Depicting the human body has been among the primary preoccupations and achievements of artists for millennia. Drawing inspiration from historic precedents in painting, sculpture, photography and film history, for the past twenty years Samuel Bayer has produced still photographs alongside his innumerable award-winning music videos, film and commercials. Bayer has evolved an aesthetic of gritty rawness, a now emblematic style that has typified his music videos since his groundbreaking first with Nirvana in 1991. The culmination of his recent photography is a large-scale series of black and white photographic nude portraits, being exhibited for the first time at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills.
A series of sixteen nudes, shot in three sections with a large-format 4” x 5” camera in the studio against a simple white backdrop, envision larger-than-life contemporary studies of young women, tackling the time-immemorial subject of the nude. They are accompanied by two diptychs of faces in extreme close-up, eyes open, eyes closed; the features and cool gaze of his subjects reveal every freckle, line and follicle. Face; eyes, hair - features become a landscape to traverse as our eye wanders human terrain. These are models and individuals Bayer has worked with and known over the past decade, becoming living archetypes in the colossal scale of ancient goddesses looming above a viewer at over 14ft. As contemporary studies of the female form, these women would not have existed in the mid-twentieth century prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960s when artists began to reconsider the body as a politicized terrain and explored issues of gender, identity, and sexuality manifest in photographers such as Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Clark, Hannah Wilke, Nan Goldin and Cynthia MacAdams.
In Bayer’s new series, we see an ongoing biological and sociological evolution. Posed frontally and exposed, they might be perceived as vulnerable on a smaller scale, however the straight gaze and the enlarged scale creates an intimation of a nearapproaching new race of superwomen quietly waiting in the wings. A viewer is surrounded by these unadorned figures, provoking possible intimidation in their directness, uncompromised by faux modesty. Women have changed, transformed and advanced since Artemisia Gentileschi’s confrontation with the male gaze.
Bayer does not objectify his models in a way that Herb Ritts “saw parts of the body’s surface in precisionist terms, often adding mud, skin paint, sand, and other materials to sensually emphasize the follicles and pores of the epidermis,”1 verging on scopophilic fixation with the exaggeratedly buff gym-engineered body.
Yves St. Laurent, always attracted to the androgynous and strong woman and the first couturier to use black models in 1962 has said: “I always found my style through women. That’s what makes my vitality and strength: I lean on a woman’s body, on the way she moves… the way she stands.”2 Sculptor Robert Graham has consistently used this agile, frontally posed female form and in the mid 1980s created monumental sculptures of which. He produced a giant nude, twice human size in 1984. Helmut Newton photographed a portrait of Graham with his giant nude; while Newton began his nude studies relatively late in career in 1980 saying “Women are much stronger than men – in every possible way. I truly believe that. I’m a big admirer of women.”3 As religious symbolism and reference has become irrelevant to contemporary consumer society, the female form evokes millennia of pre-patriarchal goddess worship, the archetype of Venus or Isis, transcending religions. American photographer Cynthia MacAdams pioneered and defined the ‘goddess movement’ in Emergence the new woman on her own terms in photography from the 1970 and 1980s – with
fiercely independent women role models – portraiture and nudes including Jane Fonda, Kate Millett, Gloria Steinem, Laurie Anderson, and Patty Smith. In contrast to Helmut Newton’s fetishism, the subject of gender in society was dramatically changing; Bruce Weber was to evolve a new masculinity and homoeroticism in commercial photography. Newton and subsequently Bayer, visualize women as they are today; women who take the lead and have presence, who take pride in “the resplendence and vitality of their bodies, bodies over which they themselves have sole command”4; the liberated woman full of health and vigor - fit, capable and strong.
Bayer’s women are in no need of props, backdrops, adornment and decoration. Fashion becomes fast obsolete while the nude transcends time. Commercial and fashion photography are intrinsically coercive, propelling sales of magazines and products. As commissioned work imposes restrictions, the parameters of a creative eye with a progressive view are challenged in creating images of society and of the role that women play in it. Bayer’s nude portraits in this exhibition are not reliant on using the powers of seduction and the desires they awaken – the subliminal attraction of fashion and image-making. Unlike Newton, Bayer’s nudes are devoid of glamorous trappings.
