to those I’ve felt when looking at unfortunate, warts-and-all snapshots of myself, captured in unguarded moments— many of Friedlander‘s nudes portray women in extremely unﬂattering (to use conventional terms) poses. They abound in bulges. sags, droops, cellulite. all the things which Western women are insistently conditioned to regard as ugly. It’s all very well to talk about ‘imperfect‘, ‘real‘ bodies possessing their own beauty, but this conditioning goes so deep that even a dyed-in-the-wool feminist (speaking as one myself) finds it incredibly difficult to believe, at a gut level, that bulges, sags etc can be beautiful.
Even if Friedlander is trying to establish an
alternative iconography ofthe female form, his departure from convention is less radical than it appears. He has stated that he chose subjects ‘in their prime’, and although his definition of prime is wider than most -— the models range in age from twentysomething to thirtysomething— it‘s still pretty narrow. He wanted. he said. to photograph women before their bodies ‘start to slide’, ie they mustn’t bulge and sag too much. And why, if it’s simply a frank, realistic look at bodies he‘s after, does he only photograph women? Friedlander’s explanation — that he’s not curious about men — strikes me as somewhat fatuous, given the fact that these days it‘s impossible, even ifyou think it desirable, to divorce the nude genre from the wider
You can’t help being aware of Friedlander’s (clothed) presence in the nudes; the models tend to look distinctly ill at ease, passive but tense and sell-conscious beneath his gaze, reminding you that they have removed their clothes and adopted these poses at his direction.
Pandora’s box of sexual politics.
In any case, whatever good intentions Friedlander might have had in taking these photographs they are unlikely to have much effect on how they are viewed. As art critic David Lee puts it, ‘any man is unreliable on the subject ofnude women . . . photographers and commentators should never underestimate the ability of most men to turn any nude picture into an object of fantasy.’ He concludes that Friedlander's work could be seen as ‘a kind of respectable pornography for disingenuous male intellectuals', and I've a nasty feeling he may be right.
Lee Friedlander: N tides is at the Portfolio Gallery. Edinburgh. until lo November. 4
The List 25 October — 7 Novcmlicr l99l 9