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Black and White Photography: The Nude

Black and White Photography: The Nude - The latest book in Terry Hope's Black and White Photography series deals with the perennial subject of the nude. In this extract, a selection of photographers talk about the techniques they have employed to produce their pictures.

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Category : Portraits and People
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Words Terry Hope

The nude is one of the most traditional and popular of all photographic subjects and a remarkably high percentage of those who shoot pictures seriously have turned to this area for inspiration at some point. Small wonder then that there's such a variety of material around and so much diversity in terms of approach.

Black and white has proved to be a uniting factor for many who have wished to explore this subject, with photographers using the medium as their starting off point and then employing their own vision and technique to achieve something that has become personal to them.

Derek Ridgers, for example, discarded the idea of using standard studio lighting and instead came up with an unconventional method of his own that allowed light to effectively be painted into the scene he was photographing.
   'I wanted to produce a picture of Anoushka that was a little surreal,' he says, 'and I had the idea to set this image up in her flat, using as my central prop a very traditional picture frame. Because I wanted to accentuate the slightly odd feel of the scene, I decided that I would work in a darkened room and then progressively paint in the light by using the beam from a household torch. The only hint of available light is at the top of the door, where a line of brightness can be seen entering through a gap: I hung a black cloth there to cover this area, but this came away at one end and fell in such a pleasing way that I left it as it was.
   'The camera's shutter was set to give me thirty seconds within which to work, and the torch was adapted slightly to make it easier for me to use. I fashioned a piece of cardboard into a hood that was attached around the front end so that its beam was more directional, and I also placed a piece of translucent plastic over the head so that the light was softened and the hot spot that is so characteristic of torchlight was reduced.
   'To start the exposure I painted Anouska with light and then, while she held her pose steady to avoid an area of movement around her body, I moved on to fill in the detail in the background. The second hand on the clock is perhaps the only detail that really gives the game away here: its movement, caused by the lengthy nature of the exposure, adds to the unreal nature of the picture and helps to give it a rather unsettling appearance.'

Derek Ridgers' technique tip
One of the chief benefits of the 'painting with light' technique is that it gives the photographer the opportunity to direct light precisely into the areas where it's wanted. This level of control only comes with experience, but it does mean that individual parts of the picture can be highlighted or hidden by shadow as required. If you want your final result to have a believable appearance then you'll need to ensure that all your torchlight comes from the same general direction, so that the shadows thrown will look as though a single light caused them.


Anoushka, Frame and Clock
Nikon F90x, 24mm lens, Ilford Delta 100 film. Exposure 30 seconds at f/5.6

Marc Atkins, meanwhile, used light in a completely different way, and turned conventional technique on its head to come up with an image that works spectacularly well.
   'When I first photographed Sarah,' he says, 'I was struck by the beautiful way that she held herself throughout the session. Her pose was classic and said a great deal to me about the kind of person that she was. When I arranged a second shoot I remembered this aspect of her, and wondered how I might accentuate it in a picture, and this is the result. Although you can physically see so little of the person in this picture, the strength and character still comes across really strongly.
   'I asked Sarah to stand away from the black curtain that was forming the background so that this wouldn't pick up any stray illumination and lit her with three 500w red head tungsten lights, which were as flat on to her as possible to avoid shadows around her body. One light was positioned below her, while the other two were set up either side of her body.
   'Once I had ensured that there was sufficient intensity of light falling on her I took my exposure reading from the background, which effectively overexposed Sarah by around three stops. This meant that most of the tone around her body was lost in the density of the negative in this area, and this curious burned out portrait was the result. There is still just a small amount of detail in the background, which I hadn't anticipated being there, but to me this simply serves to put the portrait into context.
   'It was just an experiment, but it's one that I feel has worked. To me this couldn't be anyone but Sarah, and by paring down the detail I've removed the distractions and created a stronger image.'
 
Marc Atkins' processing tip
I wanted to increase the contrast still further at the printing stage, and so I produced this picture as a lith print. I love the lith process, because no two prints that you make using this method are ever the same, each one has its own life. With this picture, for example, I have other versions where the colour is less intense and the look is more towards straight black and white, simply because they have been produced at a stage when the lith developer was slightly older and the chemicals were less active. 


