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Close Encounters


by Linda Yablonsky
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It’s unusual to see a lighted marquee on the entrance to a show at the Metropolitan Museum. Yet such a sign -- the kind one might see at a tacky strip club -- is now hanging over the door to the Met’s Howard Gilman Gallery of vintage photography. It says “Naked,” in low-wattage bulbs. The words “Before the Camera” sit below them in plain text, as if they weren’t important.

Because the sign is so coy and small, and set inside a hushed hallway, it suggests something naughty might be waiting inside. There is, sort of.

Voyeur alert! Eroticism is the keystone of nude photography, which has been with us since the invention of the camera. That history is what this show is all about.

With some 70 photographic nudes selected from the Met’s collections, “Naked” begins with 19th-century academic studies -- French, of course -- then moves on to male and female pinups, abstractions of artfully arranged flesh, forensic documents of medical experiments, ethnographic exotica, sweet erotica, and contemporary images of the body as a battleground of gender and sexuality. (See Diane Arbus’s nudists, Hannah Wilke’s self-portraits or John Coplans’ unblinkered take on his sagging corporeality -- but you’ve seen them before.) It also has the occasional portrait of a streaker, like the man Gary Winogrand captured in 1971 during an Easter Sunday stroll in Central Park.

Organized thematically by curator Malcolm Daniel, “Naked” is clearly meant to be educational, not risqué. It has no images of men in chains from Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portofolio,” or any of Ryan McGinley’s oversexed teens. This show is tasteful to a fault.

Mapplethorpe’s sole entry, for example, is his modest 1976 portrait of a skinny young Patti Smith curling up to a radiator in her birthday suit. Mark Morrisroe is represented by a photo of two men seen only in silhouette. Still, viewers in search of a casual frisson to spice up their lunch hour will not be disappointed.

Along with Brassai, Muybridge, Weston and Brandt photographs that have been reproduced a hundred times in magazines and books, Daniel supplies several fascinating images of the human body as an object of desire, for all kinds of reasons.

Take the 1980 image of a well-endowed, African American spear-carrier in a photograph by one Jim Jager, an underground Chicagoan who employed black male models for the soft-porn magazines he published in the ‘70s and ‘80s, under titles like Black Sugar and Black Thunder.

Sharkey, the picture here, is both embarrassing and cheeky -- almost literally a double-edged sword. It anticipates Mapplethorpe’s later nudes, but lacks their transgressive formalism. Jager posed his model with a long pole, no doubt to draw attention to the man’s chief physical attribute, hopefully with humor. But because the image plays on hackneyed Western stereotypes of the noble savage, it reeks of exploitation.

More surreal is an 1870 image by an unknown French photographer. It pictures a masked woman with hair so long she can throw her tresses over her arms like an evening wrap, though no other part of her is covered.

To satisfy prurient tastes, the exhibition offers a Daguerreotype of a fully clothed woman sitting on a park bench with her skirt pulled up, idly playing with herself for the direct gaze of the camera. This picture is not in plain sight. Spectators can get a gander only by peering into a 19th-century, stereoscopic viewer that grants the ogler a measure of privacy, if only for his or her thoughts.

“Naked before the Camera,” Mar. 27-Sept. 9, 2012, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028

The more academic portion of the show approaches nude photography from a painter’s point of view. While early photographers were quick to figure out how profitable nudie pictures were in a reproducible medium, 19th-century portrait painters -- think Courbet -- realized how cost-efficient it was to work from a photograph, rather than pay a live model to sit for hours, day in and out, in impossible positions that only made them tired and cranky.

Jean-Léon Gérome employed Nadar, the esteemed celebrity photographer of the day, to supply him with a picture of a nude posed as the courtesan Phryné for an 1861 painting (a reproduction of which is helpfully attached to the wall label).

It was one of Nadar’s rare exercises in nudes, but other photographers hiring themselves out to easel painters made look-books of sample poses from which bargain-hunters could choose their subjects. The poses mimic nude figures on daily view in the Met’s Greek and Roman pavilion, and in the African, Oceanic and European painting and sculpture departments. They’re everywhere.

But they don’t look much like the modernist manipulations achieved by Irving Penn, whose fulsome female torsos are more startling for their beauty than their contorted strangeness. Nor do they resemble Hans Bellmer’s freaky dolls. (The hand-tinted 1936 photograph here shows a dangling and horridly bruised, three-legged “Poupee.”)

Even stranger is William G. Larson’s three-way distortion of a female nude, Figure in Motion. Using a tricked-up panoramic camera, Larson put his model on a Lazy Susan and photographed her while also moving the camera and its lens. The narrow image is far more mysterious than another unusual Nadar -- an 1860 documentary photograph of a spread-legged hermaphrodite, made for scientific study. It’s bizarre. From there, a Man Ray shot of a perfect man’s raised crooked arm is a welcome relief.

If any one picture sums up the non-threatening spirit “Naked,” it’s Paul Outerbridge’s 1936 Cabro print of a nude woman in a top hat, black pumps, and fishnets on one leg. She wears a yellow mask on her face; a white bathing cap hides her hair under the hat. Her body turned to a patterned gray wall, she beckons the viewer with an over-the-shoulder, come-hither look. It’s classic calendar material, in beautiful color.

Installed by its lonesome on a scarlet wall, and never exhibited in Outerbridge’s lifetime, the picture is more playful than erotic. Perfectly composed, it says less about nudity than the voyeuristic impulse, which is in all of us.

Would that Daniel had included more of these less well-known images instead of trotting out so many of the usual suspects. Then we might really have learned something -- about photography as well as ourselves.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.