TV & Movies

I Tried It: Posing for a Nude Portrait

The tasteful nude photo has become a form of artful empowerment. Here, one woman embraces her inner exhibitionist and strips down in front of the camera for the first time

Nude portrait

Writer Elianna Lev’s final selection. (Photo: Nathan Cyprys)

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, my mother worked as a model in Israel. Her fair skin, strawberry-blonde hair and pale green eyes were unusual for the region and made her popular to shoot. When Playboy came to Tel Aviv scouting for a “Girls of Israel” spread, photographers encouraged my mother to do it. She flatly refused. “For me it was something very personal,” she says. “I thought, My future children won’t want a picture of their mother naked.”

Forty-five years later, I—the person my mother was concerned about embarrassing—am thrusting my bare ass in front of the lens of a photographer I met only 10 minutes earlier, and I couldn’t be happier. Shortly after my 35th birthday, last October, I had decided to pose for nude portraits.

My 30s have brought newfound body confidence. I love my weighty ass and my pronounced collarbones, and I wanted to capture them at their peak. I’ve also come to terms with my exhibitionist tendencies. I want to make people, myself included, feel something aside from indifference. When I mention my decision to my mother, she worries there could be professional consequences. But when I tell my friends, especially anyone under 30, they barely raise an eyebrow, and it’s easy to see why. Kim Kardashian just “broke the Internet” with her gleeful full-frontal shoot for Paper magazine, Rihanna recently came back to Instagram after being banned for topless shots, and last summer’s hacking scandal (a.k.a. the Fappening) revealed that even Jennifer Lawrence snaps a tasteful nude once in a while. Clearly, times have changed since my mother’s modest refusal.

For inspiration, I call Alexandra Marzella, a New York City–based performance artist and model who wouldn’t look out of place in a Renaissance painting, to talk about her process. Along with getting paid to pose nude for such fine-art photographers as Richard Prince and André Saraiva, the 24-year-old regularly shoots herself naked and posts the pics on Tumblr and Instagram. Sometimes she’ll take a softly lit video of herself dancing sensually in the shower; next it will be a flash-heavy close-up of her vagina. Each is equally compelling. I ask what motivates her, and she says the practice has become a pure form of connecting with people, of exercising her freedom. “It’s shifted from ‘Hey, look at me’ to ‘Hey, look at us,’” she tells me. “‘This is what we are and this is what we can do.’”

That collective experience feels like progress from my mother’s time. The iPhone has given us more control over capturing, framing and sharing images of our most intimate parts. Now, when many women Snapchat nudes, it’s often as much to reassure each other that we all have the same working parts as it is to titillate. Many of my girlfriends text provocative snaps just to make each other laugh. Of course, once the images are out there we have less control over where they end up, but that’s a risk many of us are willing to take.

When it came time to book my own shoot, a friend put me in touch with the Toronto photographer Nathan Cyprys, whom she describes as “chill” and “not a creep.” His work includes nude shots, and his style is stark and dramatic. I meet him at a loft filled with natural light. He’s blonde and looks like a handsomer Shia LaBeouf. He tells me some of his clients ask for photos to share with their boyfriends, but more often they want to experience what it’s like to be photographed naked. As I change out of my clothes and into a sweater robe, he puts on The Strokes, FKA Twigs and Michael Jackson. I warn him that I didn’t have time to recharge my pube trimmer, so my bush resembles an unkempt Puli dog. Cyprys vows not to make this region the central focus.

In the span of an hour, I pose by a window, on a chair and against a blue backdrop. I washed my hair a few hours earlier, so it’s overly fluffy and unruly. I suggest yoga stretches and hair flips. I feel good, almost serene. After we wrap, I feel so comfortable that I change back into my clothes in front of Cyprys instead of retreating to the bathroom. There’s nothing left to hide. Later that week, he sends me a series of shots. I pick my favourites, including one that does justice to my butt (pictured above). There are many gawky, unflattering outtakes that have me fixated on my hormonal jawline zits and my poofy hair. I now realize my flaws, not just my favourite parts, are digitized forever too.

When I share my selected shots with friends, some brace themselves to see all of me but are soon impressed with how tasteful they are. One day, if I have children who come across them, I’ll happily explain that I wanted to create something beautiful and seize the freedom to put myself out there, flaws and all.