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Respecting the Beauty of Diversity

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Debbie Notkin (Photo by Laurie Edison. All images by Laurie Edison used courtesy of the artist.)

How do you define "fat?" Laurie Edison sees "fat" and "thin" as simply different points on the continuum of human beauty. Thirty years as a jeweler and sculptor refined the vision she brings to her photographs, and the radiant, unexpected nudes of her first collection of photographs, Women En Large, make it hard to question her judgment.

Not content with broadening the definition of "beautiful," five years ago Edison decided to tackle a more challenging artistic question: "What is masculine?" The resulting work in progress, Familiar Men, offers some surprising answers. From Denmark to New York to Tokyo and all points in between it appears that individuals who learn to see beauty in the everyday ultimately come to appreciate the beauty in themselves.

Crescent Blues: Tell us a little about how you got interested in the project that became Women En Large?

Laurie Edison: Debbie Notkin, who wrote the text for Women En Large, is a very close friend of mine, and we were having coffee -- quite a few years ago. Debbie is not a woman who cries easily, but she was very upset and in tears. Someone who she worked with professionally, who she also considered a friend, had written in a small magazine that it would be his nightmare to go to a nudist colony and see a 300-pound woman without her clothing on. As a fat woman, Debbie was really upset by this. And I said what I tend to say, which is, "Why don't we do something about it?"

What we ended up doing was a series of a series of workshops for the professional universe she and this man both worked in called "On Fat and Feminism."

I was the "token skinny." When people start talking about medical issues, for example, if someone my size says the popular medical information is lies, it's a lot more convincing to some people, because there's no way they can tell me that I'm rationalizing it. So basically I was on panels with a group of fat women.

We did this for several years, and I started looking at the women with my artist's eye. And I realized that not only were they very beautiful, but that their beauty was much more varied than the beauty of thin women. I also realized that in the 20th century this certainly was not a beauty which had been really expressed.

Photo: April Miller
April Miller (Photo by Laurie Edison)

Since I was already a sculptor, I made a few small sculptures of fat women, and the individual pieces worked out beautifully, but they just weren't sufficient for the overall message I was trying to convey. So I decided to do photographs and, since we're both involved in social change work, Deb and I decided to do a book.

Crescent Blues: And how did you go about finding women who were willing to pose for the book?

Laurie Edison: That turned out to be very easy. We expected that finding women to pose for the book would be difficult. The first person I photographed for the book, therefore, was Debbie. And indeed, the cover photograph on the book is from that very first shoot. But as soon as women saw those pictures, I had absolutely no problem getting women to be photographed. People were calling me up and either telling me they were interested or telling me about someone they know whom they thought would be wonderful.

We had to do a fair amount of diversity outreach, which was extremely important to us -- especially since we knew this was probably going to be the first book of its kind, which it was. And unfortunately, in this country, it's still pretty close to the only book of its kind.

Crescent Blues: There could be many books out there, but they certainly haven't gotten anywhere near as much notice.

Laurie Edison: No, there are not many books out there. That I would know, because there is a community that's interested in this.

Crescent Blues: And they'd have found them.

Laurie Edison: I only know about one other respectful book of fat nudes -- which I think is very unfortunate. And it was published overseas and it's very expensive. But in any case, because of that, it was very important to us that as many fat women as possible see themselves in the book. And that, of course, meant all ages, all sizes, all colors.

Crescent Blues: Was there anyone you photographed who for whatever reason changed her mind afterwards?

Laurie Edison: No, no one I've photographed had any real second thoughts whatsoever. Well, that's not quite true -- no one had any second thoughts that they communicated to me.

Photo: Queen Thisha
Queen T'hisha (Photo by Laurie Edison)

Crescent Blues: They were probably a little nervous, though.

Laurie Edison: Everyone who did this was brave. Many women I photographed were very nervous. It isn't like everybody decided to do this and was any more at ease and comfortable than women of any size who are not professional models would be about being photographed in the nude. But everyone who decided to do it decided that they liked the work, they liked the politics, and they felt the book was important. I did photograph a few people who simply enjoyed being photographed and had some professional modeling experience, but 90 percent of the women I photographed had never been models in any way and certainly had never been photographed in the nude.

