A month before I turned 19, my older sister and I, along with at least 50 strangers, took off our clothes and crouched under the red paper lanterns of L.A.'s Chinatown. Our ringleader was Spencer Tunick, an artist famous for photographing large groups of naked people in public spaces, and Lauren and I had barely made it to his guerrilla shoot. It was New Year's Day and when our alarm clocks had sounded, the sky was still dark and we were hungover and crabby; the last thing we wanted to do was drive across town at dawn to take off our clothes in front of strangers. But we had rallied and I was glad we did. I'd never seen so many naked bodies at once: male, female, thin, fat, old, young, dark, pale, supple, wrinkled, scarred. Without the context and protection of clothing, everyone looked vulnerable (and a little funny, too, what with their bare asses on display and various parts flopping around), but also better than they did dressed. I couldn't stop staring. And if someone was staring at me? Go ahead.
A week after the photo shoot, I went by myself to Santa Fe to write short stories and fritter away my winter term. Not long after my arrival, I spotted Spencer Tunick at a café and introduced myself. "I was at your photoshoot in L.A.," I explained, though of course he didn't recognize me. He was in town to make a site-specific piece, he said, but until then he and his girlfriend were just exploring the area. He asked if I wanted to model again.
I was flattered that he'd want to see my naked body through his camera's viewfinder. I would pose however he wanted.
The next day I abandoned my writing to join them on an excursion to a local hot springs. On the way, we stopped at a store called The Black Hole in Los Alamos, which sold surplus items from the famous nuclear testing site just a few miles away. Spencer convinced the owner to let him photograph one of the missiles, tall as a basketball hoop, and as they wheeled it into the road beyond the store parking lot, I took off my clothes. Once naked, I walked barefoot across the blacktop. Spencer suggested I hug the missile and smile. I did.
Should you worry about 19-year-old me? After all, I was a young woman—more like a girl—not even halfway done with college, getting swept up in the excitement of meeting a well-known photographer in an unfamiliar town. I was flattered that he'd want to see my naked body through his camera's viewfinder. I would pose however he wanted.
But even now, over 15 years later, that isn't how I look at it. I wasn't a passive subject. The symbolism of the photo was never lost on me. Here I was, an "All-American" blonde, a college co-ed, innocently cuddling something deadly—and phallic. I played a girl who doesn't understand the violence I'm embracing. I played that role willingly because I wanted to subvert it. My nudity wasn't transactional; I didn't give it away, and it wasn't taken from me, either.
A few months later, I received copies of the photos from that day. Spencer was showcasing these images in vintage keychain viewfinders. For a few years, I held onto these three keychains, until, poof, I lost them.
After that trip to Santa Fe, I was back at school and modeling again, this time for my friend Ryan who was studying photography. In one, I was the wife of a soldier from a long-ago war. In another, I posed on the floor of the dorm's laundry room with a puddle of fake blood by my head and a bunch of quarters in my fist. Once, I was naïve and reckless enough to pull a stocking over my face and stand in front of the post office with a fake gun; this was a tiny college town, and thankfully, no one was around to see us. In another series, I played a pin-up girl in a bikini and a fake tan, all pep and hammy sexiness as I undressed, until, in the final shots, I am naked and not too thrilled about it.
I would visit Ryan and my other art major friends at their studios, pore over their contact sheets, and wade through their monographs of famous photographers. I didn't know how to use a camera myself, and anytime someone began to describe how a light meter worked, or what an F-stop was, I lost interest. The practice of photography required more precision than I could give. But that wasn't what I was after, anyway. The proximity to art and its makers is what inspired me.
My friends said they would be terrified to take their clothes off in public, to have their nude bodies documented, then studied and critiqued in a class. But I relished it.
The snip-snip sound of the camera and the occasional directive from the person holding it. The continual vigilance of the light. A measured urgency to capture something magical and true. I became someone else during these shoots. It was like acting but without the pressure of memorizing lines.
My friends said they would be terrified to take their clothes off in public, to have their nude bodies documented, then studied and critiqued in a class. But I relished it. I grew up with sisters and among friends for whom nudity was the norm. We shared dressing rooms and bathrooms, we witnessed the removal of tampons, discussed what we liked about our breasts, made jokes about our poop. Our bodies were our bodies were our bodies. We didn't hate them, as it seemed like so many teenagers in movies and on TV did; we didn't take them too seriously, either. The summer after my freshman year of college, my childhood friends and I snapped a lot of topless photos of each other. The images weren't meant to be sexy, or not only. They were a record of that time—youth, boredom, and bikini lines.
My junior year, I stood beneath the bleachers of the school stadium, wearing nothing but a football helmet. Next to me, my roommate Anna, also a photographer, donned a cheerleading uniform and a bored expression as Ryan's camera clicked away. When athletes, real ones, saw us, they waved and snickered. I still remember the thrill. Occasionally, I would wave back.
