Iconic Nude Photographs

robert mapplethorpe

Note: Contains nudity.

Artists have been painting and sculpting nudes all the way back to the Renaissance, Ancient Greece and beginning of mankind. In the 20th century photographers were no different, utilising the power of the camera to capture models and actors in a range of different styles of nude photography.

While everyone’s definition of iconic is different, I have curated here a selection of modern photographs that hopefully all fit that description, for varying reasons…

Top: A black and white photograph by/© Robert Mapplethorpe.
david lachapelle nude photography angelina jolie Happy by lachappelle
Angelina Jolie; and a photo from series “Happy” by/© David LaChapelle.

David LaChapelle

As modern fashion and celebrity photographers go, there are few who are as well-known or have such a distinct visual style as American snapper David LaChapelle. You can spot one of his works a mile off. Often imitated, never bettered. You’ll find a hyperrealist attention to mise en scène with lots of bubblegum bright colours peopled with celebrities in surreal poses. The portrait of Angelina Jolie that I’ve gone with (see above), is fairly pared back by his standards. The actress is shot against a pastoral field of flowers as she reclines back with a look of ecstasy on her face. It is a beautiful portrait of contradictions, being both highly sexual and innocent at the same time.

guy bourdin nude photography guy bourdin nude photography
The gorgeous nude colour-scapes of Guy Bourdin. Images © Bourdin.

Guy Bourdin

The French photographer Guy Bourdin became synonymous with glamour, colour and eroticism in the 20th century. Famously very demanding with his models, he shot them in beautifully minimalist sets full of primary colours and 9 inch heels. There’s a wealth of iconic nudes to choose from the back catalogue of this great photographer, but the one I’ve gone with is an image from a Vogue photoshoot. Like all of his work, there’s a darkness and malevolence behind the glossy exterior. The colours and composition are stunning as we see a model shot from above with red paint leaking from her mouth, so as to suggest death and murder. A work of art!

robert mapplethorpe black and white robert mapplethorpe nude photography black and white
Striking nude studies by/© Robert Mapplethorpe.

Robert Mapplethorpe

The black and white portraits of this renown New York photographer are admired the world over for their technical mastery and stylised exterior. Celebrities from Andy Warhol to lifelong friend Patti Smith sat for the lens of this great artist. Mapplethorpe carried out many iconic nude studies in his career, from self-portraits to shots of African American models. They were all characterised by beautiful lighting techniques and exquisite shading between black and white. When studying the nudes of Mapplethorpe, the often graphic depiction of the naked body is masked by a naturalism and honesty for the subjects. One that is very refreshing.

kate moss by corine day kate moss photography playboy
Top: Kate Moss photographed by Corinne Day. Bottom: The supermodel in her recent photoshoot for Playboy. Pictures © C. Day.

Corinne Day

The late, great British fashion photographer Corinne Day is the one credited with helping to propel a young Kate Moss into the realm of the supermodel. Three years before she shot her first Vogue cover of Moss in 1993, Day photographed the rising star in a commissioned spread for The Face, which resulted in some of the most celebrated pictures of the model ever taken. It’s interesting to look back on these iconic images, many of which involve a semi-nude Moss on location on a beach, and compare them to the recent revolution of Moss posing nude for Playboy. While the photographs of Day are full of life and humour, there is something more sterile about the shots of Moss for Playboy.

 All photography © respective artists, foundations and/or magazines.
Christopher Smail

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Scene360 magazine. Follow the author @ and view more articles.

December 17, 2013 Art Photography Special Feature