Photo Essay

Paid to See All

When a woman hires me to photograph her nude, the dynamics are delicate.

By Alex Waterhouse-Hayward 22 Mar 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The phone rings. A woman wants her portrait. I refer her to a Sears Portrait Studio. As a magazine photographer I haven't the inclination to offer portrait packages. To make money in the actor head shot business one needs to do a lot of it and be tied to the studio.

But there is an edge to her voice and she insists, "I need . . . different photos."

I know what she wants. I may wait for her to blurt it out. If the silence is uncomfortable, I help, "You want to document your body for posterity."  There is always an emphatic, "Yes!"

While I cannot compete in price with Sears, there are no established price standards for what we photographers call fine art b+w figure photography. Such work can be profitable. For one thing fine art figure photography must not be confused with its poorer relation: boudoir photography. The latter relies on such props as wine glasses, lacy underwear and plush love seats in gaudy colours. The women are semi nude and there is a very careful hiding of the details. Boudoir photography is what a woman thinks a man wants to see.

Look, don't touch

Still, if I were to say there is no sexual interplay in figure photography, that would not be honest. As I recently wrote for Ripe Magazine: "Elliott Erwitt, on a Life Magazine assignment to photograph an open-heart operation decided to watch a day before the shoot. As soon as the patient was opened up Erwitt promptly fainted. The surgeon had second thoughts in allowing Erwitt back but Erwitt asserted, "I'll be fine tomorrow, my camera will be my barrier." And so it was.

"And so it is with nude photography. If your subjects trust you, like patients with their doctor, they'll allow you to peek into their soul. . . . I can feel sexual tension when I photograph my nude subjects. I think this tension helps in the taking of the photographs. I allow it to remain. Touch could make it crumble."

In fine art figure photography the woman wants to please herself. She wants to see her body as it is or may hope the photographer can make it the way it should be, with careful lighting or with the nip and tuck of that digital scalpel, Photoshop.

In the 20 years that I have occasionally dealt with women in this kind of photography I have found out that while they are brutally critical on how they perceive their body they paradoxically accept it as it is and feel a comfort with it that few men do when they face my camera undraped. As an example, when one subject, a curvaceous blond emerged from the changing area of my studio I wasn't prepared to see the scars she had chosen not to warn me about. She had a large appendectomy scar, a c-section scar and was missing a breast. Guided by the confidence she had with her body I took some of the best figure photographs of my life.

Recording a changing terrain

These calls for "different" photographs have become more frequent in the last few years. It would seem that no justification or reason has to be put forward in a woman's mind if she wants her picture.

In previous years there were always reasons. They were varied and sometimes strange. A YMCA instructor thought her body was at its peak so she wanted to document it. Another woman was going to have open-heart surgery. She was proud of her chest and wanted photos before the operation scarred it forever. The strangest request came from a woman who was doing a college term paper on exotic dancers and wanted to find out what it felt like to pose for a mock stripper poster.

While some of these photographs may resemble body landscapes, when possible the photographs include my subject's faces. In this documentation of their body they may want to point some day in the future and say, "That was I."


Alex Waterhouse-Hayward has been a magazine photographer in Vancouver for 28 years. While he thinks the jury is out for web pages, he will not object if you Google him (don't forget the hyphen).  [Tyee]

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