ďMy first nude portraits were of friends and acquaintances who wanted to see what it would be like to model nude in a non-threatening environment. As I became more comfortable working with the nude portrait I began to add props and situations to the photo session. I still work with the general theme of being naked in front of the camera, but from there I try to evoke a multi-layered mood or emotion, be it serious, humorous, satirical, sensual, disturbing or a combination of the above.Ē
There are good photographers around who make individual photographs of equal interest and importance to those produced by Jim Riegel. But in the case of most of them there is no overall objective in their work, other than the desire to produce an interesting composition, and to win the applause of their audience. In the end this is all their work amounts to; a whole heap of desire for applause.
The essential difference with Jim's photography is that there is a leading idea informing the whole body of his work, and, by using a systematic approach tied to this leading idea, each image adds something to the whole, and each image, seen in the context of the whole, says something more than it would on its own.
It was something of a revelation to me that there was actually somebody out there photographing the nude as a human being. Had it been done before? Absurd as it seems, I couldn't remember having seen the approach used consistently. As Jim says in the opening statement above, nude photography was mainly either fantasy sex or just light hitting forms, and with both approaches there seemed to be an almost obsessive (and rather silly) attempt to deny that what was being photographed was actually a human being with personality.
I made some prints of Jim's photographs, and showed them to a few people to see what sort of reaction I would get. A whole ocean of issues came up. Many people were positively turned off by any representation of the naked human body. Others thought that the only bodies they wanted to see represented were the bodies of the so called 'beautiful people', ie bodies which conformed to the tight stereotype of what our culture (or perhaps media) says a body should look like. There were those who thought that it was OK to show some bits of the body but not other bits. And there were those who just wanted to mock the people in the photographs.
From these reactions, I realised that in the process of looking at Jim's photographs, we are led to confront not only the question of how we respond to issues of nudity and sexual provocation, but, because he is showing us nudes as people, we are also drawn into looking at the issue of how we relate to our own bodies. There is no doubt that this can get uncomfortable.
The issues of sexual response and how we relate to our own bodies are connected of course. But the body issue is a wider and broader thing, and is established very early on in our lives, certainly before we have any sort of conscious control over what is happening to us. For this reason, it becomes difficult to discuss rationally. I realised that with some people I was dealing with a whole host of basic fears and uncertainties which had probably been with them since early infancy, and which were using the rational part of that personís brain to protect themselves.
Tacked onto these fundamental issues related to how we live in our bodies, there are, of course, a whole host of neuroses about weight, body hair, shape of nose, disposition of eyes, regularity of feature, youth and so on, which become part of our consciousness as our personality develops through seeing and feeling how other people react to us. These neuroses get constant reinforcement from the media who, despite the competitive nature of the industry, are united in pushing one agenda: the idea that to look good is to be good. Appearance is essence. To look good is to feel good and to have value as an individual. If it were not the case, what would be the point of buying any of the thousands of products which are targeted at changing the appearance, enhancing status, making the buyer look cool or sophisticated, elegant or fashionable, strong or desirable?
Jim's photography addresses these issues directly by presenting us with examples of human beings who are not paradigms of youthful desirability. Many of the embarrassed reactions I got to the images I showed around just spoke of the viewer's own problems with being overweight, underweight, undersized, oversized, too hairy, too dark, too spotty, too freckledÖyou name it, somebody's got too much of it, or too little, and they are made to feel bad about it. We are picked on for what is different about our bodies. Deformed or handicapped people have it even worse. Viewed rationally, the whole thing appears manifestly absurd. You are what you look like. Everybody knows it's untrue.
To many people, aesthetics is something far removed from ordinary life. It's what happens in museums, art galleries and concert halls and is the prerogative of the rich, who wear it like a badge of superiority. Unfortunate, because in reality aesthetics (from Greek : perception) goes to the very roots of everyday experience.
