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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Nude vs. Naked: 
The Final Chapter 

At Least I Hope So…

It's a warm Saturday morning and with paintbrush in hand I'm cutting in color along the edge of my living room ceiling. Now you may wonder what painting has to do with photography?

Some people find painting relaxing. I find it absolutely, painfully boring. As a result my mind tends to kick into overdrive and start chewing on things. This particular morning it's organizing and sorting through all of the feedback from last month's reader forum. The fact I'd printed out and read through all thirty-eight pages of feedback from the site with my morning coffee might have had something to do with it. But while thirty-eight pages is an impressive amount, there was nearly as much mail that was sent to me directly and not posted online. It was that "private" correspondence that was sometimes personal, venomous and in a few cases filled with religious references. As near as I can tell from some of those emails our reader forum and my email address were cross posted to some kind of Christian chat area at some point.

To say we touched a nerve with that cover would be an understatement.

To say I was surprised at how strongly some people felt about the image would also be an understatement. I really hadn't thought the image was all that risqué. Honestly I still don't. But I've always said the readers set the direction of the magazine. So I'm listening to both sides. And while some readers chose to throw stones at each other I tried to consider and balance everyone's position - even when my first reaction was "you're kidding right?"

As my mind sifted through it all I broke your responses down into some broad categories I'll address here.

The Consensus 
Interestingly the very first post "I've seen more revealing photos on the cover of Cosmopolitan. I don't see why anyone had a problem with it" summed up the vast majority of responses both public and private. Many people said they'd seen more on the newsstand or in the grocery line.

Many sought to remind me not to be swayed by the minority view "Joe Farace always does a beautiful job. Some people find fault with almost anything, they just like to be contrary. Keep up the good work, we outnumber them." and "Don't let the view of the minority take these articles away from the majority who enjoy them."

A few found humor in the whole idea that someone would be offended as illustrated by the sarcasm expressed in their posts. 

"Nude vs. Naked: You are nude until confronted with someone who is fully dressed, then you're NAKED" (my personal favorite and so true).

"I'm TOTALLY offended by the naked moose on the cover!!!"

"If you want to get theological about it, stop taking pictures and take up priesthood!"

Some were concerned that we would be intimidated by all the attention and pull Joe's column or that Joe would become offended and stop writing for us.

Neither has happened. Since starting with us the feedback on Joe's column has been overwhelmingly positive. Moreover I can tell from the server logs each month what articles are being read and Joe's column is very popular among our readers. It also tends to be the first column that many of you go to - the logs show many more page views on his columns at the beginning of the month than at the end of the month when compared to other articles.

Don't forget Joe has other interests as well. He's done equipment reviews for us and he's an avid auto and racing photographer. The Formula One car on the cover of Issue #32 was from Joe's review of the Olympus E-1 Digital SLR. His column in this month's issue is about shooting cars. I won't even hold it against Joe that he likes Jags.

Free Speech 
I thought the free speech arguments were a bit off base. There was no government agency telling us we couldn't publish the image. The discussion was whether the image was appropriate for the cover.

At Work 
The workplace issue is a tougher one. Frankly it was something I hadn't considered and in hindsight perhaps I should have.

"I loaded at work one day. Fortunately, I have Internet access at work during free time, and my boss is cool with that. They don't police me either, but my boss (a woman) did inquire as to what I was looking at. It was an awkward moment."

"Considering the times and the insane number of sexual harassment suits out there, this cover is quite dangerous. I enjoy the e-zine and often read it during my lunch hour at work. I really don't need some overzealous person catching a glimpse of something this innocent and start some kind of ruckus because I'm trying to enrich the skills of my hobby."

"Sometimes when I'm taking a break at my desk at work I browse to this web site. With photographs of nude or semi-nude people on the cover that could get me fired…"

Some of the current case law on sexual harassment and what constitutes a "hostile workplace" is as silly as suing McDonald's because you got fat eating Big Macs. Companies don't want to navigate these murky legal waters or have the negative publicity of a sexual harassment lawsuit so they may come down hard on someone for even the appearance of impropriety. Only you know the situation in your particular company and should make decisions about what to view at work accordingly.

