Figure Photography Has No Boundaries ~ Leonard Nimoy and Lady Monster
Some time ago, I received an email from Mr. Nimoy asking me if I knew of any “big” models. Of course, my mind coming from the world I was subjected to in the fashion industry thought, “oh, hmm. size 12 – 14.” So I sent a few images of models I knew fitting that size and he replied, “no bigger.” I immediately thought about the Fat Bottom Revue, a Burlesque troupe in San Francisco and a connection was made. I emailed back and forth with Heather McAllister, aka Reva Lucian, and put her in touch with Leonard. She was such a strong person full of spunk and feminine power and who coined the phrase “fat liberation.” Please click on the highlighted links to read about her, she died in 2007.
Recently Kat Love and I started emailing back and forth talking about feminism and fine art. Powerful women portrayed in powerful pictures. How fine art nude photography has so much more to say than the average media blast that is overwhelming at times. As a test for you, reader, close your eyes and think of a fashion image, maybe one you saw on a billboard or in a magazine, now let your mind flip through rolodex style and soak it in, then look at these photographs. Kat and I, Zoe Wiseman, sent some questions to Lady Monster, one of the women in these photographs, at the suggestion of Leonard Nimoy who graciously allowed us to publish his work and words. And at the risk of overdoing it here, I’m going to stop commenting and let them do the talking. Kat and I hope to continue discussing themes here which talk about feminism and fine art as time allows. Thank you to both Leonard Nimoy and Lady Monster!
Leonard Nimoy’s essay from The Full Body Project:
Who are these women? Why are they in these pictures? What are their lives about? How do they feel about themselves? These are some of the questions I wanted to raise through the images in this collection.
This current body of work is a departure for me. For a number of years, I have been producing images using the female figure. I have worked with numerous models who were professional people earning their living by posing, acting, dancing, or any combination thereof. But, as has been pointed out to me in discussions at exhibitions of my work, the people in these pictures always fell under the umbrella of a certain body type. I’ll call it a “classic” look. Always within range of the current social consensus of what is “beautiful.” In fact, that was the adjective I most often heard when my work was exhibited. The women as they appeared in my images were allotted no individual identity. They were hired and directed to help me express an idea—sometimes about sexuality, sometimes about spirituality—and usually about feminine power. But the pictures were not about them. They were illustrating a theme, a story I hoped to convey.
A few years ago I gave a presentation of some of my work at a seminar in Nevada. When I was done I was approached by a woman who introduced herself as a model and wondered if I would be interested in working with her. She was clearly not typical of the models I normally hired. She came to my studio in Northern California where, with my wife assisting, we worked for about an hour. The images are in this book. She is the lady lying on the platform against a black background. I had never photographed anyone like her before.
Whenever I included those images in later exhibitions there was a response quite different than what I was used to. An intense interest in the model. People asked who she was and how did I come to photograph her. People commented on her size and the sculptural aspect of the images. I decided to explore this area further and was put in touch with the San Francisco group who populate most of this book.
These women are interested in “fat liberation.” They hold jobs in the theater, the film industry and in business—and together they perform in a burlesque presentation called “Fat Bottom Revue.” The nature and degree of costuming and nudity in their performances is determined by the venue and the audience, which can range from children’s birthday parties, to stag parties. I wanted these pictures to be more about them. These women are projecting an image that is their own. And one that also stems from their own story rather than mine. Their self-esteem is strong. One of them has a degree in anthropology and will tell you that ideas of beauty and sexuality are “culture bound”—that these ideas are not universal or fixed, and that they vary and fluctuate depending on place and time. They will tell you that too many people suffer because the body they live in is not the body you find in the fashion magazines.
My process was simple, yet different than how I had worked in the past. I was initially interested in revisiting two works of female subjects by Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton: specifically Ritts’ image of a group of supermodels, who were posed nude and clustered together on the floor, and a Newton diptych wherein the two images are identical in pose, except one image showed the models clothed, and the other showed them unclothed. The models were shown the images by Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton and they were quite prepared to present themselves in response to the poses that those images suggested. I asked them to be proud, which was a condition they took to easily, quite naturally. Having completed the compositions that were initially planned, I then asked them to play some music that they had brought with them, and they quickly responded to the rhythms, dancing in a free-form circular movement within the space. It was clear that they were comfortable with the situation, with each other, and were enjoying themselves.
