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Mona KuhnReview - Mona Kuhn
Photographs
by Mona Kuhn
Steidl Publishing, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Nov 3rd 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 45)

Mona Kuhn's remarkable collection of pictures of unclothed people is prefaced by a profound quotation from Victor Tupitsyn.  It starts with the following sentence:

To undress before a camera or an easel is to don the garments of representation: to take off one dress or costume, and put on another known as "the nude." 

and it ends with a sentence I love even more:

Philosophy, more than any other discipline, is related to nudity, for it seeks to disrobe the truth.

This quotation is the closest that Kuhn comes to explaining her work in this book, so it is worth considering carefully.  All disciplines seek to discover facts and picture the world, but what makes philosophy distinctive is its rigor and its questioning attitude.  Philosophy "disrobes" the truth in the sense that it goes beyond the superficial.  Some conceptions of philosophy claim that it discovers ultimate reality, while others have a more modest yet more suspicious view, that it merely shows how appearances are fabricated.  To suggest that a collection of nudes can serve a similar function is a large claim and it's not clear that the parallel can be taken literally.  But these pictures are not just strikingly beautiful; they convey a profundity that is very unusual among modern photographers. 

Most of these photographs are in black and white, but nearly half are in color.  The people in the pictures are all ages, from children to old people.  Kuhn often uses the camera's focus as a device to focus attention or to create contrast.  The colors and black and white shades are subtle and naturalistic.  Most of the pictures are obviously posed, while some are more spontaneous.  The images are gorgeous, with striking composition and unusual themes.  "Ton's Creation, 1999," shows a boy looking straight at the camera: his skin is clear and soft.  His face his held by a man behind him, out of focus.  The man's hands are strong and his skin shows signs of weathering by the sun.  One hand covers the boy's forehead with the little finger over his left eye.  The other hand holds the chin, with fingers holding the right cheek.  The image could have been a clumsy attempt at "art" or an overly posed metaphor about the difficulty of seeing the truth.  However, the beauty and spontaneity of the picture make it fresh and winning.  "The Visit, 2000" shows the naked top of young woman.  Her body is slightly out of focus, but we can tell she has a serious contemplative look on her face.  In the foreground she holds up her right hand, palm towards the camera, lit by sunlight.  The woman's hand is stained, and her first two fingers are upright, while the second two fingers are bent, showing dirty fingernails.  It's an enigmatic pose, and if we couldn't see her arm, it would not be clear even if the hand belonged to her.  The cover picture, "Merle, 2003," shows a young woman looking straight into the camera.  The picture cuts off half her face, so we see only the right side.  Her hair is slightly unkempt but she wears lipstick and her visible eyebrow is carefully trimmed.  Behind her, very out of focus, is another woman, reclining in a window seat, naked in the sun.  The picture creates a strong connection between the young woman in the foreground and the viewer; she is extremely attractive, and the dark brown of her eye and the cautious and slightly melancholy expression, together with her nudity, build a sense of the erotic. 

Kuhn says very little about the people she photographs: her short introduction merely describes the location as "a secure corner away from the complexities of contemporary life."  Obviously, it is somewhat unusual for people to sit around naked in groups, so it seems this must be some kind of naturist community, which invites comparisons with the work of Jock Sturges, whose pictures of young naked women on beaches in France and California are so striking.  Kuhn's work has a much greater variation in its emotional tone, and is far less voyeuristic.  Yet like Sturges, Kuhn presents beautiful bodies in somewhat dreamlike poses, creating a world of utopian loveliness.  Even the older people in her pictures have strikingly pleasing looks, and we see few signs of frailty, disease or death.  There's a sense of community among the people in her world, as if all they do is sit around in harmony and love, like a pride of well fed lions.  The concerns of everyday life are absent.  In a few images, there is more dark and mystery, but the darkness here is sultry rather than dangerous. 

So Photographs is powerfully successful at not just showing beauty, but creating a sense of emotional well-being.  It is free of cliché and manages to be distinctively different from other related philosophers.  It is certainly far more interesting and sophisticated than the work that generally gets classified as "nude photography" and this has nothing to do with the crassness of "glamour" photography.  If there are limitations to Kuhn's work, they reside in the idealism of the images: there's an abstraction since we know nothing about her models, as if she were presenting eternal truths.  Her subjects are so pretty and divorced from ordinary life that her work feels like a fantasy that most people would love to live.  One might contrast this book with Elinor Carucci's Closer which includes many nudes in a far more documentary style, showing her family with its flaws and problems as well as its beauty.  Comparing the two books highlights the strength of Kuhn's ability to create aesthetic pleasure, where even imperfections serve to highlight the perfections of the people in her pictures. 

 

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© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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