Text and pictures by Jeff Greer.
I came to photograph nudes like I came to photography, out of curiosity and on a bit of a whim. My initial nudes were done during workshops and classes. While these were acceptable on some level, just about all seemed to miss the mark. They did not feel quite right. Some of the failing was due to technique as each genre has its own set of skills to learn and I had yet to master those for nudes. Yet, something else was also lacking.
One year my plans for attending a nude photography workshop fell through. As a result, I started to work with local models. This meant thinking about the photographs more than I had before. A workshop or class can be a crutch – it is easy to rely on the structure and rules of the workshop rather than bring your own approach to the subject. Now that I was working with models on my own, I had several questions to address. Where would I photograph? How will the location work with the model? How do I want the photos to look or feel? In short, what I am seeking in doing all of this?
I did not have all the answers at first. For me, photography is a journey. Working with a type of subject evolves over time. I learn from the photographs. I see connections and understand nuances. My view of the work and the world deepens.
I started with a simple theme: nudes in nature. Even though this had been done before (as has most everything else in photography and art), it worked for me and served as a place to begin. My first photographs were better than my workshop work yet they still seemed obvious. The photos lacked a depth to them. However, the work was interesting enough that I continued. Each model and location was different. Some worked better than others. Eventually several of these photos stood out. They had good composition, shapes and lines. The best of these also had some other level to them, something not easily put into words. An element of ambiguity, a question that the viewer could answer in more than one way.
I was also finding that I did not want the model to pose. I simply wanted them to be. I wanted them to feel safe and at ease so they could bring themselves completely to the moment and hopefully achieve a new level of work.
After years of working with nudes, I have come to understand my affinity for them: They are elemental. They remind us that we are both human and animal. We are of this world and in so being, we are luminous.
I am amazed how a series of mechanical, almost pragmatic steps can lead to a work of art. For my nudes, it all seems a series of trivial steps at times: scouting locations, contacting models, selecting camera gear, traipsing to a place, working shutter and aperture. Improbable as it seems, everything comes together at times: where I stand, where the light falls, what the model becomes in body and expression, and when I react.
The creek-side photo was not a pre-visualized image. I rarely have those. I am not one for arranging an image; I prefer to work with what is found. This particular setting seemed good for a photo, nothing more. Only later would I see the layers of the image, with the model between flora and water. We tried the photo two ways, first without sand. Then she rolled onto her back, skin and sand meeting. This was the last piece the photo needed; she was now connected to the earth.
A number of my photos are unexpected. I like to go with the flow. I long ago realized what happens that day is better than all my detailed plans. However, the photo of the model in the late evening sunlight was especially unexpected. It was taken in a setting that was not on my mental list from when I scouted the location; the photo is lit by dappled sunlight, something I often avoid due to the difficulty of dealing with the range of light; and the model had never been photographed bald before and was not certain she was going to do so when we started. I view models as collaborators and treat them respectfully. I like to think in this case, doing so enabled the model to work without her wig, bringing an elemental feeling to the photo. The sunlight and shadows caught my attention. She did all the rest.
Like many artists, I borrow ideas from others. I had seen photos involving raffia and was interested in using it but had little idea how. When I worked with the model on the boulder, I brought along an ample supply. My idea of draping it was not sophisticated but as the model started to move, so did the raffia. Occasionally she would adjust it and it would morph into interesting shapes. Near the end of the series of photos, she tied several strands around her head as a blindfold, resulting in an image that can be read in diverse ways, some of which I am comfortable with and others which I am not. This ambiguity, however, is one of the reasons I like the image. Like literature, this photo can be read as metaphor.
I generally tend towards settings that are organic at least in feel, if not actuality. While browsing a craft store, I came across a small wreath of twigs and felt it could be used in an interesting manner in a photo. I brought this along with other organic items when I worked with a model in a studio setting. I used a section of fabric as a backdrop, one that had enough pattern and a proper color to suggest a dimly lit forest. All that was left was to light the model wearing the wreath. Since we worked indoors, I tethered my camera to a laptop so we could periodically review the photos. Once the model and I saw the first few images, we knew we had something interesting and kept working so the model could add nuances from one photo to the next until we felt we had done our best.
Like a lot of my work in the genre, the photos come back to the elemental. They can speak to different tangents but they all have jettisoned the trappings of modern life. There are no clothes or trendy hair to date the image and settings are used to evoke an ‘anytime’ instead of a style or period. They are intended to reach that animal core deeply rooted in our brains over countless generations. In so doing, hopefully they speak a universal wordless language to us all.