ES Magazine Dec 2011
“No pants or bra today” Grace Vane Percy instructs me over the phone a few hours before our shoot. I’d like you to exfoliate and moisturise, and then you can’t put on any clothing that will leave marks, so that your skin will be in perfect condition to be photographed.” So I am obliged to go commando. How nice, Grace has studied the techniques of the Old Masters in Florence and I feel like a piece of clay she is going to sculpt. I obey her instructions and leave my flat with an inward shiver.
This Christmas the ultimate present to a loved one as a black and white picture by a photographer who specialises in the nude, and Grace is the best in town, if not the world. I ask which famous bodies she’s photographed, but she is reassuringly discreet. She even has legal agreements not to discuss some of them.
Being a burlesque dancer, I’m used to people looking at my body, but I’m done up onstage, covered with body makeup, a spangley merkin, nipple pasties and chunky costume jewellery. Today will be interesting because I’ll be in my most natural, raw state.
Her Notting Hill flat-cum-studio is at the top of a spiral staircase and she’s waiting for me with the door open. She would be the perfect model, willowy with long cascading hair, but prefers to be behind the lens. Inside, the studio is open plan with high a ceiling of wooden beams suspended fro which is a black backdrop, rolling out into the room. She makes me a camomile tea and we chat about the shoot.
As I lift my cup Grace notices my 1930’s French manicure, bright red with a white tip. She shakes her head and hands me a bottle of nail varnish remover. “In black and white photos those nails will come out black, and we don’t want any distractions from your body. I work in black and white because it simplifies the picture and helps the eye to see structure, rather than being overwhelmed by the colour of flesh. It emphasises light and form.” She notices my sad expression so we try some shots with the nails and jewellery first, before removing it all.
“People like to be appreciated, and having your body admired is the biggest compliment going,” she says. I agree, realising that this is why I enjoy performing burlesque. I disrobe and brush out my curls, feeling comfortable in Grace’s presence. I apply basic make-up and ask her what it is about the body that inspires her. She recites her favourite quote by Kenneth Clark: “The naked body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure. For us, the human body is the most sensual and immediately interesting object.”
She then goes through the basic posture requirements: lengthen the core; don’t sink into your chest; flick out the hands to make them appear natural, not placed in a contrived pose; stand with your weight on one foot and the other resting nect to it to crate a curve in the hips; lift the face towards the light and keep a neutral but pleasant expression.
Grace only works with film, rather than on digital, with only 15 shots per roll, so every pose is arranged slowly and precisely, much as a painter would position a life model. Between clicks I ask about her clients. “They’re ordinary women in the best possible way: without the toned figures of models. I love that. I love the softness of flesh. It is far easier to find something beautiful about a woman with a bit of meat on the bone.” I agree. I’ve always been proud to be a woman and I’m glad that I’m able to celebrate it through burlesque.
But, like burlesque, nude photography is sometimes placed on the porn spectrum. I ask Grace whether she thinks there is more than a sexual pleasure in looking at the naked body. “The beauty of the female form is compelling in so many ways,” she suggests, “it’s a visual feast.”
We go through a variety of positions: standing, lying, sitting; in some poses I cover my nipples with my arms and hair, and others are more free, with my arms over my head. Lying on my side, head propped in my hand, I feel like a Pre-Raphaelite vision. Who has been her main inspiration? “Czechoslovakian photographers from the 1093’s such as Rudolf Kopitz. It was a time when athletic, Spartan style body was of fascination. Europeans also got into exercising naked”.
After the shoot we have another tea. Why does she think women choose to be photographed in the nude, I wonder. “They want to experience their body and feel good about it. There is always something beautiful about someone; it’s my job to show them.” I can’t wait to see what she found in me.