Ipsa scientia potestas est
21 October 2014 16:57 (South Africa)
Life, etc

The year of naked scientists

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc
C:\fakepath\brooks-naked scientists

What’s weirder than a number of ordinary Yorkshire women making a nudie calendar in Calendar Girls? A group of paleobiologists and paleoanthropologists posing in the buff to raise funds for worthy research projects. Yup, writes J BROOKS SPECTOR – it’s the year of the naked scientist. And, stranger yet, it’s just beautiful.

It sure sounds like one of those things that first evolved out of a convivial, late night conversation around a roaring fire among friends – nurtured by a fine bottle or two. We can imagine that this group of paleobiologists and paleoanthropologists hit on the idea of playing off the 2003 film Calendar Girls, which drew on the true story of otherwise quite normal Yorkshire women who produced a nude calendar to raise money for a cancer research institute. Only this time, among the scientists, they would combine their research disciplines with chaste but clearly clothingless images and generate their own calendar for raising funds for some worthy academic project.

The beauty of this concept was that, hey, they were already researchers into hominid prehistory. Go far back enough to the ancestors of homo sapiens – us – and you’ll obviously find few fashionistas. Armani or Jimmy Choos were not high on the prehistoric shopping list. For this bunch, the photos would speak intriguingly to the actual individual elements of research – the scientist who studied the use of ochre in personal adornment and in rock art would be decorated with this material, the researcher who worked on prehistoric stone tools would be surrounded by them. Late at night this made perfect sense – at least as much as that calendar by the Yorkshire women ever did.

Come dawn, of course, and the logistics, modalities, and proprieties took on more importance. As far as can be determined, some academic noses were tweaked out of joint by this would-be project, with dark mutterings about the sanctity of scientific endeavours, academic discipline and worse. The calendar died.

But the photographer who was involved, the highly respected nature photographer Brett Eloff, as well as the group of scientists who would be photographed, ultimately persevered, least to the point of a full set of stunning black and white images now on display at the Resolution Gallery on Jan Smuts Avenue, just below Rosebank. Curiously, it is just across the street from another gallery where yet another naked image was recently displayed – and defaced – as part of a national, even international uproar over the sanctity of an image impersonating a certain presidential body part.

More curiously still, as part of a binational French and South African year of culture at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg's CBD, there is a heavily touted art show, 'The Human Image', that also shows off some assuredly undraped French women painted by masters of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Picasso, among many others. In this case, the exhibition was opened by government ministers (as it should have been) and is the centrepiece of a year's worth of cultural exchanges between the two nations.

While this writer is certainly not a photography theorist of Susan Sontag or our very own Greg Marinovich’s ilk, he does know what he likes – and he enjoys good, aesthetically engaging photographic compositions and images when he sees them (and profoundly dislikes the reverse). And many of the abovementioned images meet those criteria for quality – besides showing off healthy, attractive bodies, er, scientists.

One photograph, for example, knowingly harks back to those famous multiple image studies by Muybridge with the man running in place; another is almost a meditation of what it means to be a human who has begun to create tools, still another is surrounded by the bones of kills in a kind of shamanistic composition. Yet another reflects back to classic pictures of a reclining Venus – perhaps even with a subliminal reference to those voluptous paleolithic Venus statues found throughout Europe – as well as just a ticture of movie starlet imagery. Buried somewhere in all of this photographic work lurks Leonardo da Vinci's iconic Vitruvian Man image as well, that near universally-known evocation of the power and energy of scientific inquiry. (And Da Vinci's image has no clothing either – although he does get extra arms.)

The point of these works, of course, is that they can be read in many ways, and more deeply than simply as a collection of pictures of some naked- or near-naked scientists. They manage to interrogate the meaning of portraiture, science and nudity, without being cloying or over-cute, and simultaneously without falling into the trap of being illustrations of prurient or pulchritudinous imagery.

But they are also not fully natural images, caught on the run, so to speak. Instead, they are carefully composed, designed even, as knowing statements to engage the onlooker and make that onlooker contemplate the deep history embodied in such photographs. Works like these could profitably be seen in conjunction with the portraiture from France – or even with the totemic art work on show at the new Wits Art Museum as well that draws power from the human body.

For this writer, at least, a calendar that builds on this show would be a welcome antidote to all those facile collections of by-rote, thematic reproductions of masterworks of art, cuddly kittens, cutesy pandas, and anodyne autumnal seascapes, sunrises and famous bridges – on offer around November. Placed properly, the money raised by such a calendar could help fund some badly needed science education in this country as well – especially since these pictures help make science look like a really sexy bit of business. DM

Photo caption: Kerri Collins’s research interests include functional morphology and behaviour, especially the morphometric analysis of bones to infer behaviour. Looking expressly at felid ankle morphology, her research aims to assemble an in silico database of comparative morphotypes from small, extant wild cat tarsals to document morphological variability. These morphotypes will be connected to the known habitat types and locomotor behaviour of the species in question so that the model of extant carnivore ankle functional morphology may be applied to fossil felids of uncertain behaviour. Ultimately, she hopes to provide an opportunity for ankle function in extinct Plio-Pleistocene carnivores to be inferred, which is important for determining their role in the faunal palaeocommunity.

The iMaverick issue from 17 August carries the entire calendar. 

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc


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