Mar 312016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril has lent me another book. I’m being educated. So this latest crop of one of his photos is informed by the hard-edged geometries of Edward Weston who belongs to an important group known as the Photo-Secessionists. In 1902 this group split from the Camera Club of New York to pursue Pictorialism: techniques of manipulating negatives and prints to make them look like drawings, etchings, and oil paintings (and this group did include some women! Clarence White worked with Stieglitz. Also Annie Brigman). They drew inspiration from European art movements with similar goals such as the Linked Ring. The later works of group member Alfred Stieglitz and those of Weston (who was also influenced by modernists Sheeler and Strand) mark the decisive start of contemporary Art Nude photography. But I’m deffo not aiming, like Weston does, to ‘purposely neutralise the uniqueness of the human form by equating it with inanimate objects’. Weston got perverse satisfaction from achieving images of the nude that were ‘entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest which might call attention to a living, palpitating body’. Is Weston the same type as Uglow? Two haters of humanity?


    ‘A baby froze to death on the Gaza Strip because it was living under a tarpaulin.’
    ‘Oh dear.’ I set down at Bel’s bedside her morning cup of green tea.
    Her not-long-awake face is already set in a frown. ‘This is why Muslim gunmen shoot randomly into coffee bars. It’s simple cause and effect. It’s people with no legitimate forum to protest all the historic injustices committed against them.’
    ‘Well, Merry Christmas, anyway’.
    She snaps shut her iPad. ‘I hate the world, Suki. Where is safe?’ –
    ‘Well, let’s see…’ Oh no – Bel is clearly about to cry!
    ‘We’re all just animals.’
    ‘Look Bel, I think that too. But come on…’ I pass her a Chinese rice-bowl overflowing with peanut M&Ms – ‘it’s Christmas Day.’ No response. ‘Sorry they’re not Quality Streets.’
    Bel throws off her quilt and heads for the bathroom. ‘“Empathy” isn’t innate in human nature; that’s just a self-righteous myth of Western culture because actually anyone who’s non-white and/or non-Christian-heritage is viewed as alien.’ I hear her landing on the loo. ‘Altruism’s a myth too. We only do stuff for others in order to get something.’
    ‘That’s fair enough, isn’t it, though?’ I hover outside the bathroom. ‘Like for example, if it’s to get love? Hey – are you off out or something?’
    ‘Told you: I’m teaching. It’s a normal day. Communist State, remember?’ The shower starts but she rants on. ‘So-called “values” are purely social constructs created for pragmatic reasons. For particular purposes. Everything’s fake. Love is fake. Huh. Lerv. I lerv ya, babe.’
    She is being scarily weird. ‘Okay – we’ll do gifts later, yeah? And I’ll cook!’
    Will my cooking lift Bel’s mood – or at least distract her? Or be the final straw? I don’t know how to help her. After she’s gone to work I prepare her an extra gift. A poem I wrote years ago called Bethlehem, after the 2002 Siege of Bethlehem that reduced to ruins the nativity scenes I had learned in childhood. I print it out and decorate its edges.
    How to spend the rest of Christmas Day?
    I go to the Delightful Peony with my iPad, and email Aussie Cyril.

Happy Christmas Day, Cyril! Am half-way through the book about muses. Edward Weston’s photos of Charis are totally about sex. Never mind what the book says. With muses there’s always something sexual going on. In Weston’s case he has sex with his model at the same time as objectifying the female body to the extreme. The model is no more than a tool. A lifeless plastic sex toy.

As ever, his answer is instantaneous.

Jingle Bells! Hope you’re enjoying today as much as our afternoon together yesterday, which has been the highlight of my Christmas. Aha – you think Weston’s work is about sex? He always insisted his intentions were purely formal and not in the least erotic. You must have read in the ‘muses’ book by now that his nude portraits of the back of Anita Brenner suggest faintly distasteful similarities with his toilet bowl! Yet these are in his own view his ‘finest set of nudes… in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form’. For him they are an ‘absolute aesthetic response… Every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus imperfections’. Stieglitz himself did actually express dislike of Weston’s art nude images, calling them ‘sterilised’; that they lacked fire and life and were ‘more or less dead things not part of today’. No sex!

