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13th October 2023

Film, fashion, and the female nude: Eroticism and femininity in photography

Lara Hedge delves into the history of the female nude and its relation to contemporary photography practice through her own work
Film, fashion, and the female nude: Eroticism and femininity in photography
Photo: Lara Hedge

I’ve always loved photography, and the resurgence of film provided a new means for my passion to grow. The rich, one-shot images film produces, its unmatched aesthetic and the control I have over a single shot is something I really love.  

The female form is beautiful, and women have always been muses. As early as the Renaissance, the naked human body, particularly female nudes, captivated the period’s leading artists. Early portraits of the female figure were heralded as profound by art historians – take Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ – the sensual female nude was lauded by critics as a symbol of beauty, truth, and love.

Photo: Lara Hedge

Renaissance tradition often used religious or literary subjects as pretext for depictions of female nudity. It is only recently that art historians have recognised the glorification of female nudes as a vessel for men to exercise their desires. Historians have started to view these works as early forms of porn, made for the bedroom and for newlywed couples. 

As a lover of fashion photography, I can’t help but notice the links between these early works and their modern counterparts. The ultimate female muse, the model, is almost always sexualised. Indeed, since the 90s ‘sex, drugs and heroine’ phase, some of the fashion world’s most iconic moments and magazine covers have featured a naked woman.  

Furthermore, from a photographic point of view, there is something about the female form that translates as very erotic through the lens of a camera. It could be the masking the camera provides, allowing you to view an image as if you are the one looking through the lens. This creates distance, as though you are observing a stranger from afar, or viewing them through a third eye. Perhaps, this distance gives room for eroticism and makes the act of viewing voyeuristic. Certainly, in those early portraits, the female body was subjected to a voyeuristic gaze.  

Strangely though, nudity can also evoke a strong feeling of intimacy (invasiveness and vulnerability too), an intimacy imbued with eroticism. Often the production of images of naked women can feel perverse, whether that outcome is intended or not. As a woman who loves photography, I find this both enticing and disturbing. 

Last summer, I was completely drawn to capturing the female form. I didn’t want to take pictures of anything else. There is something about summer: the nakedness, the freedom, the connection to one’s environment, that perfectly frames the female body. This is not new of course. For a long time, women have been photographed naked on horses or in the sea, framed by a dramatic wave, wind or cliff.

Photo: Lara Hedge

I shot on film, and the developed images conveyed the dual feelings of safety and vulnerability that the subjects felt in front of the lens. I took both candid and staged images, but all the subjects felt beautiful, both whilst being photographed and in the final products. It made me think, first about why I am so drawn to taking pictures of women’s bodies, and second, why these images felt so far away from the voyeuristic context of many female nudes. A male friend encapsulated my thinking, jokingly saying, “If I took pictures like that!” 

I learnt that making photographic meaning is subjective. To me, those images represent a shared joy, of comfort, experience, and intimacy, and I knew they were created out of love and friendship. All of that represents the innately feminine connection of my female friendships, that sisterhood you create with your female friends, the things you share, the way you hold one another up.  

In that context of friendship, the photos could never be something perverse or erotic. That is not to say they are not sexual, or sexy, because they are. But the sexuality they convey feels safe and celebratory, and I know the subjects felt the same. 

Words by Lara Hedge

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