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Press release

History of the Nude in Photography in Naked before the Camera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 27 - September 9, 2012

Exhibition Location: The Howard Gilman Gallery, second floor
Press Viewing: April 2, 10 a.m. - noon

Depicting the human body has been among the greatest challenges, preoccupations, and supreme achievements of artists for centuries. The nude—even in generalized or idealized renderings—has triggered impassioned discussions about sin, sexuality, cultural identity, and canons of beauty, especially when the chosen medium is photography, with its inherent accuracy and specificity. From March 27 through September 9, 2012, Naked before the Camera, an exhibition of more than 60 photographs selected from the renowned holdings of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, surveys the history of this subject and explores some of the motivations and meanings that underlie photographers’ fascination with the nude.

“In every culture and across time, artists have been captivated by the human figure,” commented Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan.  “In Naked before the Camera, we see how photographers have used their medium to explore this age-old subject and create compelling new images.”

The exhibition begins in the 19th century, when photographs often served artists as substitutes for live models. Such “studies for artists” were known to have been used by the French painter Gustave Courbet, whose Woman with a Parrot (1866), for instance, is strikingly similar to photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuve’s Female Nude of 1853. Even when their stated purpose was to aid artists, however, the best of these 19th-century photographs of the nude were also intended as works of art in their own right. Two recently acquired photographs, made in the mid-1850s by an unknown French artist, are striking examples. Not only are they larger than all other photographic nudes from the time, they stand out due to an extraordinary surface pattern that interrupts the images and suggests a view through gossamer or a photograph printed on finely pleated silk rather than paper. The elegant Female Nude harkens back to an Eve or Venus and is vignetted by the camera lens as if seen through a peephole, while her male counterpart is shown in strict profile in a pose that recalls precedents from antiquity. Each figure draws from the past while being presented in a strikingly modern way, without any equivalent among other 19th-century studies for artists.

Not all photographers of the nude were motivated by artistic desire. The second section of Naked before the Camera includes photographs made for medical and forensic purposes, as ethnographic studies, as tools to analyze anatomy and movement, and—not surprisingly—as erotica. The lines between such categories were not always clearly drawn; some photographers called their images “studies for artists” merely to evade the censors, while viewers of the G. W. Wilson Studio’s Zulu Girls (1892-93) or Paul Wirz’s ethnographic photographs of scantily clad Indonesians from the 1910s and 1920s were undoubtedly titillated by the blending of exoticism and eroticism.

Beginning in the fertile period of modernist experimentation that followed on the heels of World War I, photographers such as Brassaï, Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, André Kertész, and Bill Brandt found in the human body a perfect vehicle for both visual play and psycho-sexual exploration. In Distortion #6 (1932) by André Kertész, a woman’s body is stretched and pulled in the reflections of a fun-house mirror—a figure from a Surrealist dream that stands in stark contrast to the images of perfect feminine beauty by earlier photographers.

In mid-20th-century America, photographers more often communicated an intimate connection with their subjects. Following the example of Alfred Stieglitz’s famed portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, photographers such as Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, and Emmet Gowin made many nude studies of their wives. Callahan’s photograph of his wife and daughter, Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago (1954), for instance, gives the viewer access to a private, tender moment of intimacy.

In the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s, artists began to think of the body as a politicized terrain and explored issues of identity, sexuality, and gender. Diane Arbus’s Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. (1963) and A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. (1968), Larry Clark’s untitled image (1972-73) from the series Teenage Lust, and Hannah Wilke’s Snatch Shot with Ray Gun (1978) are among the works featured in the concluding section of the exhibition.

Credits and Related Programs
Naked before the Camera
is organized by Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge, assisted by Mazie M. Harris, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, both in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs. Conservation related to the exhibition was led by Lisa Barro, Assistant Conservator of Photographs. The exhibition is designed by Daniel Kershaw, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Mortimer Lebigre, Graphic Designer.

Malcolm Daniel will conduct gallery talks in the exhibition on Thursday, June 14, at 10:00 and Tuesday, July 24, at 11:00. The exhibition is featured on the Metropolitan’s website,


March 22, 2012

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