At teatime Bel returns from class with a polite greetings card from the university’s hierarchy and a very pretty box of dried fruits from Lily Hong. Nothing from any students.
    ‘Here’ – I hand her a Tsingtao beer and clink it with mine. ‘Cheers! Let’s do gifts!’
    Bel opens a small package from Belgium: a book on China sent by her brother. Then my poem, and a grey sweater. ‘It says cashmere but it might be fake.’
    ‘It’s great. Fake’s great – it means “authentically Chinese”.’ She hands me two packages wrapped in red paper. ‘For you.’
    In a pretence of gayness I rip at them. ‘Omigod, where the heck did you find a percolator? You’ve been trawling those fancy malls!’ My second parcel is – ‘Oh joy! Thank you so much!’ – ground Columbian coffee.
    Then she is sidling off onto the balcony. ‘Just making a call.’
    ‘Bel – why do you never say “I’m just calling my Mum”, or whatever?’
    ‘My brother. I normally call my brother on Christmas Day. Sorry. Excuse me.’
    ‘Got any sisters? Are your parents alive?’
    ‘My brother’s it. Childless bachelor, lives in Antwerp because of his solar panels business, very kindly acts as the contact person for Élise. With the unit. He lets me know if he’s been informed of anything by the staff. If there’s anything to tell.’
    ‘Staff? Unit?’
    ‘Sorry. Élise lives in a psychiatric hospital.’ Bel steps outside, tapping at her mobile.
    ‘Oh. Thank you. Sorry.’
    Élise. Like Für Élise. I guess she might be – what – thirty-ish?

Christmas night. Early to bed. Not a candle lit, not a carol played. Apart from yesterday afternoon (Cyril – overjoyed – treating me to a festive tea at the Peace Hotel), a truly crap Christmas.

Bel is a silent lump in her bed, her lamp already out.
    I’ll just do a last check for any emailed greetings.

One more gift: click on this link.
I’m sorry.
Thanks for being here.



 

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Mar 032016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

I feel compelled to modify most of Aussie Cyril’s pics. But this is one is great as it is. I love the bright pop-arty blue and rounded corners: vaguely 1960s retro, no?.

    ‘I love women.’ The eye of Aussie Cyril’s small camera click-click-clicks, his plump lips smiling.
    I adjust myself on his chaise longue, offering him a shoulder. ‘Ah. No – I mean, my question was just in general terms. About how Art Nude photographers’ ways of relating to their models have differed from the historical precedent of artists’ relationships to their models.’ Slithering on the silk draperies I shift a cushion, pose again. ‘I’m curious to find out if there’s a difference.’
    ‘Wait’ – Aussie Cyril swaps the small camera for a chunky one with a vulgarly long lens, then continues snapping. ‘I don’t think one can generalise. About either photographers or artists. Personally I photograph women because I love women. I would not want to photograph a male model. The very thought makes me shrink. Ooh, that’s lovely. Absolutely lovely. More of that – yes – ’
    ‘That’s so different from my experience of working with artists. We models are certainly not always loved. We’re viewed as a kind of tool, and we just do as we’re instructed.’
    Aussie Cyril pauses at this, momentarily leaning on the oak panelling to look at me. ‘Whereas I’ll do anything you say.’ Click, click, click.
    ‘Erm … Is that – usual? The photographer led by the model?’
    Click – ‘that’s terrific…’ – click. ‘My dear Suki, you’ll find out that there have been very many Art Nude photographers and there’s a great diversity of behaviours. But I reckon by and large the relationship to a model is an intimate and caring one.’
    ‘Tuh. Whereas artists like Euan Uglow could work with a model for hours, days, months, years, and yet be absolutely disengaged from that human being. Like, one time a model died, so he just found another model with an identical physique and carried on with his painting! The model was a plank, not a personality. Why didn’t he just bloody well take photographs, if he was that fanatical about precision recording? Or else why not just set up a technically challenging still-life? Why use a human?’

As Cyril drives me home his hand comes to rest too close to my thigh.
    ‘Ahem. I liked your use of drapes and sheets to get those varied backdrops. And your apartment’s amazing.’
    ‘I was very lucky to find that historic French Concession villa before real estate went through the roof.’
    The fake grandeur of the new-built university campus looms ahead. ‘Okay, this is my gate. Thanks, Cyril – it’s been a really good session.’
    He pulls in, and presses a thick wad of hundred yuan notes into my hand. ‘Thank you, Suki, so very much’ – he leans in, breathing heavily – ‘I’d like to do many more shoots with you. Very very soon. A bientot!’

