The nude female body as a subject has a long history in art, and in photography. In fine art, it has always been more or less sedate – though see Courbet’s L’Origine du monde – but in photography, it has often been more osé. Nude photography follows the unwritten rules of the patriarchy; in most such photos, the woman is an object, often in ludicrous positions, or in situations that serve as nothing more than backdrops to their bodies. Photo magazines are full of nude or semi-nude photos – so-called “boudoir” photography – that serve to codify the tropes of this genre: for example, a naked women in high heels in front of a waterfall. There are certainly many exceptions, and nude art photography – to distinguish it from “I know it when I see it” pornography – can be very attractive, without demeaning its subjects.
Saul Leiter, long a commercial photographer, also had a parallel career as an “art” photographer. He also shot nude photos of his wife, his lovers, and his friends, in his studio on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. He did not show these photos to anyone, but had planned to make a selection of them for a book in the 1970s, that never came to fruition. Leiter languished in obscurity after he had financial difficulties in the early 1980s, and was only rediscovered a bit more than a decade ago, when the German publisher Steidl released a book of his work.
In My Room (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a recently published collection of Leiter’s nudes, selected from his vast archive of photos. Leiter’s nudes are anything but titillating or exploitive. They show women in natural positions, sometimes lying on a bed, or getting dress or undressed. Many of the photos have a slight voyeuristic aspect to them, as women are seen in mirrors, through gaps, and around corners. They are not all fully nude; and not all the photos show their bodies, many just show their faces. A number of them show women in the bathroom, smoking (post-coital?) cigarettes, or lying in bed seemingly asleep.
This is a book of tasteful photos – many, but not all, of nudes – that doesn’t treat women as objects, but shows them in their flawed humanity. Shot in subtle, natural light, in simple surroundings, these photos show that the nude can be treated with respect. This fine book is a master class in nude photography, but also in intimate portraits, as many of the photos do not show the subjects’ bodies at all.