Sarah Piantadosi’s Intimate Portraits of Young Londoners in the Nude

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Bone by Sarah Piantadosi
ZoePhotography by Sarah Piantadosi

“My fear around the book was: how can I make this a positive experience for people who are vulnerable in front of my camera?” says Sarah Piantadosi of her latest project, a publication titled Bone

The word ‘bone’ implies both bareness and exposure, structure and strength. It’s also how photographer Sarah Piantadosi chose to title her latest project – a book of nudes of people in their twenties living in London. Featuring 50 individuals, Bone speaks to themes of vulnerability and strength, capturing people in their barest, and perhaps truest, form.

Piantadosi’s own fears as a photographer catalysed the project, which is a departure from her usual work in fashion. “I found the idea of doing a book of nudes really uncomfortable, and I started to question that,” she tells AnOther. “When I was starting out, a lot of male photographers were using go-sees as an excuse to photograph models semi-nude.” Piantadosi was galvanised by the wave of contemporary feminist photographers reclaiming a ‘female gaze’ in the context of the nude, and accounts of exploitation in the wake of #MeToo. “My fear around the book was: how can I make this a positive experience for people who are vulnerable in front of my camera?” she says. “The process was at the very front of my mind.”

The first step was to enlist the help of a casting director, Gabrielle Lawrence, the founder of People-File. “I wanted there to be an extra step between me and the subject,” says Piantadosi. With a dynamic where a photographer can wittingly or unwittingly exert power over a younger model – who wants to please at any cost – Lawrence could more neutrally ask them about comfort levels. As well as being a “very ethical casting director,” says Piantadosi, Lawrence was committed to diverse casting – finding individuals from a wide range of ethnicities, body sizes and gender expressions. Flowers are a recurring motif in the book, as a “symbol for standardised beauty”.

Towards the opening of the book is an image of the writer Nicola Dinan, who joined Piantadosi on one of the project’s early manifestations involving guerilla nudes in the National Gallery. While eventually taking a different, more “controlled” direction with the book, Piantadosi admired Dinan’s willingness to roll her sleeves up. “She is just so incredibly open and vulnerable,” Piantadosi says of one of Dinan’s final portraits. Sat on the edge of her bed, hands in her lap and legs in contrapposto, this image and many others recall 1980s New York photography by the likes of Peter Hujar. Yet the images, like that of Dinan, who is trans, are a specific document of our future history. “Here is a woman who is thriving,” says Piantadosi.

Many models are depicted with objects (from chains and ceramics to boots and cigarettes) that subjects were invited to bring along. “It wasn’t about trying to put a look onto somebody, but more about bringing themselves into the picture,” says Piantadosi. Inspired by Mary Ellen Mark, a photographer who built a close relationship with her subjects, for Piantadosi, chatting was as important as the shoot. “Each photograph was preceded by at least a 30-minute chat,” she says. Unprompted, after this interview Piantadosi sends an email with “a few more stories” behind each of her subjects – from Theodore’s unexpected scar and shyness and Alli’s experience as an abortion doula to Donnika’s floor-length wig. “Sometimes taking portraits feels straightforward,” she writes, “and then at other times it feels like there is a secret waiting to be revealed.” 

Many of the nudes play with exposure and lighting, which sometimes seem to show the body’s inner heat. The aim? “To capture something else,” says Piantadosi. The final portraits are of Ryan, whose poem Bone features at the beginning of the book, and also inspired the book’s title. Photographed against the foliage of Piantadosi’s garden, he is painted in silver, his pose swan-like in the pouring rain. Look closely and you’ll see “a hand-made talisman attached to his wrist,” says Piantadosi, “which he says protects him from harm.”

Bone by Sarah Piantadosi launches at Donlon Books in London on March 16, 6-8.30pm.