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Nude is Art but Naked Ain’t

Nude is Art but Naked Ain’t

Every morning I slowly climb the stairs in my house to the floor that contains eye opening coffee, a gluten free muffin and a wall of framed photographs of nude women. I know you just raised an eyebrow. These are not JUST photos of nudes, but gorgeous nude art that includes, i.e., one by Judy Francesconi showing the body I think I dreamed of once or twice, two by Ruth Bernhard who was a close friend of my wife, and another of Dreya Weber. Yes, Dreya Weber. I bought it during a fund raising campaign for a new film being produced by Marina Rice Bader and starring Dreya. (I bet you could email MRB and get one too- it is a stunner). I digress.

By now you all know my brain lives in the questioning and pondering mode most of the time. So, I pondered the fact that it took a very long time for the art world to even acknowledge that photography is art. And since so many photographers- both male and female- love the naked female body, there must be a small cadre of female photographers who love the female body because they are lesbian and want to point their lens at and capture lesbian singles and couples.

I bought my first Judy Francesconi about 20 years ago. You know how you watch a movie and a guy has his “pin-up calendar hanging in the garage over his table filled with Craftsman tools and two empty bottles of Budweiser? Well, I needed my pin up too and, being a lesbian with enormous class (stop laughing), I wanted ART on my walls. Framed gorgeous nude women. Not naked chicks, but nude art featuring singles and couples being what beautiful singles and couples are. Why the Francesconi as my first? Seriously it was the way she uses light and body placement to convey emotion and closeness. Sort of like, you know, buying Playboy for the articles! Seriously, I bought it because it was gorgeous nude art.

©Judy Francesconi Fine Art Photography

©Judy Francesconi Fine Art Photography

Last week I spoke with Judy and asked her why she chose to focus on lesbian nudes. She stated, “In the beginning, all I wanted to do was make ‘pretty pictures’ in a genre that had not previously been represented in a tasteful, respectful and artistic way. As one woman told me during a gallery exhibit, ‘There was only pornography, and then there was You.’” Subsequently, the more work I created, the more I realized that the images were fulfilling a huge need to affirm and reaffirm the power and beauty of women loving women. Turns out, that was and still is a very important message for gay and straight audiences alike.”

Her work has captured the imagination and heartstrings of hundreds of thousands of admirers. I highly encourage you to visit her website and enjoy and maybe add one of her photos to your favorite wall.

Kenneth Clark, the author and art historian was correct. “Sexuality was part of the attraction to the nude as a subject of art, stating “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.” And yes, something inside me tingled when I stood as a voyeur watching these lovers embrace.

My two Ruth Bernhard photos continually stun me. Ruth lived an open lesbian life and died in San Francisco in 2006 at 101 years old. She was honing her craft well into her early 90’s and truly loved the adoration she received from the greater artistic community. When Bernhard moved from NYC to Santa Monica in 1935, she met Edward Weston. She wrote, “I was unprepared for the experience of seeing his pictures for the first time. It was overwhelming. It was lightning in the darkness…here before me was indisputable evidence of what I had thought possible—an intensely vital artist whose medium was photography.”

In her memoirs, Bernhard wrote about her heavy involvement in the 1920’s lesbian sub-culture in Manhattan. In 1934 she began focusing her lifetime of photographing women in the nude. She would soon become internationally heralded as one of only a handful of outstanding photographers who did focus solely on women in the nude. In 1944 she began a long-term relationship with artist and designer Eveline (Evelyn) Phimister. She is known for her lesbian themed works, most notably Two Forms (1962). In that work, a black woman and a white woman who were real-life lovers are featured with their nude bodies pressed against one another.

“Light is my inspiration, my paint and brush. It is as vital as the model herself. Profoundly significant, it caresses the essential superlative curves and lines. Light I acknowledge as the energy upon which all life on this planet depends.’Ruth Bernhard

Though I don’t own any photographs by Zanele Muholi, I do wish I did. Muholi, a South African photographer, focuses on the black female body and black lesbian couples. In her ongoing series “Being” Muholi captures the tender and soul filled love between lovers, friends and couples. When the Minister of Arts and Culture in South Africa pronounced her exhibition as “pornographic and immoral”, Muholi responded, “In art immorality cannot exist. Art is always sacred.”

In 2009 she was awarded her Master of Fine Arts degree in Documentary Media from Ryerson University in Toronto. Her thesis mapped the visual history of black lesbian identity and politics in post-Apartheid South Africa. I encourage you to Google her and look at the images of her work. Muholi honors women and it shows with every click of her camera. She is a passionate activist for LGBT rights as well as a woman who captures the beauty and passion of the black lesbian woman through photos and documentary film.

No discussion of lesbian photographers who photograph nude women would be complete without discussing Annie Leibovitz. I especially focus on the photos she took of her long time partner- the writer Susan Sontag. Their story unfolded as Susan was dying. During this time Leibovitz captured a life as it dimmed and was gone. But transcending this was capturing a body changing. It is almost apologetic to think we saw what Leibovitz photographed. It was so personal and intimate. In her book, “A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005” these photos are found. These are not naked photos. These are even more than nude art. They are an homage’.

My passion for film also set me thinking about the nude art label that belongs to stills from great lesbian films. I bet you downloaded the still of Elena and Peyton (Elena Undone) or the lovers in Kiss Me (Myg). Why? Because they ain’t naked photos. They are art. Check out lesbian photographers producing nude lesbian art and also those movie stills. And when your friends ask you why you have all those naked women hanging on your wall just tell them, “It’s ART-the nude is art.”

Jan Miller Corran, Ph.D., is CEO/President of More Than Friends Productions (MTF). Dr. Corran is a film producer with numerous films to her credit as Executive Producer, Associate Producer or consultant. For a list of her books and films, visit

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