Friday, October 21, 2016

Criticism: Eric Kellerman

Eric is an occasional commenter here! The attentive reader will have noted that he is insightful, intelligent, and occasionally drives me insane with rage.

He's also a photographer, sometimes of the Nude, which is relevant to my current train of thought, and he pointed me to his site. So I looked, and saw, and thought, and here we are.

Firstly, to clear away the clutter, Eric is a fine technician, and in my opinion is very competent at executing his ideas. This is not a guy who is missing his marks at all, he has ideas, he shoots them, and there they are. There are no problems in technique or execution, or nothing that stands out at any rate. I'm sure he could go in to detail about the flaws and failures, but they're invisible to me.

Next up, does he have good ideas? Well, yes. Sometimes. There's a fair bit of work that reads kind of like the same old stuff I've been going on about. Juxtapose flesh against other textures, apply dramatic or interesting lighting, portraits, and so on. All very pleasing to look at, well done, and so on. With respect to Eric, much of this material reads to me more or less like a compendium of the usual suspects. I can see literally millions of similar pictures on the internet, albeit rarely such well executed copies. And let me be clear: Eric is hitting his goals here, to my eye. Where I am seeing a shortfall, I do not think Eric does, I assume that the pictures are pretty much just what he was after.

As is so often the case, I must remind myself that doing things which have been done before is a perfectly reasonable, enjoyable, and often marketable, thing to do. It's just not my cup of tea.

Two particular bodies of work stand out, though.

The Box. There's a book edition of this which accurately describes it as a typology. I find a certain fascination in comparing this to other photographic typologies, in particular of course the Bechers, who keep crossing my consciousness (or being pushed there by my wise and educated commenters) and reminding me of themselves. Of course, these nudes are not found objects (well, if they are Eric lives in a fascinating location), which makes me wonder if it's a real typology or not. What would that even mean? Navel-gazing aside, these are interesting to look at. I find that there's not quite enough intellectual meat here, though, perhaps because they're not found?

As I understand it, the essence of the typology style is to show us a bunch of things that have been present all along, but which we have not really noticed. Through repetition, something is supposed to happen. A nude in a box, though, is not typically something we've been ignoring in our daily lives. Eric is taking something already eye catching, and catching our eye with it.

It's still possible that through repetition, even of an already arresting visual, something could happen. I'm not sure what, and it's not reading, for me. I am not perceiving any new depth, and alternative view. It's pretty much the same arresting visual, repeated.

I wonder if some kind of sequencing (and perhaps more photographs) could strengthen this? A typology, ok, but perhaps also a sequence suggesting some kind of progression, a metaphor for something else. I could envision an essay on, let's say, depression, or relationships, or growth. It's also quite possible that Eric explicitly avoided this sort of thing, aiming for a pure expression of form. Making portfolios to suit me shouldn't be anyone's goal.

Beyond that, I am unable to get anything much more out of this work. It feels like it ought to be speaking to me, but it remains frustratingly silent.

The Averted Gaze. This is a horse of quite a different color. The overall concept is very strong, the ungoing theme of the nude woman pointedly not looking at the camera is powerful. What does it mean, specifically? I dunno, and I don't care. The point is that it has a lot of room for meaning, one can read it any number of ways.

Some of the variation I quite like. Sometimes the woman is explicitly averting her gaze from a male figure in-frame. Sometimes she rejects the camera instead. Other times her face isn't even in the frame and we're left to guess that she's probably still averting her gaze (after all, we have noticed the pattern by now). Or perhaps someone else is? Or ought to?

The title helps here, first by setting the theme clearly and second, I think, my posing the question "who's gaze is averted, or ought to be?"

My only real beef here is that it feels a little like a collection pulled from the archives, as it were, and it needs tightening up and sequencing, to my eye. In stark contrast to The Box, the work is stylistically all over the place. Some of the variation, as noted, is great, it lends depth. There's too much variation, though, to my eye, and ultimately it detracts.

In this work we see Eric's mastery of technique paired with a really good idea that uses the nude in a way that is both relevant and potent. If I were advising him, I would urge him to pursue this theme seriously, and pull together a body of work as visually taut as The Box, and as puissant at the work already suggests it can be. I'm not, though, far be it from me!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Men by Women

I've been mulling it over, and since nobody has pointed me yet to an obvious "yep, been done, it's over here" I am going to start something. It's not mine, I don't want to own it or run it. But maybe I can get it started. This post is, explicitly, a call for volunteers to own the thing, to lead it, to be it.

