My Life in (Nude) Pictures

It’s one thing not to be ashamed of your middle-aged body and another to flaunt it in front of a camera. A story of friendship, trust and self-discovery

by Susanna Sonnenberg
Photograph: Svenja Pitz/Photovogue/Gallery Stock

One January I went to an artists’ colony in upstate New York. Here’s what you need to know: Colonies are like camp for introverts. Artists and writers, we spend the days isolated in our respective studios, the evenings convivial at the formal dining table in shy or boisterous admission of our past careers and our immediate endeavors. One biographer was there to strip his manuscript of a thousand extra pages; our group included a brokenhearted photographer, a dashing composer, a young writer who’d just handed in her first novel and so on. I was writing a memoir about my significant friendships with women. Each of us worked differently, but we all experienced the roller coaster of creative energy and the unplannable alchemy of inspiration.

I passed the days in unbroken solitude, contemplating the intimacy women forge, what we share, what we hold back or betray. We offer support, reliable witness. We get to the heart of the matter without much preamble. Each friend I considered, chapter by chapter, had left her profound mark, and I was asking myself, What has friendship made of me? Because of these women, I am kinder than I ever was, wiser, more accomplished and industrious, better dressed, saltier, stronger and beloved.

In the off-hours I became friends—in the ferociously urgent camp way—with Christina, an artist in her early thirties, pencil and paper her medium, Jameson’s and dress-up her pleasures. One of our first evenings, she visited my studio, where we chatted aimlessly on the bed as she played with my hair. We talked of siblings and travel, her boyfriend, my marriage, children, friendship. I enjoyed the touch, its comfort and tender attention, and that she welcomed the same without comment. Women can be casually physical together, something most men (straight men) rarely experience among themselves. Touch is one of our several languages—not exactly a secret one, I thought, my head against the generous warmth of Christina’s leg, but not extended in just this way to men. Another night, our whiskey in plastic cups from her bathroom, she showed me the contents of her closet. She’d brought with her from Florida girly sundresses, a jacket trimmed with yellow feathers, a party dress with red tulle underskirts and an array of fetching lace underclothes. She was ready for any possibility.

For this woman I took off all my clothes. Not right away, not that whiskeyed night, but soon. A few nights later she showed me snapshots taken by her artist boyfriend, nudes of herself, posed in the kitchen, on a variety of beds, on sand, in the grass, her back bare against a huge tree, scraps of ripped skirt around her legs. She was Vargas-girl hot, Bettie Page naughty, but also innocent: powerfully feminine. Christina referred to these images as she worked on a massive self-portrait she’d come to the colony to finish, a surreal Olympia set upon a tropical iceberg rendered with a blizzard of delicate pencil lines. I’d seen the drawing in her studio, capacious, white-walled and sunny (writers were assigned cozy aeries with heavy desks and armchairs, the space inside our heads, ideally, roomy and white-walled enough) and admired the way the piece counted on the viewer’s lifetime of regarding naked women in art and then upended the comfort and expectation.

Christina astounded me. It wasn’t the photos—their saucy burlesque—but how unfazed she was to be seen. She described the fun of the shoots; she revealed limber ease in her own body and an enviable appreciation of all its many sensations. As a memoir writer, of course, I too employ personal revelation to make art. Christina and I recognized in each other that tricky negotiation, the tension between privacy revealed and the truly private.

First published in the April 2014 issue

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