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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
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
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.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All
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.