It's really difficult to shoot nudes and get away from sexuality. It’s sort of like saying you’re going to make an action movie and then filling it with nothing but scenes of dialog – you could hypothetically do it but why would you want to, and would it really be an action movie just because you call it one? I suppose it’s possible to shoot nudes, objectifying and abstracting the body to the point that it is not recognizable and thus harder to sexualize, but I’m not sure beyond the challenge why someone would pursue that.
I just can’t get around the notion that most nude photographers are men who are getting off on the process, and by and large producing mediocre results. There just seems to be an obvious predatory dynamic to people making nudes of other, young beautiful people. Sure the crafty, well-read photographers can art-speak their way into a dither in a gallery setting and convince someone otherwise, but I’m not fooled. Just call it what it is, sir. I’m not judging, but if you make sexually charged imagery then just admit it and we can start splitting hairs as to whether you are an artist, pornographer or both. Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the well known 20th century nude photographers made overtly sexualized (and famously controversial) photographs for his partner and benefactor Sam Wagstaff, almost on order to satisfy Wagstaff’s fetishes. Mapplethorpe knew what he was doing and didn’t shy away from it. I don’t have a problem with that as much as someone who shoots “artistic” nudes but will argue until they are blue in the face that they don’t get off on it.
I am far more trusting of straight female photographers and the nude. Double standard? Perhaps, but even if there are ulterior motives in their work they are better hidden. It seems far more honest for them to approach the subject, and the proof is in the pudding from what I’ve seen of their photographs. In their work we see models who don’t necessarily have full breasts, the "come hither" gaze and flawless skin. Sometimes we see aged women, or lord us help us - real women. We notice in their approach that the finished photograph doesn’t strip away the model’s humanity or power, that the photographer didn't condescend or objectify the person before their lens. Females seem more readily able to expand their interpretation of the nude into areas less shallow than surface beauty, which is the number one thing straight men are after, which figures.
Of course the making of the images is only half the equation. There is an audience out there who will be consuming the photographs, and they come into play as well. I did a shoot for a young man who wanted some tasteful images of his body to be made - he had obviously worked out very hard to obtain his physique. I was living in DC at the time and did the shoot in the alley behind a couple apartment buildings. This wasn’t even a nude shoot – he could have been at the beach as he was wearing gym shorts and just had his shirt off. Even so we still got a couple of jeers and whistles from folks passing by and watching from their apartment windows. Now granted, this was in the DuPont Circle area of Washington DC which, for those who don’t know is a very gay-friendly neighborhood. So perhaps that’s why a small group of people came up to us and just assumed we were a gay couple, flirting and wanting to know what we were doing later - which my wife would find amusing! Life is just sexual I suppose. Straight or gay, clothes start to come off and we get excited - I think we're hard wired that way since usually the removal of clothes indicates exciting things are on the horizon. So from this experience I have to ask – even if I am able to shoot a nude that is not of a sexual nature (which may be impossible), when I put it out into the world, what will the audience do with it? This has to be considered by any photographer willing to show his or her work. Photography is so viewer dependent that I don't see how one could ever make a large amount of nude images for public viewing and not know that a vast majority will sexualize it, even if that was not the intention of the artist. And maybe that's ok. Maybe it's ok that the public is turned on by art, regardless of how the artist feels about it.
We photograph (or create work of) that which our eyes desire. Rodin comes to mind. The Frenchman was one of the greatest sculptors of all time. I absolutely love his work, and a good bit of it is sensual and sexually charged. In private life he was a womanizer, used his fame to sleep with his young models and may have driven one of his most famous interests to madness. That aside, we can plainly now see that his sculpture and his love life were inseparable. He made his work directly from the women his eyes coveted. Maybe it's that way with all art - that the work is an expression or extension of the person. It's no news flash that if we look at a body of work from an artist we can see what it is they value and learn a bit about them. Someone who shoots a lot of nudes is probably a pretty sexually charged individual. I can accept that, but let's just call it what it is.