E.J. Bellocq, one of some four dozen photographers included in The Nude: A Photographic Survey, at Etherton Gallery, does just that. His specialty was New Orleans whorehouses at the turn of the last century, and there's nothing coy about his pictures.
In an untitled work from 1912, a nearly naked woman reclines on a couch. She's got on black stockings, a black mask, a big grin and nothing else. She knows why she's there, and she knows why Bellocq is there: to see her naked flesh.
In fact, it's believed Bellocq, a commercial photographer, helped the red-light Storyville businesses compile "look books" from which prospective customers could pick the women who most stirred their loins. Bellocq didn't worry about passing this stuff off as art. Though they're fascinating social documents, his pictures are about lust and money.
Not all the photographers in this show are as honest. There's a fair amount of voyeurism dressed up as art. Garry Winogrand, for instance, a respected American photographer and photojournalist who died in 1984, offers "Hippie Hollow, Lake Travis, Austin." This 1973 period piece shows a lovely young blonde from a distance, dipping into the water. The woman's back is to the camera, and her white buttocks look singularly vulnerable. One gets the impression of a photographic Peeping Tom at work behind the trees, of a male photog capturing his female subject by stealth.
Most, but not all, of the show's 49 pictures are of lovely young white women; most, but not all, of them photographed by men. That's no big surprise, given that throughout art history the male gazing upon the female has almost defined the nude. And most of the models, unlike the ambiguous Austin hippie, are clearly participating in the project. But the narrow range of bodies is a problem in a history show intended to examine nudes through a hundred years of photography.
The preponderance of nubile young beauties lends the exhibition a certain monotony. There are only so many ways to pose their curves for best erotic advantage. The women lie flat on their backs (John Guttman, "Two Women Attracted," 1937), boldly indulge in full frontal nudity (Jock Sturges, "Marine," 1989) or forthrightly spread their legs for crotch shots (Jack Welpott, "Sherry," 1980). Each of these leering photogs tries to provide a titillating variant on his conventional theme -- Guttman hints at lesbian love, Sturges dangerously specializes in young teens, Welpott puts his crotch shot in an awkward cabin setting -- but they're all basically working with the same anatomical materials.
Choreographers face the same problem. One sees the same twists and leaps on stage again and again until a Pilobolus comes along to subvert dance convention. Like the best choreographers, Ruth Bernhard, the German-born American photographer, succeeds in reimagining the body. In her "Classic Torso," a famous 1952 work, a nude woman reduces her body to a rectangular form. Seated on her haunches, she hugs one knee to her chest, the other to her foot. Beautifully lit against a dark background, the picture is at once a beautiful body and a sculptural abstraction.
Similarly, Edward Weston, one of the giants of 20th-century photography, pulls off original work in his "Nude," 1927. His model too pulls one knee to her bosom, and drapes her arms gracefully to the floor. Bill Brandt creates fascinating distortion in the gigantesque "Nude, London," 1950-55. All three of these photographers photograph conventionally beautiful bodies, but they have a broader interest in form than their panting confreres do, and a lesser preoccupation with prurience.
There are other pictures to like, including a few photographs referring to painting. Flor Garduño lends a Gaugin-esque flair to her portrait of a countrywoman in "Agua-Valle Nacional, Oaxaca, Mexico," 1982. Wrapped in a white cotton skirt, the bare-breasted young woman stands self-confidently in the jungle. André Kertèsz, an Eastern European working in Paris in the '30s, comes up with distorted, elongated torsos that mimic the work of modernist painters (think Modigliani).
To be sure, there are a few naked males. Judy Dater, a photog who's often poked fun at female stereotypes, has fun with the young "Marc," 1975, posing him on his back in a classic, languid -- female -- pose. Several homoerotic works provide a welcome alternate view of sexuality. Bruce of L.A. offers a close-up of a muscle man's powerful back in an untitled 1950s work, while the German Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden photographed two young men outdoors in a warm sepia light in the 1890s. In a twist, Robert Mapplethorpe, best known for his stark male nudes, here revels in female erotica: a 1980 side view of an erect nipple.
Leave it to Joel-Peter Witkin, though, to be as honest as Bellocq, the brothel photographer. Well-known for photographs infused with perilous and polymorphous sexuality, Witkin here poses three male transvestites as "The Three Graces, Los Angeles," 1988. These naked fellows, proud possessors of both penises and breasts, hold wizened monkey heads instead of the golden apples of Greek myth. One model's face is scarily scratched out in black. But they stand prettily, curving their arms, waiting to be judged, like the goddesses of old, for their beauty.