The Nude Figure in Western Landscape

by Lorraine A. DarConte

February 06, 2013

Capturing the human figure has been one of the greatest challenges and pleasures of artists for centuries. The nude often triggers heated debates on everything from sexism to standards of beauty to what’s considered decent and what’s not (nude vs. naked). To further prove that nude photography is relevant, the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year presented “Naked Before the Camera” (March 27 through September 9, 2012), an exhibit of more than 60 photographs that explored the meaning, motivation and fascination photographers have with the nude figure.

My fellow workshop participants and I are no different; in August 2012, we attended the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’ “Figure in the Western Landscape” session. It was a weeklong adventure that included photographing a diverse array of nude models in equally diverse environments, leaving all of us inspired. The ten participants included men and women, both professionals and amateurs, ranging in age from early 30s to 70s. Allen Birnbach, a commercial and fine-art photographer with an extensive track record of publications, as well as exhibitions and print sales through galleries, was our instructor.

In general, all workshops begin with a conversation about any technical, aesthetic and directorial questions participants may have. “Then we go out in the field and shoot,” Birnbach explains. “Evenings are generally spent editing and preparing for the next day’s review/critique and shoot. Sometimes discussions are held at dinner, as enjoying the local cuisine is part of the experience.” Critiques are an important part, notes Birnbach, because we’re all trying to learn to grow as artists. “Sharing insights about the work sharpens everyone’s skill sets in the technical, aesthetic and communications area. It’s also great for participants to see they’re not the only ones experiencing specific issues with lighting, composition or working with models.”

Creative Collaboration
The key to learning, for Birnbach, is to talk about how to create collaborative relationships with the models by finding ways to make them feel they are allies in the process. “You’re counting on the person you’re photographing to do something interesting, whether that’s in an emotional context or line driven,” says Birnbach. “You can’t make the great image without them. So we spend a lot of time talking about how to make that happen.”

Discussions take place about finding great locations that complement the concept and the figure within the landscape; how to light that landscape; and technical information. High school photography teacher Lisa Bolotte took the workshop so she could do just that: develop skills in integrating people with environment. “I wanted to learn how to balance the scale relationship between subject and the space they occupy and how to use gesture to create a mood, as well as how to use lighting to make the most impact,” Bolotte says. “I was hoping to learn how to make an artistic image that successfully combined my love of the southwestern landscape with my interest in the human gesture. I learned how to direct the model, collaborate with the model, and to compose an image that balanced the human figure with the elements of the natural landscape.”

Creative intent, whether it’s line driven, texture driven, emotional or sexual, is also considered. “We also talk about how we can get what we’re seeing in our heads into a digital file and out into the world,” says Birnbach. Probably the most prevalent issue photographers have, he adds, is the fear they’ve run out of great ideas. “Helping people realize the well is not dry—that it’s simply a matter of the water building up behind the dam and spilling over again—is important. I encourage them to share with the model that they don’t know what else to do. It puts them in a vulnerable position, but it shifts the energy for just a moment. And if the model lifts a hand or turns a certain way, it may spur a whole new line of thinking for the photographer as to where to go next.”
That whole new way of thinking is one reason Birnbach began working with the figure. “I’m working with someone who moves, who thinks, who has the ability to bring their ideas and knowledge to a situation. And so, instead of it being a limited situation like a still life would be, this is an unlimited situation. I found that really exciting—frightening, at first—but actually quite exciting.”

Critiques and Guidance

Workshops are ideal in providing numerous people with whom you can bounce ideas, get support and see other ways of approaching work. Sure, you can look at the work of other photographers and artists for inspiration. “But in real time, being able to watch other people in your group photograph a model may spur ideas in you,” says Birnbach, who handpicks the talent for his workshops.

“The opportunity of having so many excellent models available, along with guidance and critique provided by a noted photographer, is an enviable situation,” says portrait/commercial photographer Chuck Humbert, whose experience shooting nudes prior to the workshop was in a studio under controlled lighting conditions. “Having attended SFPW workshops in the past, I had confidence that the sensitive subject “Figure in the Western Landscape” would be presented in a structured and professional manner. I was not disappointed.”

“I was hoping to work on my skills in working with a model,” adds professional photographer Jim Graham. “Working with a nude is incredibly intimate and can be very intimidating. I wanted to see if I could grow in an area that I hadn’t had an opportunity to work.” Fine-art/travel photographer David Schroeder was hoping to find themes that he could develop beyond the simple exploration of the human body. “I have been using Birnbach’s workshops to further my exploration of using the nude in the landscape to illuminate archetypal themes. On previous shoots, it’s been the female models that were the storytellers,” he explains. “In this workshop, it was the male models. For example, in a series I labeled ‘Evolution,’ I asked [model] Apolo to crawl out of the river (the primordial soup) and make his way up a dry creek bed like a creature coming on land for the first time. In the final image of the series, he reminded me of a giant lizard, sniffing the air, exploring his new world.”  

IT consultant Jeff Loo, who traveled furthest for the workshop (he lives in Singapore) says he’s always been entranced by the works of Andreas Bitesnich and his capturing of the human figure. He wanted to try something similar. “When the chance came up with the Santa Fe Workshop, I took it. Of course,” adds Loo, “the added incentive was that the workshop was conducted by Allen Birnbach, who does some absolutely stunning work with landscape nudes.” Though Loo had photographed figures in studio settings, he was eager to work outdoors to learn how to work with existing light, as well as the wide landscape that provides the background canvas.

“It was definitely something new for me, and in that one week, it opened up different ways for me to explore my craft and rethink some of the fundamental photography processes that we often take for granted. The course has given me invaluable experience in location work.”   

Birnbach says he finds teaching to be invigorating. “As time goes on, I’m ever more enthusiastic to give back to an art form that has been so good to me. A wonderful benefit is that I learn so much from the people that attend the workshops. That seems like a cliché, but it’s a gift to observe someone’s artistic growth. People who’ve taken the workshops really appreciate the fact that I’m only there for them. I never shoot for myself while the class is taking place. I try to get to every person while they’re shooting so I can give them technical and aesthetic feedback so they can be successful right in the moment. Workshops offer an immersion in a subject matter and the opportunity to learn in a nurturing environment with great models. I see it as a leap-frogging kind of experience that catapults skill sets.”

Says Bolotte: “It was an eye-opening experience not only in terms of what I created but also seeing the many different approaches my classmates took. It has influenced how I take photos now even without the model. I’m much more aware of figure/ground relationships and creating more contrast between subject, background and lighting.”   

Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in publica­tions including, Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and Tucson Visitors’ Guide. 

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