WARNING: This post contains nudity
and is NSFW.
Yesterday, I attended a workshop on the male art nude. It was led by Jo Suthurst, who is an MFA student at the University of Falmouth, and the workshop was part of her degree course. Jo is interested in the human body, and the parts that are usually hidden, particularly in people who do not conform to the current norm of beauty, and her blog is here. The timing of the workshop fitted in perfectly with some research I am currently doing on the male and female gaze (more of which I will address in a separate post).
I had two aims in mind for my own participation in the workshop. The first was to practise studio lighting, at which I am still an absolute beginner, and the second was to question the idea of the Female Gaze and how it might affect a photography shoot where the subject was a naked male.
Firstly, I will explain the practicalities of the day. It was held at a small studio near Cricklade, with which I have become familiar as a result of a Facebook group for local female photographers. We meet monthly to try out different concepts in a non-threatening environment and to share our collective experience. The attendees range from near beginners to commercial photographers, so there are plenty of different ideas to discuss. They have started to do regular workshops recently, and I signed up for this, as well as an Creative one at the end of the month, as I find studio work intriguing.
Jo explained the etiquette of nude photo shoots and referred us to some literature on poses for men, and also the model release form, which I have posted about here before our model, Clint, turned up. We were two students, Jo, and two other ladies, one of whom was the studio owner and the other a female model whom I had already met. The latter two were around, but did not take part in our activities. We started with a range of slighting situations for upper body nudity, and as the day progressed and we all felt more comfortable with the situation, moved on to full nudity.
I have never been to a female nude shoot before either, and have nothing to compare the experience with, so I asked Clint and Gemma (the female model, who does nude work, but was not involved in this day) how our approach differed from a shoot where the photographers were mostly men. Clint’s response was that an all female group was less threatened by his nudity and that there was a lot more conversation than would have been the case with male photographers. He is very experienced in nude shoots and was entirely comfortable without any clothing, so very soon his nudity became irrelevant from a social point of view and an outsider would have been startled to see three middle-aged women and an overtly naked man all huddled up together looking at a camera screen to see if a shot had work and discussing what might be improved.
Clint has done a lot of modelling for top shelf female magazines, and his natural range of poses tended to reflect that. We also tried various ideas from David Leddick’s The Male Nude (2015), which includes an extensive series of images right through the history of the genre. The great majority of these fell into the category of “tasteful”, rather than “explicit” but Clint told us that he has been asked to pose for everything right up to extreme porn. This was well outside our remit for the day though, thankfully. Below are three images which give a flavour of our day. I won’t post any more for now, as I am planning to use them later in Part 4.
So, where does a day like this sit in the gap between the Male and Female Gaze? And what did I get out of it?
Laura Mulvey (1999), who coined the term The Male Gaze in 1975 to convey how through many centuries our viewpoint on practically everything has been that of the white heterosexual male. It is tripartite, and consists of a) the director, b) the actor’s performance and c) the viewer, all of whom are traditionally assumed to be male. (I am writing another post on this subject too, so won’t go into a great amount of detail here.) In this scenario, women are considered as the Object – largely silent, and something for the male to view and/or own, as John Berger said in Ways of Seeing.
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 1972)
Berger talked about The Gaze, but his gaze was the Male Gaze, and amazingly, he seemed to think that it was women who put themselves in the position of being objectified.
The response to this came with Jill Soloway’s lecture on the Female Gaze in 2016 (see my other post on this for details) where she asks society to move away from the male way of looking at the world, towards something more inclusive of many minority groups. This she characterises as the Female Gaze, which she argues consists of a) a feeling-seeing on the part of the director, b) the actor is fully aware of being seen and can choose to agree to it, i.e. having a sense of agency in the transaction and c) returning the Gaze, as in I see you looking at me and I don’t want to be an object any longer.
Along the way towards this, feminists and sympathetic men made several less than successful attempts to subvert the Male Gaze, through notions like the Female Combatant, in which the female heroine plays what is essentially a faux-male role, including leadership, violence and super-strength, and the Objectified Male, in which the Male Gaze is twisted back on itself, with women supposedly looking at men as men have looked at women.
This workshop might potentially fit into this last category, but I would argue that it does not. Taking each of Soloway’s elements in turn, Clint said that he could tell from an image of himself whether it was taken by a straight man, a gay man or a women, as those taken by the latter two categories have a different feeling about them. The great majority are not what we would consider objectifying, but are using his body to express other ideas and/or feelings. He was aware of what we were doing and why, and I don’t think there was any question of him not having agency in the process. He was as fully involved in the making of the art as we, the photographers were. (It’s interesting to contrast this process with that of life drawing, as a quick diversion. In life drawing the model is simply there to be looked at, while in the photographic process we undertook, our model was an active participant with opinions and personal rights.) In some of the images I took, Clint has chosen to present himself as an object of desire, but that was his choice and wasn’t requested by me, and I am not intending to use those images as they do not convey the messages I want to examine.
Overall, it was a fascinating and very creative day, and I must thank Jo again for her teaching and knowledge on the subject of the nude. Finally, you might like to know Jo’s thoughts on the subject of Clint’s tattoos, which are something I have made no reference to in my own post, as for me, they were just something that was part of who he was. Jo puts a more considered academic viewpoint to the subject. From my own aesthetic point of view, the images I like best are the minimalist ones I took with rim lighting, like the top one, although the masked images are also interesting. (Jo does a lot of work with masks, and it is something I too have looked at before. She has access to a much wider range than me though).
Edited to add:
Following discussion on the comments thread below about the importance of the model’s tattoos and whether the work really does have a non-traditional viewpoint , I’ve now started to stitch Chines symbols for female words onto the photos, in the style of tattoos. I think this has some potential for assignment 4. Here’s an example below.
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Leddick, D. (2015) The Male Nude. TASCHEN GmbH
Mulvey, Laura.(1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. [online] At: http://www.composingdigitalmedia.org/f15_mca/mca_reads/mulvey.pdf (Accessed on 13 August 2017)
Soloway, J. (2016) Jill Soloway on The Female Gaze | MASTER CLASS | TIFF 2016. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnBvppooD9I (Accessed on 13 August 2017)
Suthurst, Jo. (2017) Surfaces and Strategies – Shoot Mod3#7 – Male Art Nude – “Clint” At: https://josutherstphotography.blog/2017/06/08/surfaces-and-strategies-shoot-mod37-male-art-nude-clint/ (Accessed on 13 August 2017)