Female nude
(Forgotten gems of vintage photography)
(Volume 3)

Free Chapters

Paperback: 132 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
1 edition (March 29, 2018)
Language: English
Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.3 x 8.5 inches



The beginnings of the depiction of the human body

Stone Age

The first depictions of the human body can already be seen throughout Europe, from Siberia to the Atlantic, in the so-called Stone Age. These are small figurines of the female body, the most famous of which is the so-called Venus of Villendorf. Much less-known is the fact that in addition to the Venus of Villendorf figure, more than 200 almost identical statues were discovered in the area of wider Europe.

The figures represent a standing young woman with an ample body, large abdomen, wide hips, and emphasized breasts, with splendidly distributed, full masses which are most likely a display of abundance; in short, they are a kind of symbol of fertility. But why are clothes and various items of jewelry so often displayed on these beautiful figures?

The purpose of such a representation of a female body is therefore unknown at the moment, and most likely the figures are the bearer of an unknown idea. They may be a magical device, a house goddess, or just a sewing tool. Who knows.

Stories of the first civilizations

With the development of the first states, the representation of people expands incredibly. There are various sculptures and wall paintings, which most commonly depict gods, rulers, and important people shown in different stories. But soon, the first portraits and presentations of naked men and women appear. Of course, these images are not real nudes, since they are merely simple representations of people of the lower social classes, including slaves, prisoners of war, dancers, and children who, most probably, did not wear clothes in their everyday lives.

One of the most famous paintings on which we see naked people is in the tomb of the Egyptian official Nebamun, which shows the everyday life of this noble and of the people who surrounded him.

The images of his dancers, decorated with a belt around the waist, with beautiful necklaces and diadems, are presented in an extremely dynamic, varied, and lightweight composition, which is very rarely found during that time nor in later periods. The bodies are painted in a typical Egyptian style, from the profile, and create beautiful compositions with parallel lines of hands and feet. But we should not be astonished, because the picture is probably a wonderful extract from the dance trends and choreography of the time.

DNA of modern nudes

From static to the first dynamics

The first real images of the human body which we can call nudes are observed for the first time in the Archaic period in Greece, more precisely about 600 BC. On these first, almost standard statues called Kouros, which could represent the god Apollo, as well as the images of famous and unknown young men, we can see that the person is portrayed in a standing, rather rigid, almost Egyptian position. Like the Egyptian sculptures, the left leg is moved forward, as if the person shown is about to start walking, the hands are rigidly placed along the body, and the surface of the body is still slightly flat. But the first simple anatomical display of muscles, attributes of a young, strong, healthy, energetic, and vigorous young man, already indicate the first basis of the nude, i.e., a display of a kind of generalized beauty without any deformation.

But the Greek representation of the male body had just started. Around 480 BC, more and more statues of gods and heroes in dynamic poses, with a raised hip and almost perfect anatomy, began to appear. Presentations become more and more precisely elaborate, and, most importantly, the displayed bodies become increasingly subordinate to mathematically determined proportions, balanced by the rules of ideal Beauty. The body is therefore not only a portrait of a common man, or an erotic image of the young body, but a harmonious reflection of perfect Beauty, of divine tranquility and self-confidence. The art of the nude is born, with the display of the body free of defects, and where the presentation becomes pure art.

The harmonious grace of Aphrodite

For our book, however, representations of the female body, rather than the male body, are much more important. They began to appear only around 400 BC, that is, one century after the first major Greek representations of male bodies. But during the ensuing centuries, they became the prototype and ideal of almost all female nudes.

One of the most well-known and copied ancient Greek sculptors was Praxiteles, who is known today primarily for the statue called Cnidian Venus (also Cnidus Aphrodite). According to some records, this may be the first statue that was not made following the standard forms or mathematical proportions of Beauty, but is rather a representation of Paxiteles’ mistress, indeed a living model. The statue was probably so realistic and aesthetic for those times that, just for that reason, people came from far and near to admire it.

The exceptionally relaxed body of the Aphrodite, full of harmony, responds to this invasion of privacy with God’s peace, complete love, and shamelessness. She is a goddess who is conscious of her own beauty, and whom the sculptor must have surprised after a ritual bathing.

Artistic nudes

In addition to erotic photographers, we also find in this period quite a few, let us say, “serious” photographers. They are mostly trained painters whose purpose was to transform photography into art. Unfortunately, due to their lack of creativity and the technological limitations of photograpy of that time, their products look much the same as academic paintings, showing the subjects from classical mythology.