I was at the Bowes Museum in County Durham a few years ago. In the entrance hall stands a large silver swan in a glass case, the wings of which open on the hour, every hour, then close again. The museum itself is overloaded with giant oil paintings in heavy gilt frames depicting handsome men in wigs showing off their badges of status, winsome maidens, historical scenes of appropriate gravitas, idealised classical landscapes and so on. It was all very fine. I wandered around the exhibits until I came across a small almost monochrome oil painting by Goya. Maybe the effect was heightened because of the context, I don't know, but that little black and white painting travelled the distance between Spain and England, between the 19th and 20th centuries in an instant, eclipsing all of the fancy paraphernalia around it. It was human experience presented starkly and accurately from the pen of a human being intent on recording what was going on around him. It recorded what was, a moment, a situation. It was not beautiful, except in the sense of its power to convey, its power to record, its power to move, the power of the truth. It's the type of experience that makes your primitive particles dance. And, at its best, that's essentially what the business of art is, a beautiful accord between means and expression, an accord which comes across as a uniquely powerful experience, connecting us immediately and strongly with the artist who made it. No matter what the time and distance, we feel his knowledge, his intelligence, his humanity, his perception.
Harmonious proportions, creativity, inventiveness, the investigation and recording of issues of fundamental importance to human beings, pattern, repetition, echoes, clues to the eternal, the application of intelligence and imagination to problems, riddles, paradoxes and processes, using different media, producing observations on and embellishments to the society in which we live: these have all been the pre-occupations of artists through the centuries. And this is the tradition continued by Jim Riegel. Itís a tradition which engages not only the artist, but also the scientist and the philosopher, a tradition which is rooted in curiosity about the world and how it works, and which seeks to express the harmonies and dissonances of the world in material form.
There are, of course, plenty of other agendas for art: it has been equated with fashion, with self expression, in fact with any set of qualities that can be put together and sold at a high price. This is an impoverishment of both art and the language. There are plenty of words for these other activities : advertising, marketing, fashion and elitist self indulgence are a few that spring to mind. They all lay claim to the word Ďartí simply because it is financially and socially advantageous to do so. If there were neither money nor status to be had, they would quickly leave it alone.
Jimís art is not concerned with these externals. In defining his objective as that of showing the nude with personality, he is targeting his interest on the relationship between what someone appears to be (their physical form, their nudity) and what they are (their personality, their inner self). Taking away the clothes is a masterstroke, because the individual no longer has the badges of identity to hide behind. It makes it much more likely that the real person will appear sometime during the photo session. And it opens up subject matter which is of profound interest to human beings, and also for which the camera is well suited as a means of exploration.
Itís important to note that there is no sordid striving after sensationalism by depicting the deformed or obscene in Jimís photography. Such an approach does not address anything deeper than pornographic or fashion photography, both of which rely on our response to the human being as an object.
In this he is fundamentally different to some ninety five percent of photographers who latch onto the external aspects of their subject matter in the belief that this is all a photograph can show. Sex, or light hitting form. For both approaches, there is nothing but the body as an object: an object of desire, or an object being hit by light. At bottom, itís not very interesting. Its popularity is driven by the appetites, and the whole narcissistic obsession with desire and gratification, its appeal transient and often based on novelty, its value temporary, though sometimes resurrected as nostalgia, another desire close to self love, love of my past and those cultural artefacts that connect me to it. In short love of me, albeit a past me.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with sex and light hitting form per se. But the approach does represent something qualitatively different, and it does seem important to make distinctions between what is happening based on these different approaches. Making distinctions in this way is a process which enriches our perception (aesthetic). The Eskimoes have 49 (or so) different words for ice. In the arctic tundra they see a world rich in diversity, of which we are unaware. The same applies to the world of cultural artefacts. There is a similar richness and variety for those who can see. In this richness, and the profound resonances which accompany it, lies the essential benefit of pursuing aesthetics (perception). It requires working at, because true appreciation of a work of art is nearly always based on considerable background knowledge. It is valuable not only as a thing in itself, but also as a means of communication, because there is here a common heritage which expresses and preserves common ideas, aspirations and spirituality.