As silly as that shoot was, the final images were discomfiting. My female body, wearing such a masculine accoutrement, momentarily upended any definition of manhood, any sanction of testosterone-addled aggression. It was at once comedic and upsetting. I was proud.
After college, I stopped rooming with photographers. I stopped modeling. I was writing a lot, and trying to make enough money to pay my rent and still write. I went to graduate school. I got married. I had a child, and then another.
One day I found myself writing about a young female artist named Esther who decides to become her own mother for an art project. She will not only dress and act like her mother, she will binge drink like her, and draw as if her mother is holding the pencil, and she will forge new relationships as if she is someone else. In her mind, it's a Sophie Calle kind of art project, or it's Cindy Sherman on steroids. As you might guess, this doesn't go well for anyone involved, especially not for her.
Imagining this project, however, and writing about it, was a total delight. I loved coming up with Esther's ideas, and as I wrote about her process, how her mind discarded certain plans and then embraced others, I felt like I was in college again. I was with Ryan, laughing about how crazy and brilliant Joel-Peter Witkin's photos of corpses were. Or I was hanging Anna's huge photograph of a wintry drive-in above my bed. Or I was standing naked somewhere unexpected—a racquetball court, for instance—posing for the camera. Suddenly, Esther's life and mine didn't feel all that different.
Writing about Esther made me want to see Ryan's old photo, the one from the football stadium. At the back of a filing cabinet in my garage I found a ratty white folder labeled with my messy handwriting: WEDDING GUEST ADDRESSES + NAKED FOOTBALL PIC. Sure enough, inside the folder lay that bygone wedding-planning artifact, covered in scribbles about who could and couldn't attend. And the photo.
Was I really ever that small? My collarbones and hipbones are visible, as are a couple of my ribs.
I stand in profile. Anna, in her cheerleading uniform, faces the camera head-on, but her face is partially obscured by shadows. The angled wall of the bleachers practically bisects the shot in two, so that it's dark where Anna stands, and brighter where I am—the sky behind me is blank and white, with only a few spidery trees in the distance. The helmet dwarfs my very thin frame. Was I really ever that small? My collarbones and hipbones are visible, as are a couple of my ribs. My tiny breasts are barely discernible. My ass, though—man, what an ass! It rises high from the small of my back. If you look closely, you can make out the fuzz of hair at my crotch.
The photo makes me blush, and yet, here I am describing it to you in great detail. I haven't returned it to the back of the garage either, because as soon as I saw it again, I knew I wanted to have it framed. I would display it in my house. It will be proof of something: my carefree college days, perhaps, and my talented friends. How much fun I had, being photographed without my clothes on. But also, let's face it, I want everyone to see my pre-motherhood boobs and my bodacious booty.
A few days after I discovered that old photo, I found myself in front of my bedroom mirror, lamenting various body parts. My hips, they were so wide! My nipples, they were so long! I stood in profile, mimicking my pose in the photograph, taxonomizing the differences between the body I had then and the body I have now. They are two different bodies, and though that was obvious the moment I saw the picture, I was surprised by how bad I felt about it. I realized that the 19-year-old version of me has been my point of origin; however far I might stray, I assumed I would eventually return to that self, that body. All this time, I'd thought that was the real me.
If that were the case, I lost myself somewhere around age 27.
Now I'm 36, and the only time I'm photographed by a professional is for book publicity. I must play myself, or a version of myself, and I hate it. "Relax your mouth," the photographer usually instructs, and all I can imagine are my thin, stingy lips. In the final photos, I look either uptight or too perky, like some white lady trying to sell you Ziplock bags for your kid's lunches. That's not me, I think. And, yet, if I'm not that woman, if I'm not what everyone sees, and if I'm not the girl in Ryan's old photo, then who am I? I've been betrayed by my physical self.
I sometimes imagine what it would feel like to be photographed once again, for art. To take my clothes off for a camera, and to make my body into a character, a person who is not me, but has my breasts and my stomach, my legs. I imagine the thrill of it, how I could screw with a viewer's perceptions. I would no longer be that cute little co-ed, but maybe I could be a tired mother with a baby suckling her breast. Maybe I could be inspecting my wrinkles in a bathroom mirror, or trying to pee while my older child screams at me for attention, or signing escrow documents in nothing but my underwear.
Or, I could pose as myself—no role to play, only the body I have now. Could I do it?
If only I could be photographed with a sea of other naked people, as I was all those years ago. I can see it: a cold day, hurrying to pull off our clothes before the police come, the paper lanterns above us swinging in the breeze. I stand next to someone who resembles my younger self.
Nice butt, I think.
Edan Lepucki is the author of the forthcoming novel Woman No. 17.