Bayer’s intimidating, larger than life women echo a theme which emerged since the late 1970s – of portraying emancipated women for the first time in history able to control their own sexuality – which had hitherto been inseparably bound up with motherhood. As the taboos of Judaeo-Christian morality collapsed, a celebration of the human body has reconnected to the glorious nudes of antiquity. An interplay of genres as nude photograph can be fashion and/or art and vice versa became the norm of particularly West Coast photographers – embodied in Herb Ritts or specifically Robert Mapplethorpe’s first female body builder Lisa Lions. The new muscular females contrast Bruce Weber’s passive males, seemingly available, which in the early 80s raised controversy about sexual empowerment and what defined masculinity in the
late twentieth century. Quarter of a century later, a new generation of women have a birth right of independence and self-determination unknown to previous generations, to rebuke objectification. As Helmet Newton envisaged in A World Without Men – jettisoning the sexist status quo, uncompromising; – is this the next evolutionary step for a new world order? While various artists and writers chart collective cultural and evolutionary decline, Bayer and other artists and photographers give us an evolutionary snap-shot of positive strength and evolution of the human race where strength and beauty can be found in self- confidence and self-determination, regardless of ethnicity or background, while beauty resides with equal potency in both genders, and gender itself is mutable. Here we might also see the marked cultural difference of American women’s grooming – gym-buff, articulated muscularity and hairless bodies.
As with Herb Ritts, Bayer’s commercials and music videos evidence the cross-over’s and cross-pollination intrinsic to LA culture at its most influential – hybridizing music world talent, celebrity, style, body beautiful – aesthetic and image-making unique to LA.
Reminiscent of Helmut Newton’s celebrated series Big Nudes and Sie Kommen (1981, Naked and Dressed), the scale of each distinctive young woman defies potential objectification; looking unequivocally, directly into the camera lens and by extension boldly confronting a viewer. There is little chance for voyeurism. They are unified despite their differences, in their hairless bodies – clearly stating their sex. A new generation of women, assertively full-frontal posture in a stance undermining the traditional pose of the female nude in an averted gaze (insinuating modesty yet aware of being object of a male gaze). Autonomous and independent, they also stand in the unified solidarity of an Amazonian tribe, or future superwomen, aware of their potent presence and sure future. The Western world has maintained the nude as a fetishistic subject beyond being an aesthetic object, and since the 20th century, has been increasingly commercialized in selling products and merchandise, not to mention the underbelly of Los Angeles in its vulgar porn industry. In cultures across the world, the body is both sacred, ritualistic, a container of spiritual energy and the embodiment of divine creation, linking humans to the Divine. Controversial, female and male nude depictions in photography have provoked impassioned discussion about sin, sexuality, cultural identity, and canons of beauty, especially when the medium is photography, with its inherent accuracy and specificity, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art articulated in the recent 2012 exhibition History of the Nude in Photography in Naked before the Camera.
Drawing on both a history of sculptural nudes in the classical tradition, and with his camera, simultaneously contemporizing this tradition, Bayer’s work can be seen in the context within the history of portrait photographers. In the early 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery 291 Gallery introduced the medium of photography as fine art to the public, with Eugène Atget as another early role model. Soon Man Ray vastly expanded the possibilities of photography, not merely with his commercial work as a portrait and fashion photographer, but with experimental techniques. With portraits of the cultural luminaries of his day from Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, to his close friends Picasso and Max Ernst, Man Ray’s influence could be reflected in a sense, in the contemporary image-making of Samuel Bayer. Both cross-pollinating photography and film between artistic and commercial realms, and in our contemporary media-saturated landscape, Bayer’s widespread and profound influence in pop culture from directing breakthrough independent rock music videos.
While the nude as subject is timeless, does Bayer challenge stereotypes of beauty and obsession with youth? While fashion magazines and Hollywood continue to perpetuate and typecast the young and thin, perhaps with these representations of young women confident in their bodies (noticeably without silicon-implanted breasts) provides an antidote to the vulgarity of pornography and the explicit images that bombard us relentlessly. From the plastic surgeried, talentless bimbos of reality television to whom privacy and silence are alien; to billboards for the paradoxically titled “gentleman’s clubs” to the back pages of the local newspaper sporting cheap prostitutes; images of over-sexualized vixens have become so prevalent as to become the tawdry norm. This series of nudes by Samuel Bayer addresses all these histories and aesthetics with a savvy and profound insight into image-making and presents his alternative view.
Samuel Bayer was born in upstate New York in 1965 and grew up in Syracuse, New York. He graduated from New York City’s School of Visual Arts in 1987 with a degree in Fine Arts. At the age of 26, Bayer set out to Los Angeles to begin his career as a music video director and he went on to direct over 200 music videos with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Greenday, John Lee Hooker, Marilyn Manson, Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and Lenny Kravitz. Bayer won an Emmy for the 2011 Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler, Born of Fire featuring Eminem; Bayer’s commercials are represented in the permanent film/video collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
1 James Crump, “Collecting History: Herb Ritts’s Male Nudes,” in Paul Martineau, Herb
Ritts: L.A. Style, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles / Getty Publications, 2012, p. 16
2 Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times, film by David Teboul, Empire Pictures, 2002
3 Helmut Newton interviewed by Carol Squiers, Helmut Newton Portraits, Schirmer/Mosel,
Munich, 1993, p. 11
4 Françoise Marquet, Helmet Newton: Work, Taschen, 2000, p. 13