Civilisation, humanity itself is very close to its expression in cultural artefacts. The North Vietnamese civilian, reduced to living in underground tunnels for days on end by napalm bombing, retained a sense of identity and humanity through his songs, ie through his own cultural and aesthetic heritage.
3. The Photograph
The photograph is as enigmatic, evanescent and mysterious as the past present moment it represents. The cameraman uses similar skills to the painter in composing this moment, but he works with time, space and light, not brushes, with looks, angles, props, emotions and interactions, rather than pigments. The skills involved in doing this are equivalent, and possibly somewhat undervalued.
Superficially, the photograph acts as a record of one instant in time, and it is indeed this instantaneous quality that functions to make photography one of the most powerful and immediate of the visual media. But the fact that the particular instant is ripped from its historical context opens up volumes of possibilities for re-interpretation, sometimes giving the photograph an otherworldly quality which is strangely at odds with the matter of fact recording role of the medium. What is being recorded? What was? What is? What was about to be? The transition between what was and what will be? We are brought up straight against some of the impossible paradoxes of time. We see and know about an ocean of time past, but it does not exist. All that exists is the tiny island of the present, which, as soon as perceived, is gone, and we know that an infinity of time stretches out into the future, but that, when it comes to us, will also be the present. Some of the most intriguing things about both time and personality are there on the surface of every photograph. There is, for example, the weird reaction that ĎThat doesnít look like meí. It can be a straight on face, properly lit, but still, the photograph does not look like the subject. And itís not just vanity that says so. Whatís going on? To answer the question, we have to look at time, moments, instants, personality, reactions, how somebody changes when they know they are observed, muscles, tension, light, form, flux, change, emotion, the inner and outer self and the relationship between the two. The attempt to answer the question comes out as more photographs, and the intelligent photographer manipulates the image to produce works which not only show balance and dynamic in terms of the spatial relationships in the photograph, but also balance and dynamic in these elements of change, flux and time. Itís a fascinating play of forces which invests photography with a range of possibilities unlike any other medium.
The complexity of what is happening in reality rather demands that these elements are split down, simplified, and the studio is a good place to do this. But in the process of reduction, itís important to keep the essential ingredients intact. Like the parts of a recipe, itís important to know which bits itís possible to leave out without profoundly changing the end result.
The photograph also conceals and reveals another duality. It displays the scene in front of the camera, but also clearly documents the intentions of the cameraman. This is literally the case, of course, because it is the cameraman who is looking through the viewfinder and pressing the shutter release, and then selecting the image. All of which exercises his judgement and his aesthetic sense. But beyond that, we can see the relationship between the model and the cameraman, and we can see the fundamental motivation of the cameraman himself. In fact photography is as close as you get to seeing through somebody elseís eyes. The image in photography, like the brushstroke in painting, or the line in drawing, holds the character of the maker, his (or her) signature. Most photographers realise after a while that they only ever photograph themselves. But then, at bottom, this (that which perceives, the cameraman or the viewer of the photograph) is that (that which is perceived, the subject of the photograph).
Talking of this and that, the photograph is peculiarly suited to the study of ontology (being), in a way that painting is not. The painter has full control over the disposition of light, shade and colour on his canvas and expresses himself in the brushstroke which, by a miracle of human ingenuity, comes to represent an arm, a leg, or a face. Look closely at the work of some of the masters : Lawrence, Rubens, Snyders and so on. The life of the painting dances on its surface in a way that totally beguiles the eye. The illusion is fully dependent on the skill of the artist and the completed form is his creation. With photography, on the other hand, the scene is a given. The photographer plays not with brushes and pigments, but with light and the dimensions of being in and for itself, and being for others. Being in itself : ie things, stuff that exists as a physical entity. Being for itself : ie a being which exists for itself, a being which is also aware of itself, has self-consciousness, not just in the adolescent sense of embarrassment, though this may be present, but in the fundamental sense of having self awareness. Being for others : ie a being that exists for others to perceive. Of its very nature, this ontological trinity is clearly articulated in the photograph.