Before bedtime Cyril has already emailed today’s pictures. I show Bel.
    ‘He’s out to make you pretty.’ She walks off.
    I agree with Bel. I don’t like that either. But should I risk upsetting him by telling him? He pays so well.

Tanx 4 these Cyril! My absolute fave of urs will always be de Uglow-style pic, apres Uglow’s “plank-woman”, from de group session. Mus go bed now! S x
P.S. Btw tanx again 4 lending me books – have browsed Alfred Stieglitz – some of his Georgia O’Keefe pics r like Bel’s studies of my hands n feet.

I send Cyril this, then want to add a quick after-thought. I start another email.

P.P.S. May I bring more Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud poses to our next meet – these guys not yet out of my system! Rly looking forward, Sx
P.P.P.S. am ENORMOUSLY ENTHUSIASTIC about working togeth!!!

    ‘Why?’ Bel is close to my shoulder. ‘Why are you “enormously enthusiastic”?’ I hear a strange edge. ‘I thought you were a writer.’
    Is she jealous? So why isn’t she photographing me herself? What’s happened to this Art Nude project she invited me to Shanghai for in the first place?
    ‘It’s giving me writing ideas.’ I hit send. ‘It’s great he wants to photograph me. I like working with people who are being creative in their own field. It’s inspiring.’
    ‘I think he’s got ulterior motives.’
    I can’t help my horrible self, even though Bel is – I now think – depressed. Suki, queen of the barbed final word: ‘Least he is motivated.’
    A second’s silence.
    ‘Right. Whereas I don’t think you’ve even glanced at that unfinished novel of yours yet.’


 

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Feb 042016
 

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ALT TEXT

Fei Mo Di

At the Shanghai Art Nude Photographers group session, this guy Fei Mo Di spun off from the Uglow, Schiele and Freud poses I was doing, and did his own thing.

Two weeks in.
    It is still (by British standards) hot – even in mid-October.
    When will I start to write? Will I start to write?
    Each day, while Bel goes teaching, I wander about – “acclimatising”. Staring. Being stared at. The street market was traumatic the first time I went alone. Now I stare through the cat-calls, grin back at the smiles. Great writing-fodder. It’s just… all still too new.

Bel is as bad. When will she start this Art Nude project with me? Will she start it?
    Her morning coughing fits have become my alarm clock. Today the Air Quality Index reports only moderate pollution: Unhealthy for people with special sensitivities. Asthmatics and the elderly may have difficulties. But she coughs whatever the level, on her narrow bed next to mine, scowling at the news pages on her iPad.

Anyway. Got my first one-to-one booking for a photo-shoot! Fei Mo Di (he with the improbably posh English accent, crisply-ironed shirt, designer jeans) is the second Shanghainese person I’ll meet really properly, after Bel’s little assistant Lily Hong.
    So here I am in his bright white 24th floor penthouse. We begin with sparse, polite conversation. The cityscape beyond the glass walls is a sci-fi movie-set. Vertiginous. Construction sites in all directions; cranes everywhere you look.
    Turns out Fei Mo Di is not what he seems. He went to Eton, then the Central College of Fine Arts in Beijing, topped off with a Masters in New York. His mother is vice-chair of a metropolitan committee for culture or something, on the Communist Party’s Consultative Council. She owns real estate in Kensington.
    I’m sipping from a tiny translucent cup. Just beyond the floor-to-ceiling plate glass, the neck of a crane is slowly approaching… What if it doesn’t stop? The elegant tea-set is beside an Apple computer on a huge perspex desk. Fei Mo Di points at his photos from the group session on the monitor. ‘I haven’t sent you these yet. See – I was moving around you a lot, focusing in. So I want to do that again now. I’d like you quite simply, first of all, to stand absolutely still, statuesque.’ He gets up, goes over to where lights are rigged up. ‘Right here.’

