Body Image and Healing: The Century Project

In order to honor the intentions of the artist’s work, I want to remind my readers that The Century Project is about diversity and as the title implies a wide range of ages. It should be clear that although Pigtails’ mandate is to cover the portrayal of little girls, our focus on this age range is not a fair representation of the scope of this project. However, having examined and read the book from cover to cover, I found the testimonials of the girls—some later on when they were adults—most compelling and relevant to this site. Therefore I have not included their images to avoid giving fodder to narrow-minded but powerful political interests and avoid undermining any future efforts of the artist. Those interested in an intelligent and compassionate handling of the issue of photographic nudes are urged to purchase the book which has recently been reduced in price and can be ordered at any major bookstore or online.

I first learned of Frank Cordelle and The Century Project through an artist friend of mine. He directed me to his official website which included an image and testimonial about Nora. Hers is a heart-wrenching story of a mother who took innocent photos of her naked daughter in the bathtub when she was 8 and was arrested when the photo processors called the police. It was certainly a story worth noting but I was busy with other projects, so I kept it in the back of my mind to investigate later. I now wish I had done so sooner as the drama of the evolution of this project and how it has helped women is quite touching.

The prosecutor made the patent claim of child abuse and Nora wanted us to look at her photo and hear her words to question the veracity of that claim. Nora suffered a lot of ridicule from her peers but she was also blessed with a lot of friends and their families organized a candlelight vigil and raised money for her mother’s defense. She even wrote to Sally Mann for advice and eventually got a reply. The mother was ultimately exonerated but a court order barred her from taking any more pictures of her daughter. Once Nora saw The Century Project, she knew she had to come forward with her story. The irony is that even though her own mother couldn’t take pictures of her, Cordelle was perfectly free to do so and so she is now immortalized in the annals of The Century Project. I am told that a case that escalates like this occurs about once every month in the United States and what drives these senseless prosecutions is the priceless political opportunity it affords a grandstanding politician who wants to create the appearance of protecting the public. I am not prone to clever arguments myself, but a good one that Cordelle makes is that real pornographers—legal or not—probably have their own darkrooms or can process their own digital prints. Perhaps clerks should refrain from notifying the authorities just because they encounter images they personally object to.

Although it was never Frank Cordelle’s intent, The Century Project has served as a means for many girls and women to confront and overcome various traumas in their life. The problem with boys who have no sisters is they can be ignorant of basic anatomical facts and a natural curiosity serves to overcome this ignorance. The prudish sensibilities in the U.S. about nudity has subjected the young Cordelle—on a couple of occasions—to anger and ridicule whenever he did make some innocent investigation. He unwittingly assimilated this cultural bias which became apparent to him on a visit to a German spa with people all around him seemingly unconcerned about their nakedness.

At the time, he was pursuing a career in biochemistry and his work involved processing images of DNA strands and it would sometimes remind him of his old photographic hobby. He decided to leave graduate school and move to New Hampshire where got involved in covering events featuring handicapped athletes. The unfortunate habit in American culture of avoiding the subject or looking at people with deformities tends to exclude them from commonplace social situations. Cordelle learned that most disabled people would rather have others indulge in their curiosity so they can move on and be regarded as the real people they are. His photographs demonstrated that these athletes were perfectly content with people looking at them.

Now Cordelle began to see the social value of photography. His interest in biological sciences made him curious about the vagaries of human development and aging and the kernel of an idea began. The most potent way to capture the real person is naked because there is simply no way to hide and so Cordelle began to pursue the idea of photographing girls and women in all stages of development and all kinds of body types. Something like this is difficult to get started because of the taboo and he did not really know where this was leading, but finally some generous women agreed to participate. Once he managed to get his first exhibition—along with some other artists—the public began to learn of his project and getting volunteers began to get easier. The problem was that he wanted all kinds of body types to be represented and New Hampshire is not known for its ethnic diversity, so he relocated again, this time to Oakland, California and would make road trips to find a wide range of subjects. His experiences in pursuing this project brought him a treasure trove of personal experiences and moving testimonials, but the taboo of nudity still made the process necessarily slow. Some women were photographed more than once as they aged. The response to the various exhibits in North America was overwhelmingly positive, but it was still difficult to get any publisher to release a book making Cordelle’s work more accessible. Finally, a man determined to have the work published succeeded in 2006 and the result is Bodies and Souls: The Century Project published by Heureka Publishing Co. Heureka’s intent was to publish work dealing with the lifestyles and culture of naturists so the kinds of images presented no dilemma for them. This book was only an effort to reach the general public and the project is not complete by any means with many gaps in age and ethnicity and the oldest participant being only 94. If the project can gain some real momentum and not be sabotaged by nay-sayers, he hopes to publish a more complete version with all new images in the future. To Cordelle’s credit, his sincerity and enthusiasm even inspired his own mother who decided that she should be included. She appears as Else, 87 and the book is partly dedicated to her.

When I first browsed through the book, I was amazed by the ethnic range. He even stayed a couple of times with an African-American family and some of their pictures include Sheka, 10 as well as two of her sisters, a niece and her mother. Cordelle never solicited the participation of children in his project but they came before the camera with the enthusiastic support and permission of the family members. Cordelle felt the project would only have credibility if it portrayed people of all ages and ethnicities. As it progressed, it also became apparent that participating and viewing the images helped many of these girls and women cope with trauma, both physical and emotional.

