It seemed impossible to look without associating those nameless, shapeless stones [in the cave] with items from the upper world, particularly with bodies.
-REBECCA SOLNIT, 20011
According to Gillian Rose, men have historically been thought to embody ideas of culture, while women have been thought to embody that of nature.2 Jared French’s photograph Untitled (Crouching Male Nude on the Beach) challenges the notion of “man as culture” by placing a male body in the context of the natural world, thus making the male form one with the landscape. In contrast, Edward Steichen’s photograph In Memoriam does nothing to challenge these gender binaries. His use of the female body exemplifies the conventional treatment of the female form, part of a long continuum of the nude in the history of art- something to be objectified and therefore separated from its setting. However, both these photographs reveal something about how social interventions enter into gendered representations of the body as a landscape, and the juxtaposition is particularly enlightening.
In Western art, depictions of both women and nature have been constructed to invite the same kind of observational pleasure, or possessive masculine gaze. There is a sense of domination in the execution and surveying of a landscape. The artist frames the piece of land that they want, and by doing so claim ownership over it. The same concept can readily be applied to the continuum of the female nude. As Rose comments on Berger’s Ways of Seeing, “Just as he argues that the painting of the landscape in oils was a sensuous celebration of land ownership, so he claims that the representation of a women in oils turns her too into a commodity, passive and prostrate, able only to welcome the gaze of the owner of the canvas.”3 Depictions of nature and women both possess a similar passiveness and motionlessness.
Women in landscape images rarely look out from the canvas at the viewer as an equal; their gaze is elsewhere, further justifying the viewer’s temptation to interrogate the figure. The feminization of nature in the discourse about landscape parallels that of female nude portraiture, eroticized through the gaze of heterosexual desire. In the context of Edward Steichen’s In Memoriam, though framed in an interior, built-space as opposed to an outdoor, natural one, this same passivity of the female body is exhibited. She is placed in a state of vulnerability that is conducive to pleasurable observation; her body substitutes for the landscape view. We do not see her face, and her gaze, and therefore her mind, is elsewhere; the viewer is free to observe the quiet moment at their leisure, just as they would a landscape.
The photograph by Jared French utilizes the body in a similar, yet I would argue less vulnerable, way. He is free in the context of an open beach and is not exposed to us, frontally, from the confines of a cornered interior. Furthermore, the male body’s physical engagement with his natural surroundings heightens our ability to conceive of him as an organic form. His position, curved and crouching, mimics that of the natural shapes of the bushes behind him, allowing us to accept him as part of the landscape.
In both photographs, there are several qualities that enable us to view bodies as landscapes, or like landscapes. The fact that they are nude, as opposed to naked, enhances our capability to imagine them as landscape. As John Berger wrote, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as a nude in order to become an object…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”4 In the French photograph, the male’s nudity becomes nature, as well as object. Through this process of objectification, his body becomes a rock, a bush, or any other type of organic form. Finally, and in some ways most importantly, an integral aspect of why we are able to imagine both of these figures as objects is their facelessness. Faces, particularly eyes, are the most revealing of our honest emotional states and the nature of our personalities. Abandonment of the facial expression simplifies our reading of the figure. As opposed to a multi-dimensional, emotionally complex human being, they are now reduced to purely organic forms. They are not portraits and so must be seen as a different genre- either landscape or nude, or both interchangeably.
In As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, writer Rebecca Solnit recalled her experience walking through the caves of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico: “…the landscape above it was as featureless and flat as, say, the expanse of skin on a belly… All the strange forms we saw suggested other forms: it seemed impossible to look without associating those nameless, shapeless stones with items from the upper world, particularly with bodies… the soft-looking folds of rocks reminded me of flesh, of bone…”5 Solnit brought to light the aesthetic parallels between nature and the human body. These unfettered, unframed reactions to the physical landscape help us to imagine landscape as naked as opposed to nude; that is, as a kind of nature that has not been measured from the position of a romanticized or commanding, heterosexual lens.
Do we see the male body in the French photograph as part of the context—a rock in the sand? Is the female nude in the Steichen a mountainscape unto herself? This photographic pairing demonstrates that how we look at a landscape is just as important as what we are looking at.
1 Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art (University of Georgia Press, 2001): 177.
2 Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (John Wiley & Sons, 2013): 87.
3 Ibid., 97.
4 John Berger, Ways of Seeing (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1977): 54. Berger was drawing a distinction from the classic, but outdated, study by Kenneth Clark: The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956)
5 Solnit, 177.