Let's Talk: Jef Steele

An Italian and Australian art nude photographer with studios in Milan, Italy & Melbourne, Australia, and editor at èrotiq magazine, we talk to Jef about how he came to specialise in art nude, the early days, his controversial stance on the “male gaze”, and why what is currently unfolding in his home town has many commentators and media deeply concerned.

 

E: Let’s talk about how you got started in photography, and in particular, how art nude came to be your signature genre.

J: Absolutely! So I started photography very late - I mean, I just turned fifty and I’ve only been shooting seriously for a few years. I think it was around my early-forties I realised the corporate world where I had spent most of my adult life had pretty well sucked everything good out of me.  Admittedly, I enjoyed the opportunities that my career gave me to travel and I was able to spend extended periods living and working in places like London, Paris, Hong Kong and New York. But being away from home so often and for so long, with a young family, came at an incredible price. 

So by I think age 44, I had had enough, and so quit my role – maybe they fired me because frankly I just didn’t give a fuck anymore, I suppose it depends on who you talk to - and I took a twelve-month personal break to find myself, to take timeout and work out who I was and the person I wanted to be. And it was during this time I found photography by sheer accident.

It’s a long story, but the short version was I refused to pay photographers the thousands of dollars they were asking for shooting lookbooks and linebooks. I was adamant I could do it myself - after all, it was simply a matter of pointing and clicking.  Needless to say, great photography turned out to be a little more sophisticated, and so when I returned to Melbourne after my mid-life sojourn, I enrolled in a course at Swinburne University to learn the craft of photography in detail.

I was incredibly fortunate to be taught by Morganna Magee, and I will forever owe her a huge debt of gratitude for introducing me to studying art. Until then my schooling had been solely maths and finance.

The highlight of my course was arriving every Monday to show our work from the previous week. Each week Morganna gave us an assignment to shoot a particular genre, and more times than not, I found myself incorporating art nude into the assignment. If it was portraiture photography, it was a nude. Conceptual, nude. Surrealism, nude. If the assignment was street photography, mine invariably featured a nude. So much so, one of the lecturers was quite deeply concerned and wanted - no, he needed - to understand why so many women were willing to take their clothes off for me. Now as I say that, I can hear just how conceited that sounds, but I found art nude just seemed to be what worked for me.

E: So there’s a difference between boudoir and art nude?

J:  I think so. My personal view is this:  art nude is not sexual. It’s simply not. I mean if I were to stare at the painting of, let’s see,  consider the most extreme example I can think of off the top of my head, Courbet’s ‘The Origin of the World’ painted back in the mid 1800’s, I mean it simply doesn’t cause me to become sexually aroused no matter how long I stare at it. Of course,  I can’t speak for others, but for me art nude is not sexual.

But back to your question and the answer that will get me in trouble again, the difference between art nude and boudoir?  Personally, my view is that boudoir is meant to be seductive, it’s meant to arouse desire. Art nude not necessarily so.  Boudoir looks for a sexualised response where art nude, done properly, elicits an appreciation of beauty.

E: Talking about getting in trouble and your stance on the ‘male gaze’.  Does it exist?

Of course it does, but not for the reasons feminists would have you believe. It has nothing to do with the white male patriarchy or any of that post-modern feminist bullshit. 

There are two considerations – firstly that modern society evolved from a male dominated society.  Painters, artists and their patrons were, historically, males because that’s the way society was structured, pretty much right up until perhaps a century ago.  If you asked a male patron if he preferred to have hanging over his fireplace a portrait of a male nude or female nude, well in the majority of cases the preference would be a female nude.

Does that make it right?  Well perhaps not so today, but you simply cannot apply today’s standards to fifty, one hundred or a thousand years ago.  To do so is just plain stupid, no it’s worse, it’s plain ignorant. Society, like a child, is a consequence of its upbringing.  Can it change and should it change, well of course it does and it should. And not unlike the child who grows and matures and comes to form his or her own views and opinions contrary to those of his or her parents, so too does society. It’s a gradual process of refinement. Which is perhaps why I get so concerned today at the pace of societal change.

And also, you need to understand the function art played in previous eras. It was then what Netflix is today.  It was your escape from daily life, it was fantasy.

So my first point is that historically, ‘male gaze’ existed because society was structured that way. I don’t believe ‘male gaze’ exists to any great extent in today’s more liberal and equal society.  You only need to have a look at Instagram to see that it works both ways.

Secondly, if I were to put a call out for a nude model without specifying gender, then ninety-five percent of models who apply to attend a casting would be female, without a shadow of a doubt.  Now this is where I get into trouble.  In my experience, and let me be absolutely clear, in my experience, women are far more obliging to pose nude than men.  It’s that simple.  Now we could get into a whole chicken and egg argument about, well women only do that because they feel compelled by the male patriarchy to do so in order to gain acceptance in a male dominated society, but it’s an absolute crock of shit.

The female body is a beautiful thing, it is an astoundingly, truly beautiful thing.  It is the giver and sustainer of life.  And if you can’t appreciate it without being, one sexually aroused or, two feeling that the subject is herself being subjugated, then well, I truly feel sorry for you.

E:  So undoubtedly there’ll be some angry emails.  Why is it so polarising?

J:  I don’t know.  I get the sense that some people just like to be angry all the time - as sad as that existence must be.