With these new images, I am now hearing different words. Sometimes “beautiful,” but with a different sub-text. I hear comments, which lead to questions. The questions lead to discussions—about beauty, social acceptability, plastic surgery, our culture and health. In these pictures these women are proudly wearing their own skin. They respect themselves and I hope that my images convey that to others.
From her website bio…
Mastering the art of fire tassel twirling, she is the protégé for the living legend of burlesque, Satan’s Angel.
Stripping at the speed of seduction, Lady Monster will rip apart your conceptions of how sexy a big girl can be. This veteran spoken word siren has a shimmy in her step, peeling off her velvet gloves to reveal an iron fist. Vivacious, campy and oh so curvy – a growling good time.
Lady Monster has worked with legends such as:
Leonard Nimoy, Margaret Cho, Jello Biafra, Al Jourgensen, Annie Sprinkle, Carol Queen, Satan’s Angel, Steve Balderson, Carlos Batts & April Flores, Charles Gatewood, Eric Kroll and many others, in a variety of capacities as an artist.
ANN: How fun was it to model for Mr. Nimoy?
LM: I love working with Leonard. He had his shots set up, but wanted us to be very free with our motions to capture our personalities. Sometimes new ideas for shots came to him while we were moving about. Some of my favorite images in the book were from these moments of inspiration. There were several unforgettable moments being at The Hammer Museum with Mr. and Mrs. Nimoy and the women from Fat-Bottom Revue. We had a lot of fun – laughing, joking, singing, dancing. I like telling people that I had my naked body next to Leonard and our legs were flying up in the air. You’ll never guess what that refers to.
ANN: Since the book release I’ve noticed several main stream magazines and commercials like Marie Claire and the Dove campaign include more models in every shape and size. Even some fashion designers have started putting women larger than a size 2 on their runways. Do you think this is sincere of the fashion industry?
LM: Yes. I think that public pressure on showing real women is finally making a dent. There are several factors of awareness in some of the media, including:
– the pressure of being a very small size at all times (eating disorders, addiction, effects on mental health)
– the public sees women as “still” beautiful after a weight gain,
– clothing and couture can still look fashionable on a bigger/curvier frame,
– recognition of the market of people with bigger bodies and how much they need to also be the focus of advertising in order for their products to sell.
ANN: We all know that main stream media plays a huge role in how young girls and women view themselves when they look into the mirror. What are some ways these women can combat these images which are hurled at them on a daily basis?
LM: Awareness of real women’s bodies and how it relates to their own. Knowing how all the dieting and working out in the world will most likely not create a body like is seen in advertising.
Having someone teach people, make them aware that:
- people of all sizes, genders, ages have body image issues,
- self-esteem doesn’t come from an article or blog,
- and how much airbrushing, photoshop, lighting and other technical means are used to change the appearance of people in advertisements.
Having good critical thinking tools when feeling bad about yourself is the best means to combat them, having a support team (your friends or a social network) to bring you back up is good and also just learning to stop yourself from self-loathing and recognizing what the reality of the model’s life and self-image may be.
For me, I grab my belly (or other offending body part), touch all the softness and thickness and say, “I love you” and all the reasons why. Seeing photos of me that are taken at a bad angle or bad lighting is so difficult and I have to just recognize that, and move on.
ANN: Do you believe that the types of models we see in fashion influence the types of models we see in art?
LM: I think it’s the other way around. It is the types of models in art that influence fashion.
Artists have always been using bigger models than what is represented in the fashion world. There are some artists that only want thinner models, but there is also an audience and desire to see bigger body types. That audience is becoming more vocal, thus we are seeing it more in magazines, on runways and in other fashion avenues. Dirty Martini was recently a model for a Karl Lagerfeld fashion shoot for V magazine. Crystal Renn just wrote a book, Hungry about her triumph as a curvy woman in the fashion industry. More curvy women are being recognized as beautiful fashion models.
ANN: Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project was quite radical. What did you hope to offer with your image in this project?
LM: Being a model in this book – being the smallest sized model in the book and the “petite flower” of the Fat-Bottom Revue – has empowered so many women that are also considered “curvy” (as in not quite up to a BBW, not accepted into the fat acceptance movement, and still considered “overweight” or their BMI is “too high“). I am very honored to be in this book and to show off every inch of my body. However, I have been cut out of pictures in publications that wish to make fun of our size. This absolutely infuriates me. I identify as a thick, fat, voluptuous, bountiful woman.
