Lincoln Memorial, 3:02AM, from Nudescapes by Nu Som © 2017, published by G Arts, gartsbooks.com
Photographic artist Nu Som claims that she’s bashful about exposing her body. “Even growing up in France, when everyone around was topless I wore one-piece bathing suits,” she says. “So being nude in a public place (and now in published photographs) is definitely out of my comfort zone—but that is also why I love doing it. By facing that fear and actually doing it, I’ve come to realize that it makes me feel more and more powerful each time.”
For the past seven years, Nu Som has been shooting nude self-portraits in public places, often at spectacular and oft-visited sites such as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her ongoing series comprises a lavish new book, Nudescapes: Private Dreams in Public Places | Photographs (G Arts), as well as an exhibition on view at Ron Robinson in Santa Monica, CA through April 9.
Mounting her Canon DSLR on a Manfrotto tripod, Nu Som deftly composes her images and slips into place. A New York–based portrait and fashion photographer (aka Sandrine Lee, wife of bassist Will Lee), she brings a poetic sensibility to her self-portraits, which double as landscapes of her favorite places. “It’s a combination of where I find myself in my travels and special trips I made for the project,” she says. “In general, the city shots were in places I found myself, but in nature I took special trips to locations I wanted to explore and capture.” Here Nu Som shares the story behind this personal project.
What was the inspiration for this body of work?
Oddly enough, I had never thought of shooting self-portraits. To me, master Cindy Sherman and a few others had explored every artistic possibility, and the only alternative was self-centered iPhone selfies that were already flooding social media, something I had no interest in participating in. But one morning, the light coming into my bedroom window was so beautiful that I had to capture it. I was alone, I grabbed my tripod, set the timer and slipped into the frame for the exact result I envisioned—it was an epiphany. I could use my own body to be the human subject in any scene. I started exploring with different light sources, compositions, and situations. And when I entered a public place, where people normally roamed and could appear at any point, the thrill of it took over. I was terrified and therefore exhilarated once I got the shot—it was such an adrenaline rush, I was hooked!
You write that the trick is to be alone in these places. How do you manage that?
I study the place ahead of time and waits for my moment. There are many places that I have “courted” and still have not gotten, and others where after many nights, I finally got one shot and had to be satisfied with the result—or not! Overall it’s about going against the grain of what most people do, which I think as an artist is kind of what we are wired for anyway. So in the desert I shoot for the hottest day out there; in cities rainy nasty days are my friends, or the middle of the night …
So you mount the camera and set the timer to ten seconds … hmm … how fast can you undress?
Well I undress just before pressing the shutter that starts the ten-second timer, so that time is all for the run and pose.
Have you ever been arrested while doing this work?
No, but I got very close to it at the foot of Abe Lincoln in Washington, D.C. The police officer who caught me was a woman and so I was able to just jump up and stop her in her tracks while she was calling in the indecent exposure offense by just saying “Stop, it’s just for art!” and getting dressed and walking away before she could gather her wits. I got really lucky—I don’t think I would have had the boldness to do that to a male police officer. Definitely thanking my lucky stars on this one!
Do you plan to continue this project?
Yes I am totally hooked and I already have dozens of new photographs since we finalized the layout for the book. I will keep capturing these images for at least the next few years. But I also have other projects that I am working on, so I may show a very different type of work before releasing Part Two.
What would you like the viewer to take away from seeing these photographs?
I hope that it helps people understand that if you are afraid to do something you should do it. And that once you do, you will come out stronger on the other side. I also hope it will highlight why we need to keep some privacy in our lives and should stop sharing every moment, every meal, every meeting with the rest of our virtual friends. Start living for living again—not just sharing. These experiences can only happen if I keep to myself and find a moment alone. Privacy has become a precious commodity.
Finally, I hope it helps people see even more beauty in the world around them and make them care for it as much as they possibly can.