Craig Clark is excited, a bit flighty, and talking a mile a minute as he proudly shows me around his studio. He waves his hand in the direction of a framed photo, telling the story behind it with animated gusto for over a minute, without pausing to take a breath. The tour continues, and with every step deeper into his workspace, more of this photographer, artist/hippie/lover-of-life, is revealed.
He's celebrating the release of his self-published book, Con-Form: The Torso Project. The book is a collection of 65 photographs of women's nude torsos (the actual count is one plastic swimsuit form, one mannequin and 63 real women) behind a clear, plastic swimsuit form, side-by-side with essays written by each model, forming a thought-provoking and beautiful--but somewhat bittersweet--collaboration of images and words.
It's been five long years in the making, and Clark pauses and finally takes a deep breath as he slows to tell me about the work.
He puts his book, his baby, in my hands. The book, this thing he believes in and has put all of himself into, feels heavier than just the weight of bound paper. Lines from one essay stand out vividly, "To tell the story of a woman's body image is to tell her whole life story. It's the vessel that carries her, enshrines her and boasts her battle scars."
Boise Weekly: Tell me about the plastic form, and describe the moment the lightbulb flashed in your head and the "Torso Project" began.
Craig Clark: The plastic form is a piece that goes inside a woman's swimsuit to fill out the shape of it. My wife brought it to me, thinking I could use it somehow. So, I'd had the plastic form for a while, and I was trying to figure a way to capture it, which was a challenge because it's transparent. Once I got the photo I liked, it clicked in my head that this was some kind of Barbie or futuristic idea of what a woman should look like. That got me thinking about the idea of putting real women behind it, what would that look like, how would that be--to show that real bodies don't really fit this idealized form. Then it all came together pretty clearly. I still thought, "I need more than the photo to make this interesting." That's when I thought I'd have the participants write an essay about how they felt about their bodies.
How did it grow to become the book?
At that first show, I had just 12 images, and a lot of strong comments were brought out. People would walk into my space and the first universal reaction was surprise or shock, and then they'd either walk out because they didn't want to deal with torsos, or they'd stop and start reading the statements.
And once they started reading the statements they'd get really involved. That's when people would say, "This is such a great thing, you really need to make a book, you really need to push with this."
Most of them were women who told me I needed to push with this, because mostly women identified with the thoughts they were reading, or just the idea that we had this plastic idea of how people should look and how it's just so unrealistic. Then I thought, "Well, OK, I could do that."
How did you talk women into posing for you? Was there cajoling needed on your part?
(Laughs) There were probably four or five women whom I considered friends who were supportive of the idea in principle, but were not willing to do it in reality. Sometimes women who knew me were reluctant to have me see them undressed. I guess I can understand that.
It's very interesting. It touches on more besides this whole idea than just body image. I did the photos without clothing to make it more obvious, and to make a stronger point. But what I found out was that most people were looking at it not as body image per se, but more as nudity, whether it was OK to have a naked torso in front of you. A lot of people got hung up on that, rather than what my main point was.
The whole approach I took toward the photography from the very beginning was that I wanted a very clinical approach. I set it up so that the photography took less than two minutes, so it would just be professional most of all. One woman told me it was easier than a doctor's exam. I wanted that kind of feel, so they didn't feel it was a personal thing. I wanted the photographs to be very non-personal and then the writing to be very personal so that there was a tension between the two to make it stronger, that they were playing off each other in a way--almost a dichotomy. There's unity to it, but still two sides.
Are there any pieces that stick out as being more special to you in the collection?
Yeah, there are a few that are very special and I'm very honored that they participated. One is a family friend, someone I've known for almost 30 years now. She's had a double mastectomy, and when she agreed to do it I was very honored. I think that the stories I heard, either that were communicated to me as we were doing the project, or things that were written down, those were the things that really got me the most, the things that I thought were really the most significant. I realized the words were more important than the photographs.
What age demographic do you think this will have the most effect on?
It really seems to have touched quite a broad range of women, most of the participants were in their mid-to-late 20s or early 30s. The age range of the participants actually was 19 to 63. A lot of them were women who had fought with body-image issues and were finally coming to terms with who they were.
One thing that was common through them was that this is about acceptance.
What do you hope happens from your show?
For me, this show is kind of a celebration, that I've actually, finally, finished this. It's a way for me to kind of close this chapter. I hope it opens up new doors, but I don't expect it, the book, to be picked up by Oprah or anything. I'm not expecting fame or fortune from it. But I do hope that it sparks discussion. I hope that people who haven't seen it will come see the show and that those who have seen it will come see it again. I'm treating it as a celebration. That's why I'm having music every night, sort of a party.
See Craig Clark's "Con-Form: The Torso Project" exhibit at the Alaska Center, 1020 Main St., May 2-5 from 5-9 p.m. Live music acts include: Wed., Rex & Beverly; Thurs., Felina; Fri., Sarasque and Sat., Kris Doty.