In the age of the self-centered selfie, Natalie White’s self-portrait nudes are anything but. The muse to many art and fashion luminaries has turned the camera lens on herself in "A Muse Me," a solo exhibit at Bill Brady Miami through May 13, featuring 14 large-format (20 inches by 24 inches) Polaroids created with the same 1978 kit as self-portraiture pioneers Andy Warhol and Chuck Close.
The 30-year-old West Virginia native became muse to Peter Beard at 17 and posed for many other photographers. White was also the first American woman to appear nude in French Playboy. In 2013, she broke out of her role as model and made her debut as artist in "Who Shot Natalie White?" at ROX Gallery in New York City, where she exhibited some of the Polaroid self-portraits she created in 2012 along with pieces by 25 other artists for whom she'd been a muse, including Michael Dweck, Spencer Tunick, Olivier Zahm, and Max Snow.
“Once you are the artist, you can’t go back to modeling,” she says. “It’s so boring.” But the time was well spent. “Instead of going to art school, I learned from some of the greatest artists out there.”
White is also a gutsy women’s rights activist whose attention is aimed at the body politic. She harnesses her own sexuality to make bold statements about issues like equal pay. Last summer, she walked 250 miles for 16 days between New York City and Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the Equal Rights Amendment, which has yet to be ratified. Once she arrived, she painted the words ERA NOW in large, red letters on the steps of the Capitol Building. An exhibit at White Box in New York City bolstered the march and featured multimedia works with patriotic imagery, as well as a bronze statue of a nude White in marching boots holding an American flag.
White would later be arrested and charged with defacing public property. In January, she represented herself in court, negotiated a reduced fine as well as a rare provision that allows her to meet with legislators, lawmakers and members of congress at the Capitol to lobby for the ERA, even though she's otherwise banned from the premises for six months.
"A Muse Me" takes a less overtly political stance and opens a more intimate space of introspection. The aim of the project — "to preserve the physical and emotional likeness of her youth in the nearly extinct medium" — comes with a sense of urgency. White could’ve easily turned to digital but she chose instead to push boundaries with the outdated tools of male masters.
“There are only a couple of working cameras in the world,” she explains. “All of the film will expire in under a year.”
Polaroid instant cameras became commercially available in 1948 and evolved over time into the large format cameras that seminal male artists like Warhol employed in the '70s. Digital has largely taken over film, although Instagram has since popularized a retro Polaroid aesthetic.
For the series, White used multiple exposures and primary color light gels to achieve an ethereal softness and the illusion of being in the same space with herself — a “back to basics” self. “The colors were less confusing,” she says. “And I strive to be the most honest person I can be in the world.”
Contact film self-develops in under 90 seconds just like handheld versions of the cameras, but she had to crank the film out and manually peel off a top layer to wipe away chemicals. She shied away from any digital manipulation to perfect the images.
“You never know what you’re going to get until it comes out and you peel that layer off,” she says. “It’s really a mystery.”
“Polaroids have a depth that you’ll never be able to get with digital images,” she adds. “Film makes you feel like you can get lost in it, jump into it.”
Similar State, in which White appears to be making love to herself, evokes the myth of Narcissus gazing lovingly at his own reflection. It’s an intimate moment we witness as White comes into her own as a creator, not just muse. We can almost imagine her peeling away layers of patriarchal constructs about the female body along with the chemicals.
“As subject, artist and photographer, I really have control over what the final image looks like,” she says. “Now I get to make images of me that I want the world to see.”
One of those images, A Measurement on One of the Pair Destroys the Link Between Them, is of White pulling her hair, and hints at the potential vulnerability of nudity. There’s tension there: As both subject and object, she’s being pulled in different directions, looking away from the camera while her breasts prominently occupy the frame.
“Women’s bodies aren’t up just for sexual objectification. Men are intimidated by that,” she notes. “Women can be sexy and intelligent beings and not be there for your sexual gratification. I own myself. Women’s bodies belong to women and no one else.”
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"A Muse Me" is a mindful commentary on self-love that differs from the mindless selfie. It begs questions about how women choose to portray themselves, if they’re unconsciously catering to the objectifying, male gaze, and if they depend on social media for validation of self-worth.
“I think the selfie culture is detrimental to one’s psyche. If you were alone with yourself, what would your interaction be?” she asks. “Can you even stand to be in the room with yourself?”
But self-reflection isn’t always shallow. “I made this work for me, so that I could feel good about myself, so that no one else can tell me how great I am and my worth isn’t based on how many likes I get. See how I feel about myself and maybe you’ll feel better about yourself. I want people to feel more comfortable about themselves.”
"A Muse Me"
Through May 13, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Bill Brady Miami, 7140 NW Miami Ct., Miami.