Shelbi Schroeder is naked and lying on her back on the living room floor of a small Downtown apartment. It’s twilight. Guests arrive and depart throughout the evening; some grab a beer, snack and socialize. Some sit on the couch to watch her lie still along the wall. The performance is part of London Biennale: Pollination in Las Vegas, and her interaction with the guests is nil. She is simply there—part mystery to play with (or narrative to concoct), part intrigue with the way people deal with the naked body and sexuality.
As an artist whose interest is in photographing herself (and others) naked and exploring body issues while celebrating her curves, Schroeder documents herself as an example of what it means to be a non-surgically enhanced woman in the 21st century. We talked with the MFA candidate in UNLV’s College of Art about her recent projects and Polaroids.
Do you consider yourself more of a fine-art photographer or an artist documenting performance? That’s tricky. When making photographs I am thinking about my body as a part of a larger performance.
Not all artists use themselves as subject matter. Is it challenging? I try to promote the natural body, being the body you are. When I moved to Northern California I felt insecure about my body type. I was always a bigger girl, I was always plus-size, all the terms that you hear when you’re not skinny. I just started being obsessed with who I am and able to love who I am without having to hide behind clothing and hide behind my cellulite and hide behind my rolls. I just realized, this is who I am. I cannot worry about how other people perceive what I am.
Is it personal? I once had this artist tell me that when you’re a woman doing work about yourself, people tend to think it’s all about you. When you’re a man doing work about yourself, people tend to think it’s about the larger public. In some ways I think it might be a little bit true. I think it is the way some people view women, that idea that men can be more removed but women are so emotionally tied to everything they do. I’m thinking about other women a lot while making this work.
What is the Instax Body Project? Six people at a time are participating. I’m giving them cameras, and they document their body daily through photographs. You have to do it for three months or six months, so you have to switch it up, see the parts of yourself you don’t normally want to see.
Are they comfortable with that? They don’t have to include their face. If they’re uncomfortable, that’s not the point. It’s not to make them more uncomfortable. It’s to make them see that their body is a form, and it is beautiful—the shapes it can make, the things you can do, the different ways you can look at your body.
Angles aside, they’re not necessarily flattering photos. There is all this airbrushing, all this washing out in this digital era that we live in. This doesn’t allow for that. The flash does do justice in some areas, but there’s no changing it. I’m not going to go in and digitally manipulate these. They just are. They’re also this ode to the naughty photos you find under somebody’s bed. And I like that. I like that it’s this private moment, and it’s real. You’re not going to find these in a magazine somewhere or advertising.
So why get naked in the first place? What’s brought it out even more is being in Las Vegas. There’s this freedom to be naked here, but I think that there’s also a jaded version of reality. It makes me want to talk more about what real identity is and being a woman in 2014 that has had no surgery and has no plans to.
You mentioned that you avoid the word “nude” with your work. Nude has such an idolized context behind it. I’m not trying to idolize any sort of body. When I did my midway [exhibit], I did a piece that was me lying on a green couch spread out. I had pink hair. Tattoos were everywhere. It was a modern take on that old view of what it meant to be a nude woman, and I got this comment over and over: “Your body fits that perfect idea of what those bodies in classical paintings have, the bigger type of body, the very voluptuous, pale.” It was, “Oh, I get why you’re doing that, because you have that body type.”
And? No, not at all. Even if I didn’t have this body type I would have still made that photograph about being a woman in 2014. I just happen to have this type of body. I would do that regardless of my body type.