A writer, or photographer, cannot help but be fascinated by the curious interaction of what he imagines he has put down on pieces of paper with what ends up on them and with what readers or viewers, in all their beauteous variety, may find in his work. I recently [n.b., in the year 2000] came across two similar books. One purported—by showing black-and-white photographs of neither famous nor certifiably gorgeous New Yorkers without their clothes on—to reveal how beautiful and various “real” New Yorkers are. (Captions identified the subjects as having various common occupations: e.g., Julia, legal secretary; Frank, musician.) The other book, from a lesbian press, sought—with color close-ups—to raise people’s consciousness about how beautiful and various vulvas are. (A back-cover blurb challenged: “You will find these images some of the most beautiful you have ever seen, or be shocked by them. This book is a magic mirror letting you know exactly how you feel about female genitalia.”)
The New Yorkers were shot standing in what appeared to be a barren loft/studio, at some distance from the camera. The vulvas seemed to be lying down, and many of the frames showed the stubby ends of fingers which held the outer lips open. In both cases the subject was placed squarely in the middle of the frame and looked directly at the lens. A black backdrop was used for the people; the vulva pictures were printed on a black background.
As with these little essays of mine, each of the books implied that its ostensibly direct and simple approach to its subject was particularly honest. The book producers also seemed to feel that such an approach eliminated stylistic barriers to appreciation of the subjects; such directness and simplicity must allow the natural beauty of ordinary New Yorkers or ordinary vulvas to be revealed. Beauty, often seeming like a veil for illusions that I am anxious to strip away, does not figure prominently among my goals for my work.
For some years now, however, I have been quite interested in vulvas and have indeed found that they are quite various. But my interests are somewhat different from the vulva book’s. For one, the vulvas I have seen have always been part of a whole woman, be she pictured in a magazine or, more likely, flesh and blood—a lover, the appearance of whose vulva has been colored by—and has colored—my feelings for the person and the nature of our relations. For another, I am particularly interested in the overall swelling, the external contours of the vulva—such as are revealed by a bathing suit or snug gym shorts—and in the delicate ways the lips fold together when the organ is at rest. I have found some of the vulvas and vulva photographs I have seen over the past few decades off-putting, others of such a sumptuous beauty they made my heart ache.
The vulva photographs in the book were taken so close up that the vulvas did not seem attached to women, and this seemed to preempt any sexual feelings on my part. The pulling back of the outer lips, the focus on the normally hidden pink flesh and on the entrance to the vagina—it was not my thing. When, in the privacy of my study, I first leafed through the book, the sharp detailing and two-dimensionality of the images stirred thoughts of brain scans—medical texts—gynecological problems. Reviewing the images again as I worked on this essay, I was reminded of auction catalogs—these vulvas like so many old coins or baseball cards. Variety there was; if there was also beauty it was in the technical precision of the photographers’ work.
The editor’s introduction indicated that another of the goals was to demystify the vulva. This would also be to take away its magical powers, and this I felt. It seemed the book’s producers wanted to strip away all magical, sexual powers, to master fear by objectification, precise description. (Again using this book as a mirror for looking at my own work, I can see that my consciousness-raising efforts, my analyses seek to disempower irrationality and passion of many kinds—rage most of all.)
As for my fellow New Yorkers, most of us of course look better when much of our flesh is covered or highlighted by clothes. I also suspect that, even naked, on most days these particular legal secretaries, musicians, plumbers and clerks looked more beautiful than they seemed in these pictures.
I can imagine the book having been produced by several different types of photographers. For example, perhaps the photographer was himself quite good-looking; and took pride in and enjoyed the special status and attention his good looks gave him; and, at the same time, was ashamed of his vanity, superficiality and elitism. Yes, he also recognized that as with vulvas—or “split beavers,” as they used to be called in cruder men’s magazines—pictures of naked people earn money and attract comment. But my imaginary photographer also had another, more complex goal: to wrestle with his uneasy feelings, by trying to discover the beauty in these ordinary people. A beauty that if discovered would threaten his own. Such a fiction could help us explain why this book made its subjects look more awkward than beautiful.
I am also interested in how the hoped for effects of directness, simplicity and honesty must be perverted by the intervention of a viewer or reader. Let us assume that the awkwardness I felt—standing in a bookstore, flipping through the pages—was in part a reflection of my uneasiness about displaying myself, even fully clothed, in a public place, looking at pictures of naked people. My discomfort also seemed a reflection of my uncertain feelings about my own body, whose positive and negative features generally seem to me to add up to something quite ordinary (Bill, writer). And then there is my dislike of being photographed, of being captured for others to see, of running the risk of being shown the picture—having to look at myself.
Readers might decide that, given all my conflicting feelings, it was hard for me to truly see or appraise the photographers’ images of either New Yorkers or vulvas. This is certainly true, and not only for me and these particular books, but also for all viewers, readers, images, books and essays.
Image is apparently of Sarah Jessica Parker, or her hands and dress, at an event in Hollywood in October 2012.
Femalia, edited by Joani Blank (“a sex educator, volunteer, great-grandmother, and cohousing enthusiast,” and founder of Good Vibrations, “the first sex-positive, woman-friendly adult store in the country”), and with photographs by Tee A. Corinne, Michael Perry, Jill Posener and Michael A. Rosen (Down There Press, 1993). Link here is to what appears to be a 2011 re-issue by Last Gasp press.