Photographer Maggie West explores sexuality, gender, and sensuality in her new book, 23
The earliest, most prominent nude art photographs were of white women. They began emerging in the mid-19th century, black and white images of women lying in repose or standing with their backs to the camera, their pulvinate asses exposed to the lens. Consider Julien Vallou de Villeneuve’s “Female Nude, Reclining, in Profile” taken in 1853: the soft-bodied model lounges lackadaisically on a chaise, her hands beneath her head. Or Gaudenzio Marconi’s shots of women posed against dreamy or fantastical landscapes, their limbs draped loosely over the props on set. Photos likes these represented the norm—at the exclusion of nonwhite women.
Nude art photography has not changed much since then. Contemporary art books are rife with images of “white girls with long hair,” says Los Angeles-based photographer Maggie West. “I was looking at a lot of existing nude books … [they] just didn't feel current to me,” says West.
In contrast, West’s new photo book, 23, contains nude images of 23 cisgender and transgender writers, artists, models, and performers from around LA, as well as essays on sexuality and nudity by four writers and activists, such as MTV’s Darcie Wilder and writer Gaby Dunn. Her photos are intended to be an exploration of sexuality, gender, and sensuality—23 includes shots of her now-boyfriend and former porn star Christopher Zeischegg, trans musician Ryan Cassata, and trans actor Arisce Wanzer. “I just wanted to do a book that was more reflective of our generation,” she says. “It seemed ridiculous to not include trans men and women. Or not even trans people, but also people that don't fit into a really binary mold of sensuality, like being more masculine or more feminine.”
It’s this dichotomy that West hopes to dismantle within her photos—the one that has been persistent within the genre of nude art since humans first put ink to canvas. In 1972, the English critic and writer John Berger published Ways of Seeing, a book on art criticism in which he dedicated a chapter to the history of nudity in European art. “At the moment of nakedness first perceived, an element of banality enters: an element that exists only because we need it,” he wrote. “The focus of perception shifts from eyes, mouth, shoulders, hands—all of which are capable of such subtleties of expression that the personality expressed by them is manifold—it shifts from these to the sexual parts, whose formation suggests an utterly compelling but single process. The other is reduced or elevated—whichever you prefer—to their primary sexual category: male or female.” We find “relief,” said Berger, in the seemingly bare truths revealed to us by the subject’s nakedness.
These representations didn’t always cater to prurient curiosity. Even during periods of extreme austerity, images of the original nudes—Adam and Eve—still pervaded the visual landscape, religious and secular alike, though their respective genitals were often strategically concealed by sprigs of leaves. Similarly, West’s photos are not gratuitous with nudity. She had conversations with the models about what they were or weren’t comfortable with, and had them each help select the final shots that ended up in the book. “The range of nudity is really big,” she says. “There’s some shots where you literally don’t see anything.” She was conscious of the cis gaze as well as the male one—particularly the objectifying scrutiny of trans people’s bodies. “I didn’t want the book to be voyeuristic,” she explains.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]A lot of my work deals with capturing very genuine emotions in artificial settings.[/quote]
The inclusion of trans folks, for West, was a given. “I think it’s interesting because I’ve had some people say, ‘Oh, you’re, like, making a big statement by putting trans people in the book,’” she says. “I get with the current political climate, how people might feel that way. But, to me, it seems absurd not to. It seems like more of a statement to not.” Seven of the 23 models in the book are transgender.
The resulting photos are awash in deeply saturated reds, purples, greens, yellows, and blues. “When things that we see all the time are recolored in this way, it makes you take a step back and reexamine your preconceived notions about something,” she says. “That’s part of why I work with this color scheme.” Her previous book, Kiss, was colored in the same way. For that, she invited people to come to her studio and make out as she photographed the interaction. Some knew each other. Some didn’t. Often, the subjects became so involved in the activity they forgot she was there altogether. “A lot of my work deals with capturing very genuine emotions in artificial settings,” she says. “When you think about kissing as a physiological thing, it’s super weird. So we smash our mouths together when we want to show affection?”
West began her career as a club photographer, documenting attendees dancing. “My job was to literally find hot people and celebrities and ignore everyone else,” she says. When the club she was working at shuttered, she started into beauty photography, which then led to fashion editorials—which has given her plenty of time to consider beauty and its different configurations. It’s the beauty and fashion industry that create the vast majority of images that populate mainstream culture, helping inform and craft our basic notions of sexuality and gender. West’s addition to the cache is a colorful attempt to object to any one template of those ideas. “These photographs remind me that words and systems and structures are invented to describe preexisting relationships, not to invent them,” wrote Darcie Wilder in her 23 essay. “They remind me a body isn’t always sexual, but is sometimes.”