Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain by Dr Annebella Pollen is a book that I’ve been hunting for some time. A well-researched publication on how photographers have approached the subject of the non-erotic nude from a British cultural perspective is a rare find.
A lot of what has been written about naturism is from authors who are part of the community, and this often clouds their objectivity. Not with this book, this author has taken a step back to look at the whole picture. Making observations that others may have glossed over because it doesn’t match the positive narrative.
What struck me most was the effect the Obscene Publications Act 1857 had on the images the photographers and publishers created to be on the right side of the law. And how these same photographers and publishers pushed this piece of outdated legislation to change in 1959 and 1964. It could be argued that the proliferation of nude photography in England started at this point in time.
The book also raises the question about the demographics of the people in these pictures. Why are most of the images from this era are of young white women? Some of the arguments for this choice, especially during pre-World War II, make for some uncomfortable reading. I’m sure personal preference of the decision makers played a big part in what was photographed.
When you investigate any topic in depth you soon find that not everything is black or white but much more complex. Take the relationship between naturist photography and the more explicit side. There were photographers and models working on both sides of these aisles pushing at the boundaries of what could be considered acceptable for the genre.
Looking at the outdoor and beach photo sets in the Mayfair magazines from this era, there are stylistic characteristics similar to the images found in the naturist publications.
Some might argue that there is no distinction between the non-explicit with the explicit. What I would say, from the research I’ve carried out, is that class does play a part in all of this. The more social standing a piece of work has, the more acceptable it becomes.
Why individuals participate in social nudity is outside the scope of this book, but it does give an insight into the photography used to persuade people into the community. The mismatch between naturism claiming that it doesn’t matter what kind of body you have and the picture perfect is stark. How many people these images attracted to the life style is debatable.
The commercial pressures of producing a publication for profit must have had an influence on what was printed. Aiming for the white male heterosexual with a high disposable income in mid-twentieth century Britain isn’t a bad business plan.
Question is, where are we in 2022? Definitely the days of high budget photo shoots for top shelf magazines at an exotic outdoor location have long gone. What is happening instead is individual photographers self financing the hiring of models via the Internet to take these types of pictures. Travel (pandemic allowing) and photographic equipment is well within the reach of many more people than in the 1950s and 60s.
My understanding is that the only magazine still in production today here in the UK is H&E naturist magazine with British Naturism also having an in-house publication. And without knowing an accurate breakdown of the demographics of the fully paid-up members of British Naturism or the readership of H&E naturist magazine, it would be difficult to judge if the images appearing in them are a true representation of the reality of the community. I do get the argument that not everyone wants the publicity but if it is going to be posed by models then it should still be closer to the truth.
I don’t remember if the author of this book explored in depth any link to the campaign work of Mary Whitehouse on what was being produced. It might well be that her campaign was aimed more at television than print, but I find it hard to believe that the different mediums were living in separate bubbles.
What I find fascinating is the balance between the freedom of expression and the suppression of content due to the harm that it could create to society. Are there areas that need some sort of control and what should that look like?
More details about this book can be found here.