THEY CALL IT ‘PORN’; I CALL IT ‘ART’

‘So, you want to be a porn photographer? Well, your parents must be proud…’

‘You’ll find a model, don’t worry about it… it won’t be me -sorry-, but there’s someone out there for you’

 

These are the words I hear most often when I tell people I am interested in fine art nude photography as part of my work. Due to the current societal view on nudity as a whole, the concept and practice of nude photography is still deemed highly inappropriate by communities on a transcultural level, often placed on the same group as pornographic media. This, in turn, leads to many photographers rejecting the practice, even in more accepting communities.

 

But how do we determine the difference between pornography and fine art nude photography? Both platforms maintain aspects of erotic realism in their work, but their fabricators, audiences and intentions are crucially different. I am sure we all know the porn industry to varying degrees, and many of us can imagine what fine art nude photography entails, but for the purposes of the article, I will provide a definition of both media.

 

Pornography is defined as ‘the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement’ (Merriam-Webster), with explicit intention to stimulate sexual arousal in the viewer as a form of entertainment. Because of this, pornography is characterised by its graphic depiction of subjects engaged in sexual practices, with little attention to the mise-en-scene and its surrounding components.

 

While there is no precise, official definition for fine art nude photography at this current time, the practice is characterised by its ability to shift between intentions with ease. Nude photography can be recognised as ‘pornographic (Braquehais), documentary (Bellocq), psychological (Brandt), distorted (Kertesz), portrait (Lindberg), fashion (Newton), biomorphic (Lategan) and the art nude’ (Scott, 2013:143), all at once. This status of uncertainty in definition gives fine art nude photograph ways to become a malleable practice, where the artist is able to determine the level of eroticism in their work.

 

Taking this information into account, we can determine the similarities and differences between these mediums. Although pornography is often regarded “an art” by its audience, social conventions have long regarded the industry as unnecessarily graphic, degrading, and aesthetically displeasing. In fact, distinguished writer Eugene Mirabelli makes his views on pornography clear when he claims that this type of work ‘looks trashy’ as ‘there is no subtlety in the images: they are plain, unshadowed and naively detailed… there is an unplanned stupidity in the figures, a flat gracelessness which never hopes to rise to art’ (Mirabelli 1985:197).

 

These somewhat harsh words echo the majority of society, even consumers of pornography. Although many of us have been unable to escape the grasp of pornography on the younger generations’ ideas of fun and entertainment (I recall a particular incident in which a high school friend played a porn video while at the school library…), I think it’s safe to say that the audience is not there for the aesthetic value of the images!

 

In contrast, it is important to understand that while for most of the 19th century, darreguean portrait photography ‘aroused a sharper erotic response than that provoked by a similar painting’ (Mirabelli 1985:201), many modern photographers prioritise the aesthetic and emotional aspects of each piece, and view erotic stimulation as secondary (Clark 1972). Nude photography (and fine art nude, at that) does not intend to provoke sexual arousal on its audience but it actually aims to create an unusual type of innocence, by relying on physical distortion and incorporating props (eg. Curtains, lamps, globes) as a way to shelter the body from complete exposure. Similar to sculptures and paintings by Michaelangelo, Donatello and Titian, the essence of nudity in these works stems from an appreciation of the human body from aesthetic, intellectual and – sometimes, even – spiritual aspects.

 

With the increasing usage of social media to share intimate details of our lives, apps like Tumblr, Discord and Instagram, these platforms become a good representation of the wider social context in regard to society’s perception of both pornography and nude photography. Finding accounts that feature hundreds of images of nude art photographers and models is much easier than finding pornography on these platforms. This is because pornography is still illegal in most societies, so any attempts to share sexually explicit images on social media are restricted by the community guidelines of each platform. On the other hand, as photographers of nude subjects are aware of these guidelines, their work is censored at the time of production, to avoid being taken down.

 

This is not to say that nude photography is readily accepted by social networking sites; many of these images are taken down, but usually only if reported by another user. However, the key difference between pornography and nude art is that while the practice of pornography relies on the heightening of sensory and sexual arousal (leaving little to the imagination), nude photography works with subtlety in motion: both naked and covered up, all the same.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Clark, K. (1972). ‘The Naked and The Nude’, in The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton: Princeton University Press

 

Merriam-Webster [online text], Definition of Pornography.

< https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pornography >

 

Mirabelli, E. (1985). Looking and Not Looking: Pornographic and Nude Photography. New York: Grand Street

 

Scott, C. (2013). ‘The Spoken Image: Photography and Language’, found in Le Grange, A. (2013), Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. London: Focal Press

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