For centuries, the nude human form has been the basis for figurative art, and possibly the inspiration for abstract expressionism as well. These days in modern photography, we're still compelled by the nude body, but more often than not, the female rather than the male nude is the subject de rigeur. "It's an alarming trend," explains Brooklyn-based photographer, Adrian Buckmaster. "Any guy with a camera who can get a woman to shed her clothes becomes an 'artist.'" Photographer Geo Rittenmeyer elaborates: "Pretty much all male photographers want to [shoot a female nude]. For ego-driven male photographers it scores them points with other photographers. It's considered an accomplishment. You don't get to see a lot of women without their clothes on unless you're in an intimate relationship or you pay for it."
But herein lies the dilemma. A flesh and blood female nude might be inaccessible to singles who don't frequent strip clubs or brothels, but have a look around: there's certainly no dearth of the X-rated XX, and I'm not even talking about porn. The number of women who appear nude in mainstream media is disproportionately higher than the number of men who bare it all. And from anti-cellulite cream to the grooming of pubic hair, the fashion-beauty industry makes millions off women who strive to replicate the images of the female nude that has become - to borrow writer David Amsden's phrase - our "cultural wallpaper." But when it comes to art, shouldn't these cultural critiques go out the window? After all, art is an attempt at the sublime, not about hawking Doritos.
Still, many photographers insist that the female form is objectively more beautiful than the male figure. Rittenmeyer, who calls himself a visual artist working in hyperrealism says, "The female body is more beautiful than the male's. It's softer; about lines and curves." This explanation never quite gelled with me. And to be fair, not all male photographers share Rittenmeyer's aesthetic. Zach Hyman, a photographer best known for shooting nudes in public spaces, disagrees. "That's a total cop out. It's something for a male to say about a female body because men can be scared about the male body. It's something for females to say because they're scared of the male body. In my  'Decent Exposures' collection, there's this shot of a guy in a tree and he's got the most enormous cock I've ever seen. I say it's not intimidating to me, but at the same time, when I shot it, my [then] girlfriend was there, and this giant penis was kind of emasculating. The more I watched people react to that work and the things they would say about it, I discovered how threatening that penis was."
Hyman makes another intellectually stimulating point. "On the female nude," he explains, "the genitalia is tucked away, but on the male nude, even if everything is else tight and taut, there's still that one part that's hanging out and is very exposed." What a wonderful metaphor for the way our culture views sexuality! Though we live in a super-sex-saturated society, when it comes down to it, sex is a very tender territory, and in many ways, we are still taught to tuck it away.
Intrigued by a similar idea, Rittenmeyer, who started his career retouching commercial images, became involved with the photography project "Nipple Non Grata." In this project, Rittenmeyer shot topless women and then digitally removed their nipples, posing the question: "Does nipple removal let us flirt with feminine sexuality without crossing the boundaries of 'good taste'? Or does this approach further objectify women as plastic objects or playthings?"
Good question. An ex-boyfriend (who himself modeled in intimate positions with topless female models for pay, not artistic expression) was outraged when I told him I'd taken semi-nude photos with a male photographer as research. I was in fact, testing out a theory I had on female objectification and the male gaze. Perhaps that's not entirely true; there was a part of me that wanted these photos so I could feel beautiful. "The model," explains Rittenmeyer, "is made to feel beautiful; women use the experience to feel beautiful." (I guess my impulse wasn't that off the mark). Not only is the model made to feel beautiful, Rittenmeyer goes on to say that when shooting a female nude, he surrounds the whole shoot with beauty, exclusively hiring attractive make-up artists (a.k.a. "cultural wallpaper"). But my ex contended, by allowing myself to be shot by a male photographer, I put myself in danger of being exploited. Rittenmeyer concedes the point. "I'm sure many photographers use a sexual dynamic to relate to the model. There is that aspect that as the photographer, HE is in charge. But there are also male photographers, like me, who think of themselves as collaborators with the model. The image is instantly available on a computer, so the subject can always look at what's happening."
So now the question becomes, when it comes to the female nude, what's the difference between subject and object? For Hyman, there's no one answer, but in true postmodern fashion, situation is key. "How do you not know when you're being objectified?" he says. "You should know when somebody's treating you in a certain way. You should have the perspicacity. True, art is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But if you're taking a nude shot and the photographer asks you to spread your legs and touch yourself, then you're being objectified and you should get up and leave."
The idea that Hyman, like Spencer Tunick, the artist and photographer who has been shooting nudes in public spaces for over 15 years, bring their subjects - male and female alike - out into public might widen the notion of the male gaze. Since the hunter/gatherer split, women have been associated with the private sphere, while men are associated with the public. Bringing a flesh and blood female nude into the public sphere may be empowering. Of Hyman's work Tunick has said, "The body pushing into the public arena - for me that's a good thing."
There's much to uncover about the dynamic between male photographers and their nude female subjects. Can one be an object and subject at the same time? Absolutely. Can one be simultaneously exposed and empowered? Why not? The dynamic I'm exploring is so enmeshed with our cultural mores about sex: contradictory and obfuscating to say the least. But at least we're talking about it. Perhaps Hyman sums it up best: "A lot of people want to be shot nude - men and women. We've been taught to cover everything up, so when you take it off, you become vulnerable, but at the same time, more free. It's a thrill to get naked!"
Follow Jill Di Donato on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jilldido