The validity of nude photography — and art in general — within society is a hotly-debated topic, often drawing ire from the art community and condemnation from the religious.  Even within the photographic community there is great debate over whether nudity can be presented in tasteful fashion or if, at its core, there resides an underlying nature of depravity.  Photographer Beau Hooker tackles a portion of the argument over at

If one Googles the definition of “pornography,” the first definition that pops up is: any sexually explicit writing and/or picture intended to arouse sexual desire.

Well, I have a small problem with that definition, and I’ll explain.

Human sexuality is obviously very complicated. … A photograph of someone’s foot might generate a sexual response in one person while being totally benign to another. It might not have even been the photographer’s intent to cause arousal, but it may happen nonetheless. Conversely, some photographer may have photographed a person’s foot in such a way with the intention of arousal, yet, even then, others may simply see a foot.

So I try to be careful when using the word “pornographic.”  I do not deny at all that it exists, but we all perceive it differently and I think, at least in the U.S., owe much of our perceptions to our rather Puritanical history.

It’s also a cultural thing. I’m sure that in some societies a woman simply showing her face is considered pornographic. Around the turn of the 19th century, men wore two-piece bathing suits here in America. And it would certainly cause a few raised eyebrows for a well-proportioned lady to walk around bra-less in most places besides her own home.

Lastly, I think leaving as much as possible to the imagination is a good place to start. I don’t know who said it but I like the quote: “To suggest is to create; to define is to destroy.”

Believe it or not, early on in Playboy Magazine’s career, Hugh Hefner was pretty good at this. (BTW, he may or may not have been the photographer ,but usually approved – or rejected – the shots that appear in the magazine.)  For example, there may have been a photograph of a (usually partially clad) young lady lying on a bed in the background. In the foreground would be, say, two champagne glasses or a cigar or pipe smoldering in an ash tray. The suggestion was that she’s not alone. Since it was a pipe or cigar, at the time, the viewer could assume the other person is male and that intimacy may ensue.  Of course, back then the obscenity laws were much more stringent and full-frontal nudity could land a photographer or magazine publisher in jail. Society has changed and is more permissive now, so I’m just suggesting that this is a moving target and subject to the cultural context, religious and otherwise, in which the photograph takes place.

But, how do photographers, especially the more inexperienced who are still finding their way, go about drawing a visual distinction between a classy and…er…less classy (read: trashy) representation of the human form? Photographer Tom Meyer gives some advice:

Here’s some guidelines I try to remember:

  • Use shadows rather than light.
  • Use softness (through motion or DOF) instead of objective clarity.
  • Emphasize a psychological component over a physical one.
  • Use a narrow and subdued palette.
  • Emphasize shape and texture over geography and functionality.
  • Use no clothing or only fabrics rather than intimate apparel.

That all said, I believe a good figure study is not always exclusive of an erotic subtext.

“Boudoir” is a term that has much inference and sounds too similar to bordello. Most boudoir photography is about a specific individual and is made for a specific individual, as the boudoir is (theoretically) a private space. Figurative studies involving nudes are more about human archetypes and/or architecture, and environs can be more universal or abstract.

Once an individual is announced photographically it becomes more of a nude portrait inviting suppositions as to personality. Much classical nude work does not include the face, leading to some inappropriate concerns about a de-humanizing effect, confusing the unsentimental with the disrespectful. Another can of worms is thus opened…

Valid arguments?  Helpful advice?  How has society shaped our perception of art, and how has art, in turn, formed our perception of society?

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