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A Bold Look At Beauty

Ventura photographer James Scolari explores authentic beauty in a paradigm-shifting nude exhibition in Ventura, April 20-21, 2012.


It wasn’t so long ago that Cole Porter mused:

In olden days a glimpse of stocking

Was looked on as something shocking,

But now, heaven knows,

Anything goes

Of course, times have changed since 1934, and today’s brand of “Anything Goes” would likely lie the late maestro back in his grave. Yet in this age where simple nudity might seem quaint in comparison to the sexual banquet offered up by a virtually infinite assortment of websites, we find ourselves bound by cutural mores as much – or more – than ever.

Since the time the great masters took brush in hand to capture and (though they might not have realized they were doing it) codify beauty, we have lived in self-consciousness, seldom measuring up to the celebrated beauties of art and song. The ethic exploded in the age of media, when film and video took renaissance-age archetypes of beauty and raised them to another level.

There’s an irony at play, as the sexual revolution seemed to establish a new sensual elite, as rigid a caste as this culture has ever seen. Yes, we learned in the pages of Playboy (and Cosmo and Glamor, and a thousand other publications, shows and movies), sex is beautiful. Sadly, we were also shown “real” beauty to be an impossibly elusive ethic, beyond the reach of everyday people. Such beauty, we learned, is stricty the province of youth’s first flowering, evinced in gravity-defying breasts and bottoms, in Pepsodent smiles, and immaculate skin.

The result of such an elitist visual ethic: a pandemic of eating disorders, self-esteem issues and even self-loathing, and an explosion in the cosmetic surgery industry. Somehow, this wasn’t the freedom that was envisioned when successive post-war generations threw off the mantle of their progenitor’s modest mores.

All ages, shapes, sizes

With The Skin Deep Sessions, Scolari, a professional photographer who lives and works in Ventura, set out to overturn such elitist paradigms of beauty, and to explore the hypothesis that while, as the adage attests, “beauty is skin deep,” there is a much deeper, authentic and lasting beauty that transcends mere epidermis. Thus he endeavored to capture that ethic, inviting all ages, shapes and sizes of both genders to model in the nude, photographing them in the studio, and in nature.

Scolari shares a simple revelation as the genesis of the project: “I use a well-known industry website to cast models for commercial fashion work,” he explains, “and I’d frequently see photographers’ profiles that claimed to ‘specialize in the beauty of the human condition,’ or some such nonsense. I’d check the portfolio, and find nothing but beautiful naked young women, all variations on a centerfold theme. I’d think,” he concludes, “what b.s.: if they truly specialized in the human condition, they’d photograph the fifty-eight year-old plumber in the nude – the sixty-six year-old fat hairy truck driver, of either gender.” He shrugs, “With that thought, a light came on, and I thought should probably put my money where my mouth is.”

Thus the shoots commenced and Scolari began to invite would-be models to participate, recruited from among his many Facebook “friends,” (most of them actually strangers or bare acquaintances) without any nod to visual parameters: “My intention was that nobody was too much or not enough of any characteristic,” he explains. “The only requirement was that models had to be at least eighteen, and willing to model completely nude.”

The result — both immediately and now, on the veritable eve of the show, after some ten thousand exposures, scores of shoots and dozens of models — confirmed his thesis beyond even his imagining. “To be honest,” he confides, “when I first wrote ‘authentic beauty shines from within,’ it sounded like so much marketing copy. One of my first models,” he continues, “was a woman in her sixties – someone I was acquainted with from church! When she agreed to model for the project I was stressed out. I had no idea how it was going to turn out – she was far from the type I was used to casting for commercial fashion and glamor work, and honestly, I wasn’t sure I was ready to even see her naked, let alone to focus so intently upon her.”

Yet the shoot went on as planned, and the photographer found himself knocked out by the imagery. “I realized right away that I was on to something important,” he recalls. “She looked absolutely radiant – both to my eye, and to my camera. She was far outside the conventional paradigm of beauty, especially for a nude, yet there she is, for all the world to see, a clear manifestation of the feminine divine.”

From that point Scolari was off and running – extending what was planned for a three- month shooting interval well into the fall and beyond. “Every time I thought the work was just about complete, I found a new model, and the body of work, no pun intended, broadened still farther. In one week I shot women on successive days – one 5’4″ maybe 250 pounds, the other 5’11”, 135 – opposite ends of the spectrum physically; one heavy, one thin, one black, one light – and yet, again, they were both completely beautiful in their skin – each in their own distinct way.” As the project draws toward opening night, the work has featured men and women in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties.

