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Bikes and Nudes: Portrait of a Nomadic Photographer, Part 3

(Bikes and Nudes . . . )

RomTom has generated both controversy and support for his photographs. Izzy Harbaugh, of Mother Kali Bookstore, expressed some criticism of RomTom’s work. I interviewed this pioneer of good feminist reading before her untimely death a few months ago. The picture she most admired was “The old woman with the beard,” observing that the model seems very comfortable with her identity.

When I asked her about the pictures of younger women, she expressed some concern. “They don’t seem like the older woman. They aren’t as sure of themselves.” She hinted that perhaps the composition of these works was more from a male perspective than the model’s.

Scott Boyes, of Keystone Cafe, also had initial reservations: “When you display art with breasts showing, it causes a certain amount of trouble. You try to stay away from that because it’s a family restaurant. I hung up a whole restaurant of nudes once and it caused an uproar.”

I asked “Was it a majority or a minority of your customers?”

“A minority, but very vocal.”

Nudes make some uncomfortable. Context is the important thing to keep in mind. Camera angles, suggestive lighting or positioning, and close-ups can all contribute to the difference between “fine art” and “pornography.” Does the woman appear posed to elicit a purely sexual response, or does she seem natural and comfortable with herself? Often parts of the body not normally revealed (breasts, pubic areas) are automatically viewed as erotic, although they may have other meanings (birthing or mothering).

The Art of the Nude In photography, art is created in the mix of the model’s mood and the photographer’s skill. If a woman isn’t comfortable with nudity it will show in her eyes, or in the tense poise of her body. Sometimes, people strolling around an exhibit will resist pictures of beautiful young women because they become excited (and uncomfortable) by what they see. I’ve seen people in an art gallery wince and turn away from the unexpected. I wanted to examine where the intent of the artist and our perceptions divide.

In an interview with Joelle, one of RomTom’s models, she defined this artistic intent quite well. “RomTom and I talked a lot about how the nude is vulgarized. RomTom has the opposite intent—he wants to bring the nude out as a higher spiritual form.”

Joelle’s take on sexual exploitation was unambiguous: “No, I don’t think nudes are inherently sexual. I believe they are whatever we make them. And the models contribute to the mood of the photograph. Some of RomTom’s pictures feel sexual because the women themselves felt that way.”

I asked Joelle about her personal experience modeling for RomTom. “I come right to the present for most of the shoot. I have to be aware of my feelings and to process them, and not be afraid.”

She went on, “RomTom is a very good friend of mine and we have shared some incredible moments talking in his bus for hours. There have been so many little signs here and there that have told me this is right—I think that’s why we’ve developed this great connection. Because we are both artists, we look at it as pure art—what does it symbolize or represent?”

Asked about the work as it evolves over time, Joelle said, “The pictures are changing and getting more bold and confident with each session. There was such an innocence to the first few . . . but as they progress, I’m standing there and I’m strong . . . and I believe in this.”

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