We’re surprised by nudes in photo books?

(Note: The links in this piece lead to art photography sites/art criticism, many of which contain nude images.)

Earlier this year, I backed two projects by photographer Michael Stokes — Always Loyal and Exhibition. Both works are photobooks, one collecting images of injured veterans while the other focuses on erotic male photography. While the works are very much tied in with his earlier work, which has strong queer themes, plenty of straight people enjoy his photography as well, because it’s beautiful, and, well, it’s also incredibly hot. Unsurprisingly, as a fine art photographer, Stoke photographs many of his subjects in the nude, often exposing their bodies in very vulnerable, striking ways — and sometimes artfully using props to leave many things to the imagination of the viewer.

Images of the naked form in art are a tradition that dates back centuries. Japanese woodcuts, Roman art, the Cerne Abbas giant, Native Americans performing traditional dance in the nude — and possibly being a driving force behind the resurgence of the nude in Renaissance art. Where there’s art, there are naked bodies, in other words, and there always have been, in various forms. The human form is an incredible piece of art in itself, and it provides fertile ground for the imagination when it comes to ways to explore the interactions between body and identity, society, and more — see, for example, the contentious relationship modern culture has with the Adipositivity Project, because fat people are not supposed to be proud of their bodies, are not supposed to pose nude for photographers, are not supposed to be included in art.

We acknowledge the everpresent role of the nude in art. And it’s entirely reasonable to warn people when they’re about to encounter nudes (as above) if they’re, for example, in a work setting and they don’t want to open a link to a site featuring nue photography for fear it might attract unwanted attention or be considered inappropriate for the workplace. Nudes are not in and of themselves inappropriate, but in some settings they’re best left unviewed; an elementary school teacher probably shouldn’t be pulling up a link to striking BDSM photography in front of a class by accident.

But there is a fundamental assumption about art of any form: It’s entirely possible that it will include nude people. Especially when we’re talking art books, particularly when we’re talking books of a certain flavour. If an art book was called Birds! or Flowers of the Tropics! I’d be somewhat surprised to encounter a nude, although it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility. Maybe Birds! is actually a collection of sex worker photography (of, by, or both!), or Flowers of the Tropics! features various nude people posing in lush floral landscapes. That would probably be obvious from the cover, though. I certainly wouldn’t think to flip through the book to check for nudes before handing it to someone and saying ‘hey, check out these sweet bird photographs.’

I don’t expect a warning for nudes at the door of a museum or art exhibition, nor do I expect one on an art book. I accept that nudes are probably present and I can make my own decisions about whether I wish to proceed. Usually I do, because I like art, and I have a soft spot for artistic nudes, because I really love the human body. I especially love projects featuring bodies and groups of people who tend to get pushed aside in art, like disabled people (hence my interest in Always Loyal), like fat people, like sex workers (when treated in an artistic way, not a gawking and exploitative one), like the BDSM community, like people of colour. Like people reclaiming their bodies — as for example people showing images of themselves after delivering babies, to talk about what post-partum bodies really look like.

Yet, as Stokes’ project grew larger, he was faced with an interesting conundrum. Many people flocked to back the project, drawn by media attention, and they were put off by some things. They didn’t realise that much of his work features gay and queer themes, and thus were made uncomfortable when encountering erotic photography of the male form. They don’t think of disabled people as sexual beings, and felt uncomfortable with nude images of disabled veterans, especially since some were highly eroticised — like the man on the cover of Always Loyal, depicted in a Christ-like pose, grasping ropes. It’s an amazing image, and well-suited to the themes explored in the text, but it make Stokes’ backers uncomfortable enough that he offered an alternate cover featuring a less ‘controversial’ image from inside the book (‘Taylor With Ropes’ was still featured inside, just not on the cover).

I can certainly understand the rationale behind his artistic decision, and the move to turn ‘Taylor With Ropes’ into a Kickstarter-only cover option for people who supported the project. And I appreciated his candor about the issue, how he noted and freely admitted that he was surprised by the controversy but wanted to work to accommodate people interested in backing the project. But it also made me rather sad, as we live in a prudish era where people are uncomfortable with nudes, and they are especially uncomfortable with male nudes, even more so when they are disabled men. Instead of being a powerful statement about eroticism and disability, our complex relationship with religion, the image became a ‘controversy.’

The fact that people are surprised by the presence of nudes in art is troubling, and the upset over the cover had a rather marginalising effect. Your body is so taboo, so unsettling, that it cannot face out on the cover of an art photography book.

Image: Laurie Nude, tallacman1, Flickr