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Vulnerable Portraits of Men in the Nude

16 December, II

21 November, I

23 November, I

For twelve months, the Paris photographer Laura Stevens transformed her bed into a stage set for a series of portraits, and more than fifty unnamed men agreed to pose nude on a single white sheet. In most cases, she had never met her subject prior to the shoot, but after some tea and conversation, a new collaboration was born. “The shoots often seemed like a sort of hypnotic slow dance,” she tells me. “They lasted normally a couple of hours, or two albums of music. The same music each time: Bach: The Goldberg Variations and some Phillip Glass.” The sessions culminated in a project simply titled him.

The choice of the passive “him” as opposed to active “he” reinforces the photographer’s own role within these silent vignettes. The art critic John Berger famously wrote, “men act and women appear,” but in Stevens’s personal inversion, she, the photographer, is the onlooker, while he, the muse, is the one observed. “It felt natural for me to photograph men in postures of softness, quietness or passivity, it being how I normally like to photograph people in general, male or female,” the artist admits. “I suppose I find vulnerability beautiful.” We asked her to tell us more.

20 July, I

What motivated you to embark on this project?
“I had a growing irritation for the lack of representations of the male body made by women artists and the continuing development of the ‘female gaze’ showing images of women, rather than the male body. I had also realized that my ability to look at a man was still largely obscured within the ‘male gaze.’ There is still a rejection of the idea that the male body has equal value to that of the female in terms of beauty and should be celebrated as such. I find this reductive and too subjective, and I wanted to engage in finding my own way of looking at and portraying the man.”

22 November, I

Why do you think these men trusted you?
“I think they trusted me as I tried to be as clear as possible about my intentions and desires for the project and how the shoot would look. I gave them the power to say ‘no’ to the final selected image and as to whether they were seen completely naked or not.

Most of the men were found through internet searches and social media. One guy was sitting next to me metro who I found to be so beautiful I asked him if he would be interested in posing for me and if so to contact me. When I then proposed the idea of it being naked, it turned out it was something he had been wanting to do for a while, as a political statement.

“There seemed to be some desire in men to explore the way they are seen by a woman, how it feels to be looked at as the object and to express themselves through their body in a different way. Practically all of the men who had already been photographed naked had only ever been approached before by men, never by a woman photographer. It was what I imagined might be the case, but still I found it surprising.”

24 January, I

Why did you trust them?
“I tend to be somewhat over-trusting in general, but I tried to gauge the situation from the written communication we had before the shoot in order to get a sense of what he expected or desired from the experience.

“I began the work photographing them in their apartments or in a studio, but realized it worked better when situated at mine. Mainly because it gave me more control. For each shoot, the environment could remain the same, allowing me greater physical and mental control and space to concentrate.

“With him entering my home, it was like a meeting of two vulnerabilities, each opening themselves up to a certain exposure, creating the possibility of a better connection and a softening of limitations.”

14 December, I

Was the process ever emotional for you?
“There were a couple of shoots which were particularly emotional for me. One experience was with a man who felt very uncomfortable with his body, particularly with showing it to a woman, choosing to participate in order to help him become more at ease with his appearance and be more self-expressive as a whole.

“He cried at one moment during the shoot, and soon afterwards, I noticed a letting go and he became very present in his body. By the end, he was noticeably enjoying the shoot, with much expression. We had a wonderful and honest conversation afterwards, and it felt like the experience had made a difference to someone.

“Another was when I photographed the father of an ex boyfriend. It felt a brave move for him to offer to pose for me, and during the shoot I watched something opening up in him that I hadn’t seen before which I found very moving. It was an experience that brought us closer and, afterwards, I saw a new confidence revealed in him.”

17 December, I

Have you stayed in touch with any of the men?
“I have stayed in touch with quite a few of the men I photographed. Many were very enthusiastic with the result and with the idea as a whole and wanted to help me develop the project. There were only a couple who didn’t respond positively to the result, that it seemed to challenge a stereotype that I think they weren’t comfortable with. However, none of the images that I selected to use for the series were ever rejected by the men, which was a huge relief.”

14 November, II

What did you take with you from your time making this body of work?
“In all the 50+ shoots, I have only fond memories, full of interesting and refreshing encounters. All the men were respectful of the project and the situation and committed to the idea with an enthusiasm I didn’t quite anticipate. Also, I realized that I experienced a shift in how I personally relate to and connect with men. Over the year, I became more confident, and by the end was significantly more direct and unfazed with how I looked at men.”

28 November, I

20 November, I

All images © Laura Stevens

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