Photography began in the middle of the 19th Century CE. As it evolved, this new technique interacted with the other visual arts. Some painters began to use photographs to help them in painting. Others feared that photographs would make painting obsolete: photographic portraits and landscapes provided more objective representations of people and places than was possible with painting or drawing. Painting, nevertheless, continued making its own independent way. The world seen through impressionist or cubist eyes is not easily depicted with a camera.
Some have suggested that many of the movements in 20th-Century painting – cubism, expressionism, abstraction, surrealism – were reactions against the realism of photography. Yet as the years went by, photography itself sometimes turned away from simple realism, and began to use some of the same ideas as the painters. Photographs could become as abstract as paintings. Yet they never lost touch with the external world.
Sometimes, photographs follow themes presented in older paintings or sculptures. These may have been in actual homage to previous masters. Most of the time, however, the photograph simply serves as a variation on a visual theme. Just like in music when composers play with someone else’s melody, photographers seek a novel way of presenting what was considered in the past. The new images can then provide a counterpoint to the old.
A) Abstraction – Franz Kline and Aaron Siskind
Franz Kline was one of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists, who in the years following World War II made large and completely abstract paintings. Abstract expressionism was characterized by techniques that were spontaneous and subconscious, and by images that conveyed inner emotions rather than represented the outer world. Kline’s most characteristic paintings contain large black lines on a white background. Some have noted some similarity between these images and large-format Japanese calligraphy, but Kline was not consciously aware of this. For many of his works, Kline took small pencil-drawings and projected them onto the canvas as outlines for his painting. His titles often came from the names of small towns in the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania, near where Kline was born. Mahoning (a town in Carbon County, Pennsylvania) was painted in 1956. The painting is large (6½ by 8½ feet) and the viewer tries to find a way through the spaces between the lines. Constraint vies with freedom.
For the photograph Martha’s Vineyard 108, 1954, Aaron Siskind arranged rocks on a beach and then photographed them against the bright sky. This image and a series of similar photographs were taken at about the same time as Kline was making his large black and white paintings. Siskind and Kline were good friends. Each was influenced by the other. One of Kline’s later paintings was actually entitled Siskind, 1958. Siskind’s Martha’s Vineyard series is clearly driven by the same aesthetic goal as Kline’s paintings.
Other Siskind photographs are similar to other abstract paintings. The following illustration compares Siskind’s New York 327 (1978) to an untitled painting (1967) by Jean-Paul Riopelle in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. Riopelle, a Canadian who painted most of his defining paintings in Europe, was considered part of the Tachisme or Abstraction Lyrique movement, the European cousin of Abstract Expressionism in North America. Siskind’s photograph has the same formal structure as the painting, but its monochromatic palette is far more austere than Riopelle’s bright colors. Unlike in the Martha’s Vineyard photographs, Siskind did not manipulate the world for his series of New York images – he simply photographed it.
These examples show the formal connections between the what is captured by the camera and what is painted on the canvas. Yet the photographs differ strikingly from the paintings in that they accurately represent real objects rather than imagined feelings. The photographer is trying to see the world rather than portraying some inner principle. Or he is attempting to find some correlate of his inner feeling in objective reality. Photography is an interaction between the eyes and the external world rather than between the inner self and the paintbrush. The photographer’s inner states of mind may consciously or subconsciously determine what is seen, but what is recorded on the film is totally real. Paul Stand commented in a brief article in the journal Seven Arts (Volume II, 1917, p 524):
Photography, which is the first and only important contribution, thus far, of science to the arts, finds its raison d’etre, like all media, in a complete uniqueness of means. This is an absolute unqualified objectivity. Unlike the other arts which are really anti-photographic, this objectivity is of the very essence of photography, its contribution and at the same time its limitation.
The deep connections between subjects and objects and between impression and expression go back to some of the early artistic photographers. In the 1920s while at his summer home on Lake George in upstate New York, Alfred Stieglitz took a series of photographs of clouds, entitled Equivalents. Several of these photographs are illustrated below.
His intent was to convey his emotional experience through what he saw. In her 1973 book Alfred Stieglitz: an American Seer, Dorothy Norman quotes his comments on photography:
I simply function when I take a picture. I do not photograph with preconceived notions about life. I put down what I have to say when I must. This is my role, according to my own way of feeling it. Perhaps it is beyond feeling.
