Male Photographers and the Female Body

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Helmut Newton – Museum fur Fotographie

This is something that has been playing in my mind for a while, but I really came to reflect on it when I visited the Museum Fur Fotographie, in Berlin. The museum itself is a nice visit – it mainly displays the works of the German photographer Helmut Newton, who admittedly I had never heard of, but also temporary exhibitions of similar artists. It is not too large to be overwhelming, and not too expensive to support the world of art.

But, as I looked at the provocative photographs on display, mostly depicting women in fetishised outfits and poses, it reminded me of so many examples of photographers’ work. And echoed the centuries of paintings of women in various forms of undress. This is not to belittle the work – it was all beautifully orchestrated, and believe me I love provocative art. But the main idea I took away from my visit is how the female body is used in art.

To see women standing tall in nothing but heels is not uncommon. To see them bound up and gagged is not uncommon. To see them staring alluringly at the camera, enticing the viewer in, is not uncommon. There are many reasons why this type of art should exist. The female body for eras has been controlled and hidden away by men. Even today, girls in school are told off if their outfits make male staff “uncomfortable”. It is advised women should stick to jeans, because things such as skirts are easier for rapists to tear off. We are told men don’t like too much make up, but we shouldn’t go fully natural. We should show off our legs, but be judged if our skirt is too short. We must be never be caught dead with body hair. And our sexuality is in a constant state of contradiction: we must be virginal but not prude. I have seen countless teen films in which the girl is a virgin but also immediately ready to have sex with the male protagonist. Men who sleep around are studs, women who do are sluts. But if we refuse we’re prudes, or bitches, or still get called sluts.

So, to see photographs of women embracing their sexuality and the power of their bodies is welcome. The female form is beautiful, it essentially is art. And the artists who choose to capture this onto photographs are needed. Whether it’s a self-portrait or done by another – art constantly challenges societal norms. To display women either fully naked or dressed in a way that’s meant to seduce – bring it on. People like sex, and women are people.

But (because of course there is a but), sometimes seeing work displaying the female body can leave me feeling a little uncomfortable. Not because of seeing another woman naked, please, but because I know, such as in the case of Helmut Newton, the photographer is often male.

Is this a bad thing? Not always, if a man is interested in how the female body and its involvement in art is empowering, then their work should be praised. If a man is able to see beyond the physical female body, and bring out the power it has, credit to them. But do all of these artists see beyond the physical body? If all I see in a male photographer’s life’s work is his constant use of pretty, young, female models, I’m reminded of Hugh Hefner who claimed to help the sexual revolution, but only by objectifying women for decades. I found some of Newton’s work great – when women stood tall with their pubes on full display, I felt like the model felt empowered to do so. I even thought some of his work questioned the objectification of women: images of women painting each others nipples to be a brighter pink, or glamorously dressed up in out of context settings, all seemed to imply there is a ridiculous standard set for women. And I don’t mean to only criticise Newton’s work, but it is fresh in my mind. His images of women in different BDSM poses also grabbed me: it is both fun to see, but also seeing the women in submissive poses, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all just the work of the man behind the camera wanting to control women to do what he wanted.

There was also a temporary exhibition of the surrealist work of Guy Bourdin. What I focused upon were his images of random female legs in different settings. I wondered what his ideas behind the images were, because for me it made me think of how women could easily be abducted in these settings. Was that his intention? Or did he want to use female legs because of their suggestive allure? I loved those images because of how they disturbed me, but again I wondered at the male photographer’s intention of using the female body as the subject.

imageGuy Bourdin

The wonderfully thing about art is that it is open to everyone’s interpretation, and sometimes you can have multiple interpretations of the same thing. If the art is good, then shouldn’t it make us question the artist, the art, society, and everything involved? I certainly left the museum with all these thoughts needing to be voiced.

I would never call for less of the female body in art, it should always be used. It is as beautiful, provocative, alluring, and sensitive as art should be. So I suppose I am ending this piece with a call for more male nudity in photography (winky face). Robert Mapplethorpe certainly used it to provoke, and captured the underground gay BDSM scene. But he also was criticised for exploiting the back male nude. As much as I love Mapplethorpe, again a photographer used a type of body that was not their own, and one that has been subject to constant exploitation.

Just a final thought – these images of the female body curated by male photographers seem to always depict women as glamourised and fetishised. Again, not necesarrily a bad thing. But if a male artist wishes to use the female body so prominently in his work, what about the less seductive parts of being a woman? Rupi Kaur was blasted for featuring her period blood in a self-portrait, and who can forget Tracey Emin’s My Bedfilled with condoms and menstruation, sex and shame. These are just as much about being a woman, or at least a cis woman, as it is to wear (or not wear) a bra.

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Rupi Kaur

Is self-portraiture the way forward? Not necessarily, it is one form of art that some take, but it doesn’t mean that photographers can’t use others. Is a call needed for sensitivity? Or would that take away the shocking power of art making a statement? As with art, this article won’t finish with a definite answer. I have no clear preference. It is just something to perhaps bear in mind.

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