We live in an era in which the body is dissected in all its meanings and forms. Last year, for example, the Met Breuer hosted Obsession, an exhibition examining approaches to the nude by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso, as well as Like Life, which focused on sculpture and the body; the FIT museum’s The Body: Fashion and Physique surveyed how tailors and fashion designers have dealt with the proportions of the female body over the past 250 years; and Body Worlds, featuring dissected human bodies, has been traveling the world since 2005.
In 2017 the scientific journal Cell published images of 6- to 14-week-old embryos, which, in their extreme precision, revealed interior and exterior human anatomy in its minute details. This prompted curator and art historian Nathalie Herschdorfer to reflect on how Western painters and sculptors had strived to represent anatomically correct human bodies since the Renaissance, yet the development of photography in the 1840s enabled a whole set of new perspectives, in both science and art. Cameras allowed photographers to capture the body in its natural and intimate states and to stage it in a theatrical manner.
In Body: The Photography Book (Thames & Hudson), Herschdorfer compiles 369 depictions of the human body in photography, by more than 175 photographers from different background, cultures, and fields. The book is divided into 7 chapters: the first, “Physique,” examines the body in its anatomical context. Herschdorfer looks at such photographs as Nolwenn Brod’s “The Breast” (2015), a close-up of a female breast dripping milk; Bertrand Benoit’s 3D ultrasound of a fetus yawning from 2018; and Andres Serrano’s “Taylor Mead Triptych” (2009), a triptych featuring an elderly, nude Mead coyly posing in front of the camera.
The second chapter, “Alter Ego,” reflects on how photography shifted from a tool of discovery to a tool to promote bodies, often one’s own: selfies, whether shot by Kim Kardashian in the mirror (2015-16) or by an anonymous woman (2017), are prominent, as are staged group photographs and cinematic triptychs, such as Mona Kuhn’s “All About Eve” (2006), which portrays cropped male and female nudes. “Construction,” the third chapter, explores the paradox of body improvement. Even though self-acceptance is the mantra of the day, Herschdorfer reasons that we have never been so inundated with norms to which we are expected to conform. Social networks and “algorithmic” beauty canons — ethnically ambiguous unattainable beauty that almost looks digitally engineered (i.e., Lil’ Miquela or Bella Hadid) — remain our collective albatross. One example is the photo series Gender Studies by Bettina Rheims (2011); while it depicts gender-nonconforming and non-binary individuals, it retains a strong preference for ethereal, elfin-like youths. Likewise in Ryan McGinley’s tatooed, equally ethereal photographs “Rachel” (2011) and “Jasper” (2010).
Chapter four, “Mutations,” has a surrealist bent, exploring the possibilities of photomontages and retouching, while chapter five, “Celebrations,” addresses the way modern photography transcends concepts of “the nude” (artistic) and “naked” (more anatomical) in favor of a more innocent and nature-related celebration the body. The sixth chapter, “Flesh,” takes a look at what we might think of as “bodily decay.” However, Jocelyn Lee’s “The Perfect Breast” (2017), featuring a woman who underwent a mastectomy standing in a forest, Nadav Kander’s Rubenesque “Elizabeth with Elbows Hiding Face” (2012), and Liu Zheng’s harmonious “A Fat Woman” (2008) make this section feel redundant, as these works reprise themes from “Physique” and “Alter Ego.” Finally, “Love” briefly examines erotic photography, acknowledging that “it has often been hard to draw a line between sensual images and images of a pornographic nature.” For instance, Julia Fullerton-Batten’s 2016 staged portrait of porn star Chessie Kay and Nobuyoshi Araki’s “Kinbaku” (Bondage, 1979), in which a woman bound by rope dangles from a ceiling, both expose the subject’s genitalia, but the aesthetic tropes of the photos suggests that they are fine art.
In a way, this book is a follow up to William A. Ewing’s 1994 book The Body, which looks at the representation of the human form in photography since the invention of the medium, in both conventional settings, such as fashion photography, and documentary contexts, such as wars. Herschdorfer picks up where Ewing stopped, shortly before 2000. While Herschdorfer likely wished to sidestep what Ewing had already covered, a brief photo-historical introduction might have benefitted this collection. If space and page count were concerns, two sections (for instance, “Physique” and “Flesh”) could have easily been condensed into one, avoiding some redundancy.
Too much taxonomy can, at times, distract from the real intent of the work, namely that the human body, in photography, has been both a subject of and a vessel for countless artistic expressions and continues to inspire photographers from all walks of life.