Let the dialogue – and the workshop – begin

Regardless of how audiences view the work, in one sense the show is already a triumph, even before opening night. Scolari recounts how, as the project grew, the importance of the work itself became increasingly evident. “For the most part,” he explains, “the Skin Deep models are people with no experience with modeling of any kind, let alone doing it au naturale. It was a new experience for them, and it required a significant energetic journey of self-acceptance to see it through. Nearly every model brought some degree of negative body image to the shoot, and it was something they had no choice but to deal with: first in disrobing and posing, and subsequently in viewing the images – to say nothing of allowing them to be shown to the general public.”

From many models’ perspective, that journey was life-changing; for one in particular, it proved worth exploring more deeply. “When I first heard about Skin Deep,” recounts Maria Bucaro, “I knew there was no way I would ever take off my clothes and pose. But as I read some of the comments on the Skin Deep Facebook page, it started to feel like it could possibly be a healing process.”

Like many people in our society, especially middle-aged women, Maria had long carried a negative body image. Yet as she participated in the project, she found in the project the means to confront and even discard long-held disparaging thoughts about her body. “I really felt like if Jim meant what he was saying, that we could find inner beauty in being naked, I had to give it a shot,” she explained. “Since I’ve always had a negative, distorted body image, I hoped this could be a welcome relief.”

In the shoot, Maria found more than just liberation: “On the day of the shoot, taking off my clothes in a beautiful river in the mountains, it was the first time I ever truly embodied being one with all that was around me,” she recalls, “and to be able to look at myself and feel love and see beauty. I thought it would be difficult to actually look at the pictures, but I loved them all. It was a profound and life-changing experience that words cannot truly convey.”

With the shift in place, Bucaro, an author and speaker, wanted to share her experience with others who might identify with her own journey. “As I shared my experience with others, I found that we all spoke the same language, and that distorted body image is very common,” she continues. “I found that people are hungry for an honest dialogue about our bodies. The idea of a workshop was born so that we can give voice to what our body image is, and begin to change the way we see each other and change how we see our own bodies.”

Bucaro and Scolari joined forces in the concept, conceiving and offering What Lies Beneath: A Skin Deep Workshop, to be offered on the afternoon of April 21, before the exhibit opens to the public on Saturday night. The three-hour exploration, which runs from 12:30 to 3:30pm, takes on such topics as:

  • Mainstream definitions of beauty – who creates them, and why we accept them
  • Why Barbie never – and always – gets naked
  • Overcoming fear and vulnerability issues with nudity
  • The story the mirror tells, and what it means
  • Between sacred and profane: the spiritual side of nudity
  • The secret to looking good naked.

The workshop will also include a panel discussion with a group of Skin Deep models, who will describe their own experiences and participate in a Q&A. Tuition for the workshop is $49 in advance, $60 at the door.

Bucaro sums up her motivation for the workshop succinctly: “As a community we can begin to see that what is portrayed in the media as beautiful is not valid. We can look at the beliefs we carry around about what is beautiful and see that those beliefs are no longer valid. With the kind of dialogue that a focused workshop offers, we can begin to heal not only ourselves, but our community as well.”

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! (re: nudity, sex and pornography – and the big difference between all three)

A major theme in the work is our obvious tendency to associate nudity with sex, and by extension, to associate any public exhibition of nudity with pornography – an association that, Scolari warns, is frequently a spurious one. “Certainly there are viewpoints which will see this work as just another kind of pornography,” he notes, “and the conversation fascinates me, in terms of what’s sacred and what’s truly profane. As a society we’re quite comfortable with imagery of Christ’s skin being flayed off in nauseating detail, or with ubiquitous hyper-realistic depictions of violence and murder for the sake of entertainment. Yet when people are depicted making love, or even getting out of their clothes, all the alarms are triggered, and we rush to protect our children.”

