A Photographic ImperativeFriday, January 29, 2010
April 17, 2007 I wrote this blog about poet Diana Hayes, right. The blog has been in my thoughts of late. Since sometime in the late 70s I have taken an extraordinary amount of nudes in my studio, in my garden, on mountain locations, in beaches and even in cars.
Except for the few times that I have taken pictures in my garden I have maintained a strict separation of this delicate type of photography from my domestic life. There was one very beautiful model, called Ona Grauer that for some reason Rosemary (my wife) admired and liked. She left me undisturbed when I photographed Ona without a stitch in the garden. Another time when Virve (a.k.a. The Baltic Surprise) was my subject in the garden; Rosemary made it a point to tell me that the phone was for me, with nagging regularity, and would yell out into the garden. What was beneath all this was the idea (one that I find is important) that there had to be an area of our house that was sacrosanct and had nothing to do with my photography. After all, Rosemary would point out the basement was reserved for my darkroom and for my photo files. I worked as freelancer from the phones of the house, including the one in the kitchen.
For many years my studio on Robson Street was a refuge. It was a place I could do my photography. Before the advent of my buying a cellular phone I had no phone in the studio. It was also a neutral place where I could experiment with my lights and my subjects (who were often in the nude). With my letting go of my studio I have found many changes that affect me as I would have never suspected. Our basement has photographic booms, soft boxes, flash power packs and other detritus from my studio.
Should I continue with my nude photography? Is there some sort of photographic imperative that I do so? Should I consider that at age 67 I should be past all this and I should settle down, not get out of bed and just read or putter with my roses while we still live in this house?
I re-read Diana Hayes, A Poet Of Imagination & Daring, surprised that much of what I wrote then I have not wavered in opinion. If anything I feel more resolute. But this resolution is tempered that unless I shoot in the garden in the summer or rent someone else’s studio I am stuck with my living room and dining room. Is this intrusive? Will Rosemary understand? She will mind. That I know. And she will be quiet about it.
My friend Ian Bateson says if I quit my “experimental (i.e. nude)” photography I will die. Is he right?
I remember that in my 40s a topic of conversation that was in vogue began like this, “If I knew what I know now and went back to when I was under 20 I would be unstoppable. Women would fall at my feet.” I wonder if men say this sort of thing now?
It was some 15 years ago that I displayed at an erotic photography show two photographic narratives (6 pictures in a row) that were tight (very cropped) portraits of two different women. Only a few men ever caught on that they were a sequence of these women going through self-induced orgasm.
In the late 70s I would have been too afraid and too shy to ask any woman to undrape for my camera. Fifteen years ago I was taken to task by at least 10 women I knew who were miffed that I had not asked them to pose for similar narratives. In retrospect (with tongue in cheek, not too firmly) I suspect I could have obtained a Canada Council grant on the idea as a project!
While many will cite the atom bomb as the defining moment of the 20th century I believe that the most important event of the 20th century and of most of the other centuries was the 60s introduction of the contraceptive pill. I believe that the pill made woman truly independent. I believe that most of the ethical rules of morality of most religions are there to affirm and to try to assure the all-powerful man that the woman next to him, the pregnant one, is pregnant by him and by no other man. These rules of religious morality were based on a man’s fear of the “soiling” of his possession.
I believe that is only of late that I have located representations of St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary (holding the infant Jesus) where St Joseph is actually leaning his arm or embracing his lawfully wedded wife. For many centuries she was the super woman and Joseph was the inferior man. He was a man of patience who could take all the jokes that were thrown in his direction. Most gospels and theologians try to dispel the idea that St James might just be the younger and real brother of Jesus. Would this make the Virgin no longer a virgin? We men have bee too obsessed with this concept of virginity.
But there were always vestiges of the idea that we men were direct, boringly direct in what we wanted from women. Women were coy, indirect and somehow at a higher plane of sexual consciousness.
That idea was in my head for years. I would photograph women in my studio and some of them after some frustration would say, “Alex, you want me to take it all off. Why don’t you just ask?”
For me it all began to change when I received that phone call from poet Diana Hayes in 1981(see above link). Then in 1987 I bought a little photo book called Helmut Newton (Pantheon Photo Library). There was a picture reproduced here with the title Vogue (USA), 1975 Saint-Tropez, Calvin Klein. In this photograph I saw the woman I had begun to suspect was the real woman, a woman no different from us men.
I have been thinking about Diana Hayes as I wrestle with the idea of taking more pictures of “this sort”. I began this past Monday with some living room pictures of Anita (the woman from Prince George). I did not use a big camera but instead opted for my Nikon. I used almost no artificial light. The next step would be to continue with better lighting and a bigger camera. I wonder if I will continue. Is it truly an imperative?
Before Anita left she told me how she liked being photographed in the nude. I countered by telling her that in other times she would have been called an exhibitionist. Is that word still in circulation? But we did agree on one thing that for every man that wants to paint, draw, photograph and sculpt the nude female body, there is a woman out there who has that same reciprocal imperative - to pose undraped.
Perhaps Ian Bateson is right. If I quit I will end up in the loony bin more quickly.