New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 SUMMER ISSUE AUGUST 2012 July 31 to September 4, 2012

Artists’ Studies

Naked before the Camera
Distortion #6 by Andre Kertesz. Source:
Andre Kertesz, "Distortion #6" 1932

When it comes to the nude in photography, “exotic” and “erotic” appear to be made for each other. That seems to be the case in the Met’s thoroughly engaging survey of the human body “Naked Before the Camera.” With photographs from the mid 19th century to the 1980s, the show explores the many motivations for choosing naked people as a subject. It includes images used for medical, forensic and ethnographic studies as well as images that were less elevated in their intent. In the last part of the exhibition, photographs taken more for visual play and surreal manipulations are added.

As Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s Director, said, “ In every culture and across time, artists have been captivated by the human figure.” It’s easy to see why after viewing the 60 images in this show, all from the Metropolitan’s own collection.

The exhibition’s design begins with images from the 19th century, a time when some artists used photographs as stand-ins for live models. Presented as works of art to get around government censorship, photographers called them “artist’s studies”, their purpose was clearly more erotic than artistic. One interesting example — and one of the first in this show, is by the photographer Nadar in 1860-61, “Standing Female Nude.” The photograph was taken at the request of the painter Courbet who planned to use it to help him paint “Phyrne before the Areopagus” shown at the Salon of 1861 in Paris. In a daguerreotype by Felix-Jacques-Antoine Moulin called “ Two Standing Female Nudes”, ca 1850, the model on the right peers out from behind an opaque curtain. The women are relaxed and seem to be enjoying all the attention and that adds to the image’s eroticism. Apparently, Moulin’s work was noticed —- the wall text mentions that Moulin spent a month in jail in 1851 because, according to court records, he produced images “so obscene that even to pronounce the titles would be to commit an indecency.” There are no provocative poses or boudoir props here, so I wonder which photograph landed him in jail.

Standing Female Nude
 by Nadar. Source:
Nadar, "Standing Female Nude" 1860-61

There are at least two other images from this period worth a closer look — “Thomas Eakins and John Laurie Wallace on a Beach,” around 1883. The painter Thomas Eakins, who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, felt that studying plaster casts of the body was not the ideal way to study the human form – photographs were a better way. He and one of his students posed in classical sculptural stances; they eventually landed in the Met.

And Nadar’s “Study of Hermaphrodite,” 1860, is a good example of a photograph taken for medical research. Nadar had been asked by a Paris hospital to take the photo of their patient. After he photographed the subject’s legs spread wide apart with genitalia in full view, Nadar obtained copyright protection with the stipulation that the photos could not be put on public display. Well, here it is. In the G.W. Wilson Studio’s photograph, “Zulu Girls” the black women’s naked breasts blend the erotic with the exotic, but it’s hard to tell which one rules.

Fast forward to the 20th century and to more familiar images. For example, Brassai’s “ “Wardrobe Mirror in a Cheap Hotel on the Rue Quincampoix.” We see a man putting on his tie in front of a mirror, with his nude “date” behind in the reflection. It’s just a wonderful picture. And for something completely different, Bill Brandt’s work is represented by “Nude, Camden Hill, London.” Slightly surreal, Brandt explored his fantasies by using a wide angle lens to distort the bodies of his subjects. Harry Callahan is also here, with “Eleanor” and “Eleanor and Barbara,” 1954. The light through the blinds, naked mother and child laying on the bed...a simple, beautiful photograph.

Given the exhibition’s title, you might expect something more erotic than what is on the walls. Fortunately, that is not the case, This is an intelligent, well curated low-key survey that puts the history of the naked body in photography into perspective. No pin-ups are needed.

Naked before the Camera

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
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Tuesday, March 27 to
Sunday, September 9, 2012
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.