I get into position. Silently he begins. What’s the etiquette when one-to-one? Should I chat?
    ‘Ahem. I’m really interested to find out if art-photographers relate to their models differently from artists,’ I begin.
    No immediate reaction. Click, click.
    ‘Like, whether there’s a more natural, human relationship with a photographer? I mean, doesn’t a photographer want somebody alive?’
    Click. ‘Yes.’ Click. Click.
    Was that curt? Should I say more? ‘Whereas artists… I mean, Uglow, for example; he objectified his models to the extreme. He was so fanatical about the precise reproduction of what he was looking at that he’d actually measure out graph-lines on his studio wall and number them to mark exactly where the model was positioned. Flipping autistic!’
    The tele-photo lens stares coldly. ‘Autism has been known to equate with artistic genius.’ The lens roams to my belly, comes in close to my left breast, shoulder…
    ‘Well, but the crap way Uglow related to the model…’
    Fei Mo Di cuts in. ‘Are you familiar with the work of Chuck Close? He’s an autistic man whose excruciatingly meticulous process creates astonishing paintings that happen to start from a photograph.’
    ‘But if it’s from a photograph it’s not really Art’. Okay, I argued the opposite point with Ilka, but this guy’s Etonian accent is aggravating. I hammer on: ‘A photo is conventionally believed to show “the real thing” whereas a painting holds greater interest and value because it’s a unique and expressive interpretation through the artist’s eye, because everyone knows – and as Anais Nin said – “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are”.’
    ‘Tuh. Glurge.’ Snap, shift, snap.
    ‘Pardon?’
    ‘Your Anaïs Nin quote. Asinine.’
    ‘That is not fair. People are always sticking the knife into Anaïs Nin. It’s because she was a writer. Words on the page are explicit in a way that visual imagery isn’t, so we’re easier to criticize.’
    Fei Mo Di looks round his camera at me, clearly annoyed.
    ‘Yes – I’m a writer myself.’ Standing there naked, I know I am ridiculous.


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Jan 282016
 

« Page 8
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ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril is the only photographer from that first Shanghai Art Nude Photographers session to email me a photo of this copy I did of a pose I call ‘plank woman’, famously painted by artist Euan Uglow.

I wake up sticky. So humid, even in October.
    ‘At last! Good morning.’ Bel is setting down a mug of green tea beside my bed. ‘It’s eleven thirty. I thought I’d better tell them you can do this afternoon’s session because they only meet once a month.’
    ‘What? Who? What time? Yikes! Second full day in China and I’m already modelling!’
    ‘It’s Shanghai Art Nude Photographers’ Group. You’ll need that network to build up bookings. I’m sure you’ll get some one-to-one sessions out of it.’
    ‘God, I hope they don’t mind these.’ I hold out my blotched arms – the night’s mosquito bites.
    But Bel is focused on her iPad.
    I scramble for the bathroom. ‘So what will they want? I mean, how does it work? Should I take some ideas?’
    Silence. I see she’s engrossed in The Guardian newspaper online.
    ‘Think I’ll quickly print off some poses, see if they’d like me to copy them. Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud…’ (no response from Bel) ‘…Could try some of the notorious Euan Uglow poses that reputedly hurt his models. The great thing about photographic modelling is, you don’t need to hold a pose for very long.’
    A few minutes later Bel calls to me through the bathroom door. ‘I’ll help you set up a ‘qq’ email account before we go out so you can give out a contact address that works. Your gmail account won’t work here. Google’s blocked. Yahoo is sometimes blocked. They’ve started messing up Hotmail. All the non-Chinese servers get problems. It’s easier to just give up and use the state-controlled one.’

Later, Bel leads me by the hand through the crowds. My second full-on blast of city life: from demolition site to half-built tower-block complex, lace-necked cranes rotating high above chaotic slums, to space-age subway, to old-world tree-shaded French Concession – and always, the seething masses that I can barely separate out into persons. Exhausting – physically, psychologically.

‘…So I finish teaching at six – I’ll see you in the flat. Cyril says he’ll help you get a taxi. Show the driver this card. Hope it’s good!’ Bel leaves me with the men.
    Yes – all men. Why am I not surprised? An exotic mix of races and accents aged from mid-twenties to retirement. Australian Cyril – rotund, elderly – introduces me to the rest: Jacques from Brussels, Fei Mo Di (how come he has a cut-glass English accent?), several other orientals who may or may not be Chinese, a Kiwi, two with north American twangs but probably not US nationals… How to place these people? All I know is, each is successful enough to afford amazing photographic kit, and from a background that has enabled them to speak good English. There is only one familiar type: a man with wife-kidsatuni-earlyretired-doing-abitof-consultancy written all over him before he jovially opens his mouth.
    ‘Mike Little from Swindon, for my sins! How d’you do.’
    ‘I’m Suki. Hi.’ I drop my rucksack and, to avoid some kind of big de-robing moment, instantly pull off my dress and wander about. Sweat beads on my ribby chest and runs down my inner thighs. I wipe off my face. The tissue turns grey: a fine paste made of humidity and pollution has coated my skin.
    The photographers are already in a horseshoe, some with tripods, leaving a big open area in which I can work. The deal is, they’ll each email me their best pics from the session.
     Aussie Cyril, portly, avuncular, opens his arms as though preparing for a bear-hug. ‘We’ve all agreed to let the new model take the lead.’
    So I show them the Schiele, Freud and Uglow poses I’ve printed off. There is courtesy, humour, and lots of movement – both on my part, and on the part of the enthusiastically snapping voyeurs. And certainly no pain.
    Do I fancy any of them?
    Do any of them fancy me?
    Do they do shoots like this with male models?


