Is Arousal Okay in Fine Art Nude Photography? (NSFW)

The photography world tends to split nude photography into two categories- erotica and fine art. Can arousal exist within them both?

In our sensitive times, I feel like arousal has become somewhat of a misconstrued feeling. It’s understandable as to why. Decades of the objectification and over-sexualization of women has led to a cultural revolution. Women – and men – demand a change, and rightly so. But as a consequence of the wrongdoing of men, I feel the honest ones are hesitant to explore and discuss the feeling of arousal. For the most part, this is because they worry people will judge or label them as perverted. Photography is a great playing field to explore this.

Note: I’m writing from the perspective of a heterosexual male. But, the feeling of arousal applies to all orientations and genders.

The Differences Between Erotic and Fine Art Nude

Let’s start by separating these two categories and looking at the differences. Erotica tends to be anything from provocative, sexually charged photography, right through to soft adult entertainment. Fine art nude leans more towards a gentle connection and appreciation of the human form. From my experience, there’s a distinct hierarchy between the two. Erotica/glamour/titillation is seen as low-value, less respected photography. Fine art takes a higher ranking seat, seen as something to be enjoyed more by the intellectual. Is that fair? Possibly. But how and why is it viewed in this way?

“It takes the viewer on a journey; it makes them connect to their thoughts and feelings.”

The core reason is the thoughts and feelings each evoke in the viewer. A person who looks at erotica would be judged to be doing so because they want to be excited and aroused by the image. This is viewed as one-dimensional, objectification of women. Those who view fine art will be attracted to the shapes, the lighting, the deep shadows, the vulnerability, and the confidence of the subject. But it’s as if they dare not say that within those emotions is at least a passing feeling of arousal. Because that would tarnish their rating and lump them in with those “lower-category perverts” who see women as one thing – sexual objects.

A Case Study of Fine Art Nude

Photo credit: Oleg Samoylenko

This image from Oleg Samoilenko is one we would consider as being under the fine art nude category. One could argue that his model is in a non-sexualized position. She has a neutral facial expression, and her modesty remains intact, despite that fact she is not wearing any clothes. So, how does this image make me feel? Well, from a technical standpoint, I feel this a lovely photograph. It’s gentle and I like the soft, even lighting on the model. The pose is interesting. I particularly like how her hand covers her eye, suggesting a sense of privacy and security while in what may be viewed as a vulnerable position. There’s a slight stretch in her pose, giving her an open demeanor, which leads me to believe she is confident and secure.

“I believe in the expression of speech and creativity.”

All of these qualities, both in the photograph and the model, are attractive to me. I can respectfully admit that I feel a physical attraction to this woman, most of which comes from the qualities outlined above. Because of this, my brain receives signals which in turn generate arousal. This is a healthy and natural response to the situation I find myself in. Now does this mean I’m drooling on my laptop? Of course not. The feeling of arousal is more of a waving emotion, rather than a fixed one. It moves with all the other feelings the photograph gives me. And this, for me, is why this is pure art. It takes the viewer on a journey; it makes them connect to their thoughts and feelings. It’s objective is to challenge and makes its audience comfortable with the uncomfortable.

In comparison, erotica has one job and one job only, to arouse and fulfill the indulgencies of the viewer. It isn’t nuanced and aims to do what it says on the tin. In other words, what you see is what you get. I’m not going to speak badly of this. I believe in the expression of speech and creativity. But, that said, it’s not for me.

Let’s Embrace All Emotions

Whether it’s because of conservatism or objectification, I’m tired of people tiptoeing around the topic of arousal. Art, photography, and conversation should be the last places where people should feel restricted in their emotions. Again, whether that’s out of fear of judgment or being seen as something less than intellectual, it has to stop.

“The people in these photographs are human, and we should treat them as such.”

It’s okay to feel aroused and excited by a photograph – even if it is art. But be balanced in your response and don’t let those feelings override the other emotions that can come from such an image. Explore who you are as a human and sit with the response your body and mind provide.

And above all, always come from a place of respect. The people in these photographs are human, and we should treat them as such. I like to think of these images as a collaboration between the subject and the viewer. They’re working together to explore what’s going on inside, with the photographer acting as the mediator. Everyone is on an equal playing field. I prefer this to the subject being part of a power imbalance – one in which their purpose is to serve the audience at the expense of their dignity.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

Lead photo by Oleg Samoylenko. Used with permission.