The Best Photos of 2021: Portrayals of Sex, the Body and the Self

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MKW 109_Morgane (2010)
Morgane, 2010© 2021 Mona Kuhn

From erotic self-portraits to the body as abstract landscape: a look back at the best projects celebrating nudity published on in 2021

In John Berger’s seminal 1972 book Ways of Seeing, the late British art critic makes the case between nakedness and nudity. Drawing from the fabled example of Adam and Eve, Berger writes that “to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art.” In today’s world, the boundaries between the two have become more blurred. Whether naked or nude, the unclothed form is one that has fascinated artists since the ancient Greek period up to the present, in art, cinema, theatre and photography.

It takes a certain level of vulnerability, honesty and trust to remove your clothes in front of the camera. Caribbean-born photographer Denisse Ariana Pérez knows this; for her debut book Agua, she would wade into the water with her subjects and do meditative breathing exercises to calm them, while Mona Kuhn insists that her “best work starts when they forget they are naked.” For those working in the realm of self-portraiture, disrobing provides an opportunity to reconnect with one’s own body and mind. Los Angeles-based photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman took 35mm self-portraits between 2005-2018 – “the photographs of my life are a good reminder that all things must pass,” she says. Lea Colombo’s vivid lockdown project Colours of My Body acts as “an invitation for people to explore their own relationships with body, personal power, light and most importantly a connection to higher consciousness.” Whether self-reflective or outward-looking, these nude photographic projects act as a reminder that there is much to be discovered in the act of being – and looking at others – naked.

Flowers and Fruits by Lin Zhipeng

Lin Zhipeng is perhaps better known by his internet pseudonym ‘No. 223’ – a nickname he borrowed from a character in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express while posting photos on his popular blog North Latitude 23. Now, the Chinese photographer has finally upgraded to print; a republished edition of Flowers and Fruits features a decade and a half’s worth of work, with raucous nudes and ripe still lifes. “Flowers and fruits are always the elements in my works,” he says. “They are beautiful, sexy, colourful, but easily gone, like our life and our young age.”

The Vanity of Certain Flowers Part Two by Peter De Potter

You may know Peter De Potter from his decade-long creative partnership with fellow Belgian Raf Simons, or for designing the chaotic, peach-coloured cover art for Kanye West’s 2016 album The Life Of Pablo. Despite utilising the internet as the primary medium to show his art, De Potter loves printed matter; his fourth book, The Vanity of Certain Flowers Part Two, features his signature mix of gritty graphic design, poetry, collage and photography. “It’s about retreat as a quiet force, a source of inner power. In Renaissance colours,” he says. 

Colours of My Body by Lea Colombo

During the pandemic, fashion commissions for photographers were scarce. As a result, South African photographer Lea Colombo chose to turn the camera on herself; an exhibition and corresponding 600-page book titled Colours of My Body saw the artist take self-portraiture to new, euphoric heights. The vibrant colour she became so acclaimed for in her shoots for magazines like Dazed and i-D prevailed, but clothes were absent – Colombo is largely nude in the series. “Colour is the living touchstone of reality … it’s how we relate to the world and ourselves. As such, it is a pivotal component of my artistic and photographic expression,” she says.

Masterpiece: Self Portraits by Emma Elizabeth Tillman

Just like keeping a diary, taking photographs of oneself is a trusty way of recording the changing tides of identity and selfhood. Los Angeles-based writer, director, and photographer Emma Elizabeth Tillman knows this well; between the years of 2005-2018, she created a series of playful, erotic 35mm self-portraits which now feature in a new book, Masterpiece: Self Portraits. “I think a lot about how worried I was about this thing or that at the time I took the picture, and how all those fears and worries have dissipated into nothing,” she says. “The photographs of my life are a good reminder that all things must pass.”

Ensemble by David Luraschi 

For his A/W 17 collection, Jacquemus released a tender, black-and-white campaign image featuring a nude couple embracing on the windswept Provençal wetlands of the Camargue. The photo seemed to resonate with many, and was a subversive piece of branding considering the fact that no clothes by the French designer were even included in the shot. The picture was taken by David Luraschi, who has now released the rest of the shoot in a book called Ensemble. When asked about the sensual undertones of the project, Luraschi cited a John Berger quote: “To be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen by others yet not recognised for oneself.”

She Is Warm by Iringó Demeter

“I’m struggling with all the things going on in the world and I feel disconnected from my own body,” says Romanian photographer Iringó Demeter. Her new book of nudes, She Is Warm, abstracted the female form into fleshy landscapes, with black-and-white images of children breastfeeding, shampooed hair and pregnant bellies morphing into something more unknowable. “We need to take care of our bodies; they are worthy of all the attention we can give them.”

Mona Kuhn: Works by Mona Kuhn

Los Angeles-based photographer Mona Kuhn is a fan of the sumptuous nudes painted by Viennese artists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, although her work is much more hyperreal. “When I was in college in the early 90s, Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts were iconic, but it was not how I wanted it to be,” she says. In Kuhn’s new book of works, Mona Kuhn: Works, her subjects seem to feel at home roaming around dreamlike, domestic frames in the nude – “my best work starts when they forget they are naked.” 

WATER••COLOUR by Lucie Rox

London-based photographer Lucie Rox’s second self-published zine WATER••COLOUR derives its inspiration from Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, an Afrofuturist novella centring on an underwater society built by pregnant women thrown overboard from slave ships. With the help of make-up artist Crystabel Riley, the pair orchestrated a shoot exploring “the relationship between skin and landscape, and how this could come together through the prism of Blackness.” As an added fashion bonus, Sinéad O’Dwyer’s silicone bustiers, Di Petsa’s wet look dresses and Supriya Lele’s form-fitting dresses appear. 

Tengo un dragón dentro del corazón by Carlota Guerrero

Carlota Guerrero has shot her fair share of musicians: there’s the infamous soft portrait of Solange for her 2016 album A Seat at the Table, or Arca as a centaur with a floor-length plait for Paper. The Barcelona-based photographer’s first book Tengo un dragón dentro del corazón mixes these iconic portraits with personal artistic projects and editorial fashion shoots, and features feminst writing from Spanish pop star Rosalía and Canadian-Indian poet Rupi Kaur. One thing is abundantly clear – this photographer loves the colour beige, in all shades.

Agua by Denisse Ariana Pérez

If a photographer is to get their best shot, they need their model to trust them. Denisse Ariana Pérez knows this; for her debut photobook Agua, the Caribbean-born photographer would wade into the water with her subjects and do meditative breathing exercises with them. “I hope to create a space where people can let go of their facades and their thoughts for a moment,” she says. “Water can be calming but it can also be powerful and frightening.” Shot in locations across Uganda, Senegal and Denmark, Ariana Pérez’s subjects appear alternately calm, euphoric and sleepy.