Art nude, natural light master, celebrating diversity.
Nudity in art has been a prominent form of creative expression, ever since artists have been creating. But its acceptance within society has always trodden a fine line between high art and porn.
As its place within the modern zeitgeist grows more and more precarious, artists like photographer Melbourne Art Natural have started stepping up and pushing their body-positive agenda within this medium, celebrating just what it means to be human.
Because for M.A.N, nudity in art isn’t about selling sex; it’s about promoting and honouring bodies of all shapes, sizes, genders and backgrounds.
I spoke to M.A.N about how he got into art nude and how he navigates it as a young male to give his models the best experience possible, why it’s so important for him to showcase and celebrate a wide range of bodies, and how he hopes to change the narrative, when modern technology fights hard to shut his voice down.
Melbourne Art Natural is…
Melbourne Art Natural is a brand that I thought of about two years ago. I really wanted to focus a lot on accepting all body types or body colours, shapes, genders, and sexualities. It’s something that was quite close to my heart.
I also wanted to have a big focus on mental health and mental health awareness. And I thought the best way that my voice can be heard is through my images. So that’s why I created this.
What do you do and when did you get to that point where you knew that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I’m a photographer by trade, a portrait photographer, specifically with natural light. I also work part-time in film and TV doing lighting. But then when it comes to my portrait photography, I like to take away a lot of that lighting and strip it all back to a natural aesthetic.
I picked up a camera at the age of about 13 or 14. My dad and my grandpa were both hobby photographers, so there were always cameras around. In the early days, I was doing travel and landscape photography. Then I moved from there into streetscape photography. Once I started exploring photographing people, I realised how dynamic and interesting they can be. It didn’t take me long at all to delve head first into just taking photos of people.
I’ve always had that natural element to my photos, where they might be slightly wider – a classical portrait photo is quite tight, but that’s never really been my style. I like to see a lot of the environment, the space and the narrative behind why that person is where they are.
I think it really kicked off for me when I was about maybe 18 or 19, when I really started getting headfirst into taking photos of people and became obsessed by that.
Can you tell me how you developed your own skills. Do you have any formal training and how did your work evolve from landscapes to portraiture?
I think I’d already been photographing a few friends of mine; I would take a camera and we’d go to some cool locations around Melbourne. When I was transitioning from landscapes, I was exploring abandoned locations across Melbourne. So I had quite a few interesting locations at my fingertips.
Then I got a portrait photography workshop as a Christmas present one year from my dad. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily revolutionary. It didn’t give me my style. But it did teach me a few tricks that gave me more confidence to take better photos of people.
I also found a photographer by the name of Tony Ryan in Melbourne. He was doing fitness and art nude photography. So I went to maybe one or two workshops that were fine art or art nude focused.
I quite liked the way he shoots with his models. I didn’t necessarily connect with his final images, but the way he goes about it, I thought it was really fantastic. The way he tries to connect with his models and the people that he shoots with is something I’ve brought into my own work. He tries to really make sure that there is some sort of connection going both ways, from the photographer and from the model.
He picks those images where he thinks you can see that connection, rather than going okay, here’s a person and they just look pretty and it’s all fine. There’s substance to it. It might technically be a fantastic photo, but that’s not what he really goes for. I think I bring that into my photography quite a lot.
But other than that, I’m pretty much self-taught. I never went to study formally. I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photos over the last few years, quite literally. And I’ll tell you right now, there’s a load of bad photos in there. There are a lot of mistakes. There were a lot of learning curves.
There are days where I felt like I got no good photos at all. But it’s just been practice. I’ve done a couple of YouTube tutorials where I’ve gone and specifically looked up maybe an editing style of someone and tried to replicate that. But without the formal training, it’s been just a lot of practice.
Working in film and TV has actually helped me a tonne. It gives me a lot of on the job experience of how to light a subject, regardless of what the source of that light is. I understand how to shape light, how to manipulate it, how to add it, or take it away.
There are quite a lot of photographers out there who don’t prioritise their lighting as much as they should, even though photography is quite literally the art of light!
How would you describe your style and the type of scenes that you personally like creating?
I’m obsessed with natural beauty. I don’t do a whole lot of retouching. I don’t cover up too much in terms of pimples, or wrinkles, or scars. I only really do that upon specific requests from a model, if there’s something that they really want removed, otherwise it all stays in.
I’m trying to bring the best out of a situation without over manipulating it. I can adjust my lighting, I can adjust the poses of the model, but I’m still working with their body. I’m not going to adjust it in Photoshop or FaceTune and change the curves or the shape. I don’t use a ton of lighting equipment, instead I’m trying to get the best out of a person and the best out of a scene, without trying to do too much manipulation in post-production.
I think there’s almost a feminine energy through a lot of my photos. Even if I’m taking photos of masculine identifying people, I think my images can still all be quite soft and feminine. That being said, some of the grungier stuff is super fun and I love that. See my images with Kick In The Eye for some good grunge.
