Ireland’s nude art collective are holding their first exhibition, and are clear about the differences between their work and pornography, writes Marjorie Brennan
FOR many years, Doug Ross struggled to exhibit his fine art nude photography in Ireland. He decided to concentrate on burgeoning interest in his work abroad but in recent years, a change in attitude has resulted in more solo shows, and now a collaborative exhibition.
“I gave up trying to exhibit my work in Ireland a few years ago, which coincided with a lot of interest abroad. But suddenly, around 2014, there was an avalanche of interest, and I did five different solo shows in galleries, even one in Athlone Public Library with transition group students, it was great.”
Ross went on to help set up the Art Nude Ireland Collective, now holding its first exhibition.
“I was giving a lot of talks to draw together people with a similar interest in fine art nudes. Out of that grew a desire to meet on a regular basis and to show the work — both international work we admired and our own work.”
The collective has met monthly for the last two years and has 14 active members, comprising models and photographers. Ross says the collaboration has been beneficial for those involved but is conscious of achieving a better gender balance.
“The gender mix isn’t as good as we’d like it to be — we have one female photographer from France, who won’t feature in the show but who has shown us some very thought-provoking work. We also have a male model who’s very active.”
Ross is very much aware of some of the less helpful, but unavoidable, associations of nude photography with pornography.
“I was a painter first, and I worked with life drawing models. My wife had no problem with me staring at a naked woman lying on a sofa for hours at a time. But as soon as I picked up a camera, it was different. Photography and the body seem to have a connection with pornography.”
While it is obvious a lot of our discomfort with nude photography is tied up with Catholic guilt and repression, Ross maintains that he has never really felt this sense of shame around the body. He was born in New York but has spent over 50 years here, completing his secondary school education in Blackrock, Dublin and going on to study at Trinity.
“I wasn’t affected by it because I didn’t have an overly religious upbringing,” he says.
He says that as an artist, he has no control over the response his work triggers in the viewer, whether it is voyeuristic or erotic.
“I’m keen on James Joyce’s view that the proper function of work is to engender a sense of aesthetic arrest in the viewer; for me, that is when you stand in front of something and it takes your breath away.
“However, pornography makes you want to do something. It’s exploitative, tends to be male-dominated, and engenders some kind of lust — but we also know that covering up the body and making it an object of shame also leads to problems within society, and has done for years. So where do we go?”
Ross says he is not interested in whether his subjects fit into the mould of what we perceive as classically beautiful. However, many of his images feature younger, relatively svelte models, something he says is down to circumstance rather than design.
“Not many people present themselves to be photographed who don’t feel themselves to be attractive in some way. So there is a self-selecting group of people. But we need to challenge that more. For example, I recently worked with a 55-year-old woman and we explored themes of ageing and the body.
The male side is also interesting. In our collective, I’m not aware of anyone other than myself who’d shot male nudes before the collective was established. That’s a cultural thing as much a macho thing but it’s great that we have a male model in our collective.”
For Ross, one of the most important things about the collective is how it facilitates trust.
“We would feel we have a very safe environment; we vetted each other, if you like. There are a lot of creeps out there with cameras who call themselves photographers and most women have experienced misogynistic behaviour, which is even scarier if you’re standing in front of someone and you have no clothes on. Having a collective like ours where you can meet someone beforehand and you can go on a shoot where there’s a lot of people together — that’s a good way to work.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved