi share one specific photo style.
Unlike most other nude photographers who remain focused on the body shape and not the person as the dominant subject, Weston and Nobuyoshi took many photos depicting even clearly showing the human face. It was a substantial departure from the prevalent and more careful technique that gives lesser emphasis on the human face, cognizant of the blurry line dividing nude photography and pornography. Nobuyoshi went even further by taking countless photos of the human genitalia, explaining largely why he is both loved and hated by art critics in his own country.
Conclusion As elucidated earlier, the evolution of nude photography as another legitimate art form did not come about as a sudden explosion of defiance against the dominant genre in photography. The state of technology in photo reproduction and existing socio-cultural tenets dictated the pace of development of nude photography as an alternative art form. Western countries, with better equipment and more liberal atmosphere, were responsible in the initial appearance of nudist photos as distinctly different from erotic and pornographic materials.
Photos of nude women gained wider and smoother acceptance among the literati in these countries. Asian nude photographers have an entirely different experience. As indicated in the case of Nobuyoshi, they were struggling against repressive social structures that were consequently translated into literal censorship of their works by government authorities. Despite the economic boon Japan was experiencing as late as the 1990s, oppressive and conservative structures and mindset had then yet to be demolished and replaced.
Bibliography Hirsch, Robert, “Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. ” NY: McGraw-Hill, 2000 “Nude Photography. ” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Nude_photography “Pictorialism. ” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Pictorialism van Schendel, William. “A Politics of Nudity: Photography of the ‘Naked Mru’ of Bangladesh. ” Cambridge Journals. http://journals. cambridge. org/action/displayAbstract? fromPage=online&aid=100313