I should add that it's not as if I go up to people on the street and say, "Pardon me, ma'am, can I take your picture in the nude?"

Crescent Blues: So how did you spread the word?

Laurie Edison: A couple of different ways. Initially, I approached either people I knew personally or people whom I met professionally. So, if I saw someone that I wanted to photograph, I usually knew someone who could introduce me to her. Then I would take her out to coffee, show her the work, discuss the project, and give her time to think about it. Some people said "yes" immediately. I asked a friend who's a photographer herself, and it took her six months to decide. And everything in between. And that was all fine, because I only wanted to photograph women who had given this serious thought and decided they wanted to do it. I think that's one of the reasons, obviously, that no one changed their mind.

Crescent Blues: Because you didn't rush them into it at all.

Laurie Edison: No, and almost no one I suggested it to took it casually. People took it seriously and thought about it. But as we made the book was we were doing slide shows in a variety of communities -- showing people the work -- because this was very community-based work. Asking them what was missing from the pictures, what they wanted to see, and how they felt about them. Their answers didn't have a direct effect in the sense that people would say, "Pose someone in this way," but they definitely affected the pictures and the text profoundly.

For example, people wanted to see fat women with children, because fat women have children. People wanted to see women doing active things, and so on. And in the process of that, women started coming out of the slide show audiences. I would talk about what was missing, or sometimes it was as simple as women saw women who looked like them in the slides, and that made them feel comfortable. One of the reasons for having that kind of really large variety in your work is that the more you have the more you'll get.

Crescent Blues: One thing I liked was that you gave short biographies of the women who had posed. It sounded as if for some of them it was very much in keeping with their other life experiences, while for others it was a very different thing to have done.

Laurie Edison: Yes, exactly. And the women also came from a very wide variety of class backgrounds, occupations and so on.

Crescent Blues: Was there anyone who had never heard of [the fat acceptance movement and its relationship with feminism], who learned about these issues through your work with the book?

Laurie Edison: Yes, there were. One of the reasons we included the biographies was that it was really important to us that the pictures be about real women, not nude models with a capital "M." And it's also why I took environmental portraits. They're respectful portraits of women, and they're also mostly in the women's own homes.

Crescent Blues: Which gives it a much more grounded feeling.

Laurie Edison: Yes, it gives the viewer much more sense that this is a real person. Where people live tells so much about them. When you see someone in their home, you get much more indication of who they are and also about their history. We build history where we live. So the biographies were very important, and actually, most of the biographies were written by the women themselves. A couple of people would call up Debbie and say, "I really don't want to write this, can I just tell you a few things?" But basically we asked people to write their own.

Crescent Blues: What about your reactions? Did you find that the experience of taking the photographs changed you, and if so, how?

Laurie Edison: It changed me in a number of ways. As an artist and as someone who became a photographer to do Women En Large --

Crescent Blues: Really?

Laurie Edison: Yes, basically, I had worked pretty exclusively in metal before that, but it was very clear to me that this work needed to be photographs. So it gave me a profound new art in the middle of my life. An amazing gift. And beyond that, doing this kind of work gives one a far broader vision of what people are like, what bodies are like. The privilege, really, of being able to go and photograph 25 women in their homes in ways that they were comfortable with -- I think deeply changed how I perceive the way we live in our bodies.

And more personally, while I am a thin woman and certainly fall within the parameters of conventionally attractive, I'm not a young woman. I'm five years older than I was when Women En Large came out; and ten years older than I was when I started the project. And I doubt if I would be as comfortable and as relaxed about the changes that have come with age if I hadn't done Women En Large.

Crescent Blues: So it had a very positive effect for you as well.

Laurie Edison: Absolutely. And also, this sounds grandiose, but we know from the emails and the letters and the people we have talked with -- without question Women En Large has changed thousands of lives. And the power and the effect that this has had to change lives was way beyond our wildest dreams. And that is something I'm just incredibly grateful for. I couldn't tell you the ways in which it has changed me, but obviously it has.

Crescent Blues: Now you're working on a new project, Familiar Men. How did that evolve -- was it a natural outgrowth of Women En Large?

