Figure Photography and Life Art

A short talk given to Worksop and District Photographic Society in 1993

I suppose I am engaging in an topic which can be controversial. But I think it is best to tackle difficult areas with openness in offering my personal observations comparing studio photography and life art.

I am new to nude photography. The chronology is that I saw the society's Priory Gate exhibition, came here after it to a model night, saw the opportunities for painting from photographs and found out that some of you are members of the local studio. At first, invited along, I could not go; later I went alone to photograph the second model I saw here. After that I went with a group and then again on my own. On Saturday last, incidentally, I was at a life art class which had a male model.

To start, let me compare art and photography terminology. In photography the choices are portrait, fashion, topless, figure and magazine poses. All are usually female glamour based or influenced. In other words: face, clothes, erotic clothes, bared breasts, nude and pornographic glamour. In art it begins with portrait but then goes on to draped (which can mean clothes or a sheet) and undraped life drawing and painting: more equally male and female.

Photography derives the term figure from the somewhat unreal, perfect figures, heavenly beings or homoerotic muscular males of classical imagery. Today, combined with female glamour, figure suggests something pure, perfect, desirable, slender, feminine, body eroticism. Figurative art, incidentally, is a much broader term. And the question must be asked, are people's bodies like this? The term life, on the other hand, suggests how we really are: uneven fleshy bodies with bulges, lumps and bumps which challenge the drawer and painter. This is not to deny that an erotic element may be involved, but it does come at the erotic from a different and more humanist perspective.

The implications of this come when one considers character. The route to gaining character in drawing and painting is through getting the shapes of the bodies, the lines of the face, and the gaze. But what do you get with photography? I think, in glamour, one ends up not with character but caricature. As for so called classical poses which claim to be different from glamour, we end up with an almost faceless, characterless, kind of ancient fantasy.

I'll give you a real example. A model photographed by the group I went with posed topless. To comply with the norms of glamour she pushed out her small breasts and concealed her backside. I told her to forget all she did regarding glamour and present her body as it really is. I used various poses. Incidentally, my life art tutor liked the pose in which she was photographed in a chair but on her back, it being useful to show the effects of gravity on the body when presented in various different positions.

At the studio the first time I got some strange looks when I asked if they had any male models. But of course this is not the basis of the Worksop studio. This studio, and those like it, represents everything that is peculiarly British about visual sexuality. On the one hand it is female nudity for sale, on the other it is reserved. It is run by men to attract male photographers, and the whole ethos of it is determined by Page 3. It has a ban on video cameras and does not employ magazine models. To me, Page 3 and all that is extremely two dimensional, full of caricature, a sort of British sex that isn't sex, indecency that is decent, another form of the seaside postcard, all about innuendo and unrequited flabby male desire. And, although the young women there get their turn in the Sunday Sport or the Daily Sport, the fact that so few have glamour like figures means that these models are destined for, and some accept, disappointment.

There is the analogy here between a studio and a brothel. Otherwise private bodies can be seen in photograph displays with a view to renting the person. Many men go back again and again, and soon they may find a favourite model to visit. Indeed, the trip to the studio can be more important than the photographs afterwards. Men like to chat to the model and they like to believe that they get to know them. Some photographers have hundreds of photographs of the same young woman, again and again with the same narrow range of glamour and figure poses. They pay, the model repeats.

All these behaviours are parallelled in prostitution. The cash nexus creates not real relationships but male fantasies. Yes, the models are friendly; yes, they will repeat poses; yes, they want you to come back again: and that's all in their interest. And brothel keepers are friendly too. If you do not fix on one model, try another, they say. And about attractive teenagers. Is it legal when under eighteens are nude? My second nude model was nearly 21 and I did feel happier about that.

In my case, I do not want figure photographs but life photographs. Life art involves long poses and short poses that models can maintain only for minutes. All these are possible to the photographer. But some uninhibited life poses may be called explicit in the language of glamour and figure. This makes the cash element even more of a dilemma. Unless I am sure the model is really happy with my photography, and not simply hungry for the #20 they receive, I will not do it.

When my hour is up there are many poses I have listed but not taken. I think about the next time, but I must be satisfied that the model is happy. The last model saw my photographs and at the first one said °I don't like that.' But later she said, °I like that.' I said they are largely the same and her reply was that she is more used to glamour photography. Another model I may photograph is large and uneven and in my view does not succeed in glamour poses but would work for mine. I was told by the management that she will do my style of poses, but I insist I talk to her first and find out.

Afterall, whilst life drawings and paintings will always be drawings and paintings, photographs of people are more immediate. Photographs offer the opportunity of having a permanent model, always there to draw and paint. But there's the rub. I understand and respect those models who opt for the paradoxical security and reservations of topless and figure poses and reject life poses that may be uninhibited at times.

So what about employing magazine models in another studio? I've thought about this but not done so. My guess is that even they prefer glamour, however explicit, and would probably find the range of life poses, including uninhibited ones, unflattering and strange.

In the end two things restrict my life photography. First is the high cost and secondly I will run out of useful poses and sufficiently different people. Also, there is no equal to the frustrating challenge of sitting in front of a three dimensional mass and drawing and painting him or her. Life art also offers older people, males; sometimes they are students, sometimes naturists. In the end, glamour photography is part of the sex industry, whether the sanitised and very sexist level of Page 3, or the more obvious magazine models, and this is its beginning, end, and limitation.

(How to be controversial in a one swift step!)