‘Another World’ by Shae Detar, 2014
Over a decade in the making, Shae Detar’s debut monograph Another World brings together a series dedicated to reclaiming the narrative surrounding female nudity – celebrating the beauty of womanhood in the natural world. Women roam naked across vast unpopulated landscapes in Detar’s technicolour vision of utopia, creating a world she wishes to inhabit where a confident vision of femininity is the norm. Prioritising body diversity and inclusivity, Detar’s models were all found through volunteer castings on Instagram in an effort to avoid the usual protocol of adhering to strict casting criteria, resulting in a beautifully realistic array of “goddesses.”
Having grown up in rural Pennsylvania during the 90s Purity Movement in the Evangelical Church, the self-taught model-turned-artist is using her craft to heal. Rejecting the archaic beliefs taught in her youth, Detar’s depictions of a female-dominated world are entirely intentional as she repairs her own relationship with femininity. Combining fine art nude photography with hand-painted techniques, the artist crafts empowering images against backdrops of the rugged British coastline, California’s expansive desert and Iceland’s otherworldly terrain. Always standing front and centre is Detar’s woman, dreamlike yet down to earth as the photographer captures their truth while redefining what they could become.
Ella Joyce: Can you take us through the initial inspiration behind the book?
Shae Detar: Around twelve to thirteen years ago I really wanted to start photographing fine art nudes, but I was scared to do so. I started going to church when I was thirteen years old and the youth group at the church I was going to was teaching The Purity Movement, which became popular in the 90s. My parents are incredible and they had no idea what the youth leaders were teaching us so they were bummed to find this out years later when I finally told them about my experience. But this Movement, which was mostly in the Evangelical church, was teaching a damaging narrative around women’s bodies and sexual desire. We were taught that we were responsible for men’s sexual desires, their lust and potentially their actions which might lead to sin because everything sexual was considered bad until marriage. We weren’t allowed to wear shorts or short skirts, basically anything sexual was discouraged and considered sin. It created a lot of anxiety around the topic of sex and our bodies for many women, including myself. It honestly took me years to begin to work through it, and deciding to shoot nudes was a step towards reclaiming the narratives of women’s bodies.
“We were taught that we were responsible for men’s sexual desires…”
I found a lot of healing through photographing this series and meeting the women, seeing their confidence and how comfortable they were in their own skin. I learned a lot from their confidence and found it very inspiring. The series is more than just my reaction to the negative experiences within the Purity Movement. Another World is also about escapism, and it was essentially my journey of falling in love with nature and colour while experimenting with my chosen medium.
‘Before the Future Begins’ by Shae Detar
“The best compliment I ever receive is when women say they feel seen in my work – it really moves me.”
EJ: Where did the creative process begin for this project?
SD: In the 90s as a teenager, I was buying British magazines from a shop in the East Village on Saint Marks Place. I was buying i-D, The Face and some Japanese magazines, I would go home and cut them up to make collages and paint on the images in my creative journal. I also had a zine which was basically the same thing but I didn’t consider any of this artistic, it was just a hobby. When I graduated high school I was scouted by a model agency and moved into the NYC model apartments, then I went to the apartments in Milan and it was there that my roommate saw my collaged and painted journals and told me I should go to art school for graphic design. So I went home to NYC and applied to SVA [School of Visual Arts]. I did that for a few years but graphic design just wasn’t for me, I wanted to do everything by hand, so I switched to Parsons for fashion design and began interning at Zac Posen’s studio. I realised I wasn’t a fashion designer and then I got married, moved to Los Angeles and started a vintage shop which I had for six years. When my dog Crumbles died suddenly, I was so grief-stricken that I decided to close my shop for good and change my life entirely. My husband suggested I try photography and that was honestly the beginning. I fell in love with making images and taught myself how to shoot analog, I built a darkroom and immediately began painting and collaging the first prints I made as I had done as a teenager in my diaries.
I eventually decided I didn’t want my images to look vintage and historical so I stopped painting with oils on the silver gelatin prints I was making in the darkroom. I switched to digital and over a span of two or three years I experimented a lot and finally found the process I have now, which is watercolours on watercolour paper. I make large-scale hand-painted photos, then I varnish them, build wood panels to mount them to and sometimes add layers of epoxy resin to them. It’s been such a beautiful journey of growth and evolution in experimentation.
‘Haruka’ by Shae Detar, 2017
EJ: Where did the title Another World come from?
SD: I’ve always described my images as being other worlds I wish I lived in, where women were safe and free from the judgments society places on us. A world where there is more empathy and grace for one another, a world entirely soaked in colour and epic powerful landscapes. This book is really my love letter to women, nature and colour.
EJ: The shoot locations are really striking, how do you feel these landscapes enhance the portraiture?
SD: I knew from the beginning I wanted my work to feel somewhat timeless. I was drawn to landscapes where you couldn’t place when the image was made. This series was shot over twelve to thirteen years of me discovering the power of nature and falling absolutely in love with it. We went to these really overpowering spaces where it’s sort of scary how out in the middle of nowhere you are. You have no reception, there aren’t any towns nearby, no gas stations and it’s a little unnerving in some ways, but you are also in these very old places where you can feel the mystical and magical energy. Many of my models told me they felt like goddesses in these locations and it really does have an indescribable effect on you when you are there – nature is absolutely spellbinding.
“I’ve always described my images as being other worlds I wish I lived in, where women were safe and free from the judgments society places on us.”
‘Birds’ by Shae Detar, 2016
EJ: As a female photographer photographing other females, how do you approach capturing femininity in all its forms?
SD: I remember in the 90s going with my mum to try and find clothes for her, and it was difficult because back then they didn’t have a lot of clothes for women who struggled with their weight, they would maybe have one store at the mall for plus sizes. Seeing that happen and knowing the struggles she had with her weight absolutely affected the way I thought about the female form. So when I began taking photos I knew I wanted to photograph lots of different women with varying sizes and backgrounds. I started holding castings on Instagram for volunteers and it was really a come one, come all approach. I think the women who show up for my shoots really appreciate the images I make, they want to be nude in nature and experience that connection. They trust my vision, which I am so grateful for. The best compliment I ever receive is when women say they feel seen in my work – it really moves me. I grew up with someone who was raped, so the body is something I take really seriously and I never wanted it to feel exploitative. I’m very protective of the process and if someone comes to me years later and they no longer feel comfortable with nudity, I will stop using that image.
I think because of the Purity Movement experience I had growing up, my relationship to the body and the importance of reclaiming this freedom from the negative narratives I was taught has been a driving force for making sure that the images are very authentic, genuine, sensitive and honest. I don’t take what I do lightly at all. Having said that, it’s also really important that when I’m making my work in the studio and reimagining the images from the original photograph I need to feel complete freedom to experiment and be in the moment. That may mean someone is painted blue or red or yellow or maybe they might have no face, I just never know where the moment of creation will take me.
EJ: You mention the models were all found through volunteer castings on Instagram, what made you take this approach and why do you think it’s important?
SD: I just wanted everyone to feel included. I didn’t want women to feel like they were sending in a photo and I would be judging it or choosing them based on looks or their bodies. I don’t choose anyone based on looks, size, ethnicity, nothing… It’s really just who lives in the area I am shooting in and who’s email I opened first, you know? It’s really that simple.
Another World is published by Skeleton Key Press and is available to purchase here.