A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


I Wrote
Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Tension is There

It was a combination of the anticipation of a sexual interaction with someone unknown and what I was going to do with her that had me not sleeping nights waiting for my 4 pm, January 18, 2003 appointment with Joanne Chabot.

Joanne is a 33-year-old writer with a ballet background. I know her professionally. She was coming to my studio to pose nude for my camera. I have photographed many women and quite a few men in the nude. But still each one provides me with pleasure, surprise, and excitement– similar to the feeling of anticipating one of my photographs on the cover of a magazine. Even after a few hundred covers the thrill is always there.

Just like at one time people said they bought Playboy to read the articles, there are photographers who say they like to shoot nudes because they like the simple and compound curves of the human body. They say the body can be abstract or can resemble a sand dune. They may be right but I would point out that ostriches and skunks are also made up of curves... And sand dunes don’t charge by the hour.

I like to shoot nudes because I am attracted to the human body. It’s a myth that there is no sexual interplay in figure photography. There is. And it is because of this sexual conflict that the photographer must practice special care.

Elliott Erwitt, on a Life Magazine assignment to photograph an open-heart operation, decided to watch a day before the shoot. As soon as the patient was opened up Erwitt promptly fainted. The surgeon had second thoughts in allowing Erwitt back but Erwitt asserted, “I’ll be fine tomorrow, my camera will be my barrier.” And so it was.

And so it is with nude photography. If your subjects trust you, like patients with their doctor, they’ll allow you to peek into their soul. Through mutual trust you can sometimes reveal the subject’s most intimate emotions. This professional relationship can be fragile when your subject is nude.

The best piece of advice I ever got on the subject was, “ If you don’t plan to take photographs, don’t take your camera.” There seems to be a long running cliché that photographers do it more often. Could it be that there is the pressure to overtly make a pass at the model in an intimate photo session? The idea that women are turned on by photographers was popularized in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up. Verushka, the super model of her time, seemed to achieve sexual climax at the feet of camera toting David Hemmings on his studio floor. I can feel sexual tension when I photograph my nude subjects. I think this tension helps in the taking of the photographs. I allow it to remain. Touch could make it crumble.

I told Joanne to change in a special cubicle I have in my studio just for that. The idea of telling an almost complete stranger to strip in front of the camera is not only difficult for the subject but for me the photographer, too. Since I was formed firmly in the 20th century I do not have the carefree approach to nudity that the younger Joanne seemed to have. She removed her clothes in my presence, and I chose to do the gentlemanly thing and I turned around.

There are some who believe that with a model in front of your camera all you need do is click the shutter and the model will do the rest. This rarely happens but if you watch your models during rest periods they invariably strike a good pose. I like to pre-conceive my photographs and I use a couple of tricks that have served me well. One of them involves the idea of the narrative. Can I take 5 pictures that will tell a story when placed in a row? I think of an introduction shot, a strong central shot, a fun shot picture that may run after the first shot and at the end (a profile) looking at the previous 4 pictures. I always pick a theme and work around it. I knew Joanne was a dancer and as such I could feature her graceful hands.

Usually I don’t experiment with new techniques, new film combinations, or use tricky lighting with a model I have not photographed before. For the first session I keep it simple. I like to use one soft light. By using a reflector or moving my subject close to a white wall or away I can control contrast. I will take with a main camera loaded with normal B+W film, and load a 35mm camera with B+W infrared to supplement the pictures, because I like what that film does to skin. I don’t believe that bad photographs can be fixed later. They have to be near perfect from the beginning. If you cannot correct the problem it is best not to shoot it.

Sometimes the reason for not shooting is more than just technical. In 1990 I faced noted writer George Plimpton. I was awed. Plimpton shared a story with me that broke the ice. “Years ago when Muhammad Ali was known as Cassius Clay, the boxer lay defeated in his dressing room after having been out punched by Frazier. Photographer Norm Parkinson and I were covering the event for Life. Norm raised his Nikon to his eye and what he saw was defeat. It almost looked like the corpse of Che Guevara on the marble slab of that Bolivian morgue. He lowered his camera and looking at me he said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And he didn’t.”

I always have Plimpton’s story in my mind. The photographer has to respect his subject, particularly one who may be in a vulnerable position. Being nude in front of a camera surely is. For some models certain parts of the body are okay to be photographed, others are not. If I disagree I sometimes will take a Polaroid (which as a record can be destroyed) and sometimes my model will come around. But if they are adamant I must respect the choice and refrain from shooting. The camera is a barrier but it shouldn’t be so opaque as to prevent us from seeing and thinking of what we are doing.


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