Her direct gaze grabs you first. She’s allowing you, daring you to see not so much past her body but as being at one with it. She is at ease with her full breasts, dancer’s torso and luxuriant mass of pubic hair. The viewer can accept or reject her, but she herself will not be reduced to merely a naked presence. If anyone’s going to objectify this woman, it will be the woman herself. She’s naked, she’s beautiful, she’s young and she’s definitely in command. This is the nascent Madonna, arguably the most famous female artist in the world, sitting naked before you in a set of photographs that feature in the Important Collection of European Photographs sale in Paris on 10 November.
A handful of immaculate photographs are the visual marker to the beginning of Madonna’s climb to iconic status. If anything, they prove provocation is Madonna’s byword. These are images that sum up the power of the female form fused with the force of a personality. She is sexual, certainly, and she knows it. But that’s only the surface of what these photos convey. As James Wolcott said in Vanity Fair in 2013, “Madonna clearly has the nerve to confront a sexual equal on his own turf, redefine the boundaries of desire, then walk away from the bed unscathed. Body confidence like hers is rare.”
The series of five photographs made by Lee Friedlander between 1979 and 1980, which are being offered in the Important Collection of European Photographs sale in Paris on 10 November, are of one 21-year-old then unknown performer named Madonna Ciccone. She’d only recently arrived in New York City and replied to Friedlander’s ad seeking subjects to photograph. Madonna, like other models, was paid a small amount to be photographed and, signing a release form, thought the photos would never see the light of day. Friedlander was no fly by night snapper. Now considered to be one of the greatest living American photographers, Friedlander’s photos had captured the genesis of one of the best-known blondes since Marilyn Monroe. Famous for his street photography, Jeff L. Rosenheim, a curator of photographs at the Met said that Friedlander’s work, “…reminds me of the pleasure of seeing itself.”
Technique and composition - and a startlingly confident subject on her way to fame - has made this series of photographs as historic as they are arrestingly intriguing. These are the images that started a “skin war” in 1985 between two rival magazines battling it out for sales figures and it would be these exact prints that would go on to feature in Playboy. More importantly, the power of these images changed the way celebrity nudes came to be viewed by the general public. Pre-internet, a leaked or private nude could ruin a career. These images could be said to have singlehandedly removed the controversy around celebrity nudes. As she discussed in a 1985 Interview magazine piece by Harry Dean Stanton, she said, “…that’s sort of the course of events when anyone gets successful, to go back and try to find all the deep, dirty, dark hidden secrets and expose them. Well I don’t have any, because I’m not ashamed of anything that I did. I would have preferred that those photos weren’t printed, because obviously the way they were promoted wasn’t very flattering to me, but when people actually saw them they thought, “What’s the big deal here?”
According to a New York Times interview with Madonna’s publicity Liz Rosenberg, the artist had privately feared that the photos would end her career. ‘"This is not a big deal. We're not gonna let it be a big deal,” Rosenberg said and advised the singer to never say ‘no comment’. Madonna had to 'get back on her horse' and perform at the Live Aid concert broadcast worldwide, which she did in the face of the controversy caused by the photos release. This was an important time for Madonna to become the game-changer she remains. The New York Post headlined her attitude with the topline, "Madonna: 'I'm not ashamed.’"
As a photographic subject, Madonna didn’t have control of the actual photographs. She did have control of the personality she projected. It is the control emanating from Madonna herself that makes this set of photos astonishing: she has literally nothing to hide.
This set of images are as bold and inciting as the performer she was to become. This is Madonna on the rise. The vitality, daring and positive manipulation of her own image were the elements from which a global phenomenon was formed. This is the power of Madonna. So sexy, so strong and yet so natural. What modern commentators have noted is the now unusual aspect of body hair. The abundance of pubic and armpit hair have taken some by surprise, but as one commentator noted of these photos, “Madonna rocked a full bush and few would say she didn’t look great.”
Madonna went on to pose nude again, most notably in her own Sex book, where she used her body on her own terms. Importantly, she went on to use her sexuality throughout her career and own it as few have before. As she said in Seventeen magazine in 1986, “One of the things that’s interesting about this society is the way people immediately attach a personality and moral issues to how someone looks, You can’t escape it if you’re in the public eye — the only thing to do is ride the wave.” These photographs show a vital personality who went on to conquer not only the waves, but the ocean itself.
The Important Collection of European Photographs sale is in Paris on 10 November.