What is of greatest importance is to hold a moment, to record something so completely that those who see it will relive an equivalent of what has been expressed. (p. 161)
Siskind follows this tradition. In 1956 he described his move away from documentary photography to a more abstract art
my primary concern has been the practice of photography as art, away from illustration and representation, a concentration on the world within the frame of the picture. For my material I have gone to the “commonplace,” the “neglected,” the “insignificant”— the walls, the pavements, the iron work of New York City, the endless items once used and now discarded by people, the concrete walls of Chicago and the deep subways of New York on which water and weather have left their mark — the detritus of our world which I am combing for meaning. In this work, fidelity to the object and to my instrument, the clear-seeing lens, is unrelenting; transformation into an aesthetic object is achieved in the act of seeing, and not by manipulation. (Quoted in Aaron Siskind: Toward a Personal Vision, 1977, p. 61)
B) At the Center of a Crowd – Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Sebastião Salgado
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting Procession to Calvary is one of his largest and most detailed paintings. The painting (described in detail by Philip McCouat, 2017) shows several hundred different people on the day of the Crucifixion. Roman soldiers clad in red and mounted on horseback are conducting Christ to the hill of Calvary. Everyone is dressed as they would have been in Bruegel’s day. The spectators are Flemish peasants. The legionnaires are the Walloon mercenaries who enforced the Spanish rule of Flanders and murderously oppressed the Protestants. The thieves, who will be crucified on either side of Christ, are confessing their sins to Christian priests as they ride in the tumbril to their death. One even holds a crucifix. Almost unnoticed at the very center of the painting, Christ falls while carrying the cross. To the left some soldiers are forcing one of the peasants – a Flemish Simon of Cyrene – to help Christ with the cross. In the upper right of the painting, crowds are gathering around the execution site, where one peasant is digging a hole in which to plant the cross. In the foreground St John tries to console the grieving Mother Mary, while Mary Magdalene weeps and Mary of Clopas prays. This grieving group is the quiet center of the painting’s hubbub. In the lower right two men look on at the scene aghast. One appears to be a Protestant minister. The other is the painter Bruegel.
In 1979 a nugget of gold was found near the village of Serra Pelada (“naked mountains”) in the northern region of central Brazil. Soon thousands of garimpeiros (prospectors) arrived to seek gold on the nearby land. Each miner could stake a claim of approximately 6 square meters in what became an open pit. The earth was dug out of the claim and carried up to the edge of the mine on rickety ladders to be sifted for gold. The temperature was uncomfortably hot and the work was incredibly exhausting. Each miner was completely covered in sweat and mud. Fights broke out between the miners, and the Brazilian army was soon sent to maintain order. At its peak more than 50,000 miners searched for gold in Serra Pelada. The mine lasted until 1986, ultimately succumbing to floods. All that now remains is a man-made polluted lake.
In 1980, Sebastião Salgado was the first professional photographer to capture images of the sprawling open-pit mine. His photographs showed teeming masses of humanity toiling in the mud. One photograph shows a young garimpeiro resting briefly against a stake before descending once more into the mine. His posture recalls that of Saint Sebastian in Renaissance paintings. On the left a Brazilian soldier stands between two rows of men, one row ascending from the mine with loads of excavated earth upon their shoulders, and the other row returning to the depths for more.
Other photographs in Salgado’s series on the Serra Pelada mine are available on the internet and in the large-format 2020 book entitled Gold. Three of the images are shown below. Other photographers, such as Robert Nickelsberg, followed after Salgado, and made their own sets of photographs.
The Bruegel painting and the Salgado photograph play well together. Both images contain many hundred people. Both have a quiet center in the foreground. Both cry out against oppression: Bruegel against the Spanish persecution, and Salgado against the poverty that drove the miners in their terrible quest for a pittance of gold.