On a related point, I've always believed that if you don't want to look at something don't look at it - but don't intrude on my right to do so.

For some folks putting suggestive images on the cover means they don't have an opportunity to make that choice and that made them feel put upon.

"I would NOT like to have my boss walk in as I was opening the magazine! Nor, for that matter, would I like one of my grandchildren to be staring over my shoulder! Thanks for considering this viewpoint."

"Here's my take on this: If nudity offends you, don't look at it. But don't impose your moral standards on others with the excuse that you have the moral high ground". But "Whether or not nudity offends me is not the issue. Don't impose your photography on me with the excuse that I should accept what you accept. This pendulum swings both directions."

I still don't feel the cover was that risqué, but I will accept that we need to consider those who did when choosing future covers. That allows them to make an educated choice about what they want to view.

An idea connected with this was the argument that the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and some women's magazines in particular show more flesh than our cover did. That may be true. But someone who's purchased one of those magazines knows what's on the cover and can make an intelligent decision about whether to read it at work (only on their lunch hour of course). Someone coming to Vivid Light doesn't know what the cover image is until it appears on their screen.



How Does Our Cover Compare?
How does our cover compare? I didn't have to look hard for some spicy and potentially controversial examples. 

Here's a newsstand sampling that includes our cover from issue #34, the 2004 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the French version of Photo showing a famous shot by Helmut Newton, an issue of Spanish Vogue with the model attired in some "evening wear" that wouldn't look out of place on an American newsstand, two issues of Esquire from 2004, one showing a models partially exposed posterior and the other implying a bit of temptation. And a Vogue cover featuring a very pregnant Brooke Shields in a wet semi-transparent dress. 

Finally the inset is the cover of American Photo which choose a very different Helmut Newton image for the American version of the magazine, presumably so as not to offend Americans.


How We Choose the Cover 
You started the nude article in the back of the issue and before I knew it it was smack dab on the front."

"Are you trying to get more viewers so that you get more advertisers? I know sex sells, but I am not buying."

Well considering the covers over the past four years it's pretty obvious "sex sells" isn't the criteria. You can see all the covers by clicking on the back issues page. Out of curiosity I did some counting. We've had two covers featuring women. The other was a model posed on the steps of UMass while talking on a cell phone. We've also had two foxes (the kind with tails), two moose, and two flowers. Other "people covers" include a group of photographers shooting a sunset, a group of speeding bicyclists, a mummer from Philadelphia's Mummers parade, a skateboarder from the X games and two lovers cuddling on the beach in Atlantic City in a decidedly G-rated image. The winner by a long shot is landscapes - there are fourteen of those! So clearly, it hasn't been a case of sex sells.

"How do you guys decide what image goes on the cover?"

To answer that question you need to understand something about both Vivid Light and the Web. Search engines like Google rank our site based in part on how many other sites link to us. We provide icons of the current cover you can place on your web site, your company's Web site, or your camera club's web site. These icons update automatically when a new issue comes out and they're available in four sizes from 150x105 up to the full sized cover image at 500x349. So like a print magazine that wants a cover to catch your eye on the newsstand we want a cover image that will catch your eye amid the clutter of the typical Web page.

This was less important when we started than it is today, and looking back through the old covers you can see some subtle differences. When choosing an image I first scan the new issue and come up with three to five images that catch my eye. I then shrink them down to 150x105 (our smallest current icon size) to see how they look. The one that still grabs my eye at that size is the one that gets chosen. Color, shape and texture all play a role. Last month it was the goofy expression on the moose that caught my eye. By the way, it is a fact that the female form grabs the attention of both men and women - far more than the male form does. I'll leave it to the psychiatrists among you to figure out why.

Does "sex sells" play a role? We've been publishing Joe's images and articles since Issue #28, many of which featured models revealing far more than the model in our cover image. If "sex sells" was the criteria one of those images would have been on the cover long ago.

