Wyeth & Testorf, Sontag & Burroughs, and the Three Biases

April 03, 2024  •  Leave a Comment


Andrew Wyeth & Helga Testorf

When I was ten years old, my mother purchased a book of The Helga Pictures. She admonished me not to read it, because it was "dirty." So, of course, I read it as quickly as I could. The Helga Pictures are a series of "268 paintings and drawings of German model Helga Testorf created by American artist Andrew Wyeth between 1971 and 1985." What is so fascinating about these pictures is that Andrew Wyeth kept them a complete secret from everyone, including his wife, until he was ready to release them into the world. They're clearly intimate studies of Helga Testorf's form -- more than just her body, they show her soul. Many assumed (and probably still assume) that Testorf and Wyeth were lovers, but both deny this. In a short film about her experience, Testorf states: "There are many ways of making love, you know." This statement nails it for me; Wyeth's nudes of Testorf transcend objectification, but instead study/celebrate/love/symbolize her in a manner that was secret, furtive, erotically charged, but not physically consummated. I believe that Wyeth and Testorf were not sexual partners, but that they loved each other as muse and artist, goddess and supplicant.

Susan Sontag & William S. Burroughs

"To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time." ― Susan Sontag, On Photography

"There is in fact something obscene and sinister about photography, a desire to imprison, to incorporate, a sexual intensity of pursuit." ― William S. Burroughs

These quotations are tough ones. I see truth in them, but not the complete picture. Sontag's statement that photography "turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed" juxtaposes well with Burroughs's "desire to imprison, to incorporate". What makes these quotations difficult for me is that there's a negative intent, or a negative effect, assumed in both Sontag's and Burroughs's statements. Put differently, Sontag's symbolic possession and Burroughs's incorporation are both violent acts -- an objectification that belittles and renders the photographer's subject a victim. So, what's the difference between the negative objectification of Sontag and Burroughs, and the positive glorification of Wyeth?*

In Wyeth's nude portraits of Testorf, I see a celebration of her. I agree with Sontag that Wyeth saw Testorf "as they never see themselves," but that this didn't result in Testorf's "symbolic possession." It's my opinion that Wyeth's objectification of Testorf instead resulted in a symbolic apotheosis -- a glorification of Testorf as a female figure, a muse transcending her body into a timeless symbol yet rooted in a furtive, erotic-but-innocent, intimate, and very real exploration of Testorf's form over years. Objectification through art is not inherently diminishing. Objectification through art can be celebratory. It can elevate the subject into a powerful symbol, though perhaps not as easily as it can degrade the subject into a specimen.

Conclusion & The Three Biases

In a recent conversation, my mentor wrote something that more concisely addresses some of the ideas I've explored above. I'll apologize to her in advance for quoting a phone text conversation, but she wrote:

"One thing that students have a hard time wrapping their brains around is that anything photographed is a symbol. It’s the context that makes all the difference. It can change the symbolism from good to bad, from comfortable to uncomfortable. It’s all about context. There are also three biases in photography. The first bias being the type of equipment you use. Everyone can choose any type of equipment, but it does have an effect on how you create images and what they end up looking like. The second bias is your eye. Everyone sees things differently, and if given all the same equipment, 30 people will photograph the same object in 30 different ways because of their own experiences. The photographers eye is made up of their own experiences in life, and how they have perceived and experienced the world. It’s kind of like an eye made up of history. The third bias is one that the photographer cannot control and that is the viewer. You can create most incredible image, but if your viewer is not ready to view the image, or does not have the background or interest to engage in the image, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything to everybody, it’s just that it doesn’t connect or anything to that viewer. So I told my students, they have two things they control, and one thing they can’t."

For my own art, my first bias is in my equipment and processes. I prefer a more abstract and symbolized photography than a sterile or neutral photography. On the spectrum, I'm much more of a pictorialist than I am a student of the f/64 group.

My second bias is my eye. My intent is to celebrate the beauty, the mystery, the sensuality, and most importantly the power of the female form. There's a reason I title the nude art section of my portfolio "Anima." I am compelled to do this. The secret intimacy and trust of a nude photoshoot are powerful drugs, but they're not sinister. I'd be lying if I didn't experience some of Burroughs' "sexual intensity of pursuit," but the pursuit itself is not sexual, prurient, or belittling. If it were, I would not allow myself to photograph nude women. Diane Arbus wrote: "I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do — that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse." I get this. I feel it. There is a thrilling covert naughtiness in the intimacy of nude photography. If there weren't, I wouldn't need to use a pseudonym. I also probably wouldn't enjoy it. If I found myself using my cameras, lenses, and overcomplicated processes to photographically leer at or violate a woman, then I'd throw everything away, burn my negatives, and delete all of my image files.

Which brings me to the third bias, that of my viewers. Sontag and Burroughs bring a negative bias towards photography. Whether this is from their lived experience or their intent doesn't matter -- as an artist, I can't control my viewers' biases. What I can do is try to influence who my viewers are by sharing my photographs only in venues where people expect to see nude art. I certainly don't want to offend, and I'm not looking to shock.** I can also write long-winded essays that try to explain why I am compelled to create the art that I do. Finally and most importantly, I can reward my subjects' trust and time by making the best art that I'm capable of.


*     Here, I'll acknowledge that some might not see a difference. I'm sure that some will see Wyeth's nude portraits of Testorf as exploitative objectification. And I'd agree that that opinion or perspective are just as valid as mine. The "simple" solution here is to avoid objectification by photographer by refusing to be photographed, while also avoiding exposure to imagery that one finds exploitative. The latter is much harder than the former, and I empathize with the frustration of those who feel bombarded by unavoidable sexual objectification in art, media, and life. Exposure to nude art should be "opt-in," and I'll freely admit that my own art isn't for everybody. This should go without saying, but none, especially the marginalized, should have to deal with any of this shit if they don't want to.

**    That's not to say that shock isn't a valid artistic objective. That's another conversation.







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