The Fine Art of Nakedness

25 Apr, 2012

I am a photographer and an artist and I really admire the genre of fine art nudes – they are all about shades and tones, lines and curves, light and dark, and highlights and shadows. Fine art nudes are a far cry from pornography (though I know they still aren’t for everybody) and can be a beautiful way to celebrate God’s capstone of creation.

I am also a minister, ordained and everything. And yes, I’d rather perform the wedding ceremony than take the wedding pictures. Someone else can figure out how to get Aunt Gertrude and the four year old ring bearer to smile at the camera at the same time. Yet one of the amazing things I am discovering as I’ve dove into photography and storytelling fulltime is that my camera has become a ministry tool.

In November I stumbled upon a book titled, The Scar Project” about 50 women under 35 years old who had suffered from breast cancer. It is a hauntingly, beautiful documentary that illustrates how individual and personal breast cancer is; not something that is so easily wrapped up with a pink ribbon. The book has become a very helpful tool for women who have breast cancer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize.

This got me thinking about the different scars we carry as individuals and how much more powerful they could be if we could gracefully expose them. My hope is that through my writing and my photography that I can help people put a voice to their stories when they may not have been able to find the words or images on their own.

The Fine Art of Nakedness is about being open and vulnerable and choosing to expose rather than cover up. My journey with this started with an artist friend of mine who was going to be painting a self-portrait of herself dancing. I asked her if I could photograph the process and she agreed, later telling me that it was the first time she had ever let anyone into her work space when she was painting so personal. Before paint was put on canvas she removed her socks and shoes. The picture I took of her naked feet, covered in paint, captured a story of healing as those same feet had been bound in casts and braces when she was crippled as a child. Now they are unbound. Now they dance!

My mother approached me to shoot a new portrait of her although she feared how her nerve damage from a brain tumor surgery would make her facial features sag. She overcame the fear and has a story of her life on display with a beautiful portrait that makes her (and others) cry for all the good reasons.

For another woman it was about shedding the strong things she normally uses as her defenses and instead wearing some thick, pink, boxing gloves, realizing that it is the softness in her life that needs to seep up to the surface.

This journey has included photographing the nakedness of a teenage girl’s head that used to be full of beautiful hair but has recently suffered allergies that made it all fall out. This young woman bravely took off her wigs and her hats and posed for a couple of the most beautiful pictures I have ever taken. You can read her story here.

For some subjects  it has involved peeling off the shame from their x-spouse and taking new portraits to fill old frames that show that life and family still move on.

For others it has included physical nakedness for the sake of seeing themselves through another set of lenses when their self-worth has so been wrapped up in their perception of their body image. These aren’t boudoir photos for their husbands or boyfriends; they are just a gentle gift for themselves when they needed to find healing and acceptance in their own skin.

Sometimes I’ll have a daring idea to ask a friend to pose for me. Last week I approached a beautician to let me take pictures of her morning ritual as she gets ready for work. This means she is letting me take pictures of her before her makeup has been put on or her hair has been done up. This, I’m sure, is a stretch for her as I’ve never seen her look anything than porcelain doll perfect.

I have another friend who has taken flak for not getting her grief in order after she lost a very close friend. She came to me with an idea of a photo shoot that is meaningful, personal, and goes to some of the very core of her pain.

Another friend dared to allow me into the room as she was giving birth. She offered up her modesty in an effort to capture a treasured moment for her, her husband, and someday, a story for their child. Her bravery resulted in some amazing photos, if I do say so myself.

All of this openness and vulnerability has started something deep in my soul and I’m pursuing it with cautious abandonment. I could tell I’m serious about this journey with an experience that happened this weekend. At the Robie Creek race I positioned myself at the finish line and looked for runners whose expressions told a story about their race. One of the women I captured looked like she had just jogged around the corner, not the 13.1 grueling miles of this half marathon. She looked as if she was a fitness model. Turns out, she is.

We connected on Facebook. She liked my photo and I like how she looks in it. I suggested that we should work together and she asked me about my forte.

