A Different Way of Seeing
What's Wrong with This Picture?
By confronting society's greatest taboos, Oakland photographer Frank Cordelle has created something truly extraordinary.
By Lauren Gard
Article Published Dec 6, 2006
It is close to midnight on a crisp Northern California evening, the kind that renders East Coast transplants nostalgic for the musty smell of dry leaves and the kick of hot apple cider. Beneath a full moon, not far from a lawn dotted with a half-dozen languid deer and a fat, skulking skunk, Frank Cordelle sits naked in a hot tub.
It isn't his first time at Lupin Lodge, a naturist resort nestled in the redwoods of Los Gatos along Highway 17. The 63-year-old photographer exhibited his work here once before, seven years earlier, and stayed for a few days then. Cordelle wouldn't call himself a nudist, but as someone who has spent the last twenty-some years focusing on naked girls and women through his camera viewfinder, it's a state he's become comfortable with. For the past month, a collection of his photos has been on display in the homey wooden lodge down the hill, and an hour ago he wrapped up a lecture with a small but dedicated crowd and signed a few copies of his new book.
"So your photos are in the same vein as, say, Jock Sturges?" asks a middle-aged man who'd slipped into the tub with a female companion. One of the two other men in the tub had caught the tail end of Cordelle's lecture, and as often happens when his work is nearby, the fotog finds himself holding court.
"Not at all," Cordelle replies, his voice soft and a bit raspy. He's used to the question. "Sturges' photographs are mostly of beautiful, thin, white, blond girls, with a few others thrown in for good measure."
"Mapplethorpe, then?" Ah, the question that usually comes first.
"No." Cordelle shakes his head and explains that Robert Mapplethorpe's focus was mostly on men, and was often homoerotic. "My work is very different."
"Those photos in the dining room, that's what he's talking about," the woman tells her partner. "I haven't had a chance to look at them all, but there were essays, too, right?" she asks Cordelle. "That the women wrote?"
"Most of them," Cordelle says. "Some, I wrote about."
"There was one there who'd had a mastectomy — " she shudders.
Cordelle is used to such reactions. The gist of his project, he explains, is to document women of all ages as they truly are, from an infant at the moment of birth through a centenarian in her last years. While that may not sound so controversial, there's a reason Cordelle's work shows at nudist resorts and colleges instead of museums, and why he had such a hell of a time getting his book published.
His photos, although profoundly moving to some viewers, come as a shock to many, particularly when viewed out of context. Nude depictions of children and seniors are by nature taboo in a culture rooted in Puritanism. And most, although not all, of his subjects bear physical or mental scars, or struggle with their body image. Some are obese, anorexic, or bulimic. Some have been raped or abused. Some are afflicted with disease, while others have inflicted pain upon themselves. Desiree, nineteen, poses against a white cinderblock wall, a massive T-shaped scar dominating her chest. A year earlier, her uncle slashed her with a knife after she refused to let him have sex with her any longer. Kerry, 41, sits in profile, laughing, her unattached prosthetic legs resting beside her on the couch. Durga, 66, was given a hysterectomy in a Harlem hospital at age 31 without her consent. "Once, when the exhibit was at a college, several students approached me and said, 'We don't see anyone like us represented here. You need to have cutters,'" Cordelle recalls. He photographed one of the women the very next day.
The fotog patiently answers his tubmates' questions — yes, he gets written consent from the parents of minors; he shoots only women because, quite frankly, he doesn't find men's bodies as interesting, or as storied — and shares some favorite anecdotes. He's a gifted storyteller, and true to form, he loves to shock. "One woman I photographed, her parents tried to get her committed to a mental institution at age sixteen," he says. "Do you know what her crime was?" They look at him quizzically. "She wore a tank top to the mall without a bra," he finishes.
They gasp, cluck their tongues, splash gently as they shift in the water. "Do you live around here?" the woman asks.
"Yes, in Oakland," Cordelle says. "But I'm a country boy. Moved here from New Hampshire for my work."
"Do you miss it?" she says.
"I do. After five years here I still feel like a fish out of water," Cordelle replies. "I used to see moose and deer in my backyard, had a huge garden —"
"What do you mean, you moved here for your work?" one of the men interjects.
"Everyone back in New Hampshire looks just like me," Cordelle replies.
He pauses a moment while they appear to consider this: Did he mean a fit five-foot-eight with just a squidge of a belly? Confident and handsome in a boyish, been-there, done-that sort of way?
"White. German, European descent," he clarifies after a beat. "I needed more diversity."