The skill of the photographer is partly to work with these elements in constructing his image, showing the ever changing, ever fascinating play of being. An analogy from music is perhaps appropriate here, because we see the same thing happening, but in a completely different medium and in a completely different way, for music also imitates the play of being, but through pattern, rhythm, tone and pitch. The combination, resolution and re-combination of notes in structured sequences resembles very closely the way that matter itself behaves, and it is this echo of our very being that enables music to move us so profoundly, quite independent of any conscious awareness of its significance.
Jimís approach aligns itself perfectly with the medium of photography, firstly as an instantaneous representation of what is, with all its ambiguity and mystery, and secondly with its way of recording being invested with consciousness.
The target of Jimís art is the innermost self, the spirit of the person, that which really is important, that which really does make us feel good or bad, that which contributes to good and evil in society, that from which emanates happiness or despair, beauty or ugliness, things of value or dross. Itís interesting to watch how he does this.
He approaches the photo session in a relaxed and undemanding way that opens the space for the subject of the photograph to engage him or herself with the photo session. He does not tell the model what to do. He lays out the opportunity for the model to express him or herself in the context provided. He explores possibilities with his model, juxtaposes other people, objects, the familiar and the unfamiliar, challenges his model with propositions. 'The world is flat.' 'The world is round.' 'The world does not really exist at all.' 'The world is all there is.' Itís a game which has a lot in common with stalking an animal. The photographer has to be in the right place at the right time to take his shot, and the right moment is the moment when essence fills appearance, when what is fills what appears to be.
If, in the context of Jimís photography, removing the clothes opens the door to seeing things as they really are, Jim's use of props (hence 'Propositions') gives an opportunity for the personality of the subject to express itself more fully.
Think of the difference in impact between the studied studio pose and the raw vitality of the candid shot, particularly where an unambiguous human emotion is portrayed. The emotion is always expressed in relation to something, another person, an object, a situation. And the candid has a compelling authenticity which cannot be faked. This quality of authenticity marks the connection between appearance and essence, and it is plain for everybody to see. It is also what Jim is looking for in the studio, albeit in a more abstracted and formal manner: appearance filled with essence. His artichokes evoke vegetable emotions, his masks emotions of concealment and deceit, his fruit and flowers emotions of life, fertility and creation. If you think you have no such emotions, look again. They are the stuff of life, underlying all of our experience, but, because they are ubiquitous and occur subconsciously, they often go unnoticed.
I should also mention Jimís use of Ďordinary peopleí as models. Who else would you approach for an accurate reflection of what is? The professional model learns to manipulate the viewerís response in predictable and stereotyped ways, using his or her body as an object for others, in the process concealing his or her true nature, which is seen as irrelevant, undesirable, unnecessary. If what we want from a photograph is a masturbatory image, or one that sets up feelings of exclusion, giving rise to feelings of desire and / or inadequacy (the two essential ingredients that trigger the impulse to purchase), then the professional model is what is needed. But this has to be as close as you can get to the antithesis of art. The process conceals rather than reveals, airbrushes rather than shows things as they are, edits, censors and excludes, and we end up with the empty robot-like abstractions of perfection which comprise the icons of our age, fashion, not art, appearance, not essence, illusion, not reality. In fact and in the end, nothing.
5. Equipment and media
Jim has worked with a variety of cameras, films and formats over the years. Much of his photography is done with Nikon 35mm cameras and Kodak Tri-x film developed in D-76. In the late 80's he started using a Bronica ETR 645 with either Tri-x 400 or T-Max 100 with T-Max developer for some of his images. He also uses a Pentax 6x7 but primarily for commercial work. Prints were made on Agfa Portriga Rapid paper and selenium toned.
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