This image made the cover because it caught my eye and revealed nothing, making it safe, I thought, for a cover image.

It's More About Us than the Photo 
Quite a few of you indicated this image was something of a litmus test. Since nothing was actually revealed but the model was nude, reactions said more about the viewer than about the image. To some extent I would have to agree with that comment. After reading some of the comments and emails I had to go back and look at the image again. Did I miss something?

Some suggested that the model's high heeled boots and necklace made the image pornographic. To those folks I would say if you think this image is pornographic you haven't seen real pornography.

Pornography is about graphic sex acts and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. Judging by some of the spam I receive there are pornographic Web sites which go places most of us would never even go in our imaginations.

Americans and Nudity 
Our European readers were utterly amazed there was even a discussion about the cover let alone a controversy. Even a reader in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) wrote "The photo will even pass the censorship here in the UAE, and trust me, they are very strict!!!!"

Many marveled at the fact that many Americans see no problem with depictions of graphic violence but are horrified at the display of the human body. Others pointed out the seeming hypocrisy of people being offended by this image while the country and the Web are virtually swimming in hardcore pornography.

I'll give the benefit of the doubt to those who were offended by the image, and assume they're not the same folks renting XXX rated DVDs and visiting adult Web sites. But to put it in perspective the neighborhood video store here rents more than 50% adult titles. Those titles often out rent Hollywood's new releases. Someone's looking at the stuff.

One reader summed it up this way "The nudity issue is very American. I am American, but live in France. The French found the whole Janet Jackson, Superbowl thing amazing. They could not understand what all the fuss was about. This month's Photo Magazine (an excellent French photography magazine) is a tribute to Helmut Newton and the cover picture (see cover images above) is his famous one of the four models walking toward the camera - as most who know Newton's work will recall, there are two images, one with the models clothed and one with them nude - naturally, the French editors chose the full frontal nudity image for the cover. It is an incredibly striking and beautiful image, but would certainly offend some American sensibilities."

It's not just that the rest of the world thinks we Americans are nuts on this issue (they do by the way). They have a point. Janet Jackson's breast was exposed so fleetingly that you'd need to freeze the scene to see anything. But every week there are graphic murders, autopsies, and brutal beatings shown on prime time television. There is little or no outcry about the violence but I got pretty sick of hearing about Janet Jackson. Are our priorities out of line?

Honestly I think the the folks in Europe have the right idea on this one.

Why a Fire Helmet? 
Several people who hadn't read the original article didn't understand why the model was covered with a fire helmet.

This image, like all covers, was pulled from an article in that month's issue Working in Interesting Locations: Photographing Firehouse Dolls. The article dealt with the challenges of shooting calendar images in a Fire Truck factory. By the way, proceeds from the calendar go to help the families of fire fighters.

Some folks felt the problem with the image was it would create temptation to stray from your marriage. In my opinion you're only going to stray from your marriage if there are already problems in the relationship - please spare me references to aberrant behavior such as sex addiction - that's another topic entirely. If you honestly feel moved to cheat on your spouse after looking at this simple image you need to take a hard look at your marriage. The problem lies there - not with this simple image. I can only imagine what these people  would have thought of the image of the woman and the snake from the cover of Vogue. Talk about temptation!

Then there was the fellow who linked our cover image to pre-teen pregnancy, drug use and sexually transmitted diseases "The genius who decided to not only publish the picture, but put it on the cover, has(n't) completely thought things through...", "...I don't know the exact history, but I('m) sure it started with a short skirt, then a bikini, then something more revealing... Now we've got kids pregnant at 9 & 10, with STD's, using drugs, with destroyed lives before they even become a teenager. All because they had seen sex everywhere they turned and thought that sex was normal, and was wonderful, and glamorous, and an expression of love."

Wow! Well I'm the genius who made the cover decision. To say you don't "know the exact history" would be an understatement. STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) have been a health issue for all of recorded history, as have drugs - which have been used for both recreational and religious purposes throughout history. 

