Interview with Jamie Cotton
"I believe the function of the artist in all media is a creation of affirmations; the search for and the realization of beauty. The function of art includes an establishment of communication, at the imaginative and constructive level, and placing the emphasis of thought and emotion in relationship to an ideal world. The glorification of decay, filth, disease, despair, and evil succeeds only in blunting our necessary awareness of these negative qualities...
I believe the artist can accomplish most on the agenda for survival by creating beauty, by setting examples of beauty in order, by embracing the concept of the essential dignity of the human mind and spirit."
Jamie Cotton: Hi Steve, I was just talking to someone about your workshops. He was telling me how much he enjoyed them. We were also talking about how he had been disappointed by some people's reactions to him doing a "nude" workshop.
Steve Anchell: This is an interesting point. You see, if you are in Europe and say "nude" they think of artworks in the Louvre, Degas, Michelangelo, perhaps. They think of Greek sculpture; of the David. The word "nude" in this country means a centerfold in Playboy or Penthouse.
Even in Asia they have a much clearer understanding of the distinction between the artistic nude and pornography. Sacred spaces throughout Asia are illustrated with Gods copulating and creating life; the life force is what they are depicting. In this country, our whole concept of morality was founded by Puritans. They got off the Mayflower and never walked very far from Plymouth Rock. We live in their shadow today.
JC: Why do you think that we have not yet made that distinction? Because we are such a young country?
SA: No. Because our psyche is still tied to this mode of puritanical thinking. I would love to see this change, but it won't happen in our life time.
JC: Yet we are fairly inundated by foreign artists, by other Europeans that have formed the country. Even though all these different people from all different places and walks of life come to America, why are we still entrenched in that puritanical thinking?
SA: Well even though we think, or tend to think, we are a culture-less society, this country has a very powerful culture based on the oppressive forms of Christianity. Christianity in and of itself does not have to be oppressive, but there are forms of it that are.
So, when people come from other cultures, even though they don't have these attitudes initially, they or their children are inoculated with them. The land we live on absorbs who and what we are and gives it back.
JC: What might be some ways to start to change some of those attitudes, or should we even try?
SA: We don't need to try. Our lives and the ways in which we live them are the way we change. Each individual who can see these things, or see the world for what it is, the culture for what it is, each individual who sees this and rejects it then behaves, or reacts, or creates in another way is helping to change. For example, Antonio Suratos and his photograph entitled "Piss Christ." Of course, people in this country are offended and upset about it, but I respect him, as an artist for creating that image, putting it out there. Oh yeah, he has made people angry, and caused the National Endowment of the Arts to be curtailed. Well that's okay. The National Endowment for the Arts is insignificant in the scheme of things. More significant is the affect an artist, any artist, has on our culture.
When Anthony Surato creates "Piss Christ," he brings religious and censorship issues "out of the closet." What is needed is for hundreds, thousands of artists to express their vision, their most deeply held passions, as Anthony has done. Not only to shake up our society, but to amuse and enlighten.
In this sense it should be understood that art and self-expression wears many guises. Some art is meant to be humorous, make us laugh, to not take ourselves, our lives, even our art, so seriously. Some art is meant to make us feel good, to make our spirits soar. Looking at Ansel Adam's majestic landscapes does this for me. Perhaps looking at a Monet landscape painting or a Tahitian girl painted by Gauguin would do it for someone else. Or a Greek statue of Hermes. Who knows? We are all individuals and must find our own way.
In this respect, each artist must follow his or her natural inclination to create. Take the nude. Some nudes may be very gentle and pleasing to look at. This is what I am attempting to accomplish with my work. I know I cannot reach the extreme puritans, the born-again hypocrites, but perhaps I can make the nude form more acceptable to people who are closer to the middle, but not yet sure if it's okay to look at pictures of naked women. Perhaps when these people are accidentally, or intentionally, exposed to my work and find that hair doesn't grow on their palms or Jesus doesn't blind them, they will become a little more accepting and open to the idea.
Compare my approach to that of a photographer like Joel Peter Witkin who does nudes of hermaphrodites and is famous for his images of amputated body parts. Or the late Robert Mapplethorpe with his infamous homo-erotic images of a bullwhip hanging out of an anus, or of a large penis hanging out of a zipper. While Witkin and Mapplethorpe are, or were, trying, consciously or not, to batter in the front door, I am knocking quietly at the back door, waiting for the occupants to open it of their own volition.