I think one of the things that I like to pride myself on, is that I can be a bit of a chameleon when it comes to my aesthetic. I think I can go for that rougher grungier style, but if I’m taking a photo that’s just for myself, they are a bit softer and more natural.
Because some of the promo stuff that you’ve done for Kick in the Eye, your friend’s brand, that stuff is definitely a lot more edgy and grungy. But that’s still about your use of lighting and bringing that extra bit of creativity into the scene to get the most out of the model and the product.
Yeah, it’s the Halloween shoot! My particular favourite from that set was with Evana de Lune and Realm of Rubber and we just had them in my living room, there were no additional lights used in those photos. We had a smoke machine and a black backdrop. I opened up my back doors to let a lot of light in, and we had some candles that added a little bit of light in the background, and that was it. We just kind of went for it.
That was the first big shoot that we got to do after COVID. It was really good timing and it was super fun, we definitely went for something super grungy and kind of dark and edgy and I was really happy with how it came out.
Yeah, that was really cool! Do you have other artists or styles that inspire you?
Yeah, there’s a few that I look up to, some locally, some internationally. There’s an Italian photographer called Alessio Albi, and he is, in my opinion, one of the masters of natural light. They’re such beautiful photos taken at the perfect time of day. He’s definitely an inspiration of mine.
There is a photographer called Illey the Kid, who is in the States, who I like to give quite a lot of credit to for helping me define my colour palette. I don’t think my images would be where they are today without him. He released a preset pack maybe three years ago and I downloaded it and just started playing around with his presets. Our photos are somewhat similar, at least in terms of colour, but we definitely do have our differences. And now we’re at the stage where we have all these photos that were influenced by each so it goes both ways now. So that’s pretty cool.
Some of the local photographers that I love include Kyle Goon, who is, in my opinion, an absolute wizard who doesn’t get anywhere near enough credit, nowhere near as much as he deserves. He’s absolutely fantastic, has got an incredible eye for detail and knows exactly what he’s doing.
When it comes to shooting your models, obviously they’re all in various states of undress. I know it’s just super important for you to make them feel comfortable, can you explain how you do that and why that’s so important for you?
I think it’s super important to have a genuine connection with your subjects. And that is true if you’ve just met them on the day or if you have known them for 20 years.
So that starts from the very first contact, whether I send someone a message saying, I love your work, I’d love to shoot with you, or if they message me and say the same thing. From that very first contact, you have to be professional and safe and come across in the right way. And that continues too, after the point where you’ve taken the photos.
I feel, particularly as a male photographer in this industry, you have to be over the top safe and friendly, because there are so many predators out there. There are so many horrible people who will manipulate situations like this for their own gain under the pretence of being a photographer.
It comes down to language being used, how I present myself, or the types of poses that I ask people to do. It’s something that I think is really, really important, and it’s a skill that I think I’ve always naturally had, which has been very lucky for me. I’ve always been good at making people feel comfortable. You can’t get photos like I do when someone is not feeling safe. It’s just not going to translate very well on camera if someone’s not feeling it.
For sure. In terms of the subject of nudity in art, it’s been around since humans have been creating art. Over the years, it’s acceptance as a form of fine art I think has definitely fluctuated based on what society’s level of censorship, or what is defined as art is at the time. Why do you think it’s an important form of art and expression?
I think it’s incredibly important; it’s the way that we see ourselves. I think it’s really powerful to dress the way you feel and to have that add to your personality. But once you strip all of that away, and you’re standing there in front of a camera with absolutely no clothes on, you can feel super vulnerable.
So I think being able to have realistic representations of what bodies can and should look like through art, and to see people in that state is really important. It’s also especially important to see natural bodies and realistic bodies in that state, so that you’re not comparing yourself to this unattainable goal. We’re constantly seeing supermodels who are crazy fit, and go to the gym ten times a week and who eat all the best food and have personal trainers. Social media and media in general is full of imagery of people just like this. That’s why it’s so important to show real and natural bodies.
Yes absolutely, representation is so important. Because it’s so hard not to get sucked into feeling bad about yourself, especially when everything that you’re marketed is to make you feel bad about yourself.
So much of it is weighted towards preying on these feelings of not being enough or feeling bad about yourself in some way. And then them trying to fill that hole with whatever they’re selling to make you feel better.
Yeah, exactly. And then from the flip side, nude art in the public sphere can be classified by a lot of people as pornographic, and people are getting banned from social media platforms for even just for the smallest exposure of skin. I know now you feel very strongly about this, so how do we start to change that narrative? Or even can we?
Yeah, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? In fact, it’s probably a billion dollar question now. I think it’s super important to be showing realistic bodies, and I think we should be doing that as much as we possibly can.
I think if we have that conversation, held on all these big platforms like Instagram, where these bodies aren’t allowed, then maybe enough people will rally behind this idea and either transition to another platform, if and when that is created, or just kick up enough of a fuss that Instagram will change its rules.
