Your Reflection Is My Job / by Blake Nellis

I am an artist.  I mean: making art is my job.  "My job is good and easy,"  I tell myself on the difficult days.  I say it's good and easy because sometimes that's easier than arguing the reverse.  But on the days when I show up early, work hard, fight through the pains (physical, mental, emotional) and get paid very little, it's anything but easy.  But on days like this, when I take my camera & a friend for a walk, I almost giggle with excitement, "my job is good and easy."   Today my job is to photograph a body in a landscape.  

My friend Sarah and I agree to do a late fall photoshoot for my photo series Skin.Rock.Bone.  It's the first week of November in Minnesota, so we are cautiously optimistic about the bare "skin" part of this adventure.  The day starts out gray and slightly rainy, but we agree to forge on nonetheless.  I am just coming from teaching two morning dance classes (one to first graders and one for people of mixed age & ability).  I am ready to get outside and play!

I know from talking to Sarah about the Skin.Rock.Bone shoot that she is a bit nervous.  She's not alone.  Almost everyone I shoot feels some sort of nerves or jitters.  But here's the thing: our bodies are beautiful!  And inevitably when I spend a little time with someone, photographing or otherwise, I see that person's positive qualities and reflect them back to him/her/they.  When it comes to photography, the issue is complicated by our previous experience with body image, media fantasy, sexual objectification, the selfie obsession, gender expectations, culture, and the list goes on.  To feel good about one's body is a difficult and complex endeavor.    

We must try anyway.

I aim to capture the magic of the body

 "I had never really entertained the thought of being in a nude photo shoot. I’m all about body positivity and I’m a strong believer that all bodies are beautiful. Moving, still, laughing, crying, it doesn’t matter. I absolutely love seeing how bodies can relate and fit and feel. But for some reason I’ve always had such a hard time feeling those positive things about my own body. I think Blake finds beauty in people and things and life in a similar way that I do, but the main difference is that he can use his amazing talent for photography to show that beauty from his point of view. After the first few shots, he said “Here, see what you think” and turned the camera around to show me. All I could think was “Wow.” I’ve never had a reaction like that to a photo of myself. Never. The funny thing is that it kept happening over and over again. We went to different locations, we were silly, we were serious, I felt different amounts of comfortable and dangerous and every single time he turned the camera around to show me one of his favorites I had that same positive reaction: “Wow, that’s me.” It wasn’t cheesy smiles or forced poses, it was me. Blake was able to catch moments that showed the parts of my personality that I love and appreciate so much in the body that I have a little more trouble loving sometimes. He was able to turn the camera around and prove that the way I’ve gotten used to seeing myself isn’t the way the rest of the world sees me. What a beautiful thing to be wrong about." -Sarah, friend/human

And I'm back to the shoot with Sarah.  We get to our shoot location, near the Mississippi River, and Sarah and I each take a moment to take in the surroundings.  The land here is special and I always love finding a new place to explore.  I like looking for details and taking in the size of the rocks.  I'm looking for hidden gems and spots of warm sunlight.  So we begin.  Sarah plays the role of the rock beautifully.  She moves, adjusts and settles in to being photographed.  We talk some, I give direction and ask her to find relaxed but energized poses.  We share a somatic language through dance.  Sometimes we stop talking and just shoot.  Then it begins to rain.  No worries, we carry on.  The rain only teases and my gear stays dry enough to continue.  And the temperature warms as we move along.  We find little nooks in the rock face and piles of leaves.  The shooting is easy and we dig into some baking flour to celebrate.  Why flour? you might ask.  Because it's unpredictable and difficult to photograph (which makes it both a challenge and a pleasure).  And I see people photographing with elements like this all the time.  So, I thought I'd practice.  See what it's all about.  I love the color - stark white - among the dark, wet rock and bright, golden sugar maple leaves.  The time flies and we make our way back to the car.  

Maybe there was nothing revelatory about this photoshoot.  We're certainly not the first two people to take nude photos in nature.  Maybe we took this time to feel free or empowered by the body.  Or maybe we are practicing our job, all our jobs, to look at the world like artists.  We are going around reflecting the things we love most about the world to each other.  And in this work, we are learning, changing and forever inspiring each other.  

Thank you, Sarah.  

Having fun (part of the work!)

Waiting, sensing, experiencing the landscape (also, part of the work!)

I believe that through art we can come to understand our selves (and our bodies) in a new way.  I came to appreciate my body through dance, specifically through Contact Improvisation.  I have fostered a personal relationship with my skin, muscle and bones.  How they work or don't work on any particular day is a journey that I experience and learn from.  I practice listening to my own needs, pleasures and physical tensions, while giving my body creative outlets to be fully & wildly human.  Dance is a way for me to experience my animal self.  And photography is a way for me to develop my social-artistic self.  Through photos I see the complicated, divine, human, creature self.  I am looking through the lens at a reflection of a person.    I am capturing moments and reflecting them back to each subject, to each person.  I want to share my perspective.  I want to see more beauty.  See, share, reflect, repeat.  Like it's my job.      

Skin.Rock.Bone, a photo series that explores the natural beauty of the body among the natural beauty of the earth. 

If you'd like to see more of this series, contact me directly at: movingdance@gmail.com  Stay tuned for the premiere gallery exhibit of Skin.Rock.Bone coming this winter.  And book your photoshoot today!