Birthday Suit Puzzles
Zoom in and take another look. Notice anything unusual? On first glance at the captivating digital photography of artist Cecelia Webber, the image as a whole takes your breath away. But what’s even more interesting about these works of art is that the components aren’t pixels or dots or brushstrokes. They’re a scintillating composition of human nudes.
A Master Beyond Her Years
What’s especially mindboggling is that Cecelia is just approaching her 28th birthday. The clever genre she’s singlehandedly created would take most artists a lifetime to master.
“I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember. I recall trying to figure out the correct way to draw hands back in elementary school, thinking the way other kids were doing it was wrong,” said the New Hampshire native.
“The photo art I’m known for didn’t start until my last two years of University [at Southern California]. I was really struggling to get by. I lived in a tiny single bedroom in a dilapidated house with 20 other students. I had a tiny hotplate, a sink by the window, and a futon mattress on the floor. I was living on potatoes and oatmeal and oranges. There were times when I was incredibly afraid for the future – it was 2007 and the initial recession fallout was omnipresent. I decided to make a piece of artwork and I pushed my mattress up against the wall and rigged this little digital camera on a tripod balanced on a rung in my closet in such a way that I could photograph myself from above. I curled into a ball and took a photo of my back against this faded gray carpeting, and then I cut it out and placed it in a black background to make a photo of a girl floating in a black void. However, when I looked at it, I saw that my back looked like a little petal. I abandoned my first idea and threw myself into making the first flower. It all started in that moment, unplanned. I just wanted to make more and more.”
A Toiling Process
The organic process of creating a puzzle of human forms can take Cecelia upwards of two months to explore, plan, execute and finalize.
“I look closely at the shape of things and I see analogies in the body. I research as many photos of a creature or plant as I can find, and then sketch ways a person could form the shapes I see within its body,” Cecelia said.
“Other times, I take a photograph and recognize that it looks like a part of something else, an eyelid, or a beak maybe, and I go off in an entirely new direction. Every piece is different.
“My models pose just as they are, nude. Often, though, I ask them to leave on something special. Some of them are wearing tiny rings or have tattoos that you don’t see until the images are very large. My pieces are designed to be printed over five feet tall!”
Cecelia has a self-described pragmatic approach to photographing her subjects. “I shoot anywhere! I’ve taken aerial photos over railings in two-story houses; I’ve shot in a big studio space; I’ve photographed subjects on the floor of my bedroom even, standing on a table. Most of the time I use one model per image, but sometimes there are up to three different people in a piece.”
Getting that Special Glow
How does she get the lighting just right? Surprisingly, Cecelia almost never works with professional lights – she doesn’t even own any. “I have a pretty good sense for natural lighting. I love the unexpected shadows I get on people’s bodies as a result of losing that dimension of control. Unusual shadows have a lot to do with the ultimate form an image takes. I recently took a photo with the lower part of a leg lit up while the body was shaded – it’s turning into some incredible owl wings illuminated at the tips,” she explained.
Here’s another surprise: Sometimes the model in the art piece is Cecelia herself.
(Check out her portrait on right and compare for yourself.) “I’m in a lot of my own artwork, because when I am photographing myself, I have the freedom to create very difficult poses. A lot of the images you see in the artwork require a great deal of balance and muscular control. It’s actually quite athletic at a certain point, although they all look tranquil once captured.
“The large wing feathers in ‘Hummingbird’ were extremely hard to shoot the first time – I was balancing on the ball of my right foot, trying to keep my left leg elevated a certain level, leaning forward for balance and to the side to create the arc of the back, all without seeing myself directly through my camera lens, because I was working with a timer. I run back and forth looking at the image and photographing again. At one point I had to re-create that particular pose on a larger format, and I had someone photographing me, but it was still so hard to get it right. We ended up taking over 50 photos. On my own, I’ve taken hundreds of photos with the timer for a single petal, just to get it right. The whole body has to work in concert to create the right shape, and I’ve had to stop due to muscle fatigue and start again later. I’ve also developed a strange ability to visualize my body in three dimensions.”
The Work of a Genius
It seems Cecelia surprises even herself with the shrewd work she fashions. I asked what other artists might have inspired her.
“I like that I stumbled upon it, and that I’m the first one doing this, but most of all that I can generate these vivid portraits of the natural world without anything but my mind,” she said. “I see it in my head and then steer it into reality. It’s amazing to create something you can see in your mind and then watch other people looking at it, too.”
Success by accident. How does one top that? It takes an inventive genius to continuously come up with an idea that outshines the last. No doubt, Cecelia – who originally studied neuroscience and has had no formal art training – may be the da Vinci of our time.
“I see something and there is a sudden realization. There is a moment in which I know a piece is going to become a reality. I imagine it’s the way it feels for a bird to realize it can fly for the first time, and then to leap and be flying, there is no effort, it all just unfolds,” said the artist who makes it sound so easy. “I am not sure what I’ll be doing next, but I think we are at a pivotal moment in human history where we have to take responsibility for the environment. We are part of a massive ecosystem, full of diversity of life. I want to see people take responsibility for protecting this huge system we are destroying and hardly understand.”
Cecelia’s personal side
It’s easy to see that Cecelia emphatically loves philosophy – and humanity. She’s also a painter, grew up with five Welsh corgis and is a fan of Russian literature. Currently, she’s on page 30 of Dostoyevsky’s War and Peace. “Somehow, all of that affects my art. I feel great rushes of emotion up and down. I try to live life like a work of art; there is so much possibility in the world.”
To see more of Cecelia Webber’s photography, go to www.ceceliawebber.com.