Challenging Viewers' Ideas About Nudity and Art

"I'm not offended," shrugs our friend Arthur. "I just don't get it." Arthur Sager, a general supporter of our and others' artistic endeavors, well-traveled and well-read, doesn't quite know what to make of these images or why their subjects do what they do. Relaxed and happy-looking couples, and a few individuals, grace the walls surrounding him, leaving it to him to stare or to look away, while they exude great confidence in their complete nudity.

My husband, Eric Hayes, is presenting In Their Own Skin, his latest offering at ViewPoint , our co-op photography gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The exhibit, featuring 14 black and white portraits of passengers on a nude Caribbean cruise, confronts the viewer head-on, with all but two of his subjects looking directly into the camera, and thus at the viewer in the gallery.

Photographed originally on medium format black and white negative film (but for three images shot with a digital camera ), Eric chose ultimately to print them as digital inkjet (giclee) prints on canvas, having them stretched around wooden frames like an oil painting would be, and hung without further framing or glass to come between the viewer and the viewed.

"I chose to print on canvas as it reminded me of skin, stretched around a framework, with a certain texture and without glass creating another barrier between observer and subject," Eric says. Indeed, the direct gazes of the subjects placed at our eye level, no glass to reflect the viewer or the gallery environment, and their very open and unashamed postures, has created quite a buzz among visitors, sometimes uneasy but, perhaps surprisingly, mostly favorable.

But first, some background.

Eric and me are both members of The Naturist Society and the Federation of Canadian Naturists, having come to those organizations as a result of several years of seeking out nude or clothing-optional vacation opportunities, generally in warmer climates like the Caribbean, and finding their magazines a great source of information. For us, it was fun, freedom and relaxation first and foremost. The idea of body acceptance and the removal of barriers between people was something we came to understand gradually as we met other naturists and read more in the organizations' magazines.

The annual Windjammer nude cruise chartered by Christie Musick of Travel Au Naturel on the tall ship SN Yankee Clipper has become a favorite of ours. October 2004 will mark our fifth consecutive cruise with her. The combination of sun, sand, surf, friendly people, clothes-freedom, sailing, and visiting idyllic Caribbean beaches and villages is hard to beat. With a maximum of 60 passengers and 30 charming local crew members, what's not to like?

For Eric, the only possible impediment to his full enjoyment of anything is finding that he can't take pictures as freely as he would like. Having started with a newspaper in his teens and worked up to the covers of national (Canadian) magazines through the 1980s and '90s, he's a photojournalist at heart ... not the disaster-, crime- or war-covering kind, but one who loves to do environmental portraits of both ordinary and extraordinary people doing what they do.

After the first two years in a row sailing the Grenadines with such wonderful, well-adjusted people, so comfortable with who they are and in a beautiful setting, he was frustrated at not having permission to shoot very freely except for landscapes. Eric was determined that next time (that is, in 2002) he would propose a specific portrait project and try to elicit co-operation and permission from guests in advance of the cruise.

He attributes much of his success in this endeavor not only to his wonderful models, but to Christie Musick herself. As charterer of the ship, she takes responsibility for ensuring all passengers get the holiday they want, free from harassment or the bad behavior of other passengers. Having become acquainted with Eric and I on the two previous annual cruises and being aware of our professional history as photographers, Christie was happy to recommend Eric's project via email to her passengers some months ahead. She introduced him on-board the first day of the cruise, where he explained his intentions–namely, to capture the inherent beauty and joie de vivre of people who are happy with themselves, naked, unashamed, ‘in their own skins.’ He circulated some sample prints to indicate his photo graphic style.

The 2002 cruise was so popular, two one-week cruises were booked back to back, with a changeover in passengers the second week but for six couples. Out of approximately 100 passengers in total, 17 couples and four single women signed releases and posed for Eric to participate in this project. For their generous cooperation they received traditional hand-made archival darkroom prints and Eric's undying gratitude.

Eric's motivation at the beginning of this project was pretty simple and straightforward: to share his joy of meeting these fun-loving people in the tropics by capturing them on film for others to see. He finds real joy in simply being naked himself, a feeling inculcated since childhood skinny-dipping in his hometown lake with his father, and later reinforced in his back-to-the-land days at the local ‘hippy hole’ where friends would gather to cool off naked in the summer. His urge to document everything he witnesses began in his teens.

He surprised himself, however, in how he looks at the work now, after becoming actively involved in The Naturist Society through the publication of some of his travel images in 'N', and subsequently being invited to give presentations at the Eastern Naturist Gathering in 2003 (we'll both present again at the 2004 ENG in June).

The Gathering at Eastover last August was a bit of a turning point for both of us. In fact, introducing us to perhaps even more "die-hard " naturists than we had previously encountered via the tropical resort route. Learning more about the political action required 60 Nude & Natural 23.4 to preserve our right to enjoy natural spaces, beaches and the like clothes free, as well as to protect the simple right to be naked around your own children in a family environment, has made us both more conscious of the impact an exhibit like Eric's could have on the average viewer.

