The human form in nature’s landscape

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 02:46 PM

“Comparative Figures:  Photographs by Bill McAllister and Sam Wang,” Through This Lens Gallery, 303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through Nov. 9.

The female nude in art elicits all sorts of responses.  On one hand the classical nude, fashioned in marble, is a work of art -- no question.  On the other hand, however, the nude in a photograph takes on the feel of reality. 

It is not the artist’s fault; the problem lies in our understanding of photography.  For too long we believed the only reliable witness to the truth was the photograph and so a nude model and a clothed photographer invite thoughts of something forbidden. Now we know the photograph can certainly be a record of what the artist sees, but it also can be manipulated by the artist to make a work of art which may or may not have any relationship to reality.  

With that said, there is within the study of art a philosophy about pictures of females who wear no clothes.  According to Kenneth Clark, (Clark, K. “A Study in Ideal Form,” 1956.), to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, to be vulnerable and embarrassed; to be nude is the body re-formed into a balanced, confident and prosperous form.  The nude then is not the subject of art but a form of art.  This exhibition is about the nude as a form which fits into nature because it is also nature.  These models have been set into the land, not for prurient purposes, but to show just how much the human body is part of the natural world.

Bill McAllister and Sam Wang are professional photographers, college professors and personal friends and when they approached Roylee Duvall, director of Through This Lens gallery, about a dual show of nudes in the landscape, he agreed immediately.  The exhibition includes 39 images by the two men working at the same time.  In fact, there are several pictures by Wang of McAllister shooting, and then there is the final photograph. 

Interestingly, the different points of view make the final image totally different.  The work of the two artists is similar and side-by-side enlarges and enlightens their theme of the nude against the backdrop of the natural world.  There is always, however, the artist’s particular technique and viewpoint behind every picture.  The photographer is never just an extension of the objective camera; the artist is the camera with all the ideas and particularities of the human mind.

Wang likes to use an old-fashioned hand-crafted process print which includes as he wrote, “a good platinum, or especially a platinum/cyanotype, casein.”  On the other hand, McAllister positions himself so the viewer gets several viewpoints at once or a view from an unusual vantage point. He writes he uses “different cameras and processes ranging from ultra large format at 20 x 24 inch Polaroid, infrared, homemade and underwater cameras.”   Both artists tell the spectator as much about their technique as they do about their theme. 

It should be obvious to the most casual viewer these are photographs about the study of the natural form of the female body in nature; eroticism is neither the goal nor the intent.  The soft rounded curves of the female nude stand in opposition to the sharp craggy forms of a rocky projection or they blend into a background of soft grass and worn down edges. 

The photographers have positioned their models crouching, stretching and relaxing against rock crevices, fallen trees and in and around water.  The female nude is a series of soft shapes which either merge with the undulations of the landscape and worn down rock formations or stand in opposition to the straight edges and hard surfaces of broken tree trunks or pointed stone. 

In Wang’s “As Water Rushed By,” the model suns herself on a flat rock that projects into a rushing stream of water.  The pale skin of her body is at ease against the grey stones and swirling water even as it is in marked contrast. In “Tallulah” the light which reflects her skin stands out against the dark surrounding boulders but is both at one and contrasts with the natural elements.  In McAllister’s “Hands on Rock” the model crouches in a rocky crevice; the photographer has not made the adjustments for how the viewer sees the image, so we see her hands as the camera does, magnified and abnormally large.  In another of McAllister’s photographs, “Dive,” the model makes a perfect cut into the water and somehow there she is after she has broken through the surface.

Whenever I visit the gallery Duvall and I sit and philosophize about art in general and photography specifically.  This day we talked about pictures of women without clothes. Duvall said using the nude in a natural backdrop demonstrates how basic this form is and the challenging thing is to set up comparisons between the human body and nature’s structures.  In some of these photographs the rocky formations seem to go back millions of years and the human form is fragile in their shadows.  We also agreed the same ideas could not be achieved if the model was clothed.  Clothing brings all sorts of associations which have nothing to do with nature; in fact, it would be a total disjuncture. 

We talked about the male nude in a similar photographic theme and decided there is still too much baggage connected to the male nude image, especially frontal views.  Drawing from the male nude model is an important part of any good art education, but the images from such studies are so connected to homoeroticism they appeal only to a select audience.

These models are nude, not naked.  They are forms within the classical genre of landscape.  Together, however, the traditional nude and the traditional landscape have become creations of fantasy.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.