Men by Women

For millenia men have been creating Art around the nude form of their lovers, girlfriends, wives, and muses. The nude female form in Art has been ubiquitous for as long as humanity has been daubing pigment on to surfaces and shaping stones. In recent decades there have been efforts made to enable women to "take back" something, to reverse the inherent objectification. These efforts, curiously, have usually resulted in more depictions of the nude female form. While the arguments surrounding these efforts are both reasonable and persuasive, there are obvious problems as well.

See, for example, The Nu Project and The Grace Project (Not Safe For Work, obviously.)

This is, I think, a new project, in a similar vein. Men by Women stands the male/artist vs. female/muse dynamic on its head. The male nude form depicted by the female artist. En masse ideally. The aim, my aim at any rate, is not to replace, improve, or criticize the other projects, but only to provide another avenue, a parallax view as it were.

This isn't mine to operate. I'm a white male. My wife has expressed a frisson of interest in taking part, and I am willing if she does, but that's as far as it goes. I will propose, as a starting point, some ideas for the format.

I think it is a reasonable requirement that any photographs that result should have been made by a woman, at least in the sense that she pressed the button. Ideally, the photographic concept would also be hers, but the only hard line I see as making sense is the button-press. Who actually does the styling, lighting, post-processing and so on strikes me as irrelevant. The subject should be male, since the point is to stand the male/female dynamic on its head.

As a default, women might well photograph their husbands, lovers, partners. But surely that's not all?

Issues surrounding "born (fe)male versus identifies as (fe)male", as well as all other details both social and technical I will leave entirely to wiser heads, not offering even my own two cents. Well, I do like the name Men by Women, but that's one cent at best. Is there a web site? A flickr pool? A book? I dunno, not my problem!

I think this project, if is goes anywhere, should be "owned and operated" by women. This seems obvious to me. Lest we inadvertently launch several competing projects that don't know about each other, I think it makes sense to communicate with me initially, if you're interested in leading this thing. I will step aside and simply broker communications between all who are interested in any kind of leadership role (again: I am a white male, my only reasonable role here is as a model).

That's my idea. My one firm goal, though, is to make my opinions and ideas on this irrelevant.

Forward this announcement around to anyone you like. My contact into is: if anyone's interested.

Monday, October 17, 2016


A common theme out there is one of empowering women by making and publishing nude photographs of women. This is a little strange, but I do get it, honest.

We're taking back control
We're pushing back against male-driven so-called norms of beauty

and so on. These are real, these are legit. But the result is still pictures of naked women, and generally pretty heavily weighted toward the contemporary standards of beauty. Guess which women are most comfortable taking back control and pushing back against the male-driven so-called norms of beauty? Yep. The women that cleave most closely to those norms.

So, as happens from time to time, I got to thinkin'.

What would be similar to this idea, but more directly, or less obliquely, empowering. What would be less tangled up with the problems of producing more pictures of good looking women with their clothes off?

How about we stand the 1000+ year old dynamic on its head, and have women take, and publish, nude photographs of their male partners? Men have been painting and photographing their lovers for public consumption more or less forever. That is the standard dynamic. It is male-driven, it is rooted in dis-empowering women.

Much as I love running Art Things I'm out of bandwidth, so I'm not running this one. I might be willing to go first, though. Must talk to the wife, I guess.

Also, has this already been done? It seems obvious, but if it has been done, it's largely google-proof, because I can't find it, at any rate.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The State of Nude Photography II

I've been reviewing work by various and sundry other artists, thanks commenters! I have not been particularly organized about it.

Here's what I've seen.

At the higher end, the serious and successful artist end of things as opposed to the amateur, we see some differences. This is not a surprise, of course.

What I got out of my survey is a basket of tropes and themes. Visual ideas include pictorialist softness, abstract isolations, classic figure studies, classic movement/posing studies, surrealist elements, juxtaposed textures, straight documentation. thematic ideas include eroticism, empowerment, 'this looks beautiful', 'this looks interesting'.

Mix and match create a signature look, and away you go.