Where this project was, at first, a simple exercise in capturing fun and freedom photographically, it now has come to have a certain activist potential, as an educational tool for introducing the public to the naturist point of view and in removing the fear and misconceptions surrounding social nudity in the naturist context.

Feedback has been mostly, and surprisingly, positive-perhaps not surprising to naturalists who have believed in ‘the cause’ for a long time, but surprising to us living in what we consider to be a relatively conservative, traditional culture, lots of small towns and rural communities with a long history. On the other hand, those reading the arts pages of the provincial newspapers or frequenting photography galleries are perhaps more open-minded in the first place. The two daily papers here, the Chronicle Herald and the Daily News, each featured a story on the show and printed the photo of Christie Musick, reproduced at almost 8 by 10 inches in the Herald. [See the cover of this N.]

We assume the photo of Christie may have been chosen, not simply for her elegant curves, but because she was relatively concealed by both her pose and the black sand, compared to the full frontal stance of the couples' portraits that make up much of the show. The female nude is still an accepted ‘artistic’ subject. A straight frontal shot of a completely unclothed male in a mainstream newspaper is still something that would likely get the subscription cancellations coming in. Even our local weekly paper in Lunenburg County decided not to write anything about Eric's show, despite the fact that we have a good relationship with the editor, who has featured exhibits by both of us before even when the shows weren't held locally.

Among the specific comments from visitors to the gallery were references to how “comfortable” the people looked. One woman emailed us and said, “What delightful, open, happy photographs! Not only are they great photos, it really is lovely to see people at ease with their bodies ... and it is just the sort of image and information the masses should be getting more of, especially women.” Another woman pondered the question of “all the layers and messages we send with out clothes.”

A member photographer in our gallery, Chris Smith, young, urban and hip to popular culture, offered these musings in an e-mail: “Having seen (the exhibit) a few times, I can look more at them as people and not just as naked people ... which is hard not to do at first.”

What struck me as interesting is how conservative. many of the people look. There are a few there with tattoos and funky hair, but for the most part they're very normal. I mean ‘normal’ as pop culture and my parents would have you believe. No matter how natural it might feel to some, ‘normal’ people don't dye their hair blue, challenge the idea of God, smash their guitars on stage, eat tofu ... and they certainly don't run around naked in public.

“That's what struck me about the term ‘naturism.’ It really rings true in this show. Public nudity is still very much seen as a fringe cultural activity- a.k.a. ‘not normal’ ... from the photos, it really looks like public nudity is probably the only aspect of culture where these folks find themselves on the fringe. (It's) no way a form of rebellion against the restraints of society. They just happen to like being nude.”

Another photographic artist, Holly Crooks, wrote: “I find this work to be very exciting conceptually because it dares to find beauty in the average, unidealized human body. Because of the direct gaze of the subjects, the viewers are acknowledged and unable to be simply a voyeur ... the effect of this is much like the spectator aware of looking. These are affectionate portraits of real people who look like they'd be fun to know and spend time with.”

The question of voyeurism in both photographing and exhibiting this show was considered by some. Our friend Arthur at first thought that Eric had lost his objectivity and was ‘proselytizing’ for the naturist cause by photographing from within a group to which he belongs. Eric freely admits, “I’m a participant, not a voyeur,” of which newspaper reviewer Marilyn Smulders said, “It shows there just wouldn't be the same ease and trust between subject and artist if the photographer were clothed.”

Yet another photographic artist suggested that Eric's participation and subjective relationship in fact made The work more legitimate, and said she is offended by other artists who pick a group with whom they have no association or personal knowledge and decide to portray them from the perspective of an outsider looking in, especially when they are seen as unconventional or unusual. That, she argues, is when the artist is being voyeuristic.

The exhibit had the effect of not only educating viewers about the idea of naturism and nude recreation, but of also bringing local naturists a little out of the closet or at least, out of the woodwork to come to see the show. Members of the Bluenose Naturists, the only club in Nova Scotia, were specifically invited and a few attended. Some visitors were inspired by the newspaper coverage to see the work and meet Eric, and happily shared their own stories of visits to Hedonism in Jamaica, Haulover Beach in Miami, or our local Crystal Crescent Beach, which both TNS and the FCN have lobbied to protect as a clothing-optional space.

In our long discussion of the show, our friend Arthur had questioned whether or not such photographs were "art" because he couldn't imagine buying one, although he has been a good patron to both Eric and me regarding other prints we have created.

I countered that it may not be the most commercially saleable art Eric has done, but for me, art succeeds when it challenges the viewers, exposes them to new ideas, and gets them talking and examining their own entrenched beliefs, in this case about the "normalcy" of people who enjoy social nudity and our "cultural acceptance of external definitions of beauty," as Holly Crooks said.

As wife, photographic partner and fellow naturist to Eric, I have a lot of bias to overcome, but I believe 'In Their Own Skin' has succeeded.

Download the article in pdf format here.