girl on girl: investigating the politics of nudity with maisie willoughby
In her next exhibition, London-based photographer Maisie Willoughby showcases a series of images with 10 girls, taken over 10 years, in various states of undress.
From an early age Maisie Willoughby has had stereotypical notions of gender foisted upon her and she's been rebelling against them ever since. As a child, adults would try and explain away her "tomboy" tendencies as nothing other than the effects of having older brothers rubbing off on her. That's why she preferred Alien, Predator and Terminator to more girly films, they would say. But Maisie was just doing what felt natural to her. "I looked like the 90s stereotype of how a girl 'should', but also came to understand that my mindset was often that of the stereotype of a boy," she recalls. "I don't buy in to either of those stereotypes. I have grown up surprising people about what I am interested in and it felt fairly fulfilling not to be as expected."
Growing up in a creative household, Maisie's affinity with art felt only natural. It was when she was applying for a degree in fashion photography that she found her niche. Confined to female models, Maisie began taking pictures of her friends nude. At a time when the female gaze wasn't a part of the cultural conversation in the way that it is now, people found what she was doing somewhat shocking, which only spurred her on to do more. Ten years on, she's still shooting the women around her naked. To celebrate her endeavors and to investigate how her approach to nudity has changed over time, she will be staging an exhibition of photographs of 10 girls in various states of undress taken over 10 years. Ahead of the launch, we talk to Maisie about the politics of nudity and the power of the female gaze.
When did you first get into art?
I am from a family who has always championed art. My mother is a very talented painter and my paternal grandfather was an art lecturer, so it is something I have always been encouraged to pursue.
Why photography in particular?
I loved the darkroom element. I remember seeing the work of certain documentary photographers and it blew me away. I had never seen anything like it through school.
How would you describe your overall aesthetic?
I tend to focus initially around light, with texture and deep colour being additional key elements.
For the last ten years you've been photographing female nudes. What is it you're trying to do with your art?
When I began the project there was genuinely no intention other than to shoot what felt natural. Ten years ago, the female gaze was not something people spoke about and when I started the project, people found it shocking that I was shooting other girls nude. I was applying for my degree in fashion photography and looked to the girls around me for inspiration. Once I began attending London College of Fashion, the project really began to take form.
What did nudity mean to you then?
I didn't overthink it, I just thought the girls were beautiful. It was only when people seemed shocked about me shooting nudes that I began to question why that may be and what nudity meant to me.
What does it mean to you now?
Right now, I think it's simply about equality. Particularly in regards to the freedom to be nude without judgement.
How has your style evolved over time?
I think my style has remained the same but my opinions constantly change and adapt in regards to content, particularly that of nudes.
How have reactions to you photographing nudes changed?
I still get very obvious sexist comments from some men but women seem much more open to it. There is a genuine interest in being photographed nude by a woman.
Does nudity always have to be sexual?
No, but there is not an issue if it is sexual.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming Girl on Girl exhibition?
Girl on Girl is a photography exhibition of 10 girls, shot over 10 years, in various states of undress. I thought it would be interesting to see how my approach to nudity has changed over the years, as well as how the girls themselves feel when shot nude.
What does the female gaze mean to you?
In my opinion, the female gaze should be whatever we want it to be — quite simply a female expression.
Why do we need more women behind the camera?
Environment and experience will always inform people's work, therefore it is important to see all areas of life and experience, including those of women. I just think that people should be free to do as they please within art and photography, regardless of gender.
Feminism has become part of the cultural conversation in a way it has never before. Do you ever worry about it just being a trend?
Until recently, very much so — current advertising campaigns seem to be exploiting feminism under the guise of female empowerment and this suggests a trend. However, events like Hillary Clinton's defeat are a stark reminder of just how far we have still to go. I think there is still so much more to come on this subject.
Have we reached saturation point in terms of all things girl?
At some point, I hope gender won't be used to determine much else other than one's sex. However I do think that all things girl will always be prominent.
What's the bravest thing you can do as a young person?
Put yourself out there for the sake of change, whether that change is within your own boundaries or challenges what came before.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am about to start a new documentary project regarding religion and graphic design. As I wrote this I noted that it was quite a step away from female nudes, but perhaps not actually!
Girl on Girl is showing at Mother London from November 17.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Maisie Willoughby