Nudity implies a certain energy. Often erotic but not necessarily; always basic, animal, I think. Consider the Sally Mann photo "the last time Emmett modeled nude." You'd have to be pretty far off the mean to see anything erotic in it, but there's no way it's the same picture if he's wearing swim trunks. There's a feral energy there.

Contrast with anything by Ralph Gibson. Everything he did seems to be on the edge between smut and art; he's all about that energy and is very up front about the erotic aspects that emerge when your models are adult women in provocative postures.

And again, look at the Lennon/Ono Rolling Stone cover. Energy!

Contrast this with a lot of other nudes. The plan is, altogether too often, to deny the energy: hide it with pictorialist softness, it's just a figure study, we're empowering women (never men, hmm), look, it's a study in contrasting textures, and so on. Any sexy stuff you see in here, dear viewer, is just you being naughty.

The goal seems to be to make something appealing to look at without ruffling any feathers. An interesting picture, a beautiful picture. That's not a bad thing, as such, but it's not going very far, is it? We might as well be shooting sunsets. This is, after all, Art, and Art should never be unsettling or exciting.

Now, this is obviously only a some of it, I've already cited some people who do different things (Gibson, Mann, Leibovitz) and there are surely others. Jock Sturges seems to be to combine the energy with a goodly dose of the erotic with pictures of kids, which is problematic, and surely deliberately so.

So while the dominant, the most common perhaps, format is to deny the energy and pretend that it's just Art (when in fact there are naked people here), there's a strong body of work that embraces the energies inherent in the nude. That's pretty much a good thing.

The problem, as I see it, is that without embracing the energy you haven't much hope of making any larger statement. I don't know if that's true. If you're covering up the energy inherent in what you're shooting, does that in fact get in the way of making any kind of substantive statement?

Contrariwise, if you do embrace the energy, there is a temptation to assume you're done at that point. So we wind up with masses of work that says nothing and hides its face behind prettiness and interestingness, and then a smaller but still substantial body of work that stops short. Gibson and Sturges are good examples here, they're up front and honest about the erotic power of what they're doing, but they seem to simply stop there. It's erotic and powerful. So what? Do you have an opinion or idea beyond that Jock? Ralph? Hello?

There is also a substantial subgenre of work out there that's doing a sort of documentary/empowerment thing (as noted, always with female nudes, which makes me itch slightly). There is a genuine effort to make a statement here, but it's a statement specifically about nudity and beauty. The goal is to normalize, well, the normal, the common. While this is a fine thing, and I approve of efforts to push back against the media's stylized and often ridiculous notions of beauty, it's a bit self-referential and narrow. We're using nudity to talk about nudity, rather than something else, eh?

Is it even really possible to do a photo essay of real meaning that involves nudes, or is the viewer just going to be all distracted by the nakedness anyways?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The State of Nude Photography

I ran across a portfolio, nevermind where I'm not even going to link to the thing, which claimed to be about capturing true emotion in a series of (mostly) nude photographs of women. The photographer threw in a detail picture of a hand for each nude, as a sort of concession to Art, and, weirdly, they seem to be the same hands in all cases, and therefore not the model's hands. What now? Then she wrote a long tedious statement about how the models expose themselves to my camera and how awesome the true nature of the emotion ... yawn. The pictures, of course, are dead-eyed eastern European girls, mostly naked, staring desperately at the camera. The relationship between the pictures and the statement is nil.

So I said to myself, surely I can find something better than this to juxtapose and talk about. So I looked around a bit. I didn't spend hours at this, but I skimmed a lot of thumbnails, and dipped into a handful of portfolios with vaguely interesting thumbnails.

It's all awful. Good lord. Nobody has anything to say with nudes.

There are, basically, three looks. Dead-eyed and vaguely desperate. Seductive, with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Bold-and-brassy (you can tell by the cigarette, usually). Very rarely there is a "oh hey, I'm just cooking eggs or whatever and happen to be naked" but that's about it. If the portfolio claims to be about "Love" what that means is two dead-eyed female models cuddling like two complete strangers, because love=lesbian.

How disappointing.

Occasionally you'll get a nude male, and then there's a sort of desperate effort to render the guy sculptural and abstract, because ain't nobody wants to see that, and now and again you'll run across a bunch of dance photos done in the buff, which are nice the first time around but then you see they're all the same. And then there's the fetish crew with their 2 or 3 tropes.

