A conversation with American photographer Chehalis Hegner
Last month Playboy magazine announced that beginning March 2016, they would no longer publish nude photographs of women. But how has it affected us as a society for 50 years? Today, with the billion-dollar online pornography industry a click away and selfies landing many politicians and celebrities into a viral tar-and-feathering, the idea of a woman who poses nude for Playboy seems almost tame. But for Chehalis Hegner, an American photographer who fell upon a Playboy photo shoot on her family-farm in Harvard, Illinois when she was a child, the shock of that encounter remains defining and has informed much of her work.
"Is ours a society finally headed toward women having jurisdiction over their own bodies?" asks Hegner as she explores the idea in her Feminismo series.
When Hegner was 10 years of age in the 1970s, she and her brother arrived home from school and made a peanut butter sandwich, when she looked up to see a naked woman swaying in front of the family barn. When she walked outside to find out what was going on, the last thing she expected to come upon was a photo shoot for Playboy. She later discovered that her father, Richard Hegner, co-founder of the successful Chicago commercial art firm Higgins, Hegner and Genovese, often offered his colleagues their family farm as a location for Playboy cover shoots, and consequently received free magazines from the company for years (which he left strewn across the family house). The moment was one Hegner remembers with acid clarity.
"I see this complete Venus goddess with long blonde curly hair swaying to and fro and completely naked in front of our barn. I point this out to my brother, who was eight at the time, and he replied, 'oh, my God, I'm getting mama's binoculars and I'm going upstairs in the guest room and I'm going to watch.' I said I was going to call the police. I got my courage up and went out to see what was happening. As soon as this woman saw me, she became very ashamed. I'll never forget that look on her face."
I sat down with Chehalis Hegner to discuss what the Playboy announcement means for American photography, her Feminismo series which she says was intended to encourage women to reclaim ownership of their bodies and and how she plans to transform the farm for creative art on her own terms.
What was it about discovering this Playboy photo shoot that made it so integral to your work?
Hegner: The first thing the woman did was reach for this baggy sweater on the dirt and covered her body. She was confronted with the innocence of a 10-year-old girl and all of a sudden, this very confident, swaying, buxom, sexy lady was cowering in front of me. I heard this shutter "click", the motor drive on this camera surging forward. I don't even know if these photos of this woman and me exist, or where they might be.
What did you do next?
Hegner: I was completely numb, like, "what was that?" And then I told my parents what happened and my dad was like, 'oh, yeah. That was Dick Fegley. He's a friend of mine from the ad business and I told him he could come out and use the farm as a location,' and there was no further discussion about it. But that wasn't the end. One time on the pond it was really muddy after a rain and back they came with the buxom woman again. And then we had the Playboy bunnies, a whole group of nude women, who leapt out of a plane into our hay field. There were these scenes that were unfolding and I was trying to make sense out of it, and it was confusing for a little girl.
All of these incidents were shoved underground in my psyche, but I couldn't forget about it because every month we would get one of the magazines for free and my dad never hid them. Most of my friends' parents or dads who got these magazines would hide them. My father? No. They were all over the place. They were on the coffee table. They were on the kitchen table. Nobody ever discussed anything but this was the kind of imagery that I was exposed to as a girl. I remember thinking that the woman I saw in front of the barn didn't look like my mom and she didn't look like me. She looked kind of like my Barbie dolls.
Your photography has been reviewed as "contemporary and primal, disturbingly raw and redemptive." Do you see your work this way?
Hegner: I do, those words were written by Katherine Young. I think the work is contemporary because I'm always trying to be on the crest of a wave in the moment.
How does the word "redemptive" strike you?
Hegner: It's key, actually, because for me the photographic process is a process of redemption -- not just for me but also for many of the people that I photograph. I'm always striving to look at things, even the difficult things, in the uncomfortable things. By looking at them, we can reshape them and through exposing secrets, we have a shared intimacy or a shared vulnerability that leads to intimacy. Through that intimacy there is a form of redemption. That through-line in my work comes from that moment as a child on the farm.
I believe secrets being held and not shared are problematic. As long as the secrets we have are locked up inside, that's where they get their power and that's where we get locked up as well. If we share the secret, it's no longer isolation but communication and connection and a form of redemption.
Has that moment informed all your work or only the Feminismo series?
Hegner: It informs just about everything I do and for me it wasn't just a moment. It was a culture. It was a culture where my mother was a supposed feminist and she lived with a man who was a total playboy, who had multiple women going on, and pretended like it wasn't happening. My mom must have been holding on to a lot of pain.
If you really look at all of those images in Playboy they are idealized, sexualized images where women are not really empowered. They're being used.
What do you think of Playboy's decision not to have nude models anymore?
Hegner: I would like to propose that some women photographers get to make erotic photographs of women wearing clothes because I think that it's important to have a woman's voice in how her body is being used. Women really don't have enough control over their own bodies or they don't know how much control they have over it. Even though all this stuff was happening back in the 70s, it's still relevant. Look at how women's bodies are being used against them today.
As a photographer, how should we as a society capture the human body at this point in time?
Hegner: I think the human body addressed in a really appropriate way is the most beautiful thing and the engine of humanity will always be reproduction, in some sense. I think having healthy relationships with our bodies and with each other and with sex and with politics and all these things is important, and we have a lot to hash out. I don't think we're talking about a ten-year-plan or even a hundred-year-plan. I think we're talking about a thousand-plus-year-plan that we as a species have to start to think about. I think it would be great if women and men and people of any gender could be cooperating and listening to each other and being curious about each other instead of judgmental.
This month Hegner and her husband Arthur Ganson -- a kinetic sculptor with a cult following whose iconic work populates much of the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- will return to her 500 acre Halo Hill Farm in Illinois to create a collaborative art studio to share with other artists and inventors.
The full interview is at TheEditorial.com where we interview visionaries. (this interview was conducted in a canoe on the Merrimack River at Chehalis Hegner's request. A first for TheEditorial.com)