C) Sunflowers – Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Caponigro
Sunflowers (of the genus Helioanthus) are a large flower with a compound capitula (head) comprising petalled external florets and central disk florets. As the summer persists, the florets die off, leaving a large head of seeds. Vincent Van Gogh was fascinated by these flowers. In 1887 while in Paris he painted a series of seed-heads (two of which illustrated on the right):
A year later in Arles he painted a series of sunflowers in a vase. One of the most striking aspects of these paintings is that the sunflowers are in various stages of their life. Two or three are in full flower. Others are in various stages of losing their petals. Most are in their final stage as seed-heads. Various versions of these paintings are in museums across the world. The two main variants differ in the arrangement of the flowers, and in their background color, which is either turquoise (e.g., Neue Pinacothek, Munich) or yellow (e.g., National Gallery, London). These are illustrated below:
Van Gogh found in the sunflowers a sense of warmth and fulfilment. The large bright flowers asserted the vitality of their life, and the heads full of seeds pointed to the survival of their kind after the flower’s passing. Van Gogh’s vase paintings decorated the guestroom in his house in Arles, where Gauguin stayed during his visit in the autumn of 1888. In an 1890 letter to Albert Aurier quoted in Jacob Baart de la Faille’s 1970 The Works of Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh remarked about his paintings:
Suppose that the two pictures of sunflowers, which are now at the Vingtistes’ exhibition, have certain qualities of color, and that they also express an idea symbolizing “gratitude.”
In 1974 Paul Caponigro published a series of sunflower photographs. One of the photographs, Sunflowers, 1974, is formally very similar to Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers in a vase.
And yet it is very different. There are fewer flowers in the vase although, like in the Van Gogh paintings, these are at several stages of maturity. The flowers in the photograph are not isolated but are accompanied by leaves. Most strikingly, the background of the photograph is dark. At the bottom one can discern folds in the material on which the vase stands, but at the top the background becomes completely black. The flowers are illuminated from the left and cast shadows to the right, whereas Van Gogh’s paintings are without shadow.
The sunflowers evoked thoughts and feelings in Caponigro that were similar to those experienced by Van Gogh. In the preface to his book Caponigro stated
Sunflower resounded in me. I worked and lived with the sun-flower by day, and at night it followed me into my sleep. Passionately I travelled a path that was laid out for me from moment to moment. My camera focused on the earthly rays of the sunflower, while my mind focused on its other-worldly emanations. No longer seeing the familiar vegetable, I saw a petalled messenger whose words, ringing like musical overtones, I could more and more nearly understand. Inwardly, silently, I was asking to see that aspect of the sunflower which the physical eye could not.
When I had worked among the sunflowers for several weeks, the buds and blossoms began to recede. Nature was withdrawing her sun-flower into sleep until another season. The flowers I kept at my studio had dried; again they changed form and I recorded and watched with awe as these transformations took place. The earthly vitality had left these flowers but their shells had taken on an ethereal glow and appeared like ancient burnished medallions of the sun.
The following illustration shows some of the other sunflower photographs in the Caponigro sequence. Some are natural and others show fascinating effects of light and dark.
D) Still Life – Giorgio Morandi and Thomas Harding
Although Giorgio Morandi painted landscapes and portraits, he is famous for his series of Natura Morta (Still Life). In his home in Bologna he painted various household objects – bottles, boxes, vases, cups, bowls, funnels, pitchers, baskets – placed in various ways upon a simple wooden table with an unpatterned wall as background. The same objects recur in different arrangements in different paintings. Light comes in softly from the front left. The colors of the paintings are as pale as the light. The following is a painting from 1951:
In a 1960 interview Edouard Roditi, published in the 1990 book Dialogues: Conversations with European Artists at Mid-Century, Morandi stated
I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all we can see of the objective world as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.
It is difficult to understand or describe the feelings conveyed by Morandi’s paintings. The objects insist gently on their individual existence; yet each object harkens back in some mystical way toward a more general ideal. What is alternates with what might be. Everything is granted existence, and arranged in necessary harmony, by the light. Morandi has had a quiet but profound influence on many other artists, such as his contemporary Ben Nicholson, and more recently on the potter Edmund de Waal.
Morandi also produced a series of Still Life etchings, using cross-hatching to portray light and shadow. Because of the way they are reversed during the printing-process, these etchings typically have the light coming from the right. An etching from 1921 is shown on the right.
