What's Wrong with This Picture? 

By confronting society's greatest taboos, Oakland photographer Frank Cordelle has created something truly extraordinary.

It is close to midnight on a crisp Northern California evening, the kind that renders East Coast transplants nostalgic for the musty smell of dry leaves and the kick of hot apple cider. Beneath a full moon, not far from a lawn dotted with a half-dozen languid deer and a fat, skulking skunk, Frank Cordelle sits naked in a hot tub.

It isn't his first time at Lupin Lodge, a naturist resort nestled in the redwoods of Los Gatos along Highway 17. The 63-year-old photographer exhibited his work here once before, seven years earlier, and stayed for a few days then. Cordelle wouldn't call himself a nudist, but as someone who has spent the last twenty-some years focusing on naked girls and women through his camera viewfinder, it's a state he's become comfortable with. For the past month, a collection of his photos has been on display in the homey wooden lodge down the hill, and an hour ago he wrapped up a lecture with a small but dedicated crowd and signed a few copies of his new book.

"So your photos are in the same vein as, say, Jock Sturges?" asks a middle-aged man who'd slipped into the tub with a female companion. One of the two other men in the tub had caught the tail end of Cordelle's lecture, and as often happens when his work is nearby, the fotog finds himself holding court.

"Not at all," Cordelle replies, his voice soft and a bit raspy. He's used to the question. "Sturges' photographs are mostly of beautiful, thin, white, blond girls, with a few others thrown in for good measure."

"Mapplethorpe, then?" Ah, the question that usually comes first.

"No." Cordelle shakes his head and explains that Robert Mapplethorpe's focus was mostly on men, and was often homoerotic. "My work is very different."

"Those photos in the dining room, that's what he's talking about," the woman tells her partner. "I haven't had a chance to look at them all, but there were essays, too, right?" she asks Cordelle. "That the women wrote?"

"Most of them," Cordelle says. "Some, I wrote about."

"There was one there who'd had a mastectomy — " she shudders.

Cordelle is used to such reactions. The gist of his project, he explains, is to document women of all ages as they truly are, from an infant at the moment of birth through a centenarian in her last years. While that may not sound so controversial, there's a reason Cordelle's work shows at nudist resorts and colleges instead of museums, and why he had such a hell of a time getting his book published.

His photos, although profoundly moving to some viewers, come as a shock to many, particularly when viewed out of context. Nude depictions of children and seniors are by nature taboo in a culture rooted in Puritanism. And most, although not all, of his subjects bear physical or mental scars, or struggle with their body image. Some are obese, anorexic, or bulimic. Some have been raped or abused. Some are afflicted with disease, while others have inflicted pain upon themselves. Desiree, nineteen, poses against a white cinderblock wall, a massive T-shaped scar dominating her chest. A year earlier, her uncle slashed her with a knife after she refused to let him have sex with her any longer. Kerry, 41, sits in profile, laughing, her unattached prosthetic legs resting beside her on the couch. Durga, 66, was given a hysterectomy in a Harlem hospital at age 31 without her consent. "Once, when the exhibit was at a college, several students approached me and said, 'We don't see anyone like us represented here. You need to have cutters,'" Cordelle recalls. He photographed one of the women the very next day.

The fotog patiently answers his tubmates' questions — yes, he gets written consent from the parents of minors; he shoots only women because, quite frankly, he doesn't find men's bodies as interesting, or as storied — and shares some favorite anecdotes. He's a gifted storyteller, and true to form, he loves to shock. "One woman I photographed, her parents tried to get her committed to a mental institution at age sixteen," he says. "Do you know what her crime was?" They look at him quizzically. "She wore a tank top to the mall without a bra," he finishes.

They gasp, cluck their tongues, splash gently as they shift in the water. "Do you live around here?" the woman asks.

"Yes, in Oakland," Cordelle says. "But I'm a country boy. Moved here from New Hampshire for my work."

"Do you miss it?" she says.

"I do. After five years here I still feel like a fish out of water," Cordelle replies. "I used to see moose and deer in my backyard, had a huge garden —"

"What do you mean, you moved here for your work?" one of the men interjects.

