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Unusually for a photography book, Natural Beauty starts with a helpful introduction by the photographer. Robert Farber explains what he aims to achieve in his work, and writes a little about his methods. “You photograph what you yourself are moved by,” he suggests, and makes the rather old fashioned claim that “If it is truly made for yourself, then the image created will be a culmination of all your sensitivities, thus making it an expression of its creator.” He endorses the idea of the artist inspired by an inner feeling, and says his best photographs require that his “total being is driven.”
This view of the creative process is very familiar for painters, composers, musicians, actors, dancers, and possibly even film directors. It’s harder to imagine that photographers need to be gripped by the passion of creative inspiration in order to create great photography. After all, don’t they just point, focus, and click? Of course, that’s a massively simplistic account of the technique of photographers. A great deal of the work comes from selecting the right film, camera, lighting, choosing the subjects, knowing exactly the right time to take the photograph, and then developing and processing the photographic image. Nevertheless, it seems that the creative method could be entirely intellectual and calculating, devoid of emotion. It could also be a matter of luck; photographers can take many pictures, and then select the most successful ones later on.
Even if Farber’s account of the nature of photography fails to generalize, it may still be an accurate and revealing description of the way he approaches his own work. Indeed, there is a naivety to his work that fits well with his romantic notion of the artist. Through this collection of nudes, there are scatted some pictures of nature – rushing horses, storms, roses, fields, trees, sea waves, and the desert – giving a rather heavy handed hint, as if the title was not enough, that woman’s beauty is that of nature. The danger in this approach is that the photographs will be full of cliché.
It turns out that Farber does succumb to this danger to some extent, and some of his work reminds me of the soft-focus images of David Hamilton, who in my mind is one of the clichéd of contemporary photographers of female nudes, and there is clear overlap between Farber and Hamilton in their portrayal of nature, at least in the pictures of horses and waves breaking on the beach. But in other cases Farber’s work is distinctive and appealing. For instance, plate 42 is a sepia-toned image of a beautiful single-petal white flower from above, and plate 35 of the broad green leaves if a plant could easily be a painting, with beautiful hints of yellow and brown. Both pictures are reminiscent of the work of Georgia O’Keefe. Plate 24, a monochrome image of a luscious rose, is also strikingly successful, and plate 58, a black and white picture of dark flowers, has a wonderfully ominous texture.
When it comes to the nudes, there’s also a mixture of styles and approaches, some of which are more successful than others. I’ll start with some of the less successful. The silliest work is plate 36, a series of six pictures of a woman in an overcoat, ankle socks and red shoes, leaning against a tree, taking off her underwear. Plate 37 is of a nude blonde woman lying on a rock in a wood, and this is a somewhat tired juxtaposition of woman and nature. Plate 69 is a soft-focus monochrome image of a woman leaning her head against another reclining woman, who herself is leaning against another woman just out of the picture; this has strong echoes of David Hamilton’s sultry mixture of innocence and eroticism. It’s hard to take such works very seriously. Similarly, the sepia toned images of women draped in white sheets or lace, with their faces turned away or out of the picture altogether, strike one as generic, even if they are proficiently done.
But many of the other images are far fresher and more interesting. Plate 49, has a Californian light to it, this time reminiscent perhaps of Jock Sturges, although the model is probably in her twenties, and her figure is does not have the perfection of Sturges’ youth; the picture is more interesting and even appealing because the model is still beautiful. Plates 76 and 77 seem to feature the same woman, this time posed in front of a mirror, with an American flag of the stars and stripes hanging behind. The image is a little concerting, less obvious in its meaning than many others, and again, pleasing because of this obscurity.
Other images are interesting if not entirely successful. A number feature two women with contrasting bodies; for example, plate 45 features a round-breasted large-nippled torso in the foreground and a smaller-breasted pointier-nippled whiter torso in the background. Plate 7 juxtaposes a woman’s bottom with the smooth glaze of large vase in the foreground. Others use rather blatant artistic devices to bring out texture or play with form, and are pleasing enough.
The most successful images are simpler. Plate 1 is of the back and head of a model; the grain of the picture is not fine, and we don’t see much detail in her spine or muscle tone, but we do see the play of light and dark, and it is a very satisfying composition. Similarly plate 4, also used for the book cover, is beautiful in the softness of its tone and texture. Plate 48 has similar qualities, but is lighter, using very little contrast, and other pictures (48, 63) that also seem slightly washed out due to the lack of darks manage to convey an almost abstract sensuality. Maybe my favorite image is plate 71, again a torso of a beautiful nude woman, but here there is a contrast of texture both between the smoothness of her stomach and legs and the folds of skin of her hands on her hips, and also between her body and the stucco wall behind her. It’s a picture that, while on the verge of cliché, manages to convey a powerful eroticism.
This collection of photographs has its flaws, but in the end it is an impressive collection. Even though it lacks self-consciousness or irony, and the aim of capturing natural female beauty will strike many as belonging more to a bygone age than our iconographically saturated era, Farber has the ability to make powerful and seductive pictures. He seems utterly uninterested in exploring the political and ethical issues involved in depicting nude women, and while some will see this as a flaw, it is hard to resist the aesthetic and sensual pleasure he offers.
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Link: Author website including extensive preview of Natural Beauty.
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© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.