Morandi’s studio has been preserved, and one can see the objects that he used in his paintings and the table on which they were placed. The American photographer Joel Meyerowitz photographed Morandi’s Objects in 2016. The objects in this sequence of photographs (one of which is shown on the left) are far more definite than they appear in Morandi’s paintings.
The photographs of Thomas Harding provide a counterpoint to Morandi’s paintings. Harding was a successful commercial photographer in Arkansas specializing in portraits. When he retired, he became fascinated by the pinhole camera. This type of camera uses no lens; light passing through a tiny aperture projects an inverted image upon a photosensitive film on the far side of a closed box. This is effectively a scaled down version of the camera obscura, a dark room with light entering only through one small opening. Over the years, the camera obscura has been used as a novelty or as an aid to painting. The small size of the aperture in a pinhole camera brings everything into focus. However, the small amount of light coming through the aperture requires a prolonged exposure time to register any image on the film. The approach is therefore well suited to photographs of still life.
In addition, Harding used platinum printing. In silver printing the silver is an emulsion that coats the paper. The platinum is in the paper itself. Platinum prints are therefore matte rather than glossy. They show excellent resolution at the middle levels of luminance and are less defined at the extremes. One therefore obtains a warm, detailed, low-contrast image.
The following Harding’s pinhole photograph of Sifter and Mallets, 1985. The subject matter is similar to that used by Morandi and the softness of the platinum print relates well to Morandi’s pale colors.
E) Venus – The Esquiline Venus and Robert Mapplethorpe
In early Greek sculpture the male body was portrayed in the nude, but the female body was always clothed. The body beneath the folds of the chiton could be imagined but it was not directly portrayed. Those who viewed art were mainly male and they were more attuned to Art and Apollo than to Love and Aphrodite. In Plato’s Symposium (about 380 BCE), Pausanias considers human love, and attempts to differentiate between the ideal and the erotic by attributing these feelings to two different Aphrodites: the heavenly Aphrodite Coelestis, born as the daughter of Uranus, and the worldly Aphrodite Naturalis goddess born to Zeus and Dione. The former is worshipped through the ideal love that an older man bears to a younger man, the latter is the instigator of heterosexual lust. Socrates and his colleagues had a really limited understanding of what love is all about.
It was not until the 5th Century BCE that the Greeks produced any representations of the unclothed female figure. In his 1953 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, Kenneth Clark states that in the waning years of the 5th Century BCE
there was produced a bronze figure of a nude girl, perhaps a priestess of Isis, blinding her hair, which must have been a masterpiece. It is known to us in two marble replicas, of which the more complete is the statue in Rome known as the Esquiline Venus, the more vivid the torso in the Louvre. No doubt the original has been changed and elaborated by translation into marble, yet the copies have not lost the unity of the first idea. Somewhere not very far behind them is the work of an individual artist who, on the surviving evidence, must be reckoned the creator of the female nude. Not that the Esquiline girl represents an evolved notion of feminine beauty. She is short and square, with high pelvis and small breasts far apart, a stocky little peasant such as might be found still in any Mediterranean village. Maillol maintained that he could find three hundred in the town of Banyuls alone. Her elegant sisters from the metropolis would smile at her thick ankles and thicker waist. But she is solidly desirable, compact, proportionate, and in fact, her proportions have been calculated on a simple mathematical scale. The unit of measurement is her head. She is seven heads tall, there is a length of one head between her breasts, one from breast to navel, and one from the navel to the division of her legs. More important than these calculations, which, as we have seen from Dürer, can be misleading, the sculptor has discovered what we may call the plastic essentials of the female body. Breasts will become fuller, waists narrower, and hips will describe a more generous arc; but fundamentally this is the architecture of the body that will control the observations of classically minded artists till the end of the nineteenth century and has been given fresh life by Maillol in our own day.
The statue was found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, the probable location of an Imperial Sculpture Garden during the time of the Emperor Claudius. This marble copy of the original Greek bronze was made in the 1st Century CE. There is an asp on the vase beside the feet of Venus, and some have suggested that the Romans considered it a portrait of Cleopatra. This Esquiline Venus is in the Capitoline museum in Rome. A torso in the Louvre is likely also a copy of the Greek bronze. The illustration below shows the Esquiline Venus (left and center) and the Louvre torso (right).
