Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Who do you think is the most photographed nude model of all time? I’ve often heard it claimed that Bettie Page holds that title. As much as I love Bettie, I’m not so sure that’s accurate. It seems to me the most photographed nude model of all time pretty much has to be a lass of more recent vintage. After all, in the internet age, photographs are everywhere — or at least the digital descendents of photographs are. I mean, think about it: the average young girl is photographed nearly every single day; sometimes she even has her clothes on. And then there’s the ease with which digital technology allows for thousands of images to be captured, processed, and instaneously shotgunned throughout the matrix. It’s a far cry from the old days when you had to trap the images on film and then develop ’em on paper. Given of all this, isn’t it safe to assume that the “most photographed model” is actually someone still very much alive? I’m guessing that a model from the ’50s has little chance of competing against the women of the age of duckface, cell phones, and internet porn.
Which leads me to my next musing: is it fair to assume that, someday, perhaps not too far in the future, some internet model will be regarded with the same degree of fondness that we today reserve for Bettie Page?
[Warning: All links should be considered NSFW]
Some of you will scoff. You’ll point to the fact that Bettie was unusual, unique, a real genius of naked posing. And of course you’ll be right. But who’s to say some girl posing right now isn’t possessed of comparable qualities? After all, this isn’t baseball; there are no statistics to help us determine which models have the right stuff and which don’t; the culture just kind of determines that for us. Others will point to the ’50s, with their relatively reserved approach to sexuality, as the key to the Bettie Page phenemonon. These folks will claim Bettie as a rarity, a pearlescent jewel of pulchritude whose uniqueness relative to her era made her special and memorable. But that ignores the fact that the ’50s were fairly teeming with nudie models; there was a whole subculture devoted to them. It just wasn’t recognized or sanctioned by our cultural overlords.
It took a while, don’t forget, for Bettie to be accepted as an icon. She started out posing for “camera clubs,” which were basically front organizations for dudes longing to spend some time in the company of beautiful nude women. (Okay, some of them were probably legitimately interested in photography.) A portion of those photos ended up being sold here and there, some of them were published, and eventually Bettie started posing for legit erotic photographers, people like the Klaws and Bunny Yeager; she even showed up in an early issue of “Playboy.” But the mainstream paid no attention until the ’80s, when people started dressing up as her for Halloween and merchandise bearing her image began being sold in stores. Something had changed, a switch had been flipped, a fjord of taste had been breached, and Bettie had become acceptable — maybe even respectable. These days, we look at photos of her being gagged and pinched and spanked, and we think, “Oh, how charming! She has such verve and personality!” But back in the ’50s stuff like that was considered beneath contempt. Only perverts looked at it, and you could only buy it in backroom, under-the-table sorts of ways.
Hey, maybe that was an important aspect of Bettie’s appeal. She had always been noticed by people out of the corners of their eyes, or furtively cherished behind closed doors. She was a titillating private artifact, a sort of totem, revealed and consumed in the instensely personal realm of sexual fetishization. Years later, when she started popping up in respectable venues, it was as though the folks who’d always cherished her had awoken en masse and discovered they’d all been having the same dream. Bettie had tiptoed out from the alcoves of their fantasies and assumed center sage, where everyone could ogle her. And there was real satisfaction in seeing those half-acknowledged reveries validated — in seeing them metamorphose into a public fantasy.
Today’s world of internet nudie photography is much more public than the ’50s world of fetish photography. Everyone is sort of aware of it. Most everyone consumes it in one way or another. It is in no way a “niche” sort of thing. But it’s still true that no one talks about it. It remains unsanctioned.
Oh, there are “industry” celebs with whom the public is semi-familiar, folks like Sasha Grey and Rocco Siffredi. But they’re primarily famous as hardcore porn stars — as people who have sex on camera. In no way do I mean to diminish their accomplishments, which are considerable, but they’re a bit outside the present frame of reference. What I want to examine here is the world of upscale softcore photography sites. The advent of these sites, along with the quasi-anonymous models who pose for them, strikes me as one of the interesting cultural things of the last 10 years.
I wish I could say something meaningful about the history of ’em, but there is a notable dearth of sources. Wikipedia is mostly silent on the topic. Their entry on the most famous softcore site, MetArt, is primarily devoted to recounting a trademark dispute. Another of the most prominent sites, Femjoy, isn’t listed on Wikipedia at all. Neither is one of my personal faves, DOMAI (that’s short for “Dirty Old Man’s Association International”). Considering how extensively Wikipedia treats most pop culture subjects, I find this pretty odd. I guess I’m not alone, as I see there’s a movement afoot, a “WikiProject,” to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of porn-related topics. Bully to that, I say. I’m all for thoroughly documenting pop trends and movements, even the dirty-minded ones. Here’s a link to a 2006 discussion focusing on whether MetArt is even worthy of mention on Wikipedia. I guess the WikiDorks have a history of not knowing how to handle this stuff.