Now any normal, red-blooded, American male photographer would have responded that he was a fitness, swimsuit or glamour photographer. But when I sat down yesterday to respond to her I opened up about my story-telling passion. Instead of asking if I could take shots of her abs I asked her if she would open up to me about any insecurities she has about herself and her body while in her profession. In the long run I think I have a better chance of capturing a memorable photo of her soul than her tan lines.

I almost felt stupid hitting the send button, but then again it was an example of my own nakedness in not pretending to be something that I’m not and being excited about what is stirring inside me.

She didn’t keep me in suspense very long. Not only was she open to my idea but she shared her heart of starting a program for girls and women about body issues and health. She sees her profession as a door to help others, not just make magazine covers.

Nakedness really is a fine art. This life  is a better journey when we travel together in vulnerability. I think it is freeing and more fulfilling.

If you have ideas about this path, please share them with me. If you feel stirred, but don’t know what it looks like, then let’s talk. Perhaps as you share your story the creative images will come. I’d love to collaborate with you!

P.S. and if you want to pose for fine art nudes, I won’t turn you down for those either. 

Pinging is currently not allowed17 Responses

  1. This brought tears Chad! I had so many body issues in Jr High — so much darkness surrounded all those memories. You are bringing beauty and light, my friend! I'm so thankful to know you. Let's hang out sometime soon. And maybe collaborate on spreading the good nudes! You are a gift!

  2. Wow, nice post. My initial reaction is that there's already too much "exposure" in our world, and we don't really need any more. But it seems like what you're doing is "gentle exposure," or "respectful exposure," or even "restorational exposure." And there's not nearly enough of that, for all the reasons you share. Well done.

  3. For me too Chad. What a gift you are. I am honored to know you!
    And when I get back to my birth weight maybe you can photograph me!
    LOL!!

    Have a great day! Sending love and gratitude
    J

  4. Matt says:

    Chad this post really stirred me. Due to a lot of self-hatred issues (I'll spare the details) coupled with being raised in a "have to be perfect" household and add a dash of sexual abuse, I have been extremely self conscious of exposing any part of my body. I really hate my back and upper torso due to all the moles and freckles. Just this last Tuesday I was going to go for a run with Jaron in the stroller and Elise riding her bike. I wanted to get some sun so I got bold enough to go for the run without my shirt on. As cars would drive by the voices in my head imagined all that the passengers might be saying in jeering and mockery or disgust. About half way out of our neighborhood, Elise got sunscreen in her eyes and they were stinging so bad we had to turn back to go wash it out. I must say I was relieved and did some exericises in the privacy of my home. I wish I could find the freedom that many you are working with have found. An amazing ministry indeed.

  5. Debbie Gallagher says:

    Your words bring me to tears once again, Chad.
    On Sunday, I was greatly moved by the photo of your mom. I have only known her since her paralysis, but I also have always admired her beauty, I never knew about or noticed the paralysis until she mentioned it.

    Now today I read your post & think of my own scars. My hysterectomy scar to be exact. This scar in particular left me feeling like less of a woman because society says so? Really, did this one organ only make me a woman? Did the creation that is whom God made really count on this one thing? People actually asked me if I still felt like a woman after my surgery. Really?!? Yes I do feel like a woman. Yes, I do feel whole. Yes, I know I am scarred but that is who I am, God's Daughter, God's Princess.

    Chad, your honesty, transparency and compassion of this issue shines through every photo. This is your new ministry that touches others in a way the reveals true beauty. Thank you.
    I would be happy to pose for you ANY day. Scars & ALL.

  6. Viola Bundy says:

    Chad, thank you so much for pursuing this kind of art. There is a tremendous power of healing that will come from this. I too have scars from surgeries that have been challenging to heal from… but the surgeries were redemptive, and improved my life in many ways. I've had surgeries from childhood and adulthood on my hips and surgery on my breasts to reduce them. If you'd like to hear my story and God could use your project to bring healing in someone's life, please let me know.

  7. wordhaver says:

    Love what you do, Chad! I'm struck by the contrast of what you describe with what we could call "the bad art of nakedness": which we could describe as exploitative, depersonalizing, objectifying and self-gratifying at another's expense; the fine art of nakedness on the other hand infuses grace and value, removes the facade that so often conceals true personhood, and transports us outside of ourselves in wonder at the beauty and wonder of another human being. Kudos.

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