After entering their home but before asking them to undress, photographer Sophia Vogel asks her subjects what hobbies they're into. "Cooking," they might say, or "Listening to music." Vogel asks them to perform the task, snaps a few photos, then asks her subjects to get naked and do it again, while she snaps a few more.
The resulting intimate side-by-side portraits form Vogel's With and Without series, which explores nudity as our natural state, without its sexual connotation. "Over the last couple of years, nudity has emerged from being one of society's taboos," Vogel tells Creators. But since most of us don't wander the world without clothes, nudity is still largely viewed in a sexual context.
Private parts are distracting—demanding even. Vogel creatively conceals her models behind vinyl records, laptops, or even pets. She hopes depicting subjects naked and in their comfort zone will normalize their nudity. "I love to present nudity in an aesthetic manner without any sexual context," she says. "Not every single nude photograph should be linked to sexuality."
It's been relatively easy for Vogel to find models, all of whom are volunteers. They reach out on Instagram, through her website, or by word-of-mouth. She's featured teachers, dentists, and attorneys. But she admits they're mostly millennials. "Right now, I am unfortunately only able to get ahold of the younger generations," she says. "But I would love to photograph a wide age range."
It's less easy, perhaps, for Vogel to make her subjects feel comfortable in their bare flesh. She begins each shoot with conversation, discussing their interests and planning their pose until her subjects feel secure and open up a bit. "I want to point out that being naked should feel just as natural as being clothed," she says, quoting a line by German philosopher Heinrich Heine: "If you think of it right, we are all naked underneath our clothes."
Nudity is less taboo today than it was a few decades ago, but even the carefully composed photos in With and Without feel somewhat voyeuristic. "The pressure of being a sexual being is omnipresent for every human being," Vogel says. "We are observed and judged every day, and the fashion industry lavishes beauty ideals and criticism on us. We set high standards for ourselves."
"I want to speak up against these ridiculous standards," she adds. "By presenting all kinds of different body shapes and natural postures I would love to show that everybody is beautiful in their own way."
Vogel's work is as much an act of rebellion against puritan discomfort with nudity as it is a demonstration of acceptance. From Vogel's viewpoint, being naked is honest, clean, and uncorrupt. "Clothes conceal and can be used to mask one's insecurities, but in my opinion, people should stand up for themselves and resist society's body ideals," she says. "Nudity makes it easier to compare people. Without their staged and superficial surface, people seem more genuine."