Photo Essay

The Essence of Femininity Through the Lens Part I

To do this I shall be looking at works from photographers such as Helmut Newton, Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard, Mona Kuhn, Guido Argentini, Araki Nobuyoshi and the composites of Cindy Sherman, and also referencing books by: Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art; Ian Jeffrey, Photography a Concise History; Graham Clark, The Photograph; Peter Lacey and Anthony LaRotonda, The History of The Nude in Photography; Guido Argentini, Reflections.

I will investigate images that I believe demonstrate this and perhaps bring into this the question of role, do the images themselves promote use of the female in terms of combined desire and sexuality, or can femininity only be expressed in any true form if the viewer feels these. I will analyse photographs from artistic points of view, ways of interpretation, how the viewer might understand a photograph, and similarities of the subject through other forms of art.

As I mentioned earlier in my proposal, the similarities between photography and other forms of art are visible through the years, the end images differentiated only by the media that have been produced. Edward Weston partially framed the female body and intentionally cropped and framed only parts he found interesting visually. In other images he blends the female body with nature, mentioning similarities he found within nature and human body, example his famous photograph 'Pepper' (1930) from his collection Natural Studies.

Without question this image is feminine and perhaps also erotic. Looking at the nude (41N) I feel that the female by Weston has lost her identity; the question then has to be asked, does it then become devoid of any desirability, does it lose that element of sexuality and yet still evoke femininity? By cropping the head and lower torso, do we, the viewer see the nude as a sculptural form rather than a human body? The sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) 'Cybele'
About 1904-5
Bronze 'The model was Adèle Abruzzesi, an Italian woman whom Rodin admired', and it has similar attributes; the only difference is that Weston had captured the shapes through the lens, were Rodin have been manually carving parts he wanted to show.

Does 'Pepper' now become of value on equal terms with the Rodin sculpture; both images are sculptural as form without reference. Is 'Pepper' as truly feminine as the bronze but simply without evoking desire? Perhaps the grain and illuminated part of the sculpture would make the statue more noticeable as a sculptured object, but this does not, I feel to take away any value that 'Pepper' has as an object of sculptural form rather than purely one of just content.

In the same style, a female photographer Ruth Bernhard conveys the nude in a sculptural style like Weston, but with an extra very subtle erotic hint, and mainly in a very expected positions, daily poses that are so natural for the viewer to connect with. These nudes below are a simple example of purity and beauty achieved through the lens from a female photographer's point of view.

Back to Edward Weston and to my surprise, reading the little book of such a big subject 'THE HISTORY OF THE NUDE IN PHOTOGRAPHY' written by Peter Lacey, page 88 I find some very complementary text to what I have said about Weston which is mentioned on a page allocated to Harry Callahan's (1929-1999) passion for his wife; 'He has found in her a mysterious modesty and elusiveness. His nudes are always psychologically remote, regardless of their physical proximity; and like Weston, he has found in their contours the suggestion of other forms and lines.'

(Lacey, P. (1964) the history of the nude in photography. Harry Callahan, He has found in her [text] A GALLERY EDITION, NEW YORK: Bantam Books. Inc, pp. 88.)

a little book that all nudes lover shoud have!

Both photographers are classics in photographing the female form without identity or sexual content, or perhaps they picture an erotic and mystique view of the female as a human, and yet nonetheless are still able to blend with nature and depict images in the most pure way.

In depth Callahan photographed his wife without any extraneous element, in a very direct approach, and where her identity is revealed, he transforms her in a divine and mysterious appearance; nothing in his images relates to any sexual suggestion.

The image in the next page Eleanor, Chicago, 1949 by Callahan, as I have mentioned, reveals the identity of his model; but he still does not make any reference to erotic art, and further in the book 'WAYS OF SEEING' by Peter Fuller, John Berger's affirmation of understanding the person or the subject framed, the relationship with them, and not taking the subject as a property, starts to make sense. Nothing suggests in Callahan's images that he is a proprietor of the model; instead, in a very artistic way he manages to depict the beauty that surrounds him. His passion for his wife is beyond understanding the person, he is like the painter and his canvas, portraying for centuries the beauty of the model, each individual artist attempting in their obsession to illustrate the essence of the subject as well as the purity of forms. The text below by Sarah Greenough is very explanatory regarding this matter, and so important in history:

'Callahan speaks of an all-encompassing, ever-present relationship, one that is so powerful that even when he is not with her, he sees her all around him.'

Callahan has not just framed with grace and purity his model, but also respects the nature of the human being, above all through his soft approach he managed to express feelings that apply not just to him as an artist, but it connects with the viewer.

The text below by Sarah Greenough back-up even more John Berger argument about knowing the subject and not being a proprietor of it, the article about the artist and his work subject Eleanor simply justify J. Berger statement.

'Callahan came to realize that in order to see a subject photographically, he not only had to see and present it in a new and intense manner, so that both he and his viewers would look at it with greater care and attention, he also had to know the subject in all its details, permutations, and complexities; he had to respect its integrity; he had to comprehend his relation to it; and, most important, he had to understand how it resonated with his life.'

(Callahan, H. Text from Sarah Greenough, Discussion of "Eleanor" photographs, Article [Online]

Available at:

Investigating even more of Callahan's work, looking at this photograph, I cannot find a hint of eroticism suggested; femininity is at the highest standard portrayed by the artist although we can see a hint of her breast.