ANN: What was the best part of the experience for you?
LM: There are many parts that come to mind.
– Becoming friends with Mr. Nimoy and his wife. He has been an absolute doll and so accessible.
– Being welcomed into their home for the EXTRA TV interview was really incredible.
– Hearing the reaction of people, knowing how much they love him, shocked to find out that he’s a photographer, and then they see the images. The progression of awareness is wonderful.
– Seeing it mentioned on television, on the internet, in magazines and in galleries all over. Including having my naked body on The Colbert Report (click link to watch, great and funny interview), on t-shirts for sale in museums and galleries and shown on various blogs – everyone raving about how much they love the book, and even seeing people’s hate and ignorance. Art is all about reaction and creating a response in someone – so the negative ones count too.
ANN: Does our culture worship the image of the ideal woman’s body?
LM: I would say the majority of society has an unrealistic view of what an “ideal” woman’s body is. It is up to the artist what kind of model they want, what kind of vision of beauty they want in their art. In my opinion, each woman’s body should be considered ideal.
ANN: Do you feel that you have a responsibility to speak-out against issues that affect women?
LM: Absolutely. I feel that it is every person’s responsibility to speak out against oppression and make a difference in the world. You have to be accountable for your actions and how it affects oppression, freedom and beauty. This includes art and expressions on a stage. I continue to speak out against people that wear fat suits, tell fat jokes and have other behaviors that try to make a fat person the butt of a joke. In addition to my art, I also take part in dialogues and actions that serve to inform the public and create more awareness.
I also have the responsibility to be informed and how best to speak when provided the opportunity. With freedom of expression comes the awesome responsibility of maintaining our liberties.
ANN: How do you feel art photography helps to shape acceptance in body image?
LM: I think first people have to love their own bodies. When someone is able to love their body and make art showing all sizes and shapes of other bodies, then public perception will change. But, if people continue to not have a love affair with their figure, then negative images will continue to be perpetuated.
Some feel that when a nude image is presented as art rather than porn, it can be more accessible, acceptable and generally viewed as a thing of beauty rather than objectification. When Leonard Nimoy decided to have each of us pose, walk around, dance, be joyful, loving, warm women enjoying one another’s company – the focus was shifted from us simply being big beautiful naked women. Our nudity was completely secondary for that photo shoot, therefore letting the viewer see our personalities.
I feel there are just as many people viewing p0rn (if not more) than an artistic nude photo. April Flores and Carlos Batts create amazing art with a prn label. April’s work as a prn actress and filmmaker brings so much beauty, glamour and positive attention with some of the hottest films I’ve seen. Her charisma is primary. Her size is secondary. April has created a lot of acceptance in the Adult Entertainment community because of the sales and popularity attributed to her image, including being on the cover of the December issue of AVN magazine where they discussed the marketability of plus-sized actresses and products geared to the plus-sized community (and those that love them).
By putting ourselves in the public eye (whichever way you view the image), it changes public perception of what is sexy, beautiful, a turn-on, an acceptable image.
ANN: Tell us what you think “beauty” means.
LM: How beautiful someone is, is completely up to each person. It is nice when it’s reflected in someone else telling you you’re beautiful, but that isn’t always going to happen and it may not happen often.
How do you represent yourself? What do you bring? When someone tells you you are beautiful, do you own it – regardless of how they mean it, physically or otherwise?
Do you see yourself as beautiful – in all contexts?
I want the world to see me as thoroughly beautiful, that my performances, written words, ideas, actions, sexuality – that everything I imbue and create is beautiful.
You have to give yourself the power to say that you are beautiful. Like Ms. Yvonne (of Pee Wee’s Playhouse) says, “If you feel beautiful, then you are beautiful.”
Working in burlesque and living in San Francisco, I have mostly seen acceptance for different body types. Burlesque is about self-expression. It is what you do with your body, your art – how much passion you have that is measured and what matters. It is not about the size or appearance of your body. This is one of the things that really appeals to the fans and performers of burlesque – the variety of expression and variety of body shapes, sizes, ages, races, cultural background and no boundary on gender expression either. Like I’ve said for many years, “The power and experience of your sexuality is limitless”.