|Bodyscapes: An Interview with Allan Teger
by Jim McGee
Your initial reaction to Allan Teger's images probably says a lot about you.
Depending on your point of view you may see whimsical art, dirty pictures, something odd, humorous, or just interesting images.
Those varying points of view and the good natured debates they foster are a source of amusement for Teger who was trained as a social psychologist.
These images, which he calls bodyscapes, are an outgrowth of his study of psychology and have become his life's work.
How would you describe your work?
They're small figurines and toys placed on the body photographed to give the illusion of landscapes.
How did you arrive at the original idea for bodyscapes?
I used to be a psychology professor, and I was teaching the psychology of consciousness. One of the things I was teaching was the idea that you can see something more than one way and they can both be right. I was looking for a way of showing that in art and I came up with the idea of a skier going down the breast.
I realized instantly that I had a whole series of images to develop and a week or two later I started shooting.
How different were those first images from what you're shooting today?
The basic concept hasn't changed. What's changed is that I have more control over the lighting and I feel that I have better ideas in terms of designs. But the basic concept has really not changed that much in the last 25 years. This is the 25th anniversary of bodyscapes.
When you approached the first model about doing bodyscapes how did she receive the idea?
The first model wasn't too sure what I was up to and wanted to begin with something where she could observe what I was doing without having to take her clothes off. So the very first one was a little figurine of a woman sitting. and we placed that on the models finger and we placed her hand down on a sheet so that the photograph of the little toy on her finger was something that she could see while I was shooting it. During that first session, I also shot the first version of a man fishing in the belly button and also the climbers on the nose. Since then I have placed the climbers on the breast..
After showing those images models knew what I was trying to do so there was no more hesitancy.
It's very easy to get models because they're not recognized, they're not seen as who they are personally. The hardest thing is to find the little toys.
That's something I wanted to ask about. Some of the toys are very detailed. Where do you find your toys?
Some are model railroad miniatures. Some are cake decorating toys, some collectors miniatures, doll house miniatures. Wherever I can find them. I have a huge collection now.
How do you find people react to your images?
It's evolved over time. 25 years ago when I first began to show this work it was very common for people to pull their small children away, to not allow their children to see the nude bodies. Now I don't see any of that. What I see now is the opposite. Now I see people bring their children over and try to help them discover the body in the picture.
In general people love the work. Often they don't realize what they're seeing. They don't recognize it as a body. That happens often. Not as much at an art show or at my gallery where there are a lot of images on display at one time. Customers tell me all the time about their visitors seeing the work, and appreciating the work, and liking it, but not realizing it's a body. Maybe it's the second or third visit and they figure out what they're seeing.
Some of the images almost appear to have meanings. Is that intentional on your part or is that just the viewer reading into the image?
Well for example the guy with the crane. One person here who looked at that image remarked "that guy's got problems"? It was said jokingly but it made me wonder if it was intentional.
The one with the crane is a little different from almost everything else. I felt really obligated to make sure I had at least one image with the male body.
When I first started showing these I felt that it just wasn't appropriate to show only female bodies. It's very difficult to use a male body because there's hair on the body which gives away the fact that it's a body. I've tried to use the hair in design like a tractor and plow on a man's hairy chest. But it hasn't really worked out that well. I've had trouble coming up with really good images using the male body because I want it to show initially as a landscape and then later have the viewer discover the fact that it is in fact a body. So I really didn't have any ideas of how to really make that work with the male body that it really looked like a landscape initially. So I did this with the crane because I wanted to use the male body in some image and it was really more of a joke, a sexual joke. So what you read into it, of course, will vary. Some people will say he needs help, some will say he's tired, others will say he's too big, you know... (laughing) So there's a variety of interpretations.
I'm struggling with trying to find ways to use the male body that will work. If it's a male with almost no hair it doesn't necessarily look like a male. If their is body hair, unless I can find ways to make the hair part of the design that looks like a landscape, it really destroys the illusion. I don't want all the male images to be a penis. I do have one recently of a weightlifter on a bicep.
Do you find that people try and psychoanalyze the images?
Some people look at them and wonder about me. One person looked at me and looked at my work very carefully and she said finally "You must be very interesting on a date." I get a lot of comments. Some people say I'm really sick but they're usually laughing when they say that.
Most people really understand the creativity and the sense of humor and really enjoy the work a lot.
These images are a lot less shocking today than they would have been in the 70's. Have you seen a shift in how people view the images and in what they see in them?
Well I've always had people say that they're in good taste and that they're subtle. I think the issue of being in good taste has always been a very central point that people make. I think the reason that they're in good taste is that they started as a way to show that things could be seen in two different ways and that they could both be right. They didn't start with the idea of showing naked bodies.
It was also to show that the forms of nature keep repeating at different levels. I think that really does come through in the work. People can see that what I'm doing is not pornographic.
It's not even really erotic. It's just using the nude body as an image it's not really about sex, and it's not even about the body, it's about form and design. People enjoy this. Very very seldom do I have anyone upset by it. There are some people who don't like it - like any other work. In general people are amused by it and they enjoy it.
One thing that is interesting is people who will say that I can't put something like that up because my parents or children or grandchildren will see it. And every once in a while I ask them "When is it your turn?" "When can you put something up on your wall that you like?" I sort of feel sorry for people like that because whatever it is that's preventing them from putting something like that up now, it will only be something else later.
In general one of the most gratifying things about this is that people from all walks of life from one end of the spectrum to the other seem to enjoy them.
Do you have a personal favorite?
(long pause) It keeps changing. I like the recent one called gardening with the wheel barrow and I like the climbers on the breast. Those are my favorites right now (laughing) but that will change.
After 25 years doing this theme do you find that it's difficult to come up with new ideas?
Sometimes the ideas come first, sometimes I find the miniatures and get the ideas from them. It is difficult to come up with new ideas. Some of the ideas I have I can't use. For example most sports are played on flat fields and the body really isn't flat. I've tried some things but they haven't been really great.
People will often ask for things like an image with a computer - but you really don't find computers out in the landscape.
I don't expect a lot of new images all the time. Each year I try to have a few new ones. Sometimes I'll come up with variations on the old ideas. There are new ones I'm working on right now.
Do you work with a wide variety of models?
I've worked with many models. My models are art school models or friends. One model might be good for one part of the body, another model might be good for a different part of the body. What I'll do is hire a model and then see what I can do with that model. I'll have a bunch of different shots ready and then depending on the model I'll figure out which ones I can do with that person. I've had favorite models that I've used a lot. But my models have been everywhere from 21 to over 50.
What kind of equipment are you using these days?
I use a Mamiya RB67 that has a built in bellows so I can use a normal lens. I'm using quartz lights and that's about it. The lights are reflected off the background.
I do my own printing. The regular edition bodyscapes are done on Ilford multi-grade RC paper, and the collector editions are on Agfa classic 118 fiber based paper.
What are your thoughts on digital photography?
I don't use digital manipulation. I always wanted my work to be really there. I never liked camera tricks or darkroom tricks where the viewer could say "that's just a darkroom trick."
I feel like using a real life setup makes it more valid in some way because it's not something that's done behind the scenes. It's right there.
As far as using digital capture instead of film - I don't really have any thoughts about that - that's just mechanical. I don't use it myself but I don't have any prejudice against it.
Will you continue with bodyscapes?
The bodyscapes will be something that I'll always do. I assume I'll be doing that all my life.
To see more of Allan Teger's images go to www.bodyscapes.com. All of these images are available for sale on his Web site in 8x10 or 10x13 sizes. His work can also be found on display at his gallery, the Art & Soul Gallery, in Woodstock New York.
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing