Artistic nudity and the British attitude to all things “naughty”

The British people have a strange attitude to nudity.

As part of what I do I offer a “boudoir” style service whereupon a customer can be photographed in sensual depictions of artistic nudity, either in their own home or in a studio setting. I also of course offer photoshoot parties, though these are normally conducted with clothes firmly on. However earlier this year, when I was approached by a group of six young women who wanted a group/party photoshoot done entirely nude, I had no problem with it. The reactions I got from other people were rather different. “Oh my God I could never get naked in front of my friends” was one of them. Another said “But why would they want to do something like that?”, to which I of course replied that they probably wanted to share a confidence-building experience amongst a close-knit group of friends who’d known each other since university days, and to get some beautiful photos of themselves. But I think the most common reaction from females was “Oh I’d absolutely love to do something like that but I would never have the confidence”. Of course the reaction of male friends was rather different, including growly noises sounding like Sid James from the Carry On films, and numerous offers to come and “hold the reflector” and such.

I’ve experienced quite a bit of this… generally outside the UK, where attitudes to nudity are markedly different, and where nudity is not always linked to sex or sexual desire. For example, in an Italian sauna, which of course is mixed-gender and clothing-optional, where my female friends said they “didn’t know where to look”, and from which my male friends emerged with a strategically placed towel and a broad smirk.

So, as a male, heterosexual photographer, I’m often asked how I cope. Why don’t I go to pieces when surrounded by nakedness? The answer is of course that I have managed to detach sexual connotations from the nude human form.

I think it stems back to something that happened when I was 13 years old. That summer of 1980, while Sebastian Coe & Steve Ovett were becoming British heroes of  the track, I spent one whole month in Copenhagen on a foreign exchange trip with a the family of a Danish boy called Jenz. He had two older sisters, who of course I fancied the pants off. Being the summer, and particularly fine weather, I was taken to various beautiful sandy beaches where there were a lot of people who were not only topless, but many of whom were completely naked. As a hormonal adolescent teenager I was all at once excited, aroused, amazed, disgusted, shocked, outraged and, most of all, most terribly embarrassed. I was after all the product of a British middle-class upbringing where nudity was just… not a part of life. Of course, within a few hours I had worked out for myself that I was the one with the problem, given that nobody else seemed to be reacting at all to the scenes of nakedness, let alone displaying any outrage or indeed embarrassment. A whole month of this did inevitably leave a lasting impression.

So, back once again to Britain, with its humorous nudge-nudge-wink-wink Carry-On “phwoaaaarrrr” attitudes to nudity. We clearly don’t find breasts a problem, since they’ve been gracing our breakfast tables on Page Three since the early 1970s. You can even find topless sunbathing on British beaches now. But we never quite made the transition to the mainland European acceptance that just because someone is naked, it doesn’t have to be sexual.

Thankfully in the photographic representation of nude beauty, we can take the image firmly away from the men’s magazine and place it in the realm of art. However I have hopefully shown with the latter of these two images that even erotic images don’t need to be explicit.

Photos are of Charli-Louise, a new model who is very confident and seemingly unaffected by her Britishness in so far as it relates to nudity.

Jon Silver is a Sussex photographer based in Brighton.

This entry was posted in Photography Blog.

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