Defining art is always difficult, but to my mind one of the defining factors of a work of art is that it inspires an emotional reaction. Happy, sad, moved, scared or brave, art can make us feel all those things and a lot more beside.
For this reason, I’ve always found art nude photography to have a certain element of purity to it. It’s very easy for a competent photographer to take a photo of a nude woman that people will like, but to take one that inspires an emotion and is more than just a pretty picture of a naked woman takes skill, both in front of and behind the camera. Take this selection, especially the first two. Two nude women on a bed may be a staple of eroticism but these images bypass that approach and the skill of those in front of and behind the camera create something beautiful which could be waxed lyrically about at length. You can use words like innocence, ethereal or intimacy when talking about it. And while there’s certainly an erotic element to it, it’s just that. An element, not the defining factor but merely one piece of the puzzle that creates the emotional reaction.
But where does that emotional reaction come from? It was these photos of Ivory Flame that got me thinking about this subject, and I’d like to explore one aspect of it.
I love greenery. Trees, grass, bushes, anything green in nature I love to be around. I’m never happier than when I’m running through a forest, or lying in the grass as I dry off beside a stream after a swim. As so many of us find ourselves spending more and more time in urban areas, we long to return to green places .
And yet in photos I have zero reaction to the colour green, and I’m not the only one. I love trees, yet why are the best photos of them in autumn when they’re not green? Why are grassy lawns always at their most striking when they’re surrounded by an urban environment which is almost certainly largely devoid of anything green?
I have to conclude that buried somewhere in my evolutionary instincts, hidden beneath layers of intellect and education, lies the memory of a distant ancestor, a Cretaceous era primate that scampered around the feet of the great theropod dinosaurs, hiding in burrows or trees from these huge animals that would eat them. They learnt to stay alive by learning when something was trying to eat them and getting the hell away from them. Built into their DNA was the instinct that if it wasn’t green, you should probably either run away from it or perhaps if it was smaller than you, to try and eat it. Being able to spot a great big Tyrannosaurus Rex or the last fruit of winter could be the difference between life and death, so prompting an automatic reaction to them seems like a good way to evolve.
So does this give us an insight into the nature of emotions and why they evolved? What do emotions do if not give us a jolt? They make us angry, happy, sad, determined, all kinds of things that stimulate action. After all, no one ever fell asleep as the result of an emotional reaction. They rouse us from slumber and make us do whatever it is we think we need to do to survive or to pass on our genes. Emotions kept us alive, and when we weren’t feeling them, we were relaxing, saving our strength for when we next had to do whatever we had to do to survive.
If green is the colour of security and safety in our ancient minds then no wonder we crave it. No wonder so many of us get stressed when we lock ourselves away behind concrete and stone for most of our lives. No wonder we put such an emphasis on parks and lawns, these little private or communal bits of the environment that soothe and relax the ancient emotions that were forged tens of millions of years ago when our ancestors lived alongside the dinosaurs, fighting for survival every day.
Now go back and look at those photos of Ivory Flame on the log in the forest with that shock of red hair that immediately gets your attention. What does your prehistoric brain make of those images? Does it see a predator emerging from the jungle canopy ready to eat you? Does it see the fruit it needs to give it the strength to survive for a little bit longer through the coming winter? While you see a nude woman on a log, is there a part of you that sees something else, buried beneath layers and layers of instinct and intellect, the ringing of a long obsolete bell that harks back to a time long ago?
For me it’s a wonderful thought. Our ancestors survived the endless millions of years of the dinosaurs. They survived the impact holocaust that wiped out more than 75% of all species on earth, the majority of dinosaurs among them. And down through the following 65 million years they not only survived but flourished, ultimately becoming us, the dominant species on the planet. And if my hypothesis is true, those primitive, basic emotions that helped them forge their way through the ages are still there, but now they also build the foundation of one of humanity’s greatest achievements and one of its most fulfilling pastimes. Artistic expression.