Bare naked Irish ladies ready for their close-up
Women aged 21-54 who volunteered to undress for a project by photographer Trevor Hart talk about the experience
Sonya Lennon: ‘I’m 45, happy with my body with all its imperfections and happy to show my confidence in who I am.’ Photograph from ‘Bare’ by Trevor Hart
Three years ago one of Ireland’s leading advertising and editorial photographers, Trevor Hart, started work on a personal project – photographing a series of female nudes – in order to stretch his creativity.
“It’s difficult to get right and I had attempted to do it in the past, but the results were dreadful. This time I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted, and that was to photograph them as feminine, sensual and beautiful without being sexualised or titillating.”
The results, which have subtle lighting, texture and tone, seem more like paintings than photographs. They will form the basis of an exhibition, Bare, due to begin in October, and an accompanying book.
The project began with three life-drawing models, and the results enticed others to pose in the nude in Hart’s studio. The volunteers, aged 21-54, included Hart’s wife, Dorcas, and some well-known women such as Sonya Lennon and Laura George. “Dropping the dressing gown is the hardest part,” says George. “Taking your clothes off for someone who is not your doctor and who you are not going to sleep with is new territory.”
Inevitably the project raised questions of self-exposure, body image and attitudes to nakedness and vulnerability. Each woman provided a personal statement. “I’m 45, happy with my body with all its imperfections and happy to show my confidence in who I am,” writes Lennon. Her nine-year-old daughter’s positive response is what has touched her most, “and I understood that respecting, valuing and loving our bodies is a gift to pass on to future generations”.
Others have expressed their surprise at feeling empowered by the experience. “While I still think I look too thin, I can see curves in my body that I hadn’t been aware of because I couldn’t see past the angles,” says Joanna Barry. “The images capture softness and vulnerability. It was a very emotional experience that made me realise that what you see in yourself is amplified by your own self-doubts.”
Exposed by cancer
For cancer survivor Marion Cody, nakedness was exposing her bare, shaved head. “My hair was what defined me all my life, and for it to go was devastating. I didn’t think there was any other part of me that was remotely attractive. But you know what, it wasn’t that bad, and you start to look at yourself completely differently. Trevor was very gentle, and I didn’t feel under any pressure and found the idea of ultimate nudity so interesting.”
Clothes and make-up are daily armour for most women. Nessa McCormack had never set foot outside her house for almost 30 years without her mascara, so being photographed without it was an equally valid expression of nudity.
“My mascara was always my safety net, and I first said no way would I do this. Going completely naked, however, was pushing me out of my comfort zone. That’s an intimate thing with my husband; it’s very private, though I am not prudish. For me to be bare would be having no mascara, so that’s where we went. It was very liberating and makes you look at beauty in a different way.”
A huge influence on Hart’s approach was Lucian Freud’s portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2012. “I wanted to make very large photographic prints where you see all the details of the skin. The way he paints skin and flesh and his use of colour pigmentation lodged in my brain. In the end it becomes a true portrait of that person. Freud called them “naked portraits” and that’s when it becomes interesting.”
Snapping a painter
As a painter herself Kerensa Barr is familiar with drawing nudes. “But I had never exposed myself before this, and I found it quite liberating. I am going to be 50 soon, and last year I did three naked things: a dip in the nip for cancer, and my sister also photographed me in a river. It’s about feeling comfortable in my skin, which only comes to women of this age, and I didn’t feel naked [being photographed], but really relaxed. We’re a prudish race. I have lived around the world, but am not good at going topless, I would still not go topless on a beach now.”
Muireann Ryan had seen some of Hart’s photographs of nudes and thought they looked like Dutch masters, so she decided last year, when she was five months pregnant, that she would get involved with the project because she had something to show. “You are only pregnant for a short time, and it captured that moment. I don’t think I am going to have another child. But I wonder what my son will think of it in sixteen years’ time? And I don’t know where to put it – in the bathroom? In the living room?”
A key condition with the participants was that they had to be completely comfortable about their pictures being part of a public exhibition, according to Hart. “I have never seen this as a piece about nakedness, but about collaboration. If you love your subject matter and are passionate about it, your work will always be more interesting,” he says.
He wants the portraits in Bare, each more than 1m wide, to be shown in a spare, minimalist space.
“A lot of women have trusted me with this, and I think it is only right that they get the right space for it. It’s easy to engage with these pictures, because they look like paintings, and people are surprised when they realise they are photographs. Many feel more comfortable looking at paintings rather than photographs of nudes.”
For Laura George, posing for a life-size photograph “when you’re just shy of 50 isn’t as scary as it might have been at 20, 30 or 40, but weirdly exhilarating. This [body] has swelled and contracted, and other people have lived in it. Bits broke and healed. It may not be classically proportioned or young, but right now it’s healthy and strong and I like its history.”