Review: Fin de siècle essays on the photographic nude

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James Downs (ed.), A Carnal Medium: fin-de-siècle essays on the photographic nude. Portsmouth: Callum James Books, 2012.

A Carnal Medium. Fin de siècle essays on the photographic nude is a collection of ten articles originally published in three journals during the period 1893-1898. These articles were addressed to a specialist (though not necessarily professional) readership rather than a general one, but then – as now – there was a large crossover between amateur and professional in photography. The writers could therefore assume a degree of knowledge of techniques and processes on the part of the readership which is not generally held in the digital age of the twenty-first century.

The articles all address the problems – both practical and ethical – presented by photographing the nude figure, but taken together they also generate a discussion on the role of the nude in photography and on the relationship of photography to painting. While this is mainly general, it also includes one photographer’s replies to specific points raised in an article by a fellow photographer to create an interesting public dialogue.

The selected articles are presented chronologically (the only order which makes any sense given the responsive element in some of them), beginning with Joseph Gleeson White’s ‘The Nude in Photography with Some Studies Taken in the Open Air’ (The Studio Vol. 1, No.3, 15 June 1893).

White’s starting point is the belief that the ‘superlative beauty of the human form [is] one of the chief elements in the classical ideal of art’ (p.35) but that while this is acceptable in certain Biblical stories or pagan legends it is ‘forbidden to depict contemporary humanity seen the way that, as a matter of fact, it is rarely seen by contemporaries’. In other words, a photograph of a nude figure in a Biblical or classical scene is fine; a photograph of a nude presented simply as a nude is not. This, of course, creates a problem for the photographer who, unlike the painter, is restricted to depicting only what is in front of the camera lens. Similarly White argues that photographing an undraped figure in a landscape setting is perfectly acceptable but photographing that same undraped figure in the studio is not. White’s rationale here is that the human form harmonises with nature but in the studio it is ‘out of accord with its surroundings, unrelated and artificial’ (p.36).

While this is undoubtedly true, there is possibly another reason for rejecting studio work that White was not free to state: Alison Smith argues that the Victorian ‘concept of “separate spheres” [i.e. male: public; female: private] and its adjunct, the double standard, helped shaped perceptions of the private studio as a venue for illicit sexual activity . . . With modelling and prostitution construed as interchangeable activities, both requiring encounters in private, enclosed spaces, it is not difficult to understand why the studio was equated with the brothel’ (Smith 1996, p.27). These connections, which could not be openly admitted even in the ‘naughty nineties’, explain both the unease which runs through all the essays in this collection, and the efforts made by the photographers to dissociate their work from any hint of the sexual.

Interestingly, White sees all photographs of nudes as studies or ‘checks of reference . . . working drawings’ for artists, even going so far as to describe the camera as ‘the artists’ latest ally’ (p.38). While this may seem merely a denigration of photography, it links White’s arguments about the nude to the contemporary wider-ranging discussions about the nature of photography, crucially aligning photography with the artist, rather than the mechanic or craftsman. He is also clear about the limitations of this new ally of art, including the photograph’s ‘crowd of facts set down with no intelligent selection’ (p.38), a criticism which had also been made of the Impressionist painters who sought to paint exactly what they saw in front of them without change or omission.

White’s first article is poised on three dichotomies – the nude as Biblical or classical but not contemporary; the nude acceptable in landscape but not in the studio; photographs of the nude acceptable as studies but not as art works in their own right – setting up a dialectic which continues both in his other articles included in this volume and in and between the articles by other photographers.

In his second article, ‘On Photographing the Nude – I’ (The Photogram, Vol. 1, No.3, March 1894) White emphasises the beauty of the human form as a vital component in the ‘classical ideal of art’ (p.35) as a starting point of a general discussion on the morality of nude photography. This is clearly symptomatic of the anxiety about depicting the nude in art, which itself may be an expression of what Alison Smith calls an ‘inherited unease over the body’ itself (Smith 1996, p.16). Caution prevails and while suggesting that the study if the living model is so important to art it should be freely discussed and illustrated in a technical journal he acknowledges that this may ‘shock needlessly the propriety of a large number [of people]’ and is therefore best avoided.

The final point addressed in this article concerns the functions of photographs, in addition to generating the pure aesthetic pleasure experience by those who believe that the ‘highest beauty is to be found in a perfectly proportioned human figure’ (p.49). The two identified are purely practical: first, nude photographs make study of the figure available to artists and craftsmen unable to attend life classes, and, secondly, they can act as accurate records of the position adopted by a model in a life class, showing even the fall of light and shadow, so that the position can be resumed precisely following rest breaks.

This paper is in effect a preamble to White’s next paper ‘On Photographing the Nude II’ (The Photogram Vol. 1, No.4, April 1894) which, although it deals more with subjects, can’t leave morality alone, noting that nude photography is a men-only affair: ‘it is obvious that one sex is shut out by social convention, and the most enthusiastic student of ‘the life’ could not wish that it were different’ (p.54). This moves into a consideration of subjects, with White suggesting a series of famous statues with models adopting the same poses to ‘present the bare record of unselected facts set against the selected and idealized nature’ of classical art. Two other suggestions follow: a series of models places in architectural spaces such as spandrels, and another of figures leaping into the air. All these suggestions place photography at the service of art, which is an odd argument for a photographer to advance, especially as White then limits the usefulness of photography even within that sphere by arguing against the idea that ‘any number of photograms shall improve the real artist in his art’ (p.57).

‘On Photographing the Nude III’ (The Photogram Vol. I No. 5, May 1894) begins with a general discussion of the honest and not-so-honest ways in which photography can be used as an aid to artists but then picks up the concerns of White’s previous papers, adding some detail but no new arguments. Although there is some discussion of specific photographs this is much less detailed than one could wish and some illustrations lack any comment altogether, giving a curiously unsatisfying effect to this paper.

So far White has given his attention to the adult nude, but in ‘On Photographing the Nude IV’ (The Photogram Vol. 1, No.6, June 1894) he turns his attention to photographs of nude children, noting that although morally perfectly acceptable babies are most commonly depicted ‘at an age at which [their] most delicate beauty has not been realized’ (p.74) but the age at which it is as close to ideal perfection as possible (about three years old) is the age at which Mrs Grundy insists on clothing them. It was clearly a hard life being a photographer in the 1890s. As the editor comments in a footnote, this is the area where attitudes have changed dramatically from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, but it seems to me that White’s comments must evaluated in the context of his times, not ours.

White’s final paper to be included in this volume, ‘The Nude in Photography’, was originally published in The Photographic Times (XXIX, No.5, May 1897). While this does not break new ground, its treatment of the concerns raised in White’s other papers is less ponderous, more condensed and more effective, not least because his prose style has improved and here includes a number of felicitous expressions: ‘to the prude most things are rude’ (p.88) for example, not only makes his point neatly but wittily carries echoes of the Biblical expression ‘to the pure all things are pure’ (Titus 1:15). Overall this paper simply reads better than the others and it would be interesting to know if the readership of The Photographic Times differed significantly from that of The Photogram, or if the improvement is due to the three year time lapse between these papers and the fact that the arguments had been previously rehearsed.

This paper is also more detailed in its consideration of technical problems, identifying photography as an art of the real, not the ideal. The photographer can thus only record what is in front of the camera in all its imperfections, unlike the painter who can ‘select the beauty of a dozen models to combine in one perfect figure’ (p.87). Furthermore, the photographer must do without colour, and has not the three-dimensionality of sculpture to compensate for this lack. These limitations, together with the moral unease generated by nude photography reinforce White’s previous conclusion that while nude photography is valuable as a study resource for artists or other photographers, nude photographs are not fitted as pictures in their own right.

White’s share of this volume is by far the most substantial (seventy-two pages, as against the thirty pages enjoyed by all the other contributors combined), making it initially seem very unbalanced. However, the issues raised by White prompted the responses by the other contributors (whether or not this is explicitly noted), and being responses they need not cover the original points with the same thoroughness, freeing up space for more detailed discussion of actual photographs. For example, White’s comments on finding sufficiently beautiful models (p.68. ‘On Photographing the Nude III’) are expanded by Robert H. Hobart Cust in ‘Photographic Studies II’ (The Photogram Vol. 4, No.42, June 1897) prompting a direct response by James A. Rooth in ‘The Nude’, The Photogram Vol. 5, No 54 June 1898). In that same paper Rooth similarly responds to White’s arguments about the compatibility of the undraped figure with landscape by direct reference to the relationship of figure to background in his photograph, ‘At Twilight’ (pp.129-130. James A. Rooth, ‘The Nude’, The Photogram Vol. 5, No 54 June 1898).

Taken together the articles in this volume reveal to readers in the twenty-first century both the aesthetic concerns and the moral unease surrounding nude photography felt by the public in the 1890s. What makes this volume particularly valuable is James Downs’ ‘Introduction’ which traces some of the technical developments in late nineteenth-century photography which had important aesthetic consequences (faster film giving shorter exposure times, for example) and relates photography to its artistic and cultural context.

The connection with the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring is particularly interesting, given the insistence of White et al. on nude photographs as studies for artists rather than as art works in their own right. This seems to cut against the Linked Ring whose raison d’être was to bring together ‘those who are interested in the highest form of Art of which photography is capable . . . for the formation of a sociable coterie of picture-loving, as separate from purely scientific or practical, craftsmen’ (Harker 1979, ix). The conflict is more apparent than real, however, for White’s insistence on photography purely as handmaid to art removes it from the realm of the scientific, but it would have been helpful for this to have been emphasised in the ‘Introduction’ as a necessary stage in a process which very soon afterwards would see photography treated as an art form.

Other criticisms could be made: a short glossary giving details of techniques and processes and their effect on the final image would have been useful, even though the articles are not themselves very technical. The term ‘photogram’ for example, normally refers to a camera-less photographic technique but here is used in its now-obsolete sense of a photograph which is particularly artistic. The illustrations which are an integral part of the articles are not in fact terribly well integrated and it would have been helpful to have had these numbered and identified by such in the text. And, of course, a larger format with higher quality illustrations would have been a boon – but one which the realities of publishing and bookselling make impossible.

Never mind the criticisms, though: this is a slender collection of articles which punches above its weight in opening up the history of photography to the twenty-first century.

Helen Sutherland, November 2015 

WORKS CITED

Harker, M. (1979)The Linked Ring. The Secession Movement in Photography in Britain, 1892-1910. London: Heinemann.

Smith, A. (1996) The Victorian Nude. Sexuality, morality and art. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

 

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