Photographer Emma Gruner on why taking nude photographs of herself doesn’t need to be about feminism or body positivity
Sheathed in a short black dress with plunging neckline, the French woman reclining on my screen says: “Maybe I give you a lap dance,” before exploding with mirth. This is not my Wednesday night treat but a Skype interview with the artist responsible for an eye-catching series of nude self-portraits.
33-year-old Emma Gruner was announced last week as one of 10 winners of the Graduate Photographers Award 2016, supported by RBB Economics and presented by Magnum at Photo London. Funny, with a penchant for swearing, she speaks with the halting flutter of a Strasbourg accent from her bed in Lewisham about capturing her tits-and-teeth in “The American Series”.
What’s the point of the blue shots she’s been capturing since 2013? “To reveal,” she says. “I'm only showing myself. I'm just picking things that interest me and putting it all together.” Her work poses a question by revealing almost everything, but she won’t give an answer. There isn’t one. Like Duchamp’s urinal, the function is tucked behind its being.
Gruner was inspired by wondering about the difference between the online fleshy famous, like the Instagrams of American strippers, and their human selves. She says: “You can be a webcam model from your bedroom, you can be an Instagram fucking celebrity but actually who are you?” She gropes her way through the digitally risqué’s mentality by donning their roles. Her own Instagrams are often deleted for their mere suggestiveness.
To embrace digital she treats her website like a performance space. Clicking on one image can take you down a rabbit hole of others. She has bigger ideas. “I wish my site was just advertising banners,” she says. “Where you click on one and you see another one and you're like: ‘Oh I didn't want to see that.’”
“Have you ever tried to pose with your butt out and your legs open? It’s hard!” — Emma Gruner
The series was unplanned, almost candid, shot with her compact (Canon G9) on self-timer while barrelling between Hollywood and Big Apple motels on a three-month trip. Being amateur is key. “It was not my intention to shoot this in America,” she says. “It was quite instinctive. I just do them. After a while I had a series of images. I ended up going to Vegas with some girls from the sex industry.”
Keeping it as real as strippers’ selfies is important. “I don't wanna use fancy cameras, I just wanna do this thing on my own so the language remains honest.” Even the more classically arranged photographs, like one of her on a bed with an open dressing gown caressed by shadows, used natural light.
Gruner is particularly interested in the viewer’s reaction when they realise the proffered boob in a picture belong to the artist. It’s disquieting. She finds the process entertaining, not narcissistic, treating her ‘come hither’ gazes as satire; finding the absurdity in her posturing and giggling throughout our interview. However, the poses can be strenuous: “Have you ever tried to pose with your butt out and your legs open? It's hard!”
She cites Nikki S. Lee as an influence, a Korean photographer who immersed herself in American subcultures to investigate identity norms. Gruner’s performance is also reminiscent of Amalia Ulman, who amassed 100,000 followers playing an LA girl on Instagram. Gruner strips new territory with a pseudo-crude style pulled off with panache.
But don’t call her a brave feminist, at least in person. At one point I thought she’d said “feminist” when she’d said “phenomenon”. Freudian hearing. She firmly corrects me: “I would not say feminist.” Though she enjoys people discussing issues like gender around her work she doesn’t like labels, despite prestigious individuals pushing her to take a stance, feeling a need to exclude herself personally from feminist discourse to liberate her creativity.
A Graduate Award judge, Fiona Rogers of Magnum, notices Gruner’s relevance historically: “The female form has featured in art throughout the ages and I felt that Emma’s performative project was a particularly resonant, contemporary evolution of this. Her highly sexualised self-portraits convey a sense of vulnerability – posing questions about the changing nature of self-representation and the intended viewer in our internet age.”
Although nude selfies have been around since almost the birth of photography, Gruner’s style marks the spirit of 2016 for its amateur composition. There is an unnerving defenceless in her hypersexuality that soft-focus nude photographs in classical style, like those of the nineteenth century, do not betray.
Have the pictures made her more confident? “I feel like I'm protected by the work. It's not about being brave, not for one second. It might have been difficult showing the first naked pic but it's really nothing. It's not because I love every single bit of my body. I just really like how revealing my comfort might make other people awkward. It has absolutely made me comfortable with my body image."