The life force that infuses the natural world can be an incomprehensible, vast subject. To capture its intangible beauty, the photographer is often forced to find an object that crystallizes or embodies it. Two of the most convenient examples of this are flowers and nudes.

The current exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Culture Centre focuses on these two mainstays of photography in the largely monochrome work of Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) and the influential American West Coast School that broke so much new ground.

“Oval Nude” (1962) by Ruth Bernard

When Cunningham got her first camera, a 10-by-13-cm format model, at the age of 22 in 1905, nude photography clashed with America’s old-fashioned, puritan ethos. Accordingly, images of nudity had to be draped in an atmosphere of innocence or artistic affectation, implying that the nudity was purely incidental, if they were to escape the accusation of pornography.

This is apparent in Cunningham’s early, coy nudes, such as her “Self Portrait” (1906), where we see her lying naked in long grass with her face in dark profile.

“The Supplicant” (1910) shows a naked man and woman in exaggerated dramatic poses as if acting in one of Shakespeare’s plays. The fact that they are both butt-naked, however, renders the thespian affectation ridiculous.

Cunningham’s stylization often gives her nudes a rather dated appearance. Applied to plants, however, it succeeds in creating images that are almost always vibrant and refreshing. Choosing exotic flowers and shooting them close-up in sharp focus, she was able to capture their exotic textures and emphasize their unusual geometry, creating lush and even surreal images reminiscent of the paintings of her near contemporary, Georgia O’Keefe.

Her “Magnolia Blossom” (1925), showing the carpels and stamens in exquisite detail, transforms the popular ornamental plant into something out of science fiction. The curved and spiky leaves of her “Plant Pattern” (1920s) create what looks like a mutant Sydney Opera House, and the seemingly vast, voluted petals of her “Two Callas” (1925) evoke a swirling feeling that tugs against the static quality of the still-life image.

“Stepelia in Glass” (1928) by Imogen Cunningham

Her nature studies echo the aesthetic of Art Deco that was then coming into vogue with its highly geometric stylization of natural objects, including the human form. Although aesthetically pleasing, one of the drawbacks of this approach was that it made flowers look artificial. This is immediately apparent if you contrast Cunningham’s work with Ansel Adam’s pristine image of pale flowers blooming against a dark forest background of lichen and rocks in “Dogwood, Yosemite Park” (1938).

In the same way that stylization often made plants seem artificial, it also desexed nudes. Cunningham’s “Her and Her Shadow” (1931), a close-up of a woman’s breast area photographed from above, uses the undulating flesh and its shadows to create a kind of landscape effect.

Desexing images of nudity in this way strengthened the case that nude photography was art. None but the most prudish could accuse Edward Weston’s “Anita” (1925) of being titillating. This nude, showing a woman from behind with every feature hidden behind her round hips and back, looks more like a piece of fruit than a human being. But desexing the nude in this way denies the human form much of its beauty.

Ruth Bernhard’s work succeeds in preserving a degree of sexual attraction without straying too far into the area of titillation. Her “Sand Dune” (1967) also turns a naked female form into a what looks like a landscape, but retains a degree of sexual suggestiveness that Cunningham’s work lacks.

Bernhard’s most powerful images, however, are the ones where nudity is, in a sense, reduced to shades filling up unexpected forms. In “Oval Nude” (1962), the familiar curves and appendages of the female body are reduced, by the model’s coiled posture, to a rough oval filled with her nudity. This gives us a sense of a flower that has yet to open and reminds us that, behind all the forthrightness of American culture, this is a country that has often been uncomfortable with the naked form.

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