I realise that although we are encouraged as students to be critical of the work of others, I am rarely anything but complimentary, and perhaps this is a first. However, I certainly do not intend a criticism of Lena C Emery’s work and skills as a photographer, I just declare my hesitation and reluctance as a viewer of images like hers. Female nudes are something of a ‘pet hate’ and I wanted to document my thoughts about her images, and research her work further in an attempt to understand it better.
In my Learning reflection post, I commented on the article: ‘Lena C Emery’s nudes’ in the January 2017 issue of the British Journal of Photography and my intention to consider her work further in an attempt to understand why we need more pictures of naked women in a society that (still) defines women by their bodies. I was interested in the fact that this is a female photographer taking images of other women, and, ever interested in the ‘Woman Question’, I wanted to take another look.
To me, female nudes are so inextricably linked with sexuality, sexual availability and a critique and judgement of women’s appearance that it is really hard to separate this when viewing images like this. However, although Emery’s pictures only include women with ‘good’ bodies, and they appear manipulated to remove flaws, I can see that they are presented in a way to challenge the traditional image of nudes as provocative and intended for a gratuitous male gaze.
The direct, challenging stare of the model into the camera is very different to the eyes-half-closed pouting images we are used to seeing. The pants and socks are not the usual flimsy ‘red and black’. These women seem comfortable in a naturally posed way without the contortions of the porn industry (perhaps the yoga pose is an exception!).
The artist wanted to re-look at the experience of being naked to challenge Berger’s (1972)assertion that ‘men act and women appear’… ‘men look at women’ . She says she wanted to ‘interrogate… what it means to reveal…. how the act of unclothing affects the person in the picture, as well as the viewer who observes’.
These images are certainly more ambiguous than the traditional (sexual) images of nude women. However, to me, they can still be interpreted as encouraging a sexual gaze, a valuing of the perfect body, and perhaps even a child-sex connotation could be seen to be hidden in the white socks and knickers.
Emery felt that the experience of ‘revealing’ was powerful and positive for these women. She suggests a liberty and freedom gained from removing one’s clothes: ‘Being oneself without being on display.’ I personally find this a difficult response to understand. However, Emery’s respect for her models is undoubted; she intended a celebration of shared intimacy and the ‘feminine bond’, an equal photographic production, and sensual rather than provocative images.
However, I suggest that a traditional male gaze may simply see a naked woman and experience sexual rather than sensual pleasure, legitimately given and endorsed by women.
I agree that it should be perfectly possible to celebrate women’s bodies and that we should be able to be nude, as is possible in other cultures, without a sexual connotation. But, there is a long history of women’s inequality and lack of power and this influences my reading of Emery’s images. I understand that younger women may have the benefit of other equalities, increased confidence, and less dependence on men, and therefore a different perception of these images. However, for me, the jury is still out.
Lena C Emery’s nudes, in British Journal of Photography (January 2017)
Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing. London. Penguin