Celebrating the Beauty of the Human Form

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

I’ve long admired the nude photography done by masters like Wynn Bullock, Andre Kertesz, Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard and Imogen Cunningham. They had an elegant way of elevating the body's curves and shapes to a form of high art without pandering to lust.

I wanted to join them in pursuing this timeless photographic genre. And so after my wife and I moved to California in 2013, I began working with nude models for the first time.

What was I hoping to achieve? In the spirit of the photographers mentioned above, I was looking to celebrate the beauty of the human form in a tasteful, artistic way.

Tasteful and artistic: Those are the touchstones that I hoped would define my work in nude photography. The creative bar is high, considering some of the brilliant work that's been done over the past century. And in my very first session, I discovered how easy it can be to miss the mark.

The photos from that first session (not shown here) were nicely lit, and the model looked gorgeous and as sexy as a centerfold.  In hindsight, that's precisely what the problem was.

When I shared those first nude photographs with my good friend Barbara Bullock-Wilson, daughter of the late photographer Wynn Bullock, she did not hold back in her assessment. “You’ve created some very nice-looking photos here,” she told me with gentle frankness. “But they feel like pin-ups. I think you can reach much higher.”

Barbara appeared as a model in many of her father's most iconic photos, including the famous Child in Forest (1951).  Her critical eye for photography is as keen as any I've ever encountered.

Taking her advice to heart, I went back and compared my first nude photos with ones taken by Ruth Bernhard more than a half century ago. Analyzing them side by side, I saw a clear point of difference.

In my first nude session, the model was doing everything she could to look sultry. She was playing to the camera, going for "the look” that she'd been conditioned to believe everyone wanted. And that's what I captured in my first photos.

In Ruth Bernhard’s photos, by contrast, I saw that the models were perfectly relaxed, looking totally un-posed and comfortable in their naked skin.

This marked a turning point for me. In my subsequent nude photo shoots, I began working differently with models. I advised them to forget whatever they were used to doing. “Don’t pose,” I told them. “Don’t try to look sexy. Just relax, be yourself. Forget I’m here with the camera. This is just you in a moment.”

With that as the starting premise, we got to work.

Wynn Bullock’s daughter Barbara had another word of photographic advice that’s been infinitely helpful to me. She said simply, “You have to love your subject.”

She wasn’t referring to romantic, physical love. What Barbara was saying is that we need to approach every subject we photograph – whether it’s a nude model or a tiny pebble on the beach – with the deepest respect and understanding.  To truly show something, we have to truly see it. 

And so I made it a point to learn about the young women I was photographing. We talked. And as we talked, I learned about their talents, their dreams, their triumphs, their joys and the challenges some of them had faced in their lives.

We established a bond of trust, and I believe this freed the models to reach a little deeper inside themselves – revealing not just their bodies but the beauty underneath.

A few models commented that they enjoyed the relaxed collaboration and the different approach to capturing them on camera. "You got me to go inside myself and get to a place where I hadn't been before in a photo session," one model told me.

The experience was rewarding for me as well. To date, my nude photographs have been featured in two gallery exhibits and in back-to-back editions of an annual publication that showcases fine art nude work from photographers worldwide.

Many thanks to the talented models I worked with and to Barbara Bullock-Wilson, whose honest and insightful critique steered my efforts to a better place. 

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~ Paul