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Dec 102015
 

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ALT TEXT

Anton Büller

At my afternoon session in Prenzlauerberg, an obese artist paints me huge-bellied. Bastard – leaning over his grotesque gut to reach his canvas. But the artist beside him is worse, copying the drawing method of tediously mechanical Euan Uglow, who in turn honed his technique (according to a thing I read by Adrian Searle ) under the tutelage of equally anal William Coldsteam. These are guys who compute the information the eye receives in order to reproduce the human form with the technical precision of a surveyor’s plotlines. Passionless.

Come on a 3-month tourist visa in first instance, stay in this flat w/ me (uni campus) & write. I cn get you plenty cash-in-hand wrk as Art Nude photographic model, eg Shanghai Art Nude Grp. No more 2-hr poses in freezing Berlin cellars! Bel

I’m at the breakfast table, still in shock, re-reading Bel’s text. Shanghai!!! God, it would be amazing. And her promise of photographic work is uncanny, because one thing I realised in last night’s session is that contemporary Art Nude photography is not necessarily blokes photographing gorgeous birds naked. Was it ever?
    But… Bel. This weird photographer woman. She’s really nice but she barely speaks. We got friendly due to her project making fly-on-the-wall docu-movies of artists at work in life-rooms where I had bookings. But not that friendly… What do I know about her? Her website says she used to be a photo-journalist in places like Afghanistan, but that career seems to have abruptly ended. A bad experience? A nervous breakdown? I think she’s got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or something. I once spotted her leaving my psychotherapist’s office as I was on my way in.
    And how old is she – fifty? Older? Early-retired? Her photography blog divulges nothing about family, hometown, partners, early life…
    Why invite me? Does she consider us close?

Hey – an email from Hong Kong Ron! You can view the photos from last night via Dropbox.    Dozens of images… I prop my iPad on the table for a good browse. Shifting aside Ilka’s current reading-matter, some words of an article by Susan Sontag (late partner of fantastic New York photographer Annie Leibowicz) leap out at me:

To photograph something is to appropriate it.’

Yawn. Feminist analysis is so single-track. Hong Kong Ron’s images are sensual, sexy; but that doesn’t mean he has ‘claimed ownership’ of me. There is texture, geometry, intricacy. They portray submission, trust, intimacy, ecstasy, pain, beauty. They are Art.

Why did Tamara set this up? She must still want me! I was the one who ended (by running off to Berlin) our brief flingette: a hedonistic riot of sex – her dominating, me submitting – and laughter, conducted in the windows her crazy schedule allowed. Tumultuous fun and pleasure – which is of course not sustainable in a long-term relationship.
    Or could it be?

Afternoon. My weekly session at the Volkshochschule. I get into pose, and into my head. First thought: why am I once again submitting myself to being mapped; turned into an architect’s plan? Whereas being photographed last night felt so sympathetic. That, too, was submission – to the rigger, and to the photographer. Yet the Master and Hong Kong Ron were humane towards me – to my body – in a way that many artists are not.
    But on to more pressing matters. I must urgently consider my three options:

1) stay in Berlin with Ilka. Get fatter. Get more depressed. Never have a laugh. Never write again.
2) Shanghai! Amazing… But I think Bel’s got issues, and I’m rubbish at dealing with mental health (scares me).
3) Return to UK. Write books living with Tamara. Let her dominate me, tell me what to do (I need that); make me shut up and listen (no mean feat), kneel at her feet, obey her… I love all that. Maybe “fun” really can be permanent!


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