As I posted earlier, Filament magazine did an interview with me in their last issue. They are an English feminist erotic magazine that called itself the thinking woman’s crumpet. The questions were excellent and they chose a really good selection of the photos from “Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes.” The editor Suraya Sidhu Singh was a pleasure to work with.
This is part of the interview:
In a world where beauty is portrayed almost exclusively as young, thin, white women, photographer Laurie Toby Edison works to reveal the beauty of people of all sizes, ages and ethnicities. Interview questions by Jacqueline Dunkley-Insight and Marta Owczarek.
• Tell us a little about how you got started in photography.
I had spent several years doing social change work on issues of body image – what was then called “fat liberation.” I was the token ‘thin’ woman on panels and at workshops where fat women discussed their social and political experience of being fat and we strategized about what could be changed and how. In working with these women, I realized that they were beautiful – and it was a kind of beauty that was almost never portrayed in the world we lived in. I literally became a photographer to portray this beauty. (I’d been an artist for years, but I had worked only in metal before.) I wanted my pictures of fat women to be fine art black and white photographs. I knew that high aesthetic quality would be essential to changing how people see. These portraits eventually became the “Women En Large” project, done in collaboration with my writing partner, Debbie Notkin.
• What inspired you to undertake the ‘Familiar Men’ project?
After completing “Women En Large,” I contemplated working with a wider variety of female nudes and realized that “Women En Large” was my artistic statement on the female nude. When I started to consider the male nude, I realized that, like fat female nudity, male nudity was unexplored and unrepresented except for a very few images of conventionally sexy men. I was immediately captured – I’m always pulled to work that is both artistically and intellectually challenging.
I wanted to do respectful nude portraits of real men, the ones in our lives, the men we see every day. They are largely invisible in a world where the dominant culture’s vision enforces a narrow stereotyped version of masculinity. An underlying theme of all my work is making the invisible visible. My goal was to photograph a wide and diverse group of men, of differing age, race, ethnicity, ability, class and size. Familiar Men continued my exploration and representation of the body and its images. And as with the Women En Large photographs, I knew that the aesthetic quality of the work would be crucial.
• How did you choose your ‘familiar men’?
When I see a person, I know whether or not I want to photograph them. I also see people differently at the beginning of a project than toward the end, because I have an aesthetic structure for the suite of photographs in my head. As the project develops, that structure evolves, and I know more about what’s needed.
I only photographed people to whom I could be introduced. I want the people I approach to have a context for me and the project. I needed both the greatest possible diversity and I knew I would have to work hard to get it. I also needed community feedback on Familiar Men. So, during the five years of the project, my collaborators (Debbie Notkin and Richard Dutcher) and I did a series of slide shows of the work in progress. We would talk about the work and ask people what they wanted to see and what was missing. Many of the models came from the slide show audiences or people they knew.
• Do you think women need or want their own porn or erotica, designed especially with women in mind?
I know that some women do. I think that the female erotic gaze differs from the male in many ways – although women, like men, vary greatly in in what arouses them. One example of a difference that I perceive is the intense focus on the penis in male erotica.
• Do you find your images sexual or erotic? Were there moments of erotic tension while shooting?
My images are portraits, and people are complex. I’m striving for as complete a sense of each person as I can portray. By definition, erotic and sexual images foreground at most one aspect of a person. Nudes do have a sensual quality, and I think that’s present in my work. What I want to show is an essential sense of who people are. I shoot in people’s chosen environments, frequently in their homes. I work with the models so that they can be as comfortable and relaxed in the moment as possible.This requires such a level of focus from me that, even if an erotic response were appropriate, I would have no emotional room for it.
• What sort of reactions did the men have upon seeing the resulting images? Did any of their reactions surprise you?
Being photographed by me is a process. I start with having coffee, showing the prospective model images of other people I’ve photographed and discussing the project. I explain early on that, as this is a fine-art project, the final image choices are mine. If someone is interested, I like to give them a month to think it over. This was a film-and-darkroom project, which affects both the timing and the kind of image(s) seen. Some time after the shoot, I show them the contact sheets (all the photos shot in small images) and then (frequently much later) my final photograph(s).
Many men were immediately delighted with the final image; some needed time to think and process. Most reacted very positively, and for some the image was revelatory. There were a few who, however much they may have appreciated the work, were not comfortable with their photographs.
I was not surprised by men’s final reactions, but I was surprised during the very early photography sessions because I had thought I understood how unused men were to being the object of “the gaze,” and how this would affect the sessions. I was wrong – I completely underestimated the issue. It takes far more work to make men comfortable with being photographed than women. One of the most effective tools I know for making people comfortable is to be silly in ways that make them laugh at me.
• Would you have chosen to do anything differently if you were creating ‘Familiar Men’ again?
I looked through the book before answering this question. I wouldn’t change anything important, but my eye and my work have moved on since I finished Familiar Men. I’ve changed aesthetic – I can always see differences and potential changes in previous work.
If you’re interested in getting the magazine, it’s available in these places including several in the US.