‘Naked Before the Camera’: Nude Photography at the Metropolitan Museum

From curvy porcelain-skinned female nudes to musculature studies and pinups, see selections from “Naked Before the Camera.”

Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met is turning over a new leaf with Naked Before the Camera, a racy exhibit of nude photography for the notoriously tasteful institution. Tucked away in the tiny Howard Gilman Gallery of vintage photography, a lighted marquee hanging above the entrance spells the word “Naked,” as if to suggest you’re about to be treated to a peep show. Inside are some 70 photographic nudes selected from the Met’s collections and organized thematically by curator Malcolm Daniel. Naked begins with 19th-century academic studies before moving on to ethnographic and forensic experiments, ending with contemporary images in which the nude is more overtly used for artistic or sexual expression.


By the Met’s standards, Naked is a peep show, though more demure than you might expect from the flashy lights at the entrance. The show’s main purpose is to educate rather than titillate (this is the Met, after all). There’s some erotica, including an image from Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust series and another by Jim Jager that was published in a porn magazine. You might even blush over the tame mid-19th-century nudes (they, too, were once considered erotica). Naked demonstrates how nude photography and eroticism have been linked since the advent of the medium, in part because of the ever-present voyeur. From curvy porcelain-skinned female nudes to musculature studies and pinups, see selections from the exhibit.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Ariadne,” 1857

Many of the exhibit’s early photographs evoke academic painting and the idealized, classical female nude. Indeed, artists used images like Ariadne by Swedish-born photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander as substitutes for models. But even in these studies—some of which were intended to stand as fine art alone—there’s a subtle sexuality that would become increasingly palpable.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Two Standing Female Nudes,” circa 1850

This midcentury daguerreotype is a relatively platonic nude portrait of two young women. Their relaxed expressions and companionship make the image less overtly sexual than others in the period and much less so than the French photographer’s other work. Félix-Jacques Antoine Moulin would later spend time in jail for producing images that were considered lewd at the time.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Standing Female Nude,” circa 1853

Most of the exhibit’s midcentury images are noticeably temporal, mainly because of the female subjects’ shapely figures that were archetypes in realist paintings. This woman’s curvaceous backside echoes those of the nudes in Courbet’s The Bathers (1853) and The Source (1862). The Victorian fabrics and furniture are similarly revealing of the period.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Seated Female Nude,” 1853–54

At first glance, Eugène Durieu’s nude is similar to Ariadne—another image intended for artistic study, with the model’s back to the camera and her face completely concealed. Yet in leaving so much to the imagination, it practically begs for the subject to turn around and reveal her true colors. This element of the forbidden suggests more prurience than immediately meets the eye.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Standing Female Nude,” circa 1856

Here we see one of the earliest examples of a photographer purposely altering the developing process to achieve an artful aesthetic. Such techniques forever changed the nature of photography. Cameramen would continue to toy with the developing process in the darkroom to alter a photograph’s composition. Today, any Instagram user can achieve similar effects with the click of a button.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Standing Male Nude,” circa 1856

An unknown French photographer finds a technical error in his portrait of a male nude has a trompe l’oeil effect, sending a playful, subtly erotic message.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Female Nude With Mask,” circa 1870

Here, the photographer seems to purposely convey the gray area distinguishing nude photography as art from nude photography as object of sexual desire.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Thomas Eakins and John Laurie Wallace on a Beach,” circa 1883

A painter and professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Thomas Eakins frequently enlisted his students to pose nude in his photographs. Many of them featured boys wrestling or playing tug of war in the buff, prompting a debate over whether he was interested in the male form as a study of anatomy or for his own homoerotic pleasure. In this image, Eakins strips down with a student—one of his many eyebrow-raising habits. Needless to say, he was dismissed from the academy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Boys Playing Leap Frog,” 1887

In the middle section of the exhibition, we see images intended for scientific rather than artistic study. Even here, much of the content remains sexually charged, like Eadweard Muybridge’s Boys Playing Leap Frog from his famous Animal Locomotion series. Its frame-by-frame portrayal of physical activity also hints at the future of motion pictures.

“Male Musculature Study,” circa 1890

French photographer Albert Londe sets up his Study to look like a Greek statue, and the model dutifully complies with Londe’s vision. Flexing his muscles and standing erect, his posture conveys a perfectly symmetrical, ideal figure.

© Estate of George Platt Lynes, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Male Nude,” 1930s

Though George Platt Lynes was renowned for his celebrity portraits of cultural icons like Diana Vreeland and Salvador Dalí, the American photographer’s male nudes—largely hidden during his lifetime—were strikingly provocative and ahead of their time. This particular photo is less erotic than his other nudes, many of which are surrealist visual interpretations of Greek mythology. Here, we see a nod to classicism as the model contorts his body like a discus thrower.

© The Estate of André Kertész, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Distortion #6,” 1932

Modernism comes to the forefront of photography with experimental images in which the nude is clearly a vehicle for artistic expression.

© William G. Larson, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Untitled, from the series “Figure in Motion,” 1966–70

As in the exhibit’s earlier images, photographers continue to alter technique for aesthetic purposes. Here, the image is distorted to make a dramatic artistic—if not psychological—statement.

© 1950-2002 Irving Penn, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Nude No. 57,” 1949–50

Figures are truncated and rendered abstract, as in Irving Penn’s fragment of a heavyset woman’s body.

© The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Easter Sunday, Central Park, New York,” 1971

Toward the end of the 20th century, on the heels of feminism and the ’60s sexual revolution, the nude is used to make a political statement. Gary Winogrand photographs a man in a Christ-like stance streaking through Central Park.

© Larry Clark, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Untitled, from “Teenage Lust,” 1972–73, printed 1981

Larry Clark’s semiexplicit photograph of two young lovers blurs the lines between art and pornography.

© C.I.B.M., Dr. Helmut Spielberg, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Sharkey,” 1980

There’s plenty of cheek in this image of a well-endowed African-American taken by Jim Jager, a photographer who published photos of black male models in soft-core porn magazines. The model holds a long pole, no doubt intended to echo his biggest attribute (as though it wasn’t already prominent enough). At the same time, Jager is also clearly toying with the idea of the noble savage to make the picture more arty, though it comes across as a crude stereotype.