Mona Kuhn interviewed for Photo District News
"The nude is arguably the most exploited subject in photography, and yet the majority of nude photographs are little more than the sum of their allusions to sex (at best). Mona Kuhnhas built her career as an artist photographing nudes, exhibiting internationally and publishing four monographs with Steidl, and she is also an independent scholar at the Getty Research Institute, where for the past 10 years she has studied how artists have dealt with the human body in their work throughout history.
Kuhn recently organized an exhibition, "Under My Skin: Nudes in Contemporary Photography," which includes the work of more than 20 artists and will be open at Flowers Gallery in New York from June 20-July 27.
PDN spoke with Kuhn about the exhibition, about what makes good nude photographs, and about why the nude photograph is underrepresented in museum exhibitions today.
PDN: What distinguishes good, interesting contemporary nude photography from the sea of really bad nude photography that exists?
Mona Kuhn: I'm interested in how are we representing ourselves, how are we telling the story of who we are at this point in time, and contextualizing it with the whole of art history, with how humans have been representing themselves throughout history. In that sense my take on the nude is much broader than what we see right now. I'm [considering] sculpture and painting and the body as a canon of high art, and the body as a platform for artists to show their emotions, their passions, their fears, through the image of the body. What I have selected for the exhibition are works that I think tie in with an art historical visual language.
PDN: What drew you, as an artist, to creating nude photographs?
MK: It was a way of dealing with timelessness and a very basic question: who are we, where did we come from and where are we going from here? I got into the nudes from a more existential point of view. And because I was in love with photography, it was scary. I said, "How am I going to enter this and not be misinterpreted. And many times my work has been misinterpreted. It's the worst thing: I go to a party and people ask, "What do you do?" And I say, "Fine-art nudes." It's obviously going to be misinterpreted. But my goal was to bring a very tight artistic language to the field of [nude] photography because I think it needed it and still needs it. There are ways of representing the body in a very distinguished manner, in the field of photography.
PDN: Is it challenging to innovate and carry the language of nude photography forward?
MK: It's very challenging. In this exhibition I did not select any piece that shows a reclining nude, for example. There have been so many reclining nudes-most of the time [the subject is] sitting or laying down or relaxing. So I eliminated all of the reclining nudes because they're just overly classic.
In terms of innovation, all of the pieces selected [met] two criteria. One was that the artist or photographer shows a new way of looking at the body that I haven't seen before. And two, they use a different kind of process than I have seen before. As examples, I was able to bring in the work of David Dawson from the UK. He photographed Lucien Freud [nude paintings] in the painter's studio. So that's very painterly and you have the whole art historical reference. Jenny Saville, she has a series that was photographed by Glen Luchford [showing] her nude [with] her body squished against glass. I connected [those] with Shen Wei's sentimental self-portraits. Kim Joon adds arms and legs to his renderings, and the bodies end up looking Medusa-like. We interconnected Joon's body manipulations with Maria Robertson's darkroom manipulations. She now does a lot of work where she enters the darkroom and messes up the printing and comes up with fantastic things. Collier Schorr worked on a series titled "Jens F." where she compares the way a male and female model relate to the artist's gaze. I also love the surreal and irreverent feel of Polly Borland's "Bunny" series.
PDN: In order to be something more interesting do you think a nude photograph has to almost transcend nudity, transcend the basic eroticism?
MK: Yes, I believe so. We are all sexual beings, I'm not neglecting that part, but I think we are able to play with metaphors if we set it a little bit aside. That's just too strong of a metaphor. Yes it's important for life, it's important for who we are and all that. But I think that we can easily understand that and then see OK, what else can we play with, what other metaphors, what other compositions? What else am I trying to say? Sexuality is so basic, unless you're doing a really incredible work like [Antoine] D'Agata. In D'Agata's work it goes beyond the basic language of sex. It goes to a more sophisticated language that is more visceral. Going for the girl next door [photo] or the plain sexiness: What bothers me about those images is that you see that there is a certain seduction happening between the photographer and the subject, regardless of sex. I'm not always blaming the guy. But if there is too much of that seduction between the two then that image belongs to those two people. There are no further metaphors. It just stays there. But a D'Agata image suddenly becomes a little scary part that all of us might have, and suddenly becomes a little bit more intriguing. Photographers have a tendency of just falling in love and being very seduced by the very initial vocabulary. I start getting interested when the vocabulary becomes a little bit more sophisticated.
PDN: What was your curatorial process like?
MK: This is the third time I'm curating a show. When I first started putting the list together I thought about the immediate people that I know, that have been influential to me and have been important in my own work. I was about to submit the proposition to the gallery and I realized that those were all the usual suspects, and you and I wouldn't necessarily even attend the show because we already know their work. So I held back and I really made a point of getting in contact with about 30 curators and collectors and asked them [for suggestions]. I started getting this communication with curators and collectors that was really, really insightful and I started learning about some people that I didn't know yet, or some new series that I wasn't aware of from artists that I already knew. It was really like a big survey putting this exhibition together and it was important for me that each [artist] has their own voice…. There's a lot of interesting variation. I did not select things that I like. I selected things that I learned from.
PDN: Do you think this is a particularly rich or interesting moment for the nude in contemporary photography?
MK: There is this thing that I like to say: We cannot jump our own shadows. We are in a body, so the body eventually will always be a central theme in art. At this moment, I would have to say that probably things are …a little bit more conceptual. There's a tendency right now for a lot of people graduating [from the art schools to] want to do more geometrical work and more conceptual work, and colder, not really embracing the nude. But it's a pendulum. It always comes back [as a central theme]. One of my intentions to do this exhibition was to say hey, "There is enough happening."
PDN: Why don't we see museum shows dealing with contemporary nude photography?
MK: It's difficult to curate something like that, because you don't want to be perceived as slimy or whatever it is. I think that we kind of have to face it. Curating is a really competitive career. Most museum curators compete with each other to establish themselves intellectually in their field and there has been a huge gap in the US for museum-level exhibitions related to the nude. They don't think it's material that would bring them to the next level. I'm very comfortable with the theme because of all the work and research I have done with it. I'm also not tied in with an institution, so in a way I have a freedom to bring together works that I think represent the high and low art, and that reflect our current culture. I am thankful for the freedom because it allows me to bring all of this work together."