The general public perception of nudity online is that it’s all porn, that there is no such thing as tasteful nudity and that’s just plain wrong. Pornography and nudity are two very different genres entirely, whilst pornography displays the vulgar, highly sexual side of nudity often for a cheap thrill, tasteful nudity on the other hand is completely different.
Historical Nudity – Nudity in the Arts
There is nothing more natural than finding the nude form attractive; it’s hard wired into us as human beings, after all how would the human race continue if we weren’t attracted to one another! Throughout history there are wonderful examples of sculptures or paintings depicting the naked form, from the graceful curves of Goya’s ‘the nude maja’ to the chiselled (quite literally) abdomen of the discobolus of Myron.
Spanning across many centuries, the world’s greatest artists have focused on perfecting the naked form and including it in their work, because that’s literally what the body is – a work of art. It’s not just simply nudity though, there’s a masterful degree of sensuality in many of the pieces, that’s not to say any of them are directly sexual or explicit in any sense but rather that the artist has captured the very essence of what attracts the human eye. Be it the subtle seductive positioning of the body or the expression of serenity on the subjects face, there are often so many aspects to take in that, the feelings and emotions provoked from admiring such pieces happens on an almost subliminal level .
Modern Nudity – Photography
The modern day equivalent is of course photography, since its incarnation in the mid-19th century it has revolutionized the way in which we can capture an image. Asides from the obvious improved quality, it also made carrying pictures and images accessible to the masses, suddenly men going to war were able to carry that ‘special’ photo of their sweetheart and regular people able to own what would previously have been inaccessible.
One of the real pioneers in this area was Alfred Cheney Johnston, a successful commercial photographer in his own right, in the 1920’s he turned his attention to photographing nudes and semi-nudes. As was customary for the time most of what Johnston released had to be airbrushed to remain legal, although prints were circulated within certain circles it wasn’t until later on in the 20th century that the majority of his work was judged as suitable for public consumption.
The fact that artists, from generations past up until the present day had studied the naked form often directly from models, was thought of as perfectly acceptable and that photographers who were more or less doing the same was seen as a massive taboo seems heavily ironic. This attitude bears a striking resemblance to today’s attitude, to call nudity in paintings acceptable and nudity in photography not is for want of a better expression ‘splitting hairs’.
Johnston’s better known pieces were conceived in what’s known as the Ziegfeld girl’s era, named after the successful Broadway stage act, the Ziegfeld follies. From which a number of girls from the group modelled for him. What made this collection of images so spectacular was, for a start the subjects themselves, working as a showgirl was an intensive job that required girls to remain in peak physical fitness, in addition to this being from a theatrical background meant the girls weren’t exactly shy in posing for a photo! View any of Johnston’s Ziegfeld pieces and you’ll notice the toned body shape, perfect posture and effortless seductive charm, as a subject it doesn’t get much better. The second was Johnston’s innovative use of props that accentuated and complimented the nude form of the subject, it’s an overused phrase but sometimes less is more.
Some of what may be viewed as tamer pieces in Johnston’s archives are just as visually appealing as the fully nude pieces, this is cleverly achieved, mainly through appropriately positioned clothing and the position of the model themselves. Unlike pornography which objectifies the subject for the benefit of sexual arousal, artistic nudity allows the subjects personality to shine through, this is evident throughout the collection from bold self-empowered fully nudes to casual nonchalant semi nudes. This was very much the beginning of glamour photography and remains a blueprint for photographers looking to emulate his success to this very day.
You need look no further than the nearest news stand to see the resemblance; the main difference from Johnston’s day to present day is that it’s generally viewed as more acceptable, to the point that it’s infiltrated all areas of media from print such as magazines and newspapers to online. It commonplace for today’s celebrities, both men and women too pose for major publications, whilst it’s not as common for them to pose completely nude (but then again it doesn’t need to be) the photographers employ the same techniques to create the perceived perception of sensuality and seductiveness.
The Rise of the Nude Selfie
Recent technological developments have given rise to a new artistic nude form – the nude selfie. By all accounts this is an entirely different beast to its forbearers, first of all the photographer doubles as the model, so needless to say it does present new issues. For starters the difficult camera angle, without the aid of a mirror or alternative reflective surface it nigh impossible, not to mention all the preparation that needs to go into readying a shot. With that said though it has its advantages too, with the photographer/model having a direct influence, it gives them control over the artistic direction, how much exposure they want and the light in which it displays them, after all what could be purer and more honest than that?