But why shouldn’t it be handled? Like the bondage photos of earlier eras, this stuff has had a subliminal impact. I regularly see material from these sites posted on Tumblr, even tweaked and cropped into Facebook ads for everyday products and services. I suspect a good portion of regular internet users are dimly aware of the subculture, even if they can’t articulate its particulars. I know I’ve been noticing this stuff for at least eight years, having first stumbled upon it while surfing around the net looking for . . . well, pictures of women in various states of undress.
(Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now. I’m a red-blooded heterosexual dude, all right? I enjoy looking at women. I’m also something of an aesthete, and there’s nothing that blows up my brain’s beauty receptors like the sight of a pretty girl without her clothes on. Call me a pervert if you must. But I don’t see the point in drawing distinctions between art-pleasure and sex-pleasure. It’s all one big rubberband ball of enjoyment, brother. And just you try to untangle one of those thing without making a goddamn mess of it.)
Anyway, the first thing I noticed about these sites was their style. The photos often bore different logos, but the aesthetic emphases were similar across the board. For one thing, there was a naturalism to the work — a preference for outdoor settings and a lack of reliance on either fancy photographic effects or digital manipulation. But there was a lyricism as well. The images tended to be sharp, but in a lilting, non-aggressive way that highlighted the youth and vivacity of the models. In fact, the photographers often seemed to be trying to capture something essential about girlishness. Of course, it was all strained through a sieve of male fantasy, but that just made it more potent, like the depictions of ingenues in the work of Alfred Cheney Johnston or Lucas Cranach. Compared to the bulging overbearingness of American softcore product, this work struck me as being quite refreshing — it was like discovering an oasis of refined girliness in a desert of in-your-face crassness.
And “refined” is definitely the right word. This stuff was conceived as, if not art, then at least as artsy product. You can intuit this by considering the name MetArt, as well as the name of one of Met’s big competitors, Hegre-Art. The “Arts” are there for a reason — to clue you into the fact that the photographers are looking to tickle your aesthetic bones as well as your, uh, boner bones. And I guess that’s part of what I responded to in this stuff: it was both self-consciously high falutin’ and brazenly risqué — a great combo, as far as I’m concerned. In some ways it reminded me of the “porno chic” movies of the ’70s, things like “Emmanuelle” and “Behind the Green Door.” These movies invited viewers to feel both turned on and high-minded, and in doing so they ushered in a whole new way to enjoy erotic material. I think the softcore sites in question are shooting for something similar. Femjoy’s marketing material insists it doesn’t even qualify as pornography. “Porn,” they say, “is meant to be enjoyed gratuitously, immediately, and with fleeting satisfaction,” whereas Femjoy strives “for artistry — to stimulate all your senses and your imagination, leaving a lasting impression on your heart and mind.” That’s a load of near-bullshit, to be sure. But it’s the kind of near-bullshit I’m happy to sign onto. I’m a sucker for corny poetic crap, especially when there are titties involved.
I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without mentioning the girls. There are a lot of them, they are amazing, and they’re seemingly all from Eastern Europe. What is it about hot porn chicks and Eastern Europe anyway? It’s as though the iron curtain was pulled back . . . and a throng of incredible-looking women rushed forth — and all of them eager to take off their clothes for a hip photographer and a little bit of money. (I’m sure it helped that the internet took off just as Soviet influence was withering away. Just one more reason to hate communism.) The most successful of these models show up on multiple sites, typically sporting a different exotic-sounding alias on each one. I’m not sure how this system works. Possibly, the photographers who take and sell the photos refer models to one another. Or it might be that the models advertise their services on sites like Model Mayhem, and the photographers come to them. Model Mayhem is a fascinating site to browse through, by the way. Not only does it contain lots of nudity (be sure to turn the adult filter to “off”), it reveals an interesting petri dish of culture, one comprised of young women attempting to market their looks and photographers — both amateur and professional — hoping to make sweet camera love to them. I guess it’s the camera club thing rejiggered for the digital age.
I know we’re supposed to get all hand-wringy about women being exploited in this manner, but the girls on Model Mayhem sure don’t seem like damaged flowers to me. On the contrary, they seem like CEOs in charge of their own images. And I wonder: is life as a professional nude model really all that bad? My sense, gleaned mostly from researching this post, is that it consists of flying to exotic locales, partying with cool young people, and being fussed over by teams of stylists. Seems a bit like being a professional princess.
I’m actually pretty surprised that no one has done an exposé of this lifestyle. I think it’d make a great reality television show. The most famous photographers, guys like Petter Hegre, Grigori Galitsin, and Eolake Stobblehouse, style themselves as Renaissance men and evangelists of female beauty. And they have pretty fascinating backgrounds. Hegre worked with Avedon. Galitsin is a classically-trained painter (though it looks like he’s in some king of legal trouble these days). Eolake has a range of interests and a notable web presence (here’s his blog, here’s his website). Others, like Vadim Rigin and Alexander Federov, have backgrounds that are somewhat murkier, and yet I still find them fascinating. It helps that their publicity photos show them surrounded by beautiful naked women. It also doesn’t hurt that they tend to be either married to or dating their top models. Hey, maybe being an arty nude photographer is to the ’10s what being a hip movie director was to the ’60s and ’70s. Not a bad way to make a living! It’s enough to make a lame desk jockey like me wonder what the hell he’s been doing with his life.