As the years went by, the Greek statues of Venus changed so that the arms were no longer raised but modestly covered the breasts and genitalia. The classic version of this new approach is the Medici Venus, a Roman copy of Greek bronze from a 4th-Century BCE made in the 1st Century BCE and unearthed in the 17th century in Rome (illustrated on the left below). Numerous other Roman copies of this Venus Pudica (chaste) exist in fragmentary form. In 1978, Robert Mapplethorpe photographed such a torso in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (on the right below). This photograph was one of his early images of statuary, something to which he returned at the end of his life.
For most of his career, however, Mapplethorpe photographed living models. Between 1980 and 1983 Mapplethorpe took pictures of the female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, culminating in the book Lady Lisa.
The photograph illustrated below is a portrait of another female body builder, Lydia Cheng, 1985. All that is visible is the torso. The arms are raised as in the Esquiline Venus. There is no Medici modesty. Rather than demurely adjusting the hair, Lydia is photographed in the movement of stretching. She extends her back and rotates toward the camera. Photography allows the body to move freely, but the brief time of the exposure makes it appear statuesque.
The shape of Lydia’s body is sculpted by the light. The outline of the torso has been accentuated by how it has been illuminated for the photograph. The effect is similar to the process called solarization (or the Sabatier effect) that Man Ray used a to accentuate various aspects of his photographs. This involved exposing the negative to light during its development. One of his solarized nude photographs from the 1920s is shown on the right.
Mapplethorpe produced several photographs of Lydia, typically limiting himself to her torso. Three others (one taken in 1985 and the other two in 1987) are shown below.
F) Reclining Venus – Paul Delvaux and Manuel Alvarez Bravo
In 1510 the Venetian Giorgione painted a picture of Venus sleeping peacefully in the open air. The painting is now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. This image represented a new stage in the portrayal of the female nude. To quote again from Kenneth Clark’s 1956 book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form:
Her pose seems so calm and inevitable that we do not at once recognize its originality. Giorgione’s Venus is not antique. The reclining figure of a nude woman does not seem to have been the subject of any famous work of art in antiquity, although it is sometimes to be found in the corners of Bacchic sarcophagi. And apart from the absence of models, she is not a Hellenistic shape. She lacks the weighty sagging rhythm, as of a laden branch, in which the antique world paid equal tribute to growth and to gravity. There remains something Gothic in her movement, confirmed by the gentle swell of her stomach, and perhaps after all her real predecessors were those figures of naked brides which were traditionally painted on the inside of the fifteenth-century marriage chests. When this is said, how un-Gothic she is in the cylindrical smoothness of every form. If, as Winckelmann maintained, classic beauty depends on a perfect ease of transition from one comprehensible shape to another, the Dresden Venus is as classically beautiful as any nude of antiquity. (p. 115)
The pose of the Dresden Venus was used by many different artists after Giorgione. Each changed some of her characteristics and added different companions and accoutrements. Titian’s 1534 Venus d’Urbino has opened her eyes and appears much more the worldly than Giorgione’s celestial Aphrodite. Cupids become companions to the sleeping Venus in the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi (1630) and François Boucher (1734). Venus returns the viewer’s gaze in Goya’s Maja Desnuda (1797) and Manet’s Olympia (1863).
The 20th Century has its own versions of the reclining Venus. The Belgian Paul Delvaux painted numerous studies of the reclining Venus in various bizarre settings. One of these is entitled Le Cri Populaire, 1948. The title is not easily translated – perhaps “outcry,” “outrage” or even “scandale,” on the one hand, or “the will of the people” on the other.
The painting is surrealist in its imagery. Surrealism began in Europe after World War I. The main goal of the movement, as proposed in André Breton’s 1924 Manifeste du Surréalisme, was to release the artistic imagination from the control of the reason. The action of writing or painting should become automatic:
Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de toute autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.
[Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express – by speech, writing, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.]
Dreams and free associations should be the source of art:
Le surréalisme repose sur la croyance à la réalité supérieure de certaines formes d’associations négligées jusqu’à lui, à la toute-puissance du rêve, au jeu désintéressé de la pensée. Il tend à ruiner définitivement tous les autres mécanismes psychiques et à se substituer à eux dans la résolution des principaux problèmes de la vie.