Neither approach is superior, and both are necessary. In every way that the artist can bring any issue, be it religion, environment, sex, the plight of battered women, or whatever, to the forefront, they are attacking the fringes of our static, puritanical society, the not always so silent majority. And even though I personally do not care for the work of Joel Peter Witkin, I profoundly respect him and support his right to express, and share, his vision. This last is an important point for all artists to understand. Artists like Witkin and Mapplethorpe push the envelope to the extreme, giving the rest of us room to move before the envelope snaps back.
The extremists allow the people in the middle of our culture to make change. Because the people on the other side are so afraid the extremists will take over they compromise. Or die.
JC: Compromise or die - that's pretty strong.
SA: The feminists movement is an example. It is the extreme feminists, the ones who are ready to lock men in cages, and blame all men for the world's problems, that cause change to happen. It is their extremism that scares the otherwise intransigent male society to allow women in the marketplace and claim their equality in a world that has thus far been a man's world.
JC: O.K. back to photography. So how long have you been shooting nudes?
SA: First, I would like to make it clear that I do not "shoot" nudes. Nor do I sponsor "photo shoots." I take great exception to both of these common terms which are denigrating to the creative spirit of the models who participate in them. Although I do not usually try to be politically correct, people need to understand that words do have power. When you call a woman a "girl," a man a "boy," you are exercising this power. When you "shoot" a woman who has at least as much creative energy as you, the photographer, then you are exercising this power over the person who is actually responsible for creating the image.
Let's be clear about one thing. The photographer may have the vision, but it is the model's ability to express that vision that makes the photograph possible. Once the model starts to express herself within the context of that vision all the photographer can do is stand back and hope s/he is capable of capturing the moment.
As to your question, I've been photographing nudes probably...It depends on whether you're talking about continuously or just my first nude?
JC: Tell us about your first nude.
SA: My first nude was in about 1971 or 2. My next door neighbor said she would pose for me. I was still using the Yashica-Mat TLR. I was so excited to take a picture of a naked woman that I made a mess of the exposures and was unable to make prints. But boy was that an exciting experience. I never slept with this woman but I got excited seeing a naked woman in front of me and having a camera in my hands.
JC: What did you find exciting about that?
SA: A twenty year old guy having a naked woman in front of him? That's an odd question. I was just barely over being a teenager. I was more hormone and testosterone than human.
JC: So the physical experience was very exciting for you?
SA: That's putting it mildly. It was masturbation through the lens. This is what I think gets most men started doing nudes. The sexual anticipation. Every man has the idea, at some point, that if you play your cards right you'll get laid by the model. If you work with enough models you are able to overcome that, if for no other reason than you are constantly disappointed!
I am being specific referring to men as I truly do not know how women relate to their early experiences working with the nude. What I do know, is that most women who come to my workshops prefer photographing other women, even though they are less likely to object to photographing men, and often have male nudes in their portfolios. But whether they have sexual fantasies about their models or not I have never asked. Therefore, I can only speak from a man's point-of-view on this.
JC: What kept you doing nudes? Or what do you think keeps most people doing nudes once you get over that?
SA: From that time for the next 5 to 6 years, about 72 to about 78 I didn't photograph any more nudes. When I started doing them again it was for commercial reasons. One of my Hollywood clients in 1978 was an art director who designed marquees and video covers for X-rated movies. He had many of the X-rated movie companies as clients. He also had many mainstream product clients as well, and I was his favorite photographer. One day I would be photographing stereos, the next porno-stars for video covers. It has always struck me as funny that, to this day, I have never seen an X-rated movie.
Up to that time I had been photographing a lot of fashion. I began doing fashion because I thought I could meet women that way. It worked to some extent, but there were more failures then successes because when you photograph a woman, especially if she is a professional, there is a distance which is almost always maintained. And even if the photographer doesn't get it, which I often didn't in my younger years, the model does.
After awhile you realize that every woman you photograph is not going to sleep with you. When this realization finally sinks in you can begin to create good work, both commercially and personally.
The idea that you have to have an "electric sexual charge" to create good images is a hold-over from the movie "Blow-up" and scenes from the life of fashion photographers such as David Bailey and Burt Stern who were active in the sixties. But those days have passed and the industry has grown up. It's a business, not a sexual encounter.
This understanding is a part of one's growth as a photographer. When you get past the sexual fantasies you begin to see the human form, not the sex. You begin to see shapes and thinking in terms of prints and images, as you would with any subject. Speaking for myself, there came a point in my career when I stopped thinking, "I wonder how she'd be in bed," and started thinking "How does the curve of her back match the roundness in the rock she is leaning against? Are her hands expressing emotion, does my camera angle cause her legs to appear disjointed?" When that happened, my work with the human form began to mean something to me. I discovered that photographing the nude was another way of expressing myself through the medium I had chosen.
