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Evidence is a collection of beautiful photographs of people without clothes. There's clear development from Kuhn's earlier collection, Photographs (reviewed in Metapsychology 8:45). These pictures are all in color, and in many, Kuhn explores reflections that superimpose on the main image. (They are available for viewing on Kuhn's website.) We see nudists of varying ages through windows, with reflections of trees and sky visible in the window, and even occasionally Kuhn herself. The nudists are comfortable in front of the camera, often standing around looking out into the distance, at some unseen object. Sometimes the people are sitting around on sofas or lying down doing nothing. Kuhn is very careful with the light and the focus. She often keeps her subjects slightly out of focus, or lets the focus happen on a glass or flowers with people in the background. The subjects are mostly young, in their late teens or twenties, but quite a few are older. In interview, Kuhn explains that she goes to the same place in France every year and she knows the people in her pictures. Her aim is not to focus on sexuality, but rather to explore how nudity can represent many aspects of a person. One example of that is "Mon Frere," a thin bearded man in his seventies whose face is weathered but very warm. Even in her images of young beautiful people, the fact of their nudity, while crucial to the pictures, is not a matter of sexuality, or even of sensuality. Some of the pictures towards the end of the book are dark and we see mostly shadows. Yet the images suggest an emotional intimacy and openness between the subjects and the photographer that is quite arresting.
Needless to say, Kuhn's work is the polar opposite of what might be labeled glamour photography. Much more obvious comparisons are with the work of Jock Sturges and David Hamilton. Sturges works mostly in black and white, and there's often a monumental quality to his work, with its breathtaking clarity. Hamilton's work verges on the fetishistic, sentimentalizing a vision of female adolescence, with a tendency to overuse soft focus. Kuhn's work is emotionally warmer than Sturges', and while it is mostly posed, her subjects seem more immediate. Seeing them in the context of a house, rather than on a beach, there's more interaction between the people in one frame, and we see them closer up. The colors are predominantly pink, orange, blue, and the green of plants. There's a striking stillness to this work; Kuhn's subjects seem calm and content. Yet they also appear self-conscious and alert; when looking into the camera, they do so with intensity, and even when looking in another direction, they give the impression of being very aware of the camera. So for all the calm, there's also a slight tension, and this creates some mystery. We see a group of people sitting around, apparently in a state of contemplative readiness, but we do not know what they are anticipating. The reflections of the sky in the windows and the purity of the light give a spiritual feel to the collection; these people make a statement by going without clothes, in an indication of a rejection of the material aspect of life.
One might complain that these images are almost too beautiful, and too removed from reality. We do not see anyone eating, laughing, talking, or crying; everyone pictured is beautiful and able bodied. The most active picture in the book is "Bather," showing a girl cleaning her foot under an outdoor water tap, and even here, there's no urgency, and we are mainly drawn to admire the curve of her spine and the light playing reflecting off her blonde hair. To say that it seems like Kuhn is depicting a cult of perfect people waiting for a transcendent event like The Rapture would be too strong, but it gives a sense of what is potentially troubling about these images. They give a sense of such admiration for health and beauty that after looking at them for a while, real life seems inevitably dirty and flawed. Kuhn presents a world so perfect it seems like a fantasy, reminiscent of advertising in health lifestyle magazines. One wonders what Kuhn is aiming to do with her pictures: clearly they are not photojournalism, and they are not advertisements. The images leave one feeling as if one has been presented with an ideology of the body, a reclaiming of the aesthetics of non-sexualized bodies, and the spiritual value of living without clothes.
If there is an ideological component to Evidence, one is left with the question of what about those of us with imperfect bodies; the rolls of fat, spots, wrinkles, scars, and disfigurements? The inclusion of the image of "Mon Frere" might suggest that Kuhn wants an inclusive vision, or wants to say that all bodies are beautiful, but nearly all the ones she shows are beautiful in conventional ways: tight muscles, glowing smooth skin, and youthful vigor. There's no denying the beauty of her subjects, but her vision seems narrow. Hopefully her future work will explore other aspects of the body, more kinds of bodies, and more kinds of beauty.
Link: Mona Kuhn website
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.