Fine art photographer Nu Som unveils novel volume of nude self-portraits
Glitterati Inc.’s G ARTS book imprint has just published a stunning collection of provocative female nude self-portraits by New York photographer Nu Som.
Entitled Nudescapes--Private Dreams in Public Places|Photographs, the 264-page 12 x 9-inch hardcover has 166 black-and-white and color photographs of Nu Som taken in both famous and exotic locales around the world, many surreptitiously and at night so as to avoid certain interference or arrest.
“By occupying both the role of photographer and model, subject and object, NuSom creates a slippery identity,” writes art historian/critic/curator Deborah Zafman in Nudesccapes’ foreword. “She steals the traditional ‘female nude as an object’ in order to share the private experience of being nude, alone in a public place.”
Her photos, says Som, “are all about capturing private moments—so I need to keep a distance between me and the viewer.”
To do so, she created the nom de guerre Nu Som, for she is in fact a well-established New York-based photographer.
“This is an ongoing project, so I want to keep a private identity so I can continue doing it!” says Som, who just took a new nude self-portrait at the gate of New Orleans’ historic Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District during a full moon. Another recent addition came at 4 a.m. at the foot of the “busy” Mahatma Gandhi Memorial in Washington, D.C.—“a peaceful protest message,” she says, “in view of the fact that the ‘person’ now in the White House is trying real hard to become a dictator!”
A native of France, Som is best-known for her commercial work, which has graced book and album covers, Esperanza Spalding’s being a noteworthy example (Spalding contributed a poem, “Friend Requst [Inspired by Nu Som],” which is included at the beginning of Nudescapes).
Som says that in French, “Nu Som” would be written nous sommes, and translate as “we are.”
But “nu” in French also means “naked,” Som says.
“The book is not to say, ‘Look at me naked here!’ but ‘Look at us humans, in natural environments or in the cities we’ve made!’ A lot of the poses are ‘closed-in,’ so as to portray a more ambiguously human rather than a definite female figure.”
Both bold and vulnerable, Som’s nudescapes, while requiring intensive planning and execution, were conceived rather spontaneously.
“Other photographers had already mastered the self-portrait,” she says, “so I never thought about it as a project to concentrate on. Then one morning, seven years ago, I was visiting my mom in France. There was this beautiful light coming through the window and I wondered what it would do if it fell on a woman’s body. My mom was out and I knew the light would be gone by the time she got back, so I grabbed my tripod and gave it a shot. The result was beautiful and exactly what I had envisioned--it was a revelation. I started playing around the garden at night and then tried an excursion into he village. The chance that somebody could come by at any moment was scary, and there was the adrenalin rush right before, during and after the shoot. But everything went perfectly, and after there was the sense of ‘Holy s**t! I own this place now!’ Doing something super-scary makes you feel super-powerful after.”
Having been “jealous of musicians who can noodle by themselves for hours,” she now realized that she could also do something artistic by herself. As she writes in her introduction, “A woman, a camera, a tripod, ten seconds on the timer, and a deserted public place….”
Som also stresses that she’s never been an exhibitionist. In fact, she says she wore one-piece swimsuits from the 1930s on the beaches of southern France rather than going topless like most women there at the time.
“The idea behind taking photos in general to me,” she says, “is to add beauty to the world. Art can be ugly, but it makes you think and feel about a lot of things--but for me, it also has to add beauty. And from wanting to make beautiful things I tried to capture a sense of privacy, and explore the opposites in the human relationship with the made environment and the natural environment through the naked creature—and the crazy adrenalin rush of it is the fuel that’s kept me doing it since!”
Taking her self-portraits in both day and night, Som first carefully scopes out her locations.
“I get there and get a feel for the place and look for the right [shooting] angle,” she says. “I used to do a test wearing a dress showing my legs for skin tone, but I’ve done it so many times now that I know what to do: run like a crazy person, take my dress off and put it back on! Sometimes I only have time for only one shot, but sometimes I don’t get it just right and I get to try other things.”
Som uses a 10-second timer rather than a camera remote control “because with a remote I get too comfortable and I end up spending too much time naked, increasing the chances of getting caught!” Indeed, she did get caught at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., “but it was a woman cop, so it was okay.”
Otherwise, Som works by instinct.
“I listen to what’s going on and stay aware,” she says. “I put my clothes back on right away before a person or a cop car comes—that’s why it’s so fun, and it makes me better and more instinctual and in tune with light and environment and looking at things differently.”
Som began shooting “where I found myself,” she says, noting that many of the photos resulted from her international travels with her husband—a famous musician. Some of the settings were “obvious, like the Lincoln Memorial” and New York’s Bryant Park, where she was determined to take a portrait across from the park bench honoring the late Nick Ashford, who slept there when he first arrived, homeless, in New York. Having got to know both Ashford and his wife and music partner Valerie Simpson, she managed to get the shot in his honor at 3:28 a.m. after having to briefly hide when a security guard made the rounds.
From "Nudescapes" by Nu Som copyright © 2017, Published by G ARTS, gartsbooks.com
She also took a shot In Central Park after overcoming her fear of going there alone at night, but that was in September, so it didn’t make the book. But there are photos taken in Paris, which “is worse than New York with petty crime and street people,” as well as Africa and Morocco (“I wanted to capture Africa, and a Muslim country”).
Som relied on a handful of main poses depending on the place, “deviating” when necessary—like standing straight opposite a tall cactus at the Mexico-Arizona border. And she documented some of the more “improbable” portraits--including the one in Bryant Park--with brief background commentary.
After being told “nudes are a pain” to publish, Som hooked G ARTS after the first few pages of her presentation, she says.
“They said, ‘You melt in the background and are part of these photos,’” says Som. “I told them from the beginning they’d be under a different name and that I wouldn’t do social media, and they understood because it made sense in relation to the work.”
Som will, however, do some promotion, including a Jan. 26 event at New York’s Rizzoli Bookstore, where they’re carrying a signed-and-numbered edition of the book that comes with prints, and another on Feb. 17 at the Ron Robinson lifestyle concept store in Santa Monica--to also include an exhibition of 30 photos, music, and conversation with Som and foreword writer Zafman.
“Nu Som’s photographs offer a glimpse into a poetic dream reality,” writes Zafman, in her foreword “The Poetry of Public Privacy,” in which she notes that Som’s approach “is as close to classic film photography as you can get while still using the digital technology of today.” The result, she adds, is a perplexing blend of privacy and “a type of performance art” that manages to achieve “the status of being both aesthetic and documentary.”
“These artworks not only wake us up to our own corporeality, but they also return us to the real world that we have forsaken for a digital one,” writes Zafman. “Nu Som gives us back our neglected visible and physical world, our nearly-extinct concealed world of privacy.”
Concludes Som: “If I want anyone to get anything out of this, it would be encouraging people to do something that scares them—because when you do, you come out more powerful on the other side.”