Artists have long loved the female nude. The female genitalia, on the other hand is a different story. That "area" has been largely ignored in art, usually hidden or simply left bare and nondescript like a Barbie doll's crotch.
Close-ups have been left primarily for pornographers, who are in the business of selling arousal regardless of whether or not their images capture essence.
No longer hiding it behind foliage or coiffed tufts of hair, San Diego photographer Nick Karras exposes the vulva up close in his self-published book, Petals.
Inspired by an ex-lover who was a bit self-conscious about her labia, Karras was determined to show her the beauty he saw between her legs. Deeming color film "too pornographic" for the task, he switched to black and white, which, in his opinion, enables the viewer to "stop and see the different shapes, the variations in depth and tones. You look at black and white images much longer than color."
After countless photo shoots, he finally got the one. This time he added a sepia tone to further soften the image. Karras fondly recalls, "I showed it to her and she got it. And she was so proud of it."
Upon showing this personal portrait to a girlfriend of hers, the girlfriend asked to be photographed as well. The friend then shared her own photo with her women's group. Three years later, Karras has photographed more than 100 different women.
"It was very uncomfortable for me at the beginning," he admits. "I didn't know what I was getting myself into. It started as this thing for my girlfriend.... I didn't do this as an art project. It just kept growing by word-of-mouth."
In fact, it was Karras' son who encouraged him to publish the prints. After being turned down by 11 different publishers, Karras decided to do it himself. Finding a printer wasn't any easier-he was rejected by seven in Southern California before he eventually found a willing printer in Korea.
Through it all, Karras remained undeterred. "I've learned to really like the rejection," he says, smiling. "I like pushing people's buttons."
Self-released in 2003, Petals comprises 24 sepia-toned, 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch images of vulvae of all different sizes, shapes and ages. No names or writing accompanies the photos. The title was born from a conversation with one of the photographed women who dubbed her vulva as her "petals."
Petals ain't Penthouse- Karras says he was able to remove the sexual response from his photos through the use of black and white film, sepia toning and tightly cropped compositions. Each of the stark, close-up images only reveals the individual vulva. Still, many consider the work erotic and/or pornographic because of the subject alone.
He couldn't find a San Diego gallery willing to host the "controversial" images, so once again, Karras decided to go it alone. His images will be on display for two weeks at his studio in Hillcrest.
"The only criticism I've really gotten is "Nick, that's kind of a taboo thing. You should leave it alone.' But why? We should be able to talk about [female genitalia]. I think that by not talking about it, we degrade it."
For Karras, the best part about these images is that they open what has until now been a closed discussion-although he realizes that discussion and the images themselves aren't "right for everybody." Yet the work isn't without praise-he's received positive response not only from the women he photographed, but also from sex therapists and victims of sexual abuse, who have embraced his book as a communicative tool for healing.
"At the beginning, I wasn't proud of [my work] and was a little ashamed because it seems pornographic. And I had to own it at some point. I had to come out and say I don't care what anybody thinks. I did this from the right intention. If 99 out of 100 people told me I should have left it alone but that one woman looks at me and says, "Thank you,' that's what it's about, isn't it?
"And that's why I feel good about this."
Petals opens Friday, Jan. 7, from 6 to 9 p.m. at 414 Pennsylvania Ave. in Hillcrest. The exhibition runs through Jan. 23. www.nickkarras.com.