For the past eleven years, since retiring from public school education and counseling, I have identified myself as a photographer. I worked hard to build a successful photography business and to build a body of work I call “The Nude As Nature.” Through my own work with models in outdoor settings, through invaluable workshops with mentors George DeWolfe, Margaretta Mitchell, and Kim Weston, and by immersing myself in the work of Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and others I developed a body of work of which I am most proud. Examples here follow. Click thumbnails for larger views.
All of this changed on a fateful day for me, fifteen months ago, while I was attending a P.I.E. workshop at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, California, a place that traces its roots to Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. The workshop was marvelous, as photographers were encouraged to become vulnerable in sharing their life stories with each other, and learning that it is from these most vulnerable places within us that true art has a chance to emerge.
On the last morning of the workshop, Sunday, October 7, 2018 we had a nationally and internationally known print reviewer, Aline Smithson, invite each of us to bring forward two of our most favorite images for print review. I brought forward “That’s How The Light Gets In” and “Grandeur.”
In telling the story of “Grandeur” I spoke passionately about the workshop by George DeWolfe, “Mindfulness and Photography,” which had turned my view of the world upside down as a photographer, no longer having my models dominating the photograph, but as one aspect of a much larger canvas, a canvas which took negative space and the environment as seriously as it took whatever was considered to be the “subject” of the photograph. Everything is subject.
In the words of Kirby Scudder, from the Santa Cruz Institute of Contemporary Art, “In Frank’s work the model might occupy a tiny portion of the image. The human eye starts on the very human curves of the model, but the eye then comes to rest on the ripples of a river, or the eroded surfaces of a desert rock, or wide expanses of sky.”
Well, on that fateful morning, our print reviewer was having none of this. Her first question to me was, “Why is she naked?,” and then she went on to say that as a male I did not have the right to interpret the beauty of the female body, asked me why I didn’t turn the camera on myself or on my wife, and added that 65% of the female print reviewers in this country would no longer even consider female figure photography done by a male. It was a Sunday morning on the day following the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U. S. Supreme Court, a fact that I would like to think did not work its way into her comments. However, I am also aware that her words could well have been a part of the anger and outrage that so many women and men, myself included, felt at the denigration of Christine Blasey Ford and her word in accusing a lying man like Kavanaugh, who was voted onto the highest court of the land.
Her questions internally dropped my jaw. I listened, I received her words graciously, thanked her for them, and said that I had come to the workshop to be broken open and to discover where I might next be headed in my photography, as a photographer and as a person. Had it ended there, I could possibly have continued to be a part of the photographic and art community here in Santa Cruz, but it did not end there. Another woman, who was also attending the workshop from our local photographers’ group, confided to one of the leaders of our local group that she too had problems with my figure photography. She, together with the two other leaders of the group beside myself, decided to draft “Guidelines” for the showing of photography at our monthly meetings. This was begun with no one informing me of what was in the works until the process was already under way. When I heard of it, I realized immediately that however the guidelines were put together, the fact that they came out of a response to my photography left me absolutely no room as a person of integrity to continue being a member of the group. How do you sit at home and decide which images to share with a group that has developed guidelines in response to the very work that you are creating? It was an untenable position in which to be placed. I resigned immediately.
In the fifteen months since that experience, I have closed my Frank Leonard Photography business, no longer am a member of the Santa Cruz or Monterey photography groups, stopped doing Open Studios, and resigned my work as co-chair of the Santa Cruz County Fair photography department.
I no longer see myself as I once did. For eleven years I identified myself as a photographer. Now I simply see myself as Frank, who loves photography, and astronomy, and songwriting, and ukulele playing, and writing, and publishing, and spending time with my wife, and visiting my children and grandchild, and taking road trips with my camera and telescope on board.
I have been a whirling dervish doer my entire life. At 73 I have become much more interested in learning who I am as a being, not a doing. So, why rehearse this whole story one more time, as I move into a new and more balanced direction in my life? Why bring up all this that seemed like a kick in the teeth over a year ago, but which has become a catalyst and a blessing in my life?
Why? Because that incredulous question still dumbfounds me, “Why is she naked?” I salute the positive and powerful changes in the way women are seeing themselves and the way they want to be seen by society, and by men in particular. Still, I must respond to this question as I have not been able to in these past fifteen months of reflection, change, and new direction.
Why is she naked? She was born naked. I was born naked. This is our original state and there is nothing inherently ugly, perverse, or exploitive in that. I am not a nudist, although there is nothing in that that frightens me. We are living in a society and a nation in which sexuality, nudity, and the beauty of the female and male forms have been perverted, exploited, manipulated, and commercialized. However, stripped of all that dehumanizing garbage, the naked human form remains beautiful and in complete harmony with the natural world from which it evolved and came to be. The human figure as an integral part of nature is what I have sought to express in my photography, and I will continue to do so, without shame. Let those who feel anger and shame when they see a picture like this and ask “Why is she naked?” take a moment themselves to reflect on the ways in which they have come to sully that which is divine and beautiful.
Why is she naked? Because in this photo she could be no other. Imagine her with clothes on, something which would do nothing more than separate her from the natural world of which she is both animal and spirit and human in form and nature.
Ben Lomond, California
January 13, 2020