(Bikes and Nudes . . . )
Who Can Create Nude Art? I wanted to discover how much negativity was directed at RomTom because of our expectations about who can photograph nude women. In my interview with Scott Boyes at Keystone, he admitted: “I avoided him at first because I thought he was a big old stinky hippie—to tell you the truth. Then I sat down and talked to him. He’s a very articulate, intelligent person and I got over that little hang-up.”
“I think that’s probably a lot of his problem with his critics. Perhaps if he was a woman photographer, or a more attractive man, he’d get a lot less flak.”
I asked Scott “So it’s his presentation, his appearance?”
“Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with why he has so many critics.”
“Yeah, if he fit the mold more.”
Joelle, the model, agreed that there is a perceptual problem in the impression of RomTom, an older man, working with typically young female models. “Oh yes, it’s come across strongly in my mind even. You have to get over that. You have to ask ‘where do these thoughts come from?’ Even though he’s a good friend of mine and we’ve hung out for two years, these old thoughts from society come up like ‘you shouldn’t be trusting him.’ But I’m totally glad that I do. I continue to do this because it still feels right.”
It is ironic that, because the young models fit the mold (of what is beautiful), some people judge his photos as exploitative. Yet because the artist doesn’t fit the mold (of professional photographer), others reject his artwork. This combination of an older, less attractive man taking pictures of young beauties is seen by some as ridiculous, by others, obscene. The art is unbalanced by our own stereotypes, and these perceptions can affect both model and artist adversely in the community.
Joelle said, “One of my biggest fears has been that I would somehow become ‘known’ in my community, that someone would go back in the records and find out that I had done nude modeling, judge it wrongly, and taint my reputation.”
RomTom’s response to such negative projections is confident. “People think that because it would be their ultimate fantasy to take pictures of nude beautiful women, it must be mine too. They spread rumors—that I photograph twelve-year-old girls, that I sleep with my models. I have a model’s consent from each of them, they’re all adults. And I see them as my friends. I’ve had friendships lasting years, and when I come back through town they always stop by and say hello.”
RomTom admits, with frank, boyish honesty, that he can be stimulated by the women he photographs. “The libido is like a radio. If we are talking, you and I, and we can’t hear each other over the noise, we will turn the radio down so we can communicate. And if we happen to hear a song that we both like, we will turn the volume up. When I’m photographing a woman, I might be aroused by her body. The volume’s too high, so I turn it down and concentrate on the beauty of her body. Some models have expected it to be this erotic experience and have been surprised that I wasn’t feeling that way, that I was actually there to create art.”
Like his friendship with Joelle, many of RomTom’s relationships with his models are enduring. There have been a few abrupt endings: one woman became a born again Christian and felt she must burn her photographs so she wouldn’t go to hell. A few jealous boyfriends hate anyone who has ever seen their girlfriends nude. But he has largely kept his friendships with these women going. He has seen them age and mature over time.
RomTom has also photographed older women, with striking results. One gray-haired woman, with a body as tight as a young dancer, is actually a grandmother. Another, with breasts peaked in wrinkles and a small tuft of white beard, has eyes smiling and wise. They are some of his best portraits, as film releases a lifetime of experiences in gestures and expression.
I noticed something unusual about RomTom’s cane the last time I looked at it. Partially hidden in the dark wood were carvings of women he had modeled, their arms stretching out into the wood. They form a circle that curves, then playfully withdraws into the handle. You cannot tell where the natural knobs of bark end and their feet begin. They grow out of wood, stone or water, as models of nature.
Just so, his photographs draw you into a world where artwork was not hung on a wall but naturally formed, in movement, in song, and in the comfortable body of a woman at rest. It is an authentic world that goes beyond, yet is held within, our modern eyes.
Julia Selwyn is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon. This article is part of a series on the impact of images in a media-driven society. She can be reached by email.