[Surrealism is based upon the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association, previously neglected, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to wipe out all other psychic processes and to substitute itself for them in solving the principal problems of life.]
Paul Delvaux was not a formal member of the surrealist movement. However, after World War II he began to paint in a surrealist style. His images come from a dream-world wherein sex and symbolism interact. In the painting above, a beautiful woman reclines on a divan. It is night. Her eyes are open but she has the air of someone who is not fully conscious of where she is or why. A covering sheet has been pulled back to revealed her gorgeous body. The divan is for some strange reason located outside, apparently at a station for the trolley car, which is coming down the tracks toward her. Trains and trolleys are powerful phallic symbols. Three young women, each dressed chastely in black and each with a large violet bow in her hair, appear to be discussing something, though nothing can be heard. The Three Graces or Charites – Aglaea (“Shining”), Euphrosyne (“Joy”), and Thalia (“Blooming”) – are typically unclothed, but in a dream everything can become its opposite. The picture is imbued with an intense sense of erotic expectation. Here by the grace of the gods comes passionate love.
As counterpoint to Delvaux’s painting can be posed Manuel Alvarez-Bravo’s photograph La Buena Fama Durmiendo, 1938. The title “Good Reputation Sleeping” derives from a Mexican proverb Crea buena fama, y echate a dormir – “Achieve a good reputation, and then lie down to sleep.” The idea is that if you work hard and become respected, you can rest on your laurels, for no one will believe anything bad about you (even when it’s true):
Alvarez-Bravo was asked by André Breton to provide a cover photograph for the catalogue of an exhibition of Surrealist Art in Mexico City. Alvarez-Bravo, who was teaching photography at the Academy of Fine Arts, wrapped a model Alicia with some bandages that he borrowed from a physician friend, and photographed her on the rooftop of the academy. The model has her eyes closed, but one is not sure whether she is asleep. Her dreams or thoughts are protected from intrusion by the star cacti scattered beside her. The bandages around her pelvis may have been meant for chastity, but have brought the genitalia into focus rather than hiding them. They serve the same purpose as the garter belt in erotic lingerie. The bandages on her ankles and wrist suggest constraint. The photograph is exquisitely surrealistic in its dreamlike erotic imagery. The censors did not allow it to be used for the catalogue.
G) The Origin of the World – Gustav Courbet and Lee Friedlander
For years the human female genitalia were not considered appropriate subjects for artistic consideration. In representation of the female nude, the pubic regions were covered by fig-leaves or idealized as smooth and hairless. This began to change late in the 18th Century when artists such as Goya painted realistic nudes for private consumption. In 1866, Gustav Courbet painted his Origine du Monde, a completely realistic and detailed closeup of the female pubic region. The painting was commissioned by Halil Şerif Pasha (Khalil Bey), an Ottoman diplomat, for his collection of erotic paintings. In 1995 the painting was donated to the Musée d’Orsay where it is now on display:
No one knows for sure who modelled for the painting. In a forthcoming book, Johan de la Monneraye argues that the present painting was cut down from a larger painting which included the face and arms of the model. He proposes that the model was Johanna Hiffernan, known as La Belle Irlandaise, who had already appeared in paintings by James Whistler (e.g. Symphonie in White, 1862), and served as the model for Courbet’s La Femme au Perroquet (1866).
Lee Friedlander’s photograph Nude, 1979, can serves as a simple counterpoint to Courbet’s painting. In 1978, Madonna Louise Ciccone dropped out of college at age 20 and moved to New York to try her luck as a dancer and singer. Friedlander was starting to photograph nudes and would much later publish his work in the 1991 book Nudes. Madonna answered an ad for a nude model, and posed for some of Friedlander’s early photographs. Soon thereafter Madonna became famous with her first two albums Madonna (1983) and Like a Virgin (1985) and the movie Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Playboy published Friedlander’s photographs of Madonna in September 1985 together with an article “Madonna, a look at our material world’s most ethereal girl – before she was a superstar.”
Friedlander’s nude photographs are characterized by novel non-academic poses. His models are comfortable with own bodies, and act completely naturally. There is a sense of freedom in the photograph of Madonna that is missing in the Courbet’s painting. Johanna had to hold one pose for hours whereas Madonna moved from one pose to the next as the camera clicked.