Anne Brigman, 'Dawn,' 1909. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Anne Brigman, 'Dawn,' 1909. (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY)

A Century Ago, She Photographed Herself in Nature, Naked and Unafraid

A Century Ago, She Photographed Herself in Nature, Naked and Unafraid

In response to the imposing and extractive Land Art of the 1960s and 1970s, artist Judy Chicago once said: “I was and am horrified by the masculine built environment and the masculine gesture of knocking down trees and digging holes in the earth.”

Chicago’s reaction to this kind of art was to create work like Women and Smoke (1971–72), a film piece in which she and other women painted their naked bodies in iridescent colors, set off smoky flares, and danced fervently in a desert landscape. The work has a primordial feel; this isn’t the world of Richard Serra or Michael Heizer where large-scale landscapes are dug up and reconstructed. Chicago and her collaborators left no marks on the land; once the colored smoke dissipated, the only remnants were documentation of their relationship with it.

But the story of work like Chicago’s begins at least six decades earlier when, in 1905, the Oakland-based photographer Anne Brigman began creating nude self-portraits in the mountains. Though this act might be unremarkable today, Brigman is considered the first woman to photograph herself nude—or at least the first to publicize it. The work that followed is the foundation of Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography, a major retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.

Anne Brigman, 'Soul of the Blasted Pine,' negative made 1906.
Anne Brigman, 'Soul of the Blasted Pine,' negative made 1906. (Wilson Centre for Photography)

Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Brigman began making more regular trips to the Sierra Nevada to escape the dire situation in the city. Here too Brigman was ahead of her time; it was then rare for women to hike the high Sierra, which required long stagecoach rides and pack mules. Brigman’s legacy was born when she united her burgeoning interest in female nudes (not always her own) with her love for nature and the Sierra.

Brigman practiced a form of photography called pictorialism, which drew on the aesthetics of painting in order to distinguish fine art photography from more scientific photography. Brigman’s work also evidences a clear inspiration from classical Greek and pre-Christian art and mythology. One of her earliest nudes in the Sierra is Dryads (c. 1905), depicting a large, twisting juniper tree clinging to a granite rock face. Two women lounge on the granite surface, one above the other, looking at each other as if in the middle of leisurely conversation. The title refers to the tree nymphs of Greek mythology; and even absent the presence of water, the models’ poses recall the countless bathing nymphs littered throughout art history.

Anne Brigman, 'The Cleft of the Rock, c. 1907. (Courtesy of the Michael G. and C. Jane Wilson 2007 Trust)

Beyond the classical allusions, Brigman’s work exhibits a profound connection with nature—especially with trees. In Soul of the Blasted Pine (1906), one of the best representations of this relationship, a subject stands inside the crevice of a tree trunk that has been felled, presumably, by a strike of lightning. The woman grips the trunk with one hand and stretches the other towards the sky, as if to recreate the tree’s former state. The distinction between the forms of the woman and tree is blurred, and of her work, Brigman said, “I’ve dreamed of and loved to work with the human figure—to embody it in rocks and trees, to make it part of the elements, not apart from them.” Her work was a way of erasing the artificial divide between individuals and their landscapes, between human and non-human natural elements.

This erasure is seen in many of Brigman’s Sierra works, such as The Lone Pine (c. 1908), which depicts a wind-ravaged pine growing practically horizontally out of a granite surface. A model kneels on the boulders in front of the tree with a curved back and her head buried in her arms. She replicates the curvature of the pine, lending it some of her humanity while also borrowing some of the tree’s timelessness. This paganistic relationship with nature was also about freedom—the freedom to be in the land and to create. “My pictures,” Brigman wrote in the San Francisco Call newspaper following her separation from her husband, “tell of my freedom of soul.”

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But what for Brigman was about form, communion with nature and liberation of spirit, was seen as indecent or sexual by many of her contemporaries. Soul of the Blasted Pine was removed from an exhibition at Oakland’s Idora Park for being “vulgar.” On the other hand, Brigman’s work caught the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, East Coast photographer and important promoter of the medium. But Stieglitz failed to recognize Brigman’s own intentions behind her work and, as an avid reader of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud, insisted on seeing the work through his theories about eroticism, sexual drive and creative energy. For Brigman, her work was more about freedom than free love.

Ana Mendieta, 'Creek,' 1974, still from super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, color, silent, running time: 3:11 minutes.
Ana Mendieta, 'Creek,' 1974, still from super-8mm film transferred to high-definition digital media, color, silent, running time: 3:11 minutes. (Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. © Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC)

Starting in the 1920s, pictorialism began to wane in popularity in favor of a sharp-focused modernist style of photography. In time, Brigman’s work fell out of prominence. But given its historic nature, it wouldn’t lay dormant for long. In fact, Laid Bare in the Landscape, a companion exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, demonstrates that Brigman’s work has had a near constant impact on women photographers and performance artists situating female nudes in outdoor landscapes since her own time.

In her “earth-body” works, Ana Mendieta melds her body with the environment in a manner reminiscent of Brigman’s body-trees. In a 1976 piece from her Silueta Series, the artist lays on the ground in a stone depression, covered in white flowers, which seem to be growing out of her body. Mendieta’s body metaphorically becomes soil—life-giving in a way the female body is often depicted—but with another blurred distinction between human and nonhuman.

The exhibition catalog for A Visionary in Modern Photography quotes curator and art critic Lucy Lippard, who wrote that “stones touch human beings because they suggest immortality, because they have so patently survived.” In Laid Bare, this perspective is seen most clearly in Judy Dater and Laura Aguilar’s self-portraits, in which they are balled up among desert rocks, mimicking the enduring stones. But these works also resonate with Brigman’s blending of female and arboreal forms. Brigman must have seen this same resilience in the 500-year-old Jeffrey pines or the 1000-year-old western junipers of the high Sierra.

Laura Aguilar, 'Untitled #111,' 2006–07.
Laura Aguilar, 'Untitled #111,' 2006–07. (Courtesy of the Laura Aguilar Estate)

Brigman’s Hellenic pictorialism or Chicago’s campy 1970s films may feel dated, but this artwork couldn’t be more relevant. Across the varying motivations and philosophies of these artists, one key theme emerges: an insistence that the relationship between body and land is more than locational. Instead, it's something elemental. These women knew, and know, that land is not just something to buy and sell, to dig up or build upon—it is foundational to the human experience.

'Anne Brigman: A Visionary in Modern Photography' and 'Laid Bare in the Landscape' are on view at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through Jan. 27, 2019. Details here.

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