Scolari acknowledges an obvious connection between nudity and sex – but also allows for an equally natural disconnect between the two. “It is possible to be seen naked, even to be photographed in the nude, and not be making a sexual statement,” he declares. “Yes, there is always someone who might sexualize a given image, regardless of the photographer’s or the model’s intent, and that’s perfectly natural. I treasure a favorite — and completely chaste (bizarre that I even have to qualify that energy) – image of my kids in a bathtub when they were children, yet to certain people with pedophiliac tendencies, it will probably comprise a very sexy scene. Same goes with any fetish, from feet to, you name it, cleaning products. The point is,” he concludes, “the energy that each person brings to an image is just that – their energy. I’m a model in the show as well, and if a given viewer attaches erotic energy to an image of me in the nude, well, that’s splendid – a blessing and a compliment. But it’s also their energy; I don’t have to take that on, and I certainly don’t have to do anything about it.”

The Problem with Private Parts

Scolari was keen to likewise overturn the prevailing notion that women have more beautiful bodies than men. “There is such diversity in the human condition, and such great latitude in beauty, really, our emphasis on comparisons becomes silly to the extreme.” That comparative ethic in mainstream culture, that leads us to seek and celebrate the best, or the most beautiful, is not only silly in his view, it’s frankly counter-productive. As such, well represented in the mix of Skin Deep models are men, and couples. “With male nudes I found myself facing another sort of taboo,” he explains. Not only are we conditioned that only slender young females are “appropriate” for nude modeling, he continues, the culture also conditions people to loathe and censor the penis. “People’s reaction to it are all out of proportion – both sexes can be threatened by it, either in implicit or overt rapist archetypes, or in homophobic abhorrence.”

Needless to say, the revelation of the genitals comprises a sort of energetic primacy for the nude – the photographer notes that such is the only real difference between a nude model and a swimsuit model. “I frequently see professional models’ portfolios – women who emphatically state that they ‘don’t shoot nudes,’ who routinely pose in bikinis so brief they literally comprise scraps of material no more than a few inches square. At that point, I wonder, why bother?” More to his point, how do we decide that so much skin is appropriate, yet a last few square inches not so?

As he goes on to point out, as a culture we are intensely curious about what’s beneath those little scraps of swimsuit – a “best kept secret” to which everyone is privy. “We only come in two flavors, so it’s really no secret “what lies beneath” the clothing. Yet we really, really want to see, even as we agree we aren’t supposed to. What’s one of the first things that a kid does with a Barbie doll, or a G.I. Joe?” Scolari asks. “Of course, they strip off all the clothes – and frequently get in trouble for doing so! And what do they find? They find this bizarre anatomical omission – the dolls have no nipples, no genitals. What message does that send them about their bodies?”

The Mattel Corporation has taken Barbie’s modesty even a step farther, actually molding a suggestion of panties onto the doll, thus presumably nullifying the naughty — and completely natural — intentions of the average six year old, at least as they are projected onto the doll. “Clearly, Barbie does NOT get naked, ever,” Scolari dryly observes.

The lesson, he concludes, is that from the earliest age, kids are taught there’s something wrong with their bodies – the completely natural curiosity about their and others’ anatomy is censured – and censored, and the repercussions play out throughout our lives. “What would this culture look like if we didn’t have this puritanical take on nudity – and the hyper-energetic focus on it that results?” Scolari answers his own question, “Some might say we’d become a nation of sex addicts – which, in my view, not incidentally, we already are. I say that we’d de-energize much of the taboo around it, and likewise leach much of the energy away from anti-social, even criminal sexual behavior while we’re at it.”

“Mind you,” he concludes, “I’m not saying that we’re curing all the ills of society here, just by shooting and showing photos of everyday people in the buff. We have a long way to go to overturn centuries of repression, misogyny, and guilt. From our Judeo-Christian roots we inherited a sort of schizophrenia where sex is concerned: intense desire along with very powerful taboos – along with a basic tendency to confuse the sacred for the profane, and vice-versa.” It’s a social view that’s not going away any time soon, he concludes.

About the show

The Skin Deep Sessions appears at Ventura’s WAV Theater Gallery, (175 S. Ventura Avenue, Ventura, CA.) for two nights: Friday, 4/20, the show opens with an invitation-only reception, 7-11pm; Saturday afternoon the space hosts What Lies Beneath: A Skin Deep Workshop from 12:30 – 3:30pm; Saturday evening the exhibition opens to the public, from 7-11pm.

Unlike the typical gallery show, and due to the large volume of work, the show will be projected on a larger-than-life screen. “It’s in the flow of imagery that we can really begin to appreciate the amazing diversity of beauty,” Scolari explains. “From one image to the next, every single model can be seen to be uniquely themselves, and yet clearly a relative in the same human family.

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