On Seeing, A Journal. #296

April 2nd, 2019

Variations on a Theme: Heavy

HS, at work. (For photographers: four strobes, evenly directed to ceiling over subject create a “cloudy-day” effect, similar to “North Light,” resulting in extremely soft shadows.)
I have been working, for many years on a series of photographs of heavy women. I have given myself the daunting problem of finding what works for my personal aesthetic — daunting because of my experiences having photographed dancers, sylph-like fashion models and world-class athletes.

Dancer and subject.  

The heavy female body as an object for artistic expression has been explored over thousands of years by painters, sculptors and photographers (last 170 years), some famous such as Rubens, Picasso, Botero, and Penn, some as unknown as the artist who created the fertility figure known as the Venus of Willendorf.

Angelica and the Hermit, Rubens


Botero, both painting and sculpture

Irving Penn

Many others who have created variations on this theme include Renoir, Lucien Freud, Tim Walker, and Nadav Kander.

The Bathers, Renoir

Lucian Freud

Tim Walker

Nadav Kander

Such works have been endlessly discussed, philosophized about and analyzed with anthropologists and others suggesting that heaviness once represented fertility and strength. In relatively recent times, what might be considered obese today was a sign of prosperity.

What counts as beauty is ephemeral, like all art, fashion and design, and is usually the product of cultural values that change with time and location. And, it is very personal. Obesity, sometimes used with the adjective “morbid,” is considered, within our current culture, unhealthy or unsightly. I find beauty, sensuality and something special in the shapes and curves of all human bodies, and like the artists mentioned above, I have worked to express through my images what I find special.

Making these particular images “work” for me has been challenging. An important part of my search has been to find (as much by trial and error as pre-visualized determination) just the right tonality, contrast and texture. I have rendered the images in countless ways as part of this on-going exploration.

I’ve explored many images with many variations along the way.

For me, a number of methods and strategies can be employed when I confront a creative challenge such as finding an aesthetic for heaviness. One tactic is simply to put the problem aside, literally to sleep on it. The subconscious works to untie knots and may provide a clear path to solution. Time has frequently helped me find my way with such problems. Yet, I’ve “worked on” this project for many years.

Another strategy is to force work, applying oneself to a task and not letting up. I call this a “brass butt effort:” sitting there until the work is done. I have worn through a lot of brass.

Finally, in some cases, the right solution proves too elusive, and the obvious option is to give up, toss the project in the fire, and move on to new hopes and dreams. I am determined not to vaporize this fascination.

I have asked myself what my interest is, exactly; where does it come from? Why does it persist as a subject for artistic exploration? I don’t fully know. I do have a long fascination with the human form.


My interest in the sensual and architecturally beautiful curves and lines of biologic sculpture also led to my studies of pregnancy.

With Child

And, the studies I’ve named Body Knots also demonstrate my fascination and investigation of human lines, arcs and curves, flowing sensual rhythms I find so alluring.

Body Knots

Still, an artist creates mostly because within his or her gut it feels right. Art critics and art historians are compelled to analyze, elucidate and expound. I don’t explain, at least to myself (though you might doubt that, reading this). I am often asked “why this subject,” “why this treatment?” The answer is often elusive even to me. But when it comes down to it, I fall back on an answer I’ve previously expressed: I strive to make images that are unique, that surprise and delight me.

And here, some of my searchings, with the hope that they speak for themselves. I know they speak for me.

Still searching, indubitably.