It's hard to believe that in 2009, the sight of a naked body can still provoke such a spectacular gamut of feelings, from arousal to repulsion. But it can, especially when the bodies in question aren't the toned and airbrushed ideals we see in Elle, Playboy and Lara Croft movies. The swellings, sproutings, striations, deflations, varicosities, and surgical additions and subtractions that grace and afflict our bodies are a source of fascination for Wyoming-based photographer Frank Cordelle.
He homes in on the relationship women have with their bodies in his traveling photography exhibition, currently installed at the increasingly fearless and radar-worthy Bamboo Grove Gallery. The show is titled The Century Project because Cordelle has assembled 100 photographs of women ranging in age from newborn to within spitting distance of the century mark.
The models are nothing if not diverse: racially, socioeconomically and, above all, physically. Many of them tell harrowing anecdotes about their bodies in their own words, reproduced in text that accompanies each photo. There is 15-year-old Kelsi, mortifyingly self-conscious about her big boobs, and 18-year-old Amanda, a self-identifying anorexic who clutches a stick that's only slightly more brittle-looking than she is.
There is Linda in her wheelchair, Kerry with her prosthetic legs, Meryl the transgender stripper from Portland, and Reema the Pakistani Muslim who defied her religion to pose nude. There are cutters, women who are morbidly obese, women who've had mastectomies and double mastectomies, and women who allow the camera to see them crying, menstruating and revealing the physical and psychic scars of sexual abuse. Perhaps most discomfiting of all, there are naked little old ladies who look just like our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. As a rule, the older the women, the bigger their smiles and the greater comfort they exude in the buff.
The show's greatest strength and weakness is the way it attunes us to our own biases. As much as we would like to believe that the body-acceptance movement has inured us to the glorious distortions of the flesh, even the more enlightened among us become uncomfortably aware of our internal gasps, guffaws and gross-outs in the face of such humbling carnal diversity. Cordelle implicitly chastises us for our persistent phobias, tries to help us get past them, then pats us on the back at exhibition's end, sending us out the door self-satisfied at our broadened acceptance, whistling "It's a Small World" and feeling very much like we've just watched an NC-17-rated after-school special.
If we could, most of us would change at least a few things about our bodies. As we age and change in the midst of this sex-saturated, Botox-and-breast-lift culture, we have a choice to either rebel against or learn to love ourselves. It sounds so simple, yet for many it's a tragically difficult battle. Maybe The Century Project, despite its preachy aftertaste, can make that battle a notch or two easier to win.
at Bamboo Grove, 134 SE Taylor St., 971-207-8476. Closes Oct. 29.