Virtually all of it is simply an example of what happens when someone with no idea gets some models out of their pants. The photographer falls back on a handful of basic tropes, and then perhaps writes an unrelated statement about empowerment or gender dynamics or rawness of emotion.

Let's take a walk back through time. I've probably going to entirely miss out on several enormously important movements. Sorry. Feel free to bring it up in comments.

Consider the pictorialists, I showed a couple of these things off the other day. These were usually very stylized pseudo-naturalistic things which, of course, tried to look like paintings. They're primarily studies in shapes and forms as much as anything else, although often they're really classic "figure studies" which, once invented, never went away because painters like to hang around with naked models. With the advent of straight photography, we no longer had the veil of painterliness to hide behind, so we got more abstract instead. Edward Weston did these sculptural things, studies of shapes and form, and lots of other people did similar work around the same time. We still see these sorts of studies of shape and form, male nudes almost always fall under this, females more rarely.

Regarding figure studies. Were these things not invented because painters "needed" to practice with the nude form before putting clothes onto it? If that's indeed the rationale, one wonders what on earth photographers are doing "figure studies" for. Well, one doesn't wonder much, to be sure. But still.

Moving onwards a couple more examples. We have John Lennon, nude, embracing a clothed Yoko Ono on the cover of Rolling Stone. It's iconic, you've seen it. Hold on to that one. Elsewhere and newer, we find Stone Nudes and we have ESPN's nude portraits of Olympic athletes. These latter two kind of fit in with the nude dancers trope that pops up here and there. There are some actual ideas in play here, which is nice to see.

John and Yoko, while I don't much like the people or the picture, is doing something interesting. Nudity can be associated with love, and here we have what sure looks like a genuine expression of love. It's solid work. It reads, it makes sense, it's minimally exploitative. Stone Nudes and the others attack from a different angle, looking explicitly at the physicality of athletic activity, and showing us the bodies, the machines that do these amazing things. These are, to my eye, less successful largely because they lack courage.

If you're going to go rock climbing in the nude, there will be bruises and scrapes. The idealized female forms of the Stone Nudes leave that out entirely, and are reduced thereby to just another series of studies in form and texture. Interesting, to be sure. Exploitative? Maybe. The perfection of the bodies and the uniformly female models leave me a little chilly. The Olympians are mixed in gender, at least, but cannot resist the urge to idealize and airbrush. While we celebrate the athletic form, we have to admit that athletes don't look like that. There are simply more bruises involved. Ditto the various dancers.

I'd love to see something about Love that really gets at it. There's a risk of making porn here, but then you're always rubbing up against that with nudes. I'd love to see some Nude Athlete kinds of things with sweat and blood and scrapes and real effort, not stylized prettiness. There's something to be done here, I think. Not by me, I have two small kids and a puppy at the moment. Getting my pants on the right way around in the morning is about the limit of my ability these days.

Probably someone somewhere is really doing these themes justice, the idea of genuine Love, and the idea of Physicality. I haven't found either, though. Let me know if you run across something!

Saturday, October 8, 2016


There's nothing quite like the light when the sun breaks clear through an otherwise overcast sky. It's a bit like that high desert light, but of course everything is wet.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On the Quality of Light

As I do from time to time, this piece is what I think someone else meant to write, or ought to have written.

There is something to be said about the quality of light. Something other than a lot of technical detail about point sources and diffusion and falloff. You can just talk about how it looks, and you can just observe how it looks. I'm going to dig up some pictures. Note that the picture might be a result of manipulation (note especially the Smith!), it might look like one thing while in reality it was another, but we don't care. What we care about it what it looks like.

Look at these pictures. Note the character of the shadows -- deep black, or weak? Note the character of the shadow's edges -- Soft or sharp? Note the way the light falls off. Are lit surfaces farther from the main light source about as bright no matter where they are, or are the ones farther away more dimly lit, as if the light was small and up-close? Can you tell at a glance which ones are (or appear to be) sunlight and which are artificial light?

W. Eugene Smith. Three Soldiers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson. Behind the Gare St. Lazare.

Robert Demachy, Study IV.

And here we have a Weston.

Joseph R. Keiley, Portrait -- Miss de C.