Steph Wilson on the subjects of skin and flesh

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Steph Wilson reflects on her relationship to photographing skin and flesh up-close, in all their imperfect gloriousness, during this period of self-isolation — the first in a new series inviting photographers to reflect on subjects central to their work

Skin and flesh permeate the work of photographer Steph Wilson. Close-up images that hone in on their intricate textures, alongside wide-angle shots, depicting an elongated leg or plump nipple. Wilson’s work is visceral — you can feel what you see. Burnt and sweaty skin beneath the sun; water tickling a bare body; strawberry juice trickling down someone’s back. She abstracts bodies, focusing on their curves, and colours.

Wilson’s depictions are not explicit, instead, she captures the essence of her subjects by focusing on their forms. Her work is often political, reclaiming the female nipples, bums and genitals so often exploited and censored by social media, and society at large. Below, Wilson describes one of her fleshiest images, and her relationship to the subjects of skin and flesh in her work, and beyond.

© Steph Wilson.

The urge to photograph flesh derives from two aspects of my practice. Firstly, most of my subjects are humans — they are fleshy by nature. The second is a more visceral relationship I have with its texture. I am also an oil painter, a medium I have always regarded as akin to the flesh. Whether I paint to evoke the image of human flesh, or I photograph skin to evoke painterly aesthetics, I’m unsure.

My background in painting helps me see flesh as a malleable and living medium. Sunlight allows the true tones of skin to shine and become rich in a natural glow, as opposed to studio lighting and flash, which tends to flatten and dampen its vitality. Sun adds such plumpness and translucency to the skin as though it is feeding or quenching it. “Visceral” always brings a certain sexiness and richness of colour to mind; the flesh is the perfect instrument to make those connotations of the word explicit.

I like to think that the images of flesh in my work make people hungry or horny. It is a carnal thing, to enjoy flesh, isn’t it? For instance, when you look at a plump baby’s leg and have an urge to bite into it. I would like to remind someone of those urges.

I see flesh as personal — fused and internal: an organ that is only political by the actions of the person that it is attached to, or those viewing it and their actions. Human contact is a conscious thing and carries far more negative weight than it ever has during the lockdown. It is sad, as touch is a beautiful thing. To remove the humanity and inclusivity, often offered through touch, from daily life seems sterile and hostile.

During the lockdown, I have almost totally stopped looking in mirrors at my skin’s flaws — any spots or scars — mainly because the only person looking at me is my partner. He can look for anything harmful or unusual, but that would be all, as I no longer feel the need to adhere to daily beauty standards. With isolation comes a lack of self-awareness I am finding quite enjoyable.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.