Comparability between paintings and Photography.

To be able to understand a bit more about nudes we need to look back at one of the oldest form of art, painting, and the artist's approach to the subject, which of course has changed through the evolution of society.

The female form has been represented in art since the first beings have been able to represent their world through imagery. In that time the female has been shown in various guises from the divine religious composites, to mythical themes, and finally to a very sexual being, as in the painting by Lucian Freud, (1966) Naked Girl, which I shall talk of later.

These images have one thing in common with the development of photography, they depend on the times and political environment in which they were produced. If we take for example the work of 'Sandro Botticelli' (1446-1510) and his painting "The Birth of Venus" (c1485-86) here we see an angelic representation, there is no sexuality attached to it, but it does nevertheless impart a femininity, a femininity that perhaps is only achievable by the very absence of sexuality. In photography Callahan photograph the female in the same candid manner, but of course the background of his photograph 'Eleanor', 1949 is less sophisticate than the painting of Botticelli. We do have to bear in mind as I stated the social and political environment; Botticelli's painting was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de'Medici a member of a very powerful dynastic family, plus in a time when religion had great power holds on society.

If we now come closer to our time, to the 19th century and the Impressionists in particular the French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883), in his painting "Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe" (1863) we see the female in a social scene, she has an elegance which brings with it a feeling of her femininity. The representation is in keeping with the new found flamboyance and sexual liberation of the times, Paris had undergone Haussmannization and complete restructured, with this came a new morality, a willingness and social ability to dare, to push boundaries and not be be limited to paint in a studio anymore. Women were now beginning to be held in both an erotic and feminine status, Manet, in visually placing the woman with two clothed men and in a very familiar setting, invites the viewer to see her in both these modes without eliciting any response of judgement as to her social standing, that is the viewer does not think of her as a purely sexual object but instead perhaps looks past this and sees the woman with all her complexity.

In the meantime Nobuyoshi Araki about 100 years later photographed the female were the man is framed as well, in fact the photographer himself. Despite of being known for his pornographic images, he treats his subjects as sexual objects, but did he ever understand the female soul?

Where Manet was daring for his era in producing a painting where the female is nude in a park; she is not classified in any rude way. Araki photographed the female in a garden, but has he maintained the standard produced by Manet? Does the photographer portray the female without any judgments? Is she represented as respectable person, and is her femininity intact? The viewer can identify femininity in such a pose and composition? The images he produced will be the answer to these questions. Araki's documentary photographs of Tokyo; were the images are completely his artistic approach to the female form and female as a human, convey no feelings, no femininity, simply an object at his discretion.

Another strong photographer about this delicate subject is Helmut Newton, but in comparison to Araki, Helmut Newton represents the female with grace. I am going to talk later about Newton style, but in the mean wile we should look more at nudes history through the lens.

Although by the time Manet produced 'Olympia' 1863, photography had just started to be established as a form of Art, the question of femininity being achieved through the lens looking at the picture by the anonymous photographer, 1850, found in the book 'The Photograph' by Graham Clarke (1997, p.131) is again a valid point. Thirteen years earlier than Manet painting of a nude, photography in such an early stage has produced a shocking image, which I will discuss further later. But it is raising the question if whether photography started more daring than the oldest forms of art in producing images? Was it necessary to position the sitter in that uncomfortable position to illustrate her genital organs? What was the purpose of such a picture, the lens without the photographer behind the camera cannot record such an image.

Anonymous, (1850) Nineteenth-Century Nude [Photograph]: Clarke, G. The Photograph, Oxford University Press, (1997, p.131)

Back to Manet painting "Olympia" (1863), we know see a much more sexual female whom we know is not just reclining on her bed, but is almost inviting the viewer to partake in her sexuality. Being well known at the time as a prostitute the public at the time could be forgiven for seeing perhaps only the sexual female, but this is more in keeping with the time rather than the work, for now we can see past this and once again see the femininity of her.

Perhaps in the future the images, which I have already mentioned, will also be viewed in very different ways than now. Manet's paintings pushed the 'establishment' to its limits of acceptance but Impressionism survived and in that survival it powered a new path forward in the representation of the feminine form.

To be continued...

Thank you for reading,

Roxana Brivent-Barnes

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5 responses

  • Roxana Brivent-Barnes

    Roxana Brivent-Barnes said (19 Jul 2011):

    This is my thesis, and I uploaded here for the ones who love nudes and the history of it, for the ones who should learn about nudes, and develop their skills, in order to show creativity for the subject, instead of just what they like to possess!

  • Roxana Brivent-Barnes

    Roxana Brivent-Barnes said (19 Jul 2011):

    I wish I could add the images of each artist I mentioned in this thesis, to be able to show you directly, like this you will have to do some research. I will add as many links possible to help.

    Ruth Bernard available at:




  • The Man Who Isn't There

    The Man Who Isn't There (Deleted) gave props (6 Oct 2011):


  • Carlo Pagan

    Carlo Pagan gave props (22 Nov 2011):

    Great, great, great shots Roxana!!!

  • Michele Wambaugh

    Michele Wambaugh (Deleted) said (12 Aug 2012):


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