But I think it’s a fight that needs to be had because if we lose that fight of over censoring realistic bodies or naked bodies or whatever it is just in an artistic sense, then I don’t see where it stops. At what point do they stop censoring and silencing these voices, especially for people like sex workers who are constantly getting pushed off these platforms?
I don’t really see an obvious answer other than someone making a new platform that somehow is better and has more engagement than Instagram.
I think on top of that as well, as soon as you start to censor conversations around natural bodies, nudity, sex, then our own education around those subjects, which are so taboo already, also takes a backward step. Then you’re no longer having these really healthy conversations about really important topics that do affect everyone.
Totally. That’s why I’m putting all of my eggs into the non-binary and LGBTQIA+ basket at the moment, because I feel that that is probably the best way to get these messages across. It’s an amazing umbrella for everything from talking about realistic bodies to gender, sexuality and mental health.
Whether you’re gay, straight, somewhere in the middle, it doesn’t matter.
I think just having those discussions and actually having that pushed into the public eye and saying that this is okay is important, and we should be talking about these things, because everyone experiences this to a degree.
Yeah, I completely agree. I know that you’re hoping to move eventually into photographing full time. How would you like to see your work evolve? What sort of platforms and mediums would you like to explore and have your work shown on?
I love the creating process. I love coming up with the ideas, going out onto a set and going through the editing process and getting super excited the whole way through. And what I really want is for just people to be able to appreciate that and see that.
So whether that’s in a gallery or up on someone’s wall, or even just online. But I think the ultimate goal is probably to have my art on people’s walls. I’d be so chuffed to have that, or have some sort of gallery space. And if I can try and make money doing that at the same time that would be amazing!
Do you have an online store on your website at the moment?
I’ve got a few prints that I’m finalising with models as to what prices we’re all happy with and exactly what photos. But there will be an online print store coming up soon. So there’ll be a variety of A4 and A3 prints that you’ll be able to purchase. And I’ve got a fantastic framing guy for some really nice custom framing. So there will be an online store at some point!
Well, it’s something to look forward to and leads perfectly into my next question, which is what’s coming up this year for you?
So this year, I’ve got a few shoots in the works, some of which I can’t talk about just yet.
But I can talk about one coming up in the next couple of weeks, again with Kick in the Eye. That’ll be another very edgy, kinda grungy shoot.
We’ll be taking a few models out to this location somewhere in the west of Melbourne at sunrise. There’ll be a bunch of latex, a bunch of Kick in the Eye jewellery too. So super excited for that one. That’s something that we’ve been planning for quite a while.
The big shoot that I probably shouldn’t mention, I can probably drop a couple of little hints, should be coming up later in the year. We’re going to have maybe five or six talent involved. There’ll be some smoke machines, and it’ll be somewhere in the woods. We’ll have special effects artists, hair and makeup artists, we’ll have a Shibari rigger. So it’s going to be a big production. They might be maybe 10 or 12 of us on set. So hopefully that one comes out as good as it is in my head right now.
I’ve been really keen on getting some more workshops up and running. And I think now that I’ve actually got a bit of time to sit back, I’ll be able to organise a few more of those.
They are natural light workshops, aren’t they?
Yeah, that’s right. So I’ll be running a couple of beginner ones, teaching photographers a bit more of the in-depth of how to use the camera, how to balance shutter speed, ISO, aperture, all those kind of technical things, but also how to use natural light. I’ll have a very established and experienced model for the beginner’s workshop so that should add value and give beginner’s a chance to work with an advanced model too.
For the advanced workshop, the idea is to have a less experienced model, and it would be more focused on natural light, but we shouldn’t need to go over any of the camera stuff at that point.
It’s more about how to direct your model, how to talk to them, how to shape natural light, and also how to give instructions clearly and make them feel comfortable. I’ll have a slightly less experienced model, which means the photographers have to work a little bit harder. And then those models should be able to walk away with some really nice photos as well. So it should be a win-win for everyone.
That’s cool and I think that’s so important as it helps so much to be directed when you don’t know what you’re doing in front of a camera.
My final question for you is – what is your perfect day?
My perfect day is probably one that I don’t do very often. I actually love getting up for a sunrise shoot, but it’s something that I very rarely do because I’m not a morning person. But I think when you make the commitment to go out to some amazing location that only works at sunrise, you make this amazing thing and you have a great time doing it.
And then you look at your watch and it’s only nine thirty in the morning and you’ve got the day ahead of you. And then being able to use that day somewhat productively, maybe edit a few photos and then chill out and go to the pub with friends and tell them all about the things that I got up to that day. That’s probably one of my ideal days. It’s just something where you get a nice balance of work in life and get to make some cool and then go hang out with some friends at the end of the day.
Yeah, that’s awesome. It’s great that you’d love your work that much that it’s part of your perfect day.
Visit Melbourne Art Natural’s website here
Visit Melbourne Art Natural’s Instagram here
Listen to his podcast episode here