And again I’m courting controversy here in a world where men and women are social equals, though not biological equals. And it’s biology where this is rooted - I mean as far as I understand, DNA isn’t woke. It’s 26 chromosomes and sure, sometimes they get muddled up. But that’s the beauty of life in all its diversity, and it’s a gift that we should embrace, no matter what those chromosomes do. But on a pure biological level, and it simply cannot be ignored by social politeness or correctness, men have physical strength and women have allure. It’s true across the generations and it’s true across almost every species. And that, that fact alone, doesn’t sit well with the woke generation.

And there I go again. More trouble to come.

You know, someone will read into that the suggestion that I have reduced the role of women to nothing more than sex and reproduction, and that is not what I am saying. On a social, political, legal, humanitarian - every conceivable level I can think of - women are equal to men and vice versa. However, the sexes, as opposed to genders, are biologically different. That’s a fact. If it weren’t, then men would ovulate, conceive and give birth alongside women. They simply don’t. And so long as that difference remains, the difference which enables women to give life, the most precious of all gifts, then I will continue to photograph women nude because, in my opinion, there is nothing in nature or our society which is more beautiful.

E:  Would you ever shoot male nudes?

J:  You know, I’ve never been asked, I’ve certainly done male portraits, but never a fully nude male. I don’t know if I could bring the same level of commitment to a male nude shoot because I don’t find the male form as beautiful as the female form.

Put it this way, yes I would happily shoot a male nude if asked, but I’m not sure I’d be happy with the images because I just don’t find it a subject that appeals. It would be like say, a wildlife photographer being asked to shoot architecture - they could do it and the outcome would be fine, but I doubt they would fall in love with the images they create. And without that, it’s nothing other than a job or a chore.

E:  And why black and white?

J:  I think for me black and white requires a greater level of awareness. It leaves space for the viewer to interpret an image, and that allows imagination to enter the process.

Color on the other hand leaves very little to the imagination. There it is. No imagination is needed. Also, I don’t trust color, it’s too easy to manipulate. You can change the entire mood or feeling behind an image with a filter or preset, but with black and white I have only black, white and shades of grey in between to manipulate.

E:  Who inspires you? I mean which photographers do you take inspiration from?

J:  It really depends on the mood I’m in to be honest. My mainstay though would be Helmut Newton, which is strange because it took me a really, really long time to come around to appreciating his works. All through my studies I held a view that his work was one frame short of pornography, but that was a simplistic view. I’ve since studied his work and the man extensively and I’d say there are two aspects to it which intrigue me.

The first is his ‘fuck you’ attitude toward the establishment. Mind you, the establishment lavished his disregard for their rules. The second is what he produced on a conceptual level - many of his images are brilliant social statements. You need to understand him in order to understand what he was saying through his images, and that takes time. I think that’s why initially many people hate his work.

The other photographer that had an influence on me early in my career was Herb Ritts. He was another master portrait photographer, but whose end product was far more ‘polished’ than Helmut Newton’s. I think that Herb Ritts work had a more commercial element to it, and you can see that in the final images.

In terms of contemporary photographers, I would suggest Stefano Brunesci has also influenced my works. In terms of style and aesthetic, he sits somewhere between Helmut Newton and Herb Ritts. I think he is able to balance the two opposing forces of polish and rawness quite well.

Having said that, in today’s world you never know where inspiration can come from. We have visual overload, but every now and then something will jump out at you from Instagram or the web or somewhere and you say to yourself, “Now that is cool.”

E:  You’re a dual Italian and Australian citizen. How is what is unfolding in Australia impacting you personally?

J: You know I was interviewed back in March for another publication, and I commented at the time that we were fortunate to be in Australia rather than Italy where the COVID19 virus was literally out of control.  Six months later, I would give almost anything to be in Italy.  The situation in Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest city and home of the arts, is frightening.  Never before have Australians been subjected to such totalitarian controls over their freedoms and civil liberties.

Essentially the Victorian state government – Melbourne is the capital of the state of Victoria – lost control of the virus through a number of really, really bad public policy decisions and the response has been to impose draconian restrictions on a population of six million people.  To provide some perspective here, on Monday the entire state recorded just 31 cases of COVID19 and had 8 deaths.

While most people are prepared to surrender some liberties for a period of time for the greater good, what the socialist government has done is so disproportionate to the danger that exists, it is truly concerning.  What’s more, rather than demonstrating that at some point in the future the restrictions and impositions will be lifted, the government which is now ruling by decree since it suspended parliament, has actually gone the other way and extended its powers until at least March 2021.

A night time curfew has been introduced – something never done before in Australia, even during World War II when it was facing invasion.  Entire industries have been shut down, permits are required if you move more than 5 kilometres from your home, you may not leave your home unless getting food or medicines, and police have been given the most extraordinary powers of entry, search and arrest usually reserved for dictatorships.  You cannot leave the state since all borders are closed, and in fact you cannot leave the country.  The only way for us to leave now would be to give up our Australian citizenship and leave the country on our Italian passports – something my wife and I have seriously talked about because there is simply no end in sight to this madness.

 

E:  So what’s next, once the current crisis has ended?

J:  Honestly, who knows.  We were looking to relocate permanently to Paris at the end of 2020, but those plans will need to be reconsidered. That said, if the borders were to open tomorrow, I'd make sure my family we're be on the first flight out.   

I did have plans for an exhibition in Melbourne, Paris, Milan and New York in early 2021.  I've abandoned the Melbourne exhibition and the New York exhibition is looking unlikely, but am hopeful the Paris and Milan exhibitions can still go ahead.

E:  Thanks so much again for your time and we wish you and your team all the best.

J:  My pleasure, and thank you.