Okay, back to the girls. Who are the queens of internet pin-up photography? (Is it still okay to call them “pin-ups”?) And do any of them have a chance of being remembered long after they’ve stopped getting nekkid in front of the camera? Well, I sure as hell don’t know. I’m not in charge of determining such things! How about I simply list some of my favorites? Then maybe you can list some of yours. Assuming, that is, you have some.
Evgenia was one of the early models on MetArt, where she went by the name of Ashanti. I don’t know if she’s still working, but she started quite a while ago (she’s now 30). Aside from her prettiness, which is hard to miss, she has one of those personalities that registers on camera — always a magical thing in a model or an actress. Her personal website, which looks like it hasn’t been updated in a while, is filled with oddball details and quirky charm. Somehow I’m not surprised to learn that her favorite book is “The Sorrows of Young Werther”; there is something romantic about her. Maybe that’s why the Chilean scholar Gonzalo Portocarrero wrote an essay comparing her to myth and poetry. “The fan or believer of Evgenia,” he writes, “is invited to be grateful to God for having created a beauty that is like your fingerprint.” Not sure if that’s poet talk or just a bad Google translation, but I think he’s onto something there. In looking over Evgenia’s site, I’m tickled to see it claimed that she’s “one of the most photographed nude models since Betty Page.” I love it when a post comes together! Sadly, I see that the WikiDorks have refused to accept an entry on her. Typical. What is wrong with you, WikiDorks?
Like Evgenia, Michaela doesn’t seem to be working much these days, perhaps because she, too, is nearing 30. But she posed quite a bit in the ’00s, often using aliases like Misa, Viera, and Selene. I think I first noticed her doing naked yoga on Abby Winters. She’s not beautiful, exactly, but she has a pleasant, mischievous-looking face that makes you think of the girl next door or perhaps a babysitter you once had in gradeschool and then felt all funny about. Her body’s a little boyish, but she’s got an adorable, perfectly-engineered posterior, and she seems to enjoy sticking it right up into the camera (it’s great when a girl is proud of her best assets). IMDb reveals that she’s flirted with Hollywood, showing up in a couple of Eli Roth’s “Hostel” films and also doing some makeup work. Maybe she’s gone respectable (not that I didn’t already find her worthy of respect, of course). Here she is on the site of a professional modeling agency. Did I mention she’s Czech? Don’t you just love Czechoslovakian girls?
Jenni Kohoutova (or is it Lucie Kralickova?)
Jenni is also Czechoslovakian. I guess by now she’s something of a legend, having appeared in hundreds of photo sets from dozens of different outfits. Her work doesn’t convey the personality of Evgenia’s or Michaela’s, but somehow that works in her favor — she has a blank prettiness that invites contemplation. Her best attribute is surely her ass. It’s the kind of ass that guys tend to love: a deluxe, Johanssonesqe ass, ample yet shapely. Personal information on her is scant, but I see she has her own pay site, called Jenni’s Secrets. (Sadly, a lot of the photos look digitally tweaked to make Jenni look flawless and rubbery, like an anime character. That’s a trend that has come to affect even MetArt. I hate it.) She also has an account on Facebook, where she posts photos of her dog as well as idiosyncratic personal reflections — things like “life is banannaaa.” Jenni may have the looks of a cutie-pie, but there’s no doubt she’s a genuine entrepreneur. In addition to her website, she’s lent her name to a series of photography workshops. I take it these events allow aspiring photographers to shoot Jenni in the buff. For a fee, of course. Here’s a fan site. Here she is on Model Mayhem.
I don’t think any of these girls would make it in either “Playboy” or the fashion industry. Jenni’s legs are a little thick (but charmingly so). Evgenia’s got a fetching little scar on her face. Michaela’s teeth are adorably non-ideal. And their boobs are all on the small side. But none of that has stopped them from becoming semi-stars on the internet, where their photos are readily accessible to anyone with a browser and a search engine. In fact, I think it’s reasonable to say that these girls and others like them have occupied the imaginations (and hard drives) of a whole generation of guys.
So what do you think the future holds? Will we see calendars or coffee mugs with Evgenia’s pictures on them? Will people refer to Jenni in the way they now refer to Bettie, as an avatar of an era’s erotic preoccupations? Will some swank publisher, Taschen perhaps, release a handsome coffee-table book containing the complete work of Michaela? Or will all of this stuff simply sink out view, deleted forever from the great hard drive of human consciousness? I suppose there’s no way to know and probably no one we can ask. Certainly not the WikiDorks.