Teenagers interested in sex? Read Romeo and Juliet. This is not a new concept.

Why kids are reaching puberty at younger ages is the subject of debate in the medical community. I've heard theories linking growth hormones in meats to early maturity in people (kids) who eat the meat.  But I've never heard of any educated individual asserting that the viewing of naked or near naked people would shock a 10 year old into puberty. After all nudity was/is the norm in many societies without causing aberrant sexual behavior in those societal groups. 

As for " (being) normal, and wonderful, and glamorous, and an expression of love", with the right person it can and should be all of those things.

I'd say this gentleman's logic is seriously flawed and would suggest he needs to get out of the house more often.

Getting Personal 
I was surprised at how personal some of the email was. The worst were sent directly to me or to me at the magazine through the feedback page. The really nasty ones were never posted into the online forum where they might be subjected to the scrutiny of others, which I thought was interesting. 

Some were clearly aimed at intimidating me as Publisher into not publishing future articles by Joe. That won't happen as efforts at intimidation just get my back up and strengthen my resolve.

Here are some choice quotes taken from some of those rambling attack emails.

"If you have to get excited looking at naked pictures I guess you're married to some fat cow if you can find a wife at all. What you need to find is a pastor or deacon who can bring you to God."

"I can only imagine what your wife must look like if you have to look at and publish this kind of pornography. That is if someone as pathetic as you can find a wife or you're not some kind of (profanity and homosexual reference deleted).

To answer these and some of the other personal accusations: for the record I'm happily married to an attractive woman who is camera shy. Over the years only a single photo of her has slipped into the magazine (I'll let you guys guess which one is my wife). Yes I have kids, a grown son. I worried about him constantly when he was growing up, and only slightly less so now that he's an adult. Since I'm not running for office my religion is my own business, though being of Irish decent you can probably narrow down the choices. 

"Like all pornographers you will surely burn in HELL…" Possibly. You can never be sure about these things. But if I do I doubt it will be for publishing this image.

"If you continue to publish pornography we will make every effort to make people feel shame for reading your publication. Peer pressure is the best way to stop people like you."

"…and perhaps our protesting outside your offices will shame you into not publishing material harmful to children and needlessly tempting adults to adultery. I wonder what you would you say if you had to defend your actions face to face instead of hiding behind a web site like a coward?

Please email me for directions; the rush hour traffic around here can be brutal. If you're coming it's only polite to bring coffee and danish. I really like cheese danish with strawberry filling and I prefer my coffee strong. 

As most of our regular readers know, I'm really not the type to hide or shy away from touchy subjects or debate. From the balance of this email it was obvious this person wasn't a reader and hadn't even taken the time to look at the magazine before firing off their hate mail.

Oh Yeah, What About the Photo? 
Some people took issue with the image itself. They felt the model looked posed or uncomfortable. Others felt the strobes might have been better placed to eliminate shadows around the model, particularly around her legs.

"Four different light sources casting hard, visible shadows all over the damn place? Looks like the lighting on the Red Skelton Show from the 1950s. And that pose! Who makes a model lie back, head back and make her look at the camera down past her feet? She seems to be barely able to lift her head, giving her a horrible double chin, sagging cheek and a clear look up her nose."

Others defended the shot, liking both the pose and the lighting. "…it is a well done photo with great lighting and a beautiful subject matter, I think it is tasteful and interesting..."

And one of the more insightful comments "…it must be an excellent picture, because it sparked all this discussion."

Now maybe it's just me. But this is a photography magazine. I think we should be discussing things like the proper posing of models and the placement of strobes - not sex and religion.

I really do appreciate the feedback and I'll take into consideration everything that everyone's said on the subject. But now I'm ready to get back to photography.

I'll leave you all this month with one final quote from one of our readers:

"Not so long ago the Pope (yes Pope John) said art is a God given gift and it is the duty of every artist to use it to their utmost ability."


Now grab your camera bags folks. It's time to go out and shoot.

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