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Turning the tables: Photographing nude men

Editor’s note: Rebecca Horne is a freelance writer and photographer. She was a photo editor for the Wall Street Journal and her own work has been exhibited in New York, San Francisco and Arles, France. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to her.

Photographer Carrie Levy likes to shoot naked men, preferably as they lie on the floor. They are caught open-mouthed, drooling, contorted or grimacing in moments of pain or pleasure. They are abject – they are objects.

The men appear with their eyes closed or obscured. They do not look at us, and there is nothing to stop us from examining them from every available angle.

By now, it seems that we can be shocked by nothing – especially in art and photography. We’ve seen it all, or at least we think we have. The original and the truly new are harder than ever to find.

So, why does viewing these photographs of naked men taken by a woman feel transgressive?

How can it be, when our worlds are more saturated with images than ever before, when female art students outnumber the male, photographs of nude women still outnumber those of men?

Levy has been taking pictures since she was 12 years old. As the only girl in a family with three younger brothers, she describes feeling a sense of freedom when she was behind the camera.

Her brothers were her first subjects, and she liked ordering them around. To this day Levy admits she may be more comfortable around men than women.

For the series “You Before All” she photographed 80 men over a period of three to four years, including friends, lovers and strangers. She is not picky about her subjects.

“Sometimes I stop people on the street that I think look interesting and I assume would be willing,” Levy said. “Sometimes I get e-mails from volunteers and many times I photograph friends and acquaintances.”

She said that she doesn’t find the photographs sexy, but she doesn’t mind if other people do.

Her earlier work included men and women, but she soon discovered that she preferred working with men.

“I really dislike photographing women. I found most of my female models to have a staged reaction to the camera. They know the poses and the angles where they look best, at least to themselves,” Levy said.

“But with men they just relax into the process. Men seem to get lost or surrender. It’s in the surrender that I enjoy making these images.”

The exact qualities that might make some women well suited to traditional nude photography – an awareness of their best angles and knowing how to pose – are precisely the qualities that make them unsuitable for Levy’s purposes.

She is not after the predictable. Instead she cultivates uncertainty, often arriving at a subject’s home with no plan in mind.

“I find this works best and creates an image that is a combination of a portrait and documentation of a performance,” Levy said. “Plus, when I don’t have a plan and the model has never posed for me before, we both don’t know what to expect and this makes for good picture making.”

The work of photographers like Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Bill Brandt and countless others that followed artistic traditions of depicting the supine female body, rarely, if ever, had a female-photographer to male-subject counterpart.

Tapping into the time-tested history of female nudes, countless books and websites will tell you how to make “sensual photographs of the female form.”

Levy does not necessarily follow these kinds of rules herself. She relishes making people uncomfortable. This includes the subjects of the photographs and the viewers of the photographs alike. It’s as if her subjects are squirming under her gaze.

The deliberate awkwardness of the poses is part of what makes the work so compelling.

“These works capture the way in which we stare at one another in silent judgment,” Levy said. “I’ve chosen to use naked bodies to amplify the vulnerability of my subjects.”

Objectify them at your own peril. Looking at the photographs is an active process. The lines between private and public, intimacy, trust and fear seem to be crossed again and again.

Perhaps this is what critic Vince Aletti was alluding to when he said Levy’s images were more “neurotic than erotic”.

Is this a series of psychological portraits or is it a study of the male body? It can be hard to decide. The men here are extremely vulnerable, and they seem to be enjoying it. They chose this, after all.

While nudity is really only implied, penetration, submission, pain and moments of release are more than suggested. Someone just outside the frame pulls an ear, stands over a shirtless man on the floor, inserts a finger into his mouth.

There is something happening here. What’s happening isn’t sex; it is more interesting than the mechanics of sex. It is an exchange of power.

- Rebecca Horne, Special to CNN

Carrie Levy’s work is currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art through January 2014.