If you were to lay out the history of art and to trace it from the paleolithic era through to contemporary culture, you might well be able to pinpoint the moments when our approach to documenting the nude body changed – when points of contention swung from the male gaze to the female one, or when naked and nude became so clearly serparate. In what is, then, a necessarily divisive sphere, it can be difficult to share a new perspective; a fact Rose Maisie Willoughby knows all too well.
The London-based photographer has spent many years photographing women she knows in varying states of undress, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the resulting images – no uneasy sense of vulnerability. Hers is a refreshingly authentic celebration of sexiness, both erotic and sensitive, intimate and empowering. What’s more, the photographs are not retouched in any way – a point Willoughby is very clear on.
“Truth is, I started this project 11 or 12 years ago,” she explains a week before the series goes on display at Mother London. “So I’ve got a whole back-log of girls I’ve shot. It’s just now, because this subject is constantly talked out, that I decided to go through with it, and do what I planned.” She initially started shooting girls around her hometown in order to build a portfolio of work to support her application to study at London College of Fashion, she explains. Once she was accepted, she found a kind of solace in continuing to produce documentary-style images alongside her more fashion-focused uni work – and so the series developed. “It was just something that I really enjoyed doing,” she says. “Girls started to come to me saying, ‘I’d really like to be shot by you’, if I put a photograph out here or there.”
The exhibition comprises ten girls from the ten years she has been creating the series – a fact which gives it a sense of progression, both in how the photographer captures her subjects, and her grasp of her medium for doing so. “Over the past ten years, I’ve gone from thinking one thing was sexy, to another entirely,” she says. “The way I’d shoot that same girl is probably not the same now – not the same poses, not the same angles. Back then, I was like ‘this is how you shoot a girl nude’. Now, there’s a different sort of comfort in it.”
She’s very much aware that her subject of choice is fraught with difficult discussion – a factor which probably has something to do with the fact she’s kept from exhibiting the series for so long. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the female gaze when I started shooting this,” she says. “It’s only because people started bringing it up and saying to me, ‘well, yeah, it’s fine because you look at it differently’. I’d say, ‘well, why do I look at it differently to a man? Why can’t I just think that that nude girl is really sexy as well?’
"I really feel very, very strongly that if a girl wants to pose nude, in whatever way she sees fit – whether that’s porn, whether that's stripping – then, unless obviously it’s something somebody didn’t want to participate in, none of us have the right to judge,” she continues. “I would never want to persecute someone else for wanting to be nude, no matter what context that’s in.” This might be, in part, due to Willoughby’s own background; her brother used to run a strip club. “I used to go in there and think, ‘oh god, I don’t know how they can do it’,” she explains, “but then the more I’d spend time with the girls, the more I thought, actually, this girl is so happy with herself that she gets on stage in front of 30 men and takes her clothes off. I really came to admire them. It really changed my view of women who are happy to be nude. There are stereotypes, and there’s a lot of judgement that goes around, and I just think it’s all case by case. Obviously there are a lot of instances where strip clubs are not a positive thing, but I just wanted to share my own stance on how I see nudity, which is that it's natural.”
As such, the exhibition is poised as a continuation of a long, ongoing discussion, rather than a one-size fits all solution. “It’s a nice way for me to put it out there and say, ‘let’s have a chat about it, what do you think?’ rather than have my point of view, and share that with everyone else.” Ultimately, though, the images Willoughby is showing are celebratory, warming and brilliantly joyful – a fact that she hopes her viewer will recognise and feel part of.
Girl on Girl by Rose Maisie Willoughby is on display at Mother London from November 17 – December 1, 2016.