Sarah
Nikon FM2, 50mm lens, Kodak T-Max 400 film. Exposure 1/30sec at f/8


 
Marcus Doyle's nude study of his model Helen relied much on his ability to spot the potential of a scene that, to many, could have appeared ordinary and uninspiring.
   'I had hired out a studio so that I could shoot some nudes of a model,' he says, 'and when I arrived I was struck by the amazing bathroom that came with the place. It featured a huge frosted glass door, and I knew that this could become the focal point for a picture, but first I had to persuade my model to strip completely for the pose that I wanted.
   'She was very reluctant at first because agency models can find that their careers are damaged if they appear full frontal, but eventually she agreed provided that I could prove to her that the glass would prevent too much being shown. The deal was simple: I had to go behind the glass myself and then strip off, and when she realised that she couldn't see anything I had her co-operation!
   'It was the anonymity that attracted me to the idea of this picture in fact, the way that the glass hid most of the details while allowing enough to be revealed to define the outline of the girl. The further behind the glass things became the more indistinct they appeared, and so this gave me the opportunity to create areas of relative detail alongside others that were more abstract, simply by positioning my model so that she was leaning against the glass with her body at an angle.
   'I turned the lights on in the bathroom and used this as my illumination for the picture. This created strong and highly diffused backlighting, but by asking my model to tilt her head and by ensuring that most of her body was not in direct contact with the glass, there was enough light around to save her from becoming a pure silhouette.'
 
Marcus Doyle's composition tip
With my model leaning against the door, I realised that her arms and hands would become important elements of the picture. I needed to make sure that they would frame her head cleanly without any overlap, and asking her to stretch out her fingers so that her hands were clearly defined strengthened the shape still further. As the model's body stretched further awat from the frosted glass, detail became more indistinct.


Helen Behind Glass
Hasselblad 501X 6x6cm, 80mm lens, Tri-X film rated at ISO320. Exposure 1/15sec f/8

Randall Webb too was a photographer who reacted to what he encountered and, like Marcus Doyle, he was able to think around the situation and to come up with an image that was unconventional and visually very strong.
   'A friend of mine who is an artist had arranged to work with a nude model,' he says, 'and I had the opportunity to take a few pictures and to try out a few techniques, particularly those involving the use of slow shutter speeds, while she was there. For the session I borrowed a Hasselblad Super Wide camera, an unusual piece of medium format kit that features a fixed 38mm lens, which is the equivalent to a focal length of around 16mm in the 35mm format. I wanted to explore the characteristic wide angle perspective that was offered by this optic and to see whether it would inspire me in any way.
   'This image was the result, and it came about almost by accident. The model had arrived and was in the next room undressing ready for the session. I happened to notice what she was doing as she removed her blouse and realised that this could be the basis for a striking and very different nude study. I positioned my camera on a tripod and asked her to repeat her actions, setting a shutter speed of 1/4 second to allow her arms and clothes to blur while her legs, which were static throughout, stayed in focus to provide an interesting juxtaposition between sharpness and movement.
   'Eventually we went through the routine something like 30 times, and I shot a variety of different pictures. The only one that came out exactly as I'd envisaged was this one: this is the moment when where the scene takes on the surreal feel that I was after and even the difference of a fraction of a second either way on the shutter release would have changed the feel of the picture entirely.'

Randall Webb's processing technique
In order to give the print a warm tone it was printed on Kentmere Art Classic paper and then split toned in a thiocarbamide sepia toner. This involved placing the print initially in the thiocarbamide toning bath for around twenty seconds, a process that allowed some of the highlights to block off so that they were more resistant to the subsequent bleaching stage. This followed after a quick wash, and was carried out for two to three minutes in standard ferricyanide bleach. After another wash the print was left in the thiocarbamide toning solution for around one minute, and the result was an interesting mixture of black and brown tones. I finished the print by giving it a final wash for one minute in a ten per cent selenium solution.


Model Undressing 
Hasselblad Super Wide 6x6cm, fixed 38mm lens, Kodak T-Max 400 film rated at ISO200. Exposure 1/4 sec at f/11

Four photographers and four very different ways of tackling the same subject. It goes some way towards showing why, despite the amount of film that has been used up on this subject over the years, the nude still has the potential to be the most compelling photographic challenge of them all.

More information on The Nude and other books in the Black and White Photography series or details of how to obtain copies of the books go to the RotoVision website at www.rotovision.com


 

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