Whenever a photograph shows more of the subject’s skin than is usual, a problem of classification inevitably arises: are we dealing with a nude photograph (artistic or not), an erotic photograph or a pornographic photograph? In any case, we soon realise that there is virtually no consensus on what these categories should comprise. This is probably because, as happens with decent and indecent, chaste and obscene, public and private, too many subjective factors are called into play, linked to moral beliefs, experience and, to some extent, gender, being male or female.
The fact that a classification blending the aesthetic and the moral, subjective reaction and universal values is impossible discloses two psychological knots emphasised by nude photography, but in fact pertaining to photography in general: its origins and its status.
First and foremost, photography has always been to do with revelation, one part laid bare, another concealed, in other words, an excess of seeing (the field framed in the view-finder-keyhole) and an unseen remainder (the surroundings and background of things, everything left out of the shot). Moreover, photography is inseparably bound not only to looking but also to the pleasure derived from looking and hence voyeurism, also called scopophilia, the psychic phenomenon Freud claimed underlies intellectual exploratory curiosity.
The other essential knot entwined with voyeurism is that photography, and not only nude photography, tends by its very nature to turn into a fetish for two reasons. Firstly, more than any other medium, photography fosters the re-emergence of the subjective-affective root of perception: how we interpret a photograph is very close to the way the fetishist confers on his fetish features others fail to perceive. Secondly, again more than any other medium, whether we like it or not, photography is a substitute for reality, it is its incarnation in the dual sense that visually materializes flesh and skin and has a redeeming aim in a sort of private individual primitive religion. In a certain sense, the relationship established between image and viewer reflect the relation between the Holy Shroud and the face of Christ. As Claudio Marra explained some years ago, discussions on the authenticity of the Shroud are pointless since that piece of cloth has in any case acquired a holy value of its own. This also applies to photographs: even if “we know they are false […] our attitude to them is one of faith […] in the authentic” (C. Marra, La fotografia di nudo…, 1988). This awareness which embodies a denial and demands a split (I know it’s false but I want to believe it’s real) has been present since the dawn of photography. According to Delacroix, who despite being a painter adored photography, the earliest nude Daguerrotypes were false because they were too perfect, even if reading them reveals a wondrous poem more entrancing than the imagination of any writer.
Like a fetish, photography can involve, upset and seduce also because of its link with touch, and can awake in us a deep childhood association between sensory impression and excitement. This return of a profound impression is explained by the fact that looking, as Freud has it (Three essays on sexual theory) derives from touch. Photography has the power to recover the sensory sensual nature of original touch: more than sculpture or painting, it gives the illusion of touching the subject depicted and fondling the image with ones eyes. In addition, as Serge Tisseron recently noted (Le mystère de la chambre claire), the photograph of the subject can be physically touched, by holding a photograph to the breast, kissing it, putting it in a pocket or giving it to others like an object. In all these ways, every photograph, and especially a nude photograph, has to power to break one of the first rules imposed since we were children: don’t touch. Whenever a photograph shows more of the subject’s skin than it is usual, a problem of classification inevitably arises: are we dealing with a nude photograph (artistic or not), an erotic photograph or a pornographic photograph?
(Maurizio Giuffredi, Bologna, July 2002)