“Any photograph can be improved if you just add a naked woman to it.” The slightly eccentric Assembly Line Portrait Photographer says. “A car, a cityscape, anything will look better with a naked woman added.”
“Hmm.” I say as I try to think of something clever to say. Not too far away one of the Passers, a slightly round and not exactly Cover Girl material woman, is setting up. She overhears the Photographer and yells in our direction.
“It wouldn’t be improved with a naked picture of me.” She says without looking our way.
Nudity has always been a part of portraiture. There is a whole subset of the industry that deals with Boudoir Portraits, which are mostly women wearing sexy outfits in provocative poses. This can be anything from The Swimsuit Issue to Playboy, but it seldom goes much beyond that. The idea is to be sexy, not sexual.
Anne Geddes and her weird images of naked babies harken back to the glory days of Assembly Line Portraits when everyone had a portrait taken laying naked on a white blanket. One of my own baby pictures is a peek-a-boo shot with a blanket over my head. It’s a shot I still take from time to time, though I seldom see enough babies to do much of anything. When I first started taking portrait we were told not to do naked baby shots, as they now fell under the Child Pornography laws. From time to time there used to be stories of men being arrested for processing pictures of their children in the bathtub.
My favorite semi-nude shot of babies was called The Tub Shot. This is another old standby in which a baby is striped to the waist and sit in a washtub. It’s a dead cute shot and an almost guaranteed seller. We used an zink washtub, people now a days use a slightly more kid friendly styrofoam tub. I was in the Big Box store and a woman came up with a baby. I asked if she would like to do the Tub Shot and she said sure. So I said take the top off while I setup the shot. The Mom proceeded to unbutton her blouse. No, Mom, I said, The Baby’s top.
Fine Art photography books often have portraits of naked pregnant women. These can be beautiful portraits and they can be cute when a small child reaches out to touch the naked belly. But in the real world, every pregnant woman I have ever photographed wants to hide her belly, not feature it in the portrait. When I have tried to do cute child and belly shots the Moms have been pissed off because they weren’t the star of the portrait, their belly was. It is also a sad fact of life that pregnant woman almost never buy portraits. They want to wait till the baby comes and take a portrait of the new family.
The debate also rages on whether or not nude photos of entire families, or just the young children, should be viewed as child porn or just a modern interpretation of the classical nude. Jock Sturges images of nude families are almost documentary in nature and feature near expressionless people standing around naked. There is seldom any effort to use controlled lighting and the people often appear to be uncomfortable with the whole process. David Hamilton gives his nudes a more impressionist feel, but they are also not really portraits.
There are stories of Assembly Line Portrait Photographers getting fired for taking nude portraits while at a Shoot. This is clearly the kind of work you want to do on the side, not in the Studio. But some photographers, are, well, idiots. One fellow was in his early twenties and he was taking school portraits. He couldn’t help himself and flirted with the school girls. This lead him to a whole world of trouble which he may still be dealing with to this day. Just because girls dress like party girls doesn’t mean they want to party with you-and even if they do, don’t. Just don’t.
A lot of beautiful women wander though my Studio. Some are young and some are not so young. I have had women offer me their phone numbers, but I have not taken any of them. Beautiful people are often easy enough to take portraits of, but they know they are beautiful, and they likely have even better portraits at home. I now shoot mostly Church Directories and I am often shocked by the clothes people wear. I like seeing a bit of leg and cleavage as much as the next man, but this is a portrait other people in the Church are going to see. I know many young people like to dress provocatively, but it still seems a little odd when they walk in looking like a stand in for Lady Gaga or Rihanna.
Leonard Nimoy recently announced that he was giving up acting and that he would be spending more time takng nude portraits of large women. Anne Leibovitz took portraits of a nude John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono. Herb Ritts took that amazing image of super models Stephanie, Cindy, Christy, Tatjana, and Naomi. As the old saying goes, yes. . . but is it art?
As an Assembly Line Portrait Photographer I seldom have to worry about art or nudity. One of my colleagues recently told me that he still goes to strip clubs and takes nude portraits once in a while. He talked of this side business with great animation, and yet, my reaction was: What? Are still 15 years old? Taking portraits is our business. And while I enjoy seeing a beautiful person and capturing that beauty in an image, it doesn’t really set my world on fire the way it once did. In fact, my job now is to tell people they might have a bit too much showing, not asking them to take it off, take it all off.
I did have a man asked me if I took naked portraits once while I was working in a Big Box store. He wanted some cheap naked portraits of his girls. He whipped out some samples of what he wanted to give me an idea. These were pictures of some of the most unattractive women I have ever seen in the most unflattering poses possible. There is a skill in taking nude portraits, and these images showed a complete lack of that skill, even though they were clearly studio portraits with correct lighting and sets. I told the man that, no, I didn’t do portraits like that. The stereo typical pimp strutted off and I did my best to put his girls out of my mind.