Laurie Edison: It was a natural outgrown of Women En Large, but not one I understood at the time. When I finished Women En Large, I assumed that after I took a little time off and I finished a landscape project I had been collaborating on with a dye transfer photographer, that I was going to go ahead and do another book of female nudes. A different kind of female nudes. This is the only time in my life that I've had a plan for what I would do artistically, and I found out that I didn't want to do it. But in this case, it took me a while to figure out that Women En Large really was my statement about the female nude. And that at least for that point in my life, I was finished with it.

So I turned to Familiar Men with the idea that I was going to take a couple of years to do a book of male nudes and then go on to another project I had in mind. What I didn't realize when I went into doing a book of male nudes was that it was going to be every bit as profound, and because of the issues involved, in many ways far more complex than Women En Large.

Crescent Blues: I imagine it made it easier in the case of Women En Large because you were yourself a woman. It would have been a different dynamic with a male photographer.

Laurie Edison: Actually that's true, but that's not the complex part. The difference was that saying that fat women should be on the continuum of beauty is a very radical thing to say, but it's not a very complicated thing to say. And Women En Large deals with issues of discrimination, issues of beauty, issues around which a social change movement already existed -- issues that have been articulated and discussed. Visible issues. Masculinity is something we don't talk a whole lot about. It's like air.

Crescent Blues: It's just there.

Laurie Edison: It's just there, and we accept it. And when I went into doing Familiar Men, we realized that the issue of masculinity is simply much more complex and far less explored. There has been a lot of feminist exploration of women, and when we started this, a very modest amount of discussion of masculinity. It had been more feminism reacting to masculinity, than really discussing it. And when we started -- and this is changing, so this is something I feel very good about -- men weren't talking about masculinity, men were simply accepting it. The sea of all this stuff that we swim around in, this dominant culture that really makes the rules, wasn't really being analyzed at all…or very little. It still is not being discussed a great deal, but in the last five years a conversation about masculinity is definitely emerging, and the work I'm doing is clearly very much at the center of it.

Crescent Blues: What kinds of issues are emerging as you do the work?

Laurie Edison: One thing I think is an excellent example of this: men are almost exclusively defined by what they do. When you show someone a book of female nudes, no one ever asks, "I wonder what she does?"

Crescent Blues: "Is she a lawyer; is she a doctor; is she a housewife?"

Laurie Edison: No one has ever asked that about any individual photograph in Women En Large. But when you take men's clothes off, people often literally become confused. Men are so defined by what they do; and what you do and how you fit into the whole structure of things is defined by what you wear. The absoluteness of it really floored us.

Crescent Blues: Was it something that the models thought as well as the viewer?

Laurie Edison: No, but I'd show the photographs and people would look at them and ask, "What does he do?" And they would sometimes look at a photograph and try to figure out what someone does or feel uncomfortable because they didn't know.

Crescent Blues: And once they knew, they could go on and they could catalogue him.

Laurie Edison: Yes, because that's what we tend to do to men.

Crescent Blues: A profound feeling of discomfort -- I can't put him in his niche.

Photo: Lani Ka'ahumanu
Lani Ka'ahumanu (Photo by Laurie Edison)

Laurie Edison: And it's very hard on men, all that prioritizing and hierarchy is not a useful thing for human beings.

Another thing was, if you show a female nude from the back -- like the ones you see in PG advertising, where the woman is looking over her shoulder -- and the picture is cut right above where her buttocks actually start, it still looks like a nude. But if a picture of a man does not have full frontal nudity, people do not consider it a nude. I would show photographs, and people would say, "But he isn't nude."

Crescent Blues: Well, he is; he's not wearing any clothes.

Laurie Edison: Right. But if the penis is not in the picture, a lot of people simply do not perceive a man as being nude.

Crescent Blues: Are you going about finding the men to model for the book in the same way, drawing from people that you know from the community?

Laurie Edison: And then branching very much out from there. I did not know most of the women I photographed in Women En Large. Although afterwards, of course, I've gotten to know them well, because I keep in touch with people about exhibitions, and let them know when their pictures are in magazines or newspapers and so on.

But I didn't know the majority of the women I photographed in Women En Large. And the same thing is very true for Familiar Men. I try to find people who…

Laurie Edison - Continued