As I surveyed the words and images of the women, I realized it would be impossible to describe concisely the multitude of scars these women courageously display, not to mention the many tales of sexual and/or physical abuse—some self-inflicted. It is almost indescribable to imagine the kind of trust Cordelle fosters when dealing with his subjects for them to bare themselves in this way. These women participated because they want you to look and know what real women are like. The Century Project does include a few younger girls and Cordelle is aware that these are regarded as the most controversial. For those who have not actually seen his work, there is the erroneous assumption that it is something like the work of Jock Sturges or similar naturist photographers, a tiresome comparison for the artist to be sure. However, he is patient with even the most surprisingly frank questions and he answers them as honestly as he can. He may not be pursuing the kind of physical aesthetic as Sturges, but he does express an important spiritual one. Young girls are especially self-conscious when it comes to their body image and I commend the courage of those who are shown in Bodies and Souls. These girls are acutely aware of their physical flaws whether we see them or not and perhaps the most compelling thing for me about the book is not the images, but the testimonials and other feedback about their experiences. We rarely get to hear about these things because many don’t want to know and validate this work or assume the girls are naively deluding themselves and will regret their actions later. Many would look at Ginger, 9 for example and assume she was asked by the artist to display herself somewhat provocatively. In fact, she is being playful in a way consistent with her age and is experimenting with ways of expressing herself that is perfectly natural. What you see is completely spontaneous and Cordelle thinking he could get a better effect with another background asked her to repeat the performance later, but it lacked the joyful spark of spontaneity and so an image from the original shoot was ultimately used. Ginger and many others have used their participation to accept the flaws they perceive in themselves permitting them
to be more self-possessed.

It is easy to forget how startling these images can be for those who are not accustomed to seeing naked people. Most would assume that the most vocal objections come from women as the subjects in the book are all girls and women and presumably being exploited in some way. In reality, the biggest opposition comes from men. When I brought the book to a bar to share with others, the most adamant reaction came from an Asian middle-aged man about the image of Ginger. No assurance that the photo was taken, processed, printed and published legally would convince him of its legitimacy. On the other hand, his wife loved the book and was the first one to ask to look at it! Members of our society are conditioned to believe that nudity is equated with sexuality and men who experience the shock of a naked girl for the first time are afraid to acknowledge that visual appeal. Their personal stake and status in society means they cannot take the slightest risk or being regarded as some kind of pervert. Ironically, their severe reaction can cause more psychic harm than the purported offense.

It must be acknowledged that the circumstances that brought these girls before the camera were unusual as they came from a culture or family more open to this portrayal. In my research, the most common negative testimonials had to do with the stigma from their society after the fact. The photo session itself may have been a salutory experience, but when a girl is at an age when a boyfriend might learn about the photo, she may ask it to be removed from an exhibit. This is the case with Megan, 7 and when she was 23, she asked Cordelle to put the image back in the exhibit demonstrating with maturity her real pride in participating. It also reflects the long period of time (over 25 years) Cordelle has been working on this and has seen these girls grow up.

The public discourse is rather one-sided and indignantly righteous. As compensation I offer evidence of how fulfilling posing nude can be—different for each person but positive when handled competently and unselfishly. But I would be remiss to ignore the cases where a girl was made to pose through intimidation or insecurity so that she comes away feeling misused. The story of Karen, 50 is a case in point and is also included in the book. She was manipulated and then molested by boys and yet years later posed for The Century Project. Perhaps she did it to tell her story or perhaps in the hope of accelerating the healing process. Whatever the reason, her untrusting gaze speaks volumes to me.

Although it was Cordelle’s notion originally to have a representative photo covering each age from 0 to 100, filling all the age gaps is not paramount although he would like to have someone with a three-digit age! Being moved by the sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes inspirational stories of trauma and healing made him recognize the importance of making us all face our fellow human beings in their flawed and honest forms and reflect on the foibles of human development. It also forces us to confront the ways men disrespect women out of their own insecurities. So far he has done a pretty good job of representing a range of races and even a few with very strictly conservative upbringings. Cordelle is compelled to bring to light both the physicality, the spirituality and the emotion of the human condition. He says he does not want to under- or overrepresent any particular group but sometimes for very rare situations even one image is an overrepresentation such as a transgendered individual. The artist is not trying to document some predetermined set of conditions but usually lets them come to him in due course. However one thing he hopes to include someday is the kind of genital mutilation practiced in places like Kenya which I discuss in my V-Day post.

So far exhibitions have taken place on 31 college and university campuses and have received overwhelming praise by the viewing public inevitably resulting in a few more volunteers. Part of the challenge of getting this exhibit in major galleries and museums—and getting the book published for that matter—is a historical one. After Jesse Helms made a stink about publicly-funded galleries exhibiting the Mapplethorpe photographs, the conservatives have had a stranglehold of what is and is not acceptable to display; most gallery directors would rather avoid the political hassle. A few years after publication enough outspoken professors objected to the project that finding new places to exhibit has tapered off considerably even though a simple examination of the images makes it clear there is no erotic and pornographic intent. What is needed now is the efforts of a few brave and persuasive individuals to get things started again to reignite cogent debate and not let this worthy project drift into obscurity. They say no good deed goes unpunished and I can’t help wondering how long our society is going to continue punishing Frank Cordelle for shining a light on the real lives of girls and women.

The Century Project (official website)

Heureka Publications (official website)

2 thoughts on “Body Image and Healing: The Century Project

  1. As always, I respect living artists and although I doubt Cordelle (nor the models) have any problem with being on this site, the political climate would make it even more difficult to continue his work and finish the project. When the time is right, I may repost this article with images and revisions. -Ron

  2. An interesting (and inspired, I think) choice not to post any actual images, and a very good essay as usual, Ron. Thanks for this! Let’s hope it brings much-needed attention to Cordelle’s work and pushes our fretful society a little closer to sanity.

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