The female nude – magical, erotic, aesthetic – has been modeled and painted since prehistory. Appearing rarely and awkwardly in the earliest art, she attained fulfillment and glory in ancient Greece. In their idealized treatment of the nude, The Greeks established a standard that only the asceticism of the Middle Ages ignored. The artists of the Renaissance and their successors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revived the nude, and by the 1930’s she was again a conventional form. It was inevitable that she should become a favorite subject of photography.
…photographers of England made the mistake of attempting to emulate painting. The few nudes visible in Victorian photographs are usually languid participants in banal, morally edifying allegorical arrangements. These photographs only emphasize the worst aspects of the paintings they strove to resemble. All in all, the nude found nineteenth-century England a chilly climate.
The question of the artistic status of photography has been continually discussed since the very invention of the camera. Those who do not believe it is an art point to the seemingly accidental nature of the process (the photographer has no real control over his medium to the degree that the artist has) and the fact the photograph is always a picture of a particular or real thing, whereas a painting or drawing is a generalization, an interpretation. This specific quality of the camera is never more apparent than in a photograph of a nude: we are looking at an individual, real woman. However, we will always misunderstand and under-appreciate the finest photography if we insist on judging it by the standards of fine art. What we must look for are photographs which combine the camera’s unique qualities with a sense of form and mood.
Not only are photographers as a group more concerned with the expression of form and style through the nude than painters and sculptors today, but, it can be argued, photography is at present the last refuge of the nude. Today in art the nude, if she appears at all, is simply one more form among others. The expression of her moods and nuances, as well as her actual form, have been abandoned to the realism of photography.