JC: When did you move into doing mostly nudes?
SA: My work has never consisted of mostly nudes. Nudes have always been a very small part of what I photograph, both in my commercial days and now. I am known for them because of the workshops I have been leading since 1983.
As it happens, I love teaching, I enjoy the workshops, I enjoy the people I meet, including the models, some who have become great friends...I enjoy the whole experience. But if I didn't have the workshops I might never photograph another nude. I have no reason to do anymore. If I started now I could not possibly print all the good negatives of nudes which are in my files, much less the bad ones! In fact, I probably could not print all the good landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes which I have made in the last year. Right now there are almost 100 rolls of 35mm and 120, and about 20 sheets of 4x5 sitting on my enlarging bench waiting to be developed. About 30 of those are of nudes, the rest are of everything else.
JC: Why do you enjoy teaching so much?
SA: Teaching is something I do naturally; not just in photography but in other aspects of my life, too. I enjoy seeing people grow. For me, the two aspects that make a good teacher are 1) a love for people and 2) wanting to see others become at least as good as you are, and possibly even surpass you, without feeling threatened. I have both of those attributes.
JC: What do you find is the most interesting or exciting aspect of teaching the nude workshops?
SA: The most exciting aspects for me are meeting new photographers, seeing old friends, establishing friendships with models, and watching people change and grow, through photography.
People have a need for these workshops. A need to break down barriers. Often someone shows up thinking "Oh boy, I get to shoot naked women" (note the word shoot) but very soon realize that is not what my workshops are about, they are about creating images. Through the example I set, that my long-time assistant, Randall Lamb, sets, and others that have been on the workshops before, the new photographers can't help but try to create better images. Trying to create good work is what helps overcome the sexual aspect of the nude. Those that understand, return over and over to my workshops. Those that don't, don't come back. One year I had sixteen returnees out of twenty-four over a two week period.
JC: I want to get back to our original conversation about nudes and the religious-political climate of the country. Tell me a little bit about your personal spirituality.
SA: Well, I'm a Pagan, that from the Greek, pegaus, People of the Earth. My spirituality says that everything - the rocks I step on, the trees I lean on - are made of the same materials as we are and that all of these things are connected so that we are the rocks we step upon, we are the trees we lean upon; all things have life and all things are sacred.
JC: What were you raised as - I'm assuming that you were not raised Pagan but came to it of your own accord - but what was your religious upbringing?
SA: I was not raised as anything. We were members of the Unitarian Church mainly because they would accept any one and it was a social thing for my Mother. Once or twice a month my Mother would make us go to church. My Father never went but would meet us after. We would have lunch and spend the rest of the day in the park.
JC: When did you feel a need for your own sense of spirituality?
SA: The first stirrings began when I was fourteen or fifteen but the development of it took many years, and is still in process. It's like mixing gelatin and hot water - it starts as a powder. You mix and mix and it seems like nothing is happening. Then all of a sudden it comes together and thickens. But, like gelatin, it should always remain flexible.
JC: When did you first pick up a camera?
SA: My first experience with a camera was when I was about 16. I started with a Kodak 126 pocket instamatic that belonged to my mother, graduated to a Kodak Retina, which was my father's. At this time photography was just a pastime. I only used color film and took it to a lab for development. What was more important to me was backpacking.
This was almost thirty years ago and backpacking was a relatively young industry, though I had been pursuing it since about 1963. There was a relatively new magazine, "Backpacker" for which I wrote an article. They paid me twenty-five dollars and the editor wrote me a short note that if I had illustrations to go with future articles he would pay more, maybe as much as $100.00 plus $25.00 per photo!
Bear in mind that I was working full-time for about $60.00 per week, $25.00 was almost half-of-a-weeks wages for doing something I loved.
So I decided that what I really needed was a good, lightweight 35mm camera. Then I could go on all these exciting backpacking trips all over the world and pay my way by writing fabulous articles and taking amazing color pictures for Backpacker Magazine!
I bought an Olympus OM-1, which just came out that year, and got so excited about photography, at last, that I started taking all kinds of pictures and ended up not being able to afford to backpack because I couldn't stop taking pictures and had to work a steady job, in a backpacking store, just to pay for the film. Soon I had to do portraits and weddings on weekends so I could afford a darkroom, paper, and more film. Eventually, I stopped backpacking altogether and just did photography. I became obsessed. For about ten years I could do nothing else, I ate, slept and breathed photography. It's still my one passion after all these years.