Gustave Le Gray and feelings

Gustave Le Gray (1820 – 1884) is considered to be the greatest French photographer of the 19th century but is best known for his technical innovations in photography, including beautiful landscapes and portraits, and especially his extraordinary technical mastery of photographic techniques.

But Le Gray also tried to take photographs of nudes, and in this he was quite successful. The technical results of his photographs are of high quality for those times, showing incredible sharpness and perfect lightening.

Unlike the erotic scenes from the previous pages, in our example we see that a woman in the picture is no longer just the display of a naked body but also a show of emotions and artistic messages. Her expression (though somewhat smiling) is emphasized by the position of the body, and therefore no longer implies erotic pleasures, but rather reports an almost fatal fatigue, through her crossed legs and scattered, probably wet hair.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander and academic nudes

Another painter of this period who chose the photograph as his medium of expression was Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813 – 1875). Although he is known primarily as the first photographer to use double exposure, photomontage, and retouching, and was the master of composite stories; he also created some nudes of very high quality for that period .

At first glance, his photograph Ariadne (see page 14) is a kind of copy of a classic nude, by name, by pose, and by purpose. Beautifully presented curves, volumes, and lines of the composition are masterfully presented details, and above all, the textures of both textiles and perfect skin do not merely bring viewers into the world of eroticism but into the art of the beautiful and gentle.

Ariadne of Rejlander, who is also considered the father of art photography, can thus be shamelessly placed among the images of the time, even approaching Ingres’s (see page 24) La Grande baigneuse. 

Custom-made photographs

Jean-Louis Marie Eugène Durieu (1800-1874) was a French photographer and was known mainly for photographs of male and female nudes. Unlike other photographers, Durieu was aware of the fact that photography is not only a simple picture of reality, but a means by which we can create a true, aesthetic picture. Knowledge of photographic techniques and an ability to see the art in any scene are just some of the obvious factors that influence the emergence of a good photograph, and Durieu obviously knew them very well.

Durieu’s next photograph is a fine example of collaboration between painter and photographer. It was supposedly created in collaboration with the painter Delacroix in 1854, and is only one of a series of photographs, of which 32 are preserved in the Delacroix legacy. 

The scene is almost typical, characteristically modest, and at the same time gentle for the time; it is no longer a simple, commercially erotic photographic scene. It has been upgraded by the lines of the body and emphasized by the calm lines of the drapery. The entire scene is shown by gentle tonal transitions resulting from the use of paper negatives, of which Delacroix was rightly fond, compared to the completely sharp rendering of the daguerreotype technique.

Broken, cut off, real women

In describing the paintings by Edgar Degas (see page 29), we realize that his revolutionary attitude to the nude was probably the result of a new photographic view or framing of the world.

In his photographs, we see unusual framings in which so-called pregnant or decisive moments are caught, and which no longer have anything to do with antique poses of bodies. The goddesses are replaced by prostitutes and dancers, and from the wonderful environments of the previous centuries, Degas puts them into everyday scenes, if not almost too intimate scenes, then in a domestic environment.

Degas, of course, did not think of himself as a photographer, but he used photography only to record extremely interesting moments. But a photograph is nevertheless a photograph, even taken by a painter. In any case, his extremely thrilling look, which is seen in the following photo, is one of the most creative approaches in so-called “vintage photography.” Such dynamic views will be seen only in the upcoming photo-based modernism at the beginning of the 20th century.

Hiding a photograph

French photographer René Le Bègue (1857 – 1914) is regarded as one of the best pictorialist photographers of all time. Like most pictorialists, Le Bègue used a photographic technique called gum bichromate print, which, like the oil print technique, allowed almost unrestricted freedom in the processing of photographs. The selective development of the displayed photograph (see next page), with the help of a brush, gives the product a sense of academic drawing, and the reality of the photograph is completely hidden. But this was precisely the aim of the author.

Although the author is somewhat less well-known than the previously mentioned Robert Demachy, the photographs of Le Bègue are of quite high quality. The lighting of the scene is perfect with no more lost, totally black or totally white areas in the image, and the positions of the displayed bodies create beautiful delicate and soft curves like academic nudes, which remind us a bit of the old antique influences. The visual interest of the bodies that emerge from the depths of the carved stone, images of a newly born youth, fully convince us that photography can be a true art when placed in the hands of a sensible artist.


Copyright Peter Mrhar © All rights reserved.