This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 4/2/01
Page B1, Living; Copyright 2001 by Beth David

The Naked Truth
Controversial photo exhibit at UMD captured pain, purity of female subjects
By Beth David, Standard-Times correspondent

From the crowning moment of birth through the teetering toddler years, to the graying golden years, and every stage in between, a woman's body is changed and challenged. And photographer Frank Cordelle tries to freeze-frame each step along the way.

In a photo exhibit titled "Century," Mr. Cordelle, a commercial photographer from Bennington, N.H., presents 65 portraits of naked female bodies, beginning with the tiny head of Cara popping through her mother's widening passageway to life, and ending with Mary, 94, who admits to being "a little naughty always."

At first glance, the idea of a man photographing nude women hardly seems noteworthy. But this exhibit, which has traveled to some 25 colleges, defies conventional assumptions. The women in these photos are not professional models. They did not pose for art students. They posed for the sheer power and freedom inherent in the act itself.

As the grand finale in a series of activities for Women's History Month, the exhibit was displayed at the UMass Dartmouth Campus Center last week. According to Mr. Cordelle, by Friday afternoon 1,170 people had seen the UMD exhibit, more than at any other of the exhibit's college showings.

Sponsored by the Women's Resource Center along with a number of co-sponsors, the exhibit sparked conversation and controversy.

"Most of my students say their biggest issue is body image," said Juli Parker, who teaches Introduction to Women's Studies and is the director of the WRC.

She said the idea of celebrating women's bodies was more important than the gender of the photographer.

"As a feminist, at first, I thought it was a little weird," said Ms. Parker.

"Then I met him. And the fact that he comes with the show and engages students is crucial."

She pointed out that Mr. Cordelle's mother is in one of the pictures. And indeed, Else at age 87 stares out at you from under a large rock face. The story by her photo tells of a painful body and her decision to choose euthanasia at the end.

It is these little tidbits, these windows into the lives of each woman or girl, that take the viewer beyond the obvious, revealing as much about Mr. Cordelle as about his subjects.

"Social issues ... are largely women's issues," said Mr. Cordelle. "Sexual violence as adults is a women's issue. Men don't have that Barbie doll, cover-girl image to live up to."

He said he was moved to use his camera for social change after seeing the "mind-boggling" power of photography during the Vietnam War.

"He's just a really cool feminist guy," said Ms. Parker. "It's taught me that we have to let men have the opportunity to be that way. Sometimes we don't think that's possible. And the poor guy who's out there really doing the work for us, we're not giving him credit."

But the women who posed for his camera give him credit.

In photo eight, 14-year-old Jesse writes: "In my session, I was very nervous. I'm not comfortable with my body and having it duplicated on film increased my self-consciousness. I was very tense and wanted to cover my body, but Frank encouraged me to show my body without flaunting it. I (was) put at ease and don't think anyone could have handled it better. Thankx!"

Lumina, 54 and a rape survivor, found joy and healing in what she called an "opportunity" that could not be wasted.

From her far-away, almost puzzled expression, her story reads: "When Frank showed me his portfolio of 'Century' shots, I was very aware of the respect and caring for women which was so much a part of each photograph. I was struck by the feeling that, somehow, posing for him would be a healing and freeing experience for me.

"I feel as if I've walked through a wall which I never have to step back behind again -- a joyous feeling and one for which I am truly grateful."

Many women find healing in the display. Many are moved to tears. And some are greatly disturbed or even angered. None are unmoved.

Mr. Cordelle's camera leaves no scar hidden. He seeks out and lays bare the signs of emotional trauma, violence and disease. One is awestruck by the sheer number of women in the exhibit who are missing one or both breasts.

They, too, run the gamut of emotions as they strive to snatch their bodies back from the clutches of breast cancer.

Kana, 52, writes: "See it's gone, that breast, sliced off, cut up and discarded ... medical waste perhaps to float up onto the shores of New Jersey."

Jacqueline, 38, proudly, defiantly shows off the tattoos that crawl down to where her right breast once was. She writes: "Today I am wearing long and flowing purple without my false front and feeling stunning. What do I mean my false front? My prosthesis that mimics that diseased part of my body that was cut away years ago to save my life. My fake boob ... my concession to society's denial that women lose breasts every day. My bra goes along with the farce, holding my other breast high and firm like a 16-year old's that has never seen battle. Well, my breast is not high and firm, it hangs from my chest and rolls when I walk ... No, this is no 16-year old nubile breast, it is the breast of a warrior woman, proud and regal."

Not all photos show such triumph.

Katie, 16, looks out through hollow eyes, explaining that she is a recovering anorexic.

Renee, 17, was killed in a shooting accident a year after her photo session.

But most are a mix of pain and triumph.

Winnie, 39, writes that she was molested at age 8 by an uncle: "I can trace every love partner I've had in my life by the scars on my body ... My scars are my medals. I've earned them."

And then there are the older women ... of all sizes, shapes, colors. They remind one of the poem by Jenny Joseph, "When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple."

Such is 82-year-old Sibby, who dances in the sun with nothing but an umbrella; or Ethyl, 73, who wears red socks to match her red lipstick, but wears nothing from feet to lips.

And they speak to the reality of our diversity with simple contrasting statements.

First there's 79-year-old Isabel who writes: "The trouble with all those other pictures is that they always have sex in them ... that ruins everything."

She is immediately followed by Eve, also 79, who says: "What's wrong with a little sex?"

Which begs the final question: What's wrong with a little nudity?