In Nudism in a Cold Climate, Annebella Pollen writes with clarity and insight about a fascinating niche subject: the history of recreational nudism in 20th Century England. In the process, she takes an in-depth look at the idiosyncratic photographs that sprang up around this often misunderstood and rather idyllic subculture.
The book tracks the social nudist or “naturist” movement over five decades, starting in the 1920s when the practice was widely deemed scandalous and immoral, and following it through the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, when it was dismissed by the young generation as being too uptight and old-fashioned. Naturism originated as a health-conscious pursuit that, along with its staunch anti-clothing stance, incorporated a range of healthy living practices such as vegetarianism. From the beginning, British naturists generally embraced the progressive politics of the era, although in the mid-20th Century, those views did not take fully into account racism, sexism, classism, and other such -isms. (Pollen points out that homophobia and body-shaming practices were commonplace back then as well.)
Adherents joined nudist social clubs and resorts, and they also contributed and subscribed to magazines dedicated to promoting the lifestyle. The author surveys these different publications, which boasted names such as Sun Bathing Review and regularly solicited amateur photographic contributions. Quite a few of the images were taken by professionals as well, ranging from high society portraitists to retired newspaper photographers.
Pollen reports that, while there were some attempts to visually preserve and celebrate naturist culture, straight photography was generally frowned upon. The photographs that appeared in the nudist press were mainly intended to serve as propaganda for the movement—a way to attract new (and hopefully younger) members.
As a result, they tended to depict smiling, able-bodied young men and women enthusiastically engaging in calisthenic exercise and recreational activities in pastoral settings. Notably, professional models were often pictured, rather than actual nudists, who tended to be middle-aged and not as conventionally photogenic.
Contrived as they are, these photos are fun, kitschy curiosities, and the nudity adds a slightly surrealistic touch to them. There is plenty of joie de vivre and esprit de corps on display, and the models’ sunny dispositions further enhances the images’ artificial sheen.
Obscenity laws required the genital regions to be covered or obscured, which gives a demure quality to many of the photographs. In the case of females, this could involve clumsily airbrushing over the offending area, resulting in a kind of Barbie-doll effect. Photographers were forced to work within strict parameters, and Pollen details several notable, high-profile legal battles. She also traces how the naturist photographers’ struggles to categorize their work as art, rather than pornography, inadvertently helped open the door for pornographers as well, despite their best intentions.
As for the thorny question of whether naturist imagery shared any commonalities with pornographic photographs…well, that’s where things get a little complicated. Quite a few photographers and models worked in both genres. In a side-by-side comparison, Pollen presents two photos of Pamela Green, one of the most famous pin-up girls of the era. (Green was also a member of Spielplatz, one of the most well-established nudist resorts.) Both were taken by a photographer named George Harrison Marks. A naturist photo appears on the left and a pin-up photo on the right.
Stylistically, they are vastly different, and if you didn’t know, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that two different photographers had photographed two different women. In the first image, Green’s short-cropped hair is purposefully unstyled and she’s not wearing makeup or jewelry. To give the appearance of outdoor work, in line with a healthy, natural lifestyle, she is standing in a field and holding some hay.
In the latter, a studio portrait, Green has transformed herself into the embodiment of male desire via a wig, makeup, and lingerie that covers very little. She poses erotically in a way that emphasizes a stockinged leg and flashes a come-hither look at the camera.
Not surprisingly, the most prolific and successful naturist photographers, such as Marks, who worked extensively with Pamela Green, tended to be male. Yet, there were also prominent female photographers. Among them for several decades was Edith Tudor-Hart an Austrian-Jewish refugee, socially concerned photojournalist, and, intriguingly, a Soviet spy for many years. She, too, posed her models in idealized ways, in stark contrast to her social documentary work. Pollen writes, “While not as political in message as her other campaigning photographs, they communicate her interest and participation in radical, experimental lifestyles.”
On a similar note, Pollen’s study connects two personal interests of mine: experimental Utopian communities and vernacular photography. People might be inclined to shy away from Nudism in a Cold Climate due to the title and subject matter, but it would be a shame if this book doesn’t find an audience within the photo world. It’s a rare critical look at a type of photography that hasn’t really been researched or written about before. In that sense, in its own unassuming way, it’s a landmark study.
As for the state of the movement today, a decent number of British “sun clubs” still exist, although their numbers have continued to dwindle. “The nude pursuit, as a formal membership activity, is a minority interest even as nude visual culture attracts endless attention,” Pollen writes. Twas ever thus.
Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain by Annebella Pollen. Atelier Editions, 2022. 272 pages. Paperback.