At the beginning of this month, I had the privilege of working with Xhibited for the third time this year. This is a collaboration I am enjoying for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that we get to explore ways of making art with a body older than the average model.
I don't mean that to sound condescending--not in the least. Nor is this some vanity agenda about "all bodies are beautiful," although I do believe that to be true. My thinking, instead, is this:
1) All people deserve to be honored exactly as they are, and the job of a photographer is to capture the humanity of every person. It is that universal humanity that is beautiful. So, yes, in a purely aesthetic way, a young person's body is more "beautiful" than that of someone, for example, my age. And if all you're looking for is physical beauty, you're probably better off sticking to younger models. But this is such a one-dimensional way of understanding beauty. There's beauty in lived experience, personality, and dignity as well. If something in a photograph resonates with something we understand to be noble, then we feel drawn to that image in the same way that we do if its subject matches some ideal of physical perfection.
I've covered this concept before. The second idea is newer:
2) There are techniques for photographing models with less idealized bodies that actually make them look physically beautiful in spite of their imperfections. This is the radical idea I'm just beginning to truly appreciate. I have already been aware that plus-size models can look fantastic when photographed from certain angles or in certain poses, and older models, too, can reduce some of the obvious signs of age with poses that pull skin tighter, and with editing that softens age lines. But I'm discovering that context is a powerful tool, as well. This is harder to describe. But consider, for example, a model like Xhibited, whose body unavoidably shows signs of having lived a few decades more than the average swimsuit model (Martha Stewart notwithstanding). You can work a lot of magic with skin creams and editing and strategic lighting and clothing to hide those effects -- the techniques that Sports Illustrated used with Stewart. Or, you can lean into those features and match them with an environment that is artistically interesting.
With Xhibited, we shot behind the gate at Ohanapecosh before it opened to the public, so we were able to photograph among some old, rugged, moss-covered boulders along the roadside. Xhibited's body matches this environment perfectly. She looks like she belongs among those rocks. Now, posing a younger model here is also artistically interesting, as you can see in the similar images I made last year in the same place with Katlyn Lacoste. Katlyn's youthful body contrasts with the rocks in the same way that Xhibited's body resonates with it.
I also find it artistically interesting to depict Xhibited in frankly sensual or sexual poses. To me, this adds a vitality, an energy, to the photos that is a middle finger to the idea that older bodies are no longer sexual. Like the environment around her, Xhibited is still alive, in motion, restless, growing, and changing. Even if the landscape appears to be static and stable, you know that these rocks are on the move, crumbling and shifting and eroding and repositioning themselves, even if our attention spans are too short to notice it most of the time.
You can see more of these ideas in the photos of Xhibited in the mineral spring pools along the river. I've chosen not to smooth out and edit blemishes and variations on the skin, but instead, to acknowledge them, to make them part of the image. The texture in the skin is a perfect complement to the infinite variations in the rock, the moss and algae and silt, the variegated shadows falling across the body. Again, you can see the difference with Katlyn's photos from last year, where the youthful body contrasts with the older rock rather than complementing it.
My point is that nude in nature photography is all about finding relationships between the nude human figure and the landscape in which it is placed. Traditionally this has meant finding contrast and complement between a landscape and a youthful female figure with smooth, fair skin. Some of my most popular photographs follow this traditional pattern. But the exact same techniques can be used to create beautiful and compelling images with models who are older, or heavier, or darker skinned. And because this is not the norm, those images, done well, can actually be more compelling than the traditional ones. Not that I feel like I'm there yet, in terms of being an expert at making great art with non-traditional figure models. But now that I've recognized the potential, it's an exciting goal, and one that I look forward to continuing to pursue with models like Xhibited and others.
In fact, 100% serious, if there are any 90-year-old women out there who would like to model with me, I have some great ideas.