Photographing the nude with large format by Leonard Metcalf
My first nudes with large format cameras were very slow affairs. Painting my friends bodies with a light grey body paint all over and only a couple of poses of them together. Limited by only a few sheets of film I was cautious. I found the pose when I asked them to hold each other in their favourite cuddling position. I became interested in the line between the two bodies. “Lines of Love” was the first image that I felt was resolved enough to publish. Taken with studio lights in the back room of my house in Mount Victoria. The concept needs further exploration, and is something I will get back too.
It wasn’t long before I found a model who was willing to work with me in the landscape. Naked landscapes has become one of my favourite genres. I like to explore our relationship with nature. The connection we have with it. I believe it provides us with spiritual peace. Mother Nature or as Lovelock eloquently put it when he viewed the earth from his orbiting capsule Gaia.
I have been lucky enough to befriend an older male model, and we have worked together for years. Figuring out technique and form. How to integrate the figure into the landscape. It has been this continual practice that has taught me how to sculpt the figure into pleasing and meaningful form. The male figure is so difficult to pose. Working this way has taught me valuable lessons in technique.
On some days my technique is simple. The model and I wander the bush looking for interesting shapes and forms. Something I can add the figure into. Once I frame up the shot, with my camera I show the model the shot on the ground glass, and I describe the dominating forms I wish the model to play to with their body. We will try many poses until I find that magical connection between the figure and the landscape, between the two forms. I try to get them into poses that are supported rather than free standing. This helps with the long exposures and keeping them still. Sometimes a little tiding up of the figures’ form is needed before they are asked to stop breathing and hold still for the photo. I count them into the shot. And let them know when the exposure is complete. I only take one shot at each location and move on looking for something else to work with.
I try to make the figure look as majestically beautiful as I can. I bend and stretch them to pull wrinkles out, to hide rolls and other bits we really don’t want to be looking at. Now after working with a wide variety of figures I find great joy in finding the beauty in all sorts of people.
With black and white film I like to work with a light orange filter. I have the same one that also screws onto the front of my spot meter, so there is no worrying about filter factors. The orange filter hides blemishes, such as pimples and red marks. It lightens the skin and darkens the greens. It just adds a lovely touch of contrast to the mix. They were standard in a portrait photographers kit.
One of my favourite genres with my ‘Naked Landscapes’ is a tiny figure almost hidden in the majesty of Mother Nature. I like the figure to feel like it belongs there. As if they are recharging themselves through their connection with nature. I like them to be discovered by the viewer. Many of these need to be viewed at their printed size to fully comprehend the joy of discovery. Print size is a very important issue for us fine art large format photographers. Many of us take images that are designed to be viewed at a large scale, images that often struggle in smaller prints or on the web.
Figures and stone is another beautiful combination. Again I look for patterns and shapes that can be reinforced and added to with the human form. Copying curves and round boulders with the figure. With this genre I can get closer and fill the frame with the figure. This allows me to concentrate on their form.
Lately I have been working more with the light within overhangs, using the dark blackness of them to contrast the soft figures in the foreground. Cave light some affectionately know it by. That gentle soft light within an overhang or under a veranda on sunny day, or even better on a wet day. Personally I love soft light, I love the way it curves around the figure with a gentleness and a softness that helps give a lovely three dimensional feel to the figures. I fell in love with soft light while working with slide films such as Velvia in the landscape. Regardless of the film it is still my favourite light.
I have only been lucky enough a few times to work with a model in the mist, rain and sleet. Unfortunately the cold that usually accompanies these beautiful conditions isn’t too the best for the poor model.
Working with the figure has taught me to collaborate with the model and the landscape. This collaboration reinforces our connection. I have stopped trying to previsulaize my work before the shoot. Preferring to turn up, and see what happens. What landscapes appeal to me on the day or which poses suit our mood.
Leonard Metcalf has been infatuated with large format photography since George Schwartz showed him one at City Art Institute in 1986. Fifteen years of wandering the Blue Mountains with various 4 × 5 cameras not only gave him a solid portfolio of wilderness images it lead him to his current passion of teaching & mentoring photographers in workshops and tours.