JC: Do you think that there has been a distinct correlation between the development of your work and the development of your spirituality?
SA: We cannot separate these things in our lifes. I think that our art is an extension of who we are; everything that we have seen, done, been and felt comes our in our creative work.
JC: So what is that for you?
SA: Everything I have seen, done, been and felt is reflected in my work. If you look at someones work you can even tell their relationship to their subject. In the case at hand, images of women, you can tell if the photographer loves women, hates them, or simply doesn't trust them. You can tell if they are misogynistic. Their attitudes and the major aspects of their personality are reflected in their work.
JC: What are the major aspects of your personality that come out in your work?
SA: Oh, I can't tell you that. You must view my work and decide for yourself.
JC: I want to know what you think and feel about your work.
SA: My work is a reflection of my life. Look at it and you will know my life. My work will tell you more about me than this interview. If I tell you, then you only know my words and my words are not my life. We understand through seeing, we understand through feeling, we understand through pain and sorrow, we understand through laughter and joy. This is how we understand, not through what we say.
JC: This is why we put the interviews with the images but I believe that there is some validity in the struggle of exploring ones work through words.
SA: While self-examination is a valid pursuit, it doesn't follow that I will examine myself for you! If it is important for you to know me, then look at my images and if you know how to "see" you will see my reflection. For my own part, I believe that when the image is created and put out into the world it no longer belongs to me. Avedon and I had a disagreement over this. He feels the image is to be shared but it still belongs to him because it was his experience. I feel each individual must look at an artist's work and find meaning in it for themselves and the artist has no right to impose their own meaning or prejudice. Their opportunity to do this was at the time of creation.
JC: Why is it important that we interpret these things for ourselves?
SA: If you want people to spoon feed you all your life then you don't need to, but if you would like to think and feel and live for yourself then you have to, at some point, look at the work of an artist and discover your own relationship to it.
JC: Why is it important that we look at art?
SA: Good art should shake up peoples perspectives; make them laugh, make them angry, make them uncomfortable make them say "ah ha" - it does not matter what the reaction is - but any good work will bring out emotion in the viewer, and emotions are what make us human.
Embarrassed interviewers note: Here is where my phone went dead and when we continued the interview, unrealized by me, my tape recorder died, too. So I will have to paraphrase the rest of our conversation. We talked about many fascinating things. Steve is as interesting as he is profoundly intelligent and spiritually aware. I felt grateful to him for sharing many of his thoughts and understandings with me. In some ways I found his reluctance to use words pertaining to his work frustrating. I felt that I was failing in my job as an effective interviewer to extrapolate this information for my readers. But I came to realize the truth behind his hesitation; in all ways Steve Anchell is a true and skillful teacher. To say much about his work would be to preach rather than to teach. As with so many great artists and great teachers his voice is in his work to be interpreted by the sacred voice of the inquisitive heart. Stephen's love of nature combined with his love of people and his love of knowledge and understanding have brought him to his spirituality which revolves around a love and respect of all things. We share in this through his images and learn how to love and respect ourselves. He shared with me how he had started a project in which he was photographing the ecological decay that was occurring due to man separating his soul from that of the earth. But in the middle of the project he read a quote from Ansel Adams that changed his life. Adams stated that true art reflects the beautiful and that the highest aspiration should be to create beauty. Though Stephen Anchell sees the profound need for artists to push the envelope with not-so-pleasant-art he discovered that his spirit was more akin to Adams'. He put his project aside and has dedicated his life to creating beauty. And so in his beautiful images we see reflected the spirit of a man who reaches through his art to continue to teach us by encouraging us to teach ourselves.
Steves work has appeared in thirteen publications worldwide. He has been a contributing editor to Outdoor Photographer, Camera & Darkroom, and PhotoWork magazines and has written columns, feature articles and interviews for View Camera, PIC, Shutterbug, and PhotoPro magazines. His first two books, The Darkroom Cookbook, and The Variable Contrast Printing Manual, are both international photography bestsellers. His third book, The Film Developing Cookbook, will be available in December 1998.
Steve was recently appointed to be the program director for the Photographers Formulary Workshops in Condon, Montana which are scheduled to begin in the Summer of 1999.
Steve conducts regular workshops conerning the nudes. He can be contacted at:
Anchell Photographic Workshops
P.O. Box 277
Crestone, CO 81131