"Everyone back in New Hampshire looks just like me," Cordelle replies.

He pauses a moment while they appear to consider this: Did he mean a fit five-foot-eight with just a squidge of a belly? Confident and handsome in a boyish, been-there, done-that sort of way?

"White. German, European descent," he clarifies after a beat. "I needed more diversity."

The first thing you notice about the photo of Sylviaette Gamble Hall in Cordelle's book, Bodies and Souls: The Century Project, is that the color white is practically absent. Hall, then 46, stands rooted against a backdrop saturated with color: bold yellow walls, a royal-blue door frame, rose-red molding that cuts across the top of the photo. Her luminous caramel-hued skin seems to glow. Her elbows are bent at the waist, her arms extended forward, palms up. Like many of Cordelle's subjects, she gazes steadily into the camera, but her expression is a bit more arresting than most, her lips parted slightly as if she's introducing herself to the world. In reality, she surmises a decade later, the moment Cordelle snapped the shot she was probably telling him how her mother used to half-complain, "Sylviaette, you've got a mind of your own!" Hall's stock reply: "Well, whose mind do you want me to have?"

Cordelle once bet a friend five bucks he'd finish the Century Project in five years. It's a tale he shares in the hot tub, and often repeats to new acquaintances, laughing each time at this naïveté. "At first, I would photograph any woman who'd take her clothes off," he says. But he had no idea how tough it would be to find the broad range of subjects he would come to desire. Cordelle figures he's crisscrossed the country a dozen times, easy, in his search of women to photograph. Maybe two dozen.

He met Hall in 1996 during a jaunt to visit college friends in Berkeley. She'd heard though a friend that a photographer was seeking a middle-aged black woman, and thought she might as well put her card in the hat. Hall met with Cordelle to learn more about the project, and they clicked. "I could sense his spirit, that his intentions were good," she recalls. "He wasn't just some creep running around the world looking at women."

She grins as she leans over a Starbucks table near her home in Oakland's Grand Lake district, and studies her image in the book for a brief moment. She says she wanted to take part to show there's no way a woman "should" look. "The important thing is for people to see that I'm really no different from anyone else," Hall says. "We have such shame about our bodies in this society. But if we didn't have a body, what would we have?"

Before agreeing to participate, Hall introduced the photographer to the man who is now her husband, as well as her daughter, Mahogany Gamble, then sixteen. They, too, felt comfortable with him — so much so that the girl agreed to be photographed as well. "I already had a lot of issues about my body and my weight and I remember Frank talking about wanting to change the image of what people think of as the average woman," reflects Gamble, who is now 26.

She laughs as she recollects the experience, which she remembers as nerve-racking. "I felt a little bit embarrassed, and was kind of questioning, 'Is he going to judge me? Are the people who read the book going to judge me? Is one of my friends going to pick this up?"

Her discomfort doesn't show in the photograph Cordelle chose. Gamble wears a broad smile and appears to be at peace with herself, just as one might expect from a teenager who would a decade later find herself managing editor of a Buddhist magazine.

The one friend Gamble had confided in about the shoot remarked that she must be crazy, but participating made her feel less so. "Seeing all of the photos actually helped me kind of realize the beauty of women in a way that I hadn't before," she says. "Maybe not so much looking at my own picture — I think that brought up a lot of other things — but thinking about the project as a whole, and even seeing my mom's pictures and going through the experience with her. I felt then, and I still feel, the very real strength that women have. It gave me a lot of confidence in myself."

Enough confidence, one hopes, that she'll no longer worry if someone she knows sees her naked teenage self circa 1996. Because they will if her mother has anything to do with it. "Anyone who comes to the house will see the book, because it's now on the coffee table," Hall announces.

Getting the book onto Hall's coffee table proved far tougher than persuading women to take off their clothes. Cordelle had decided, in the mid-'90s, that it was time to find himself a publisher. A friend volunteered to help, but she gave up after a string of rejections. Another friend then took over, and also found it an impossible sell. "Pretty much every major publisher of photography books in this country has said no twice," Cordelle says. "Chronicle Books said no to this three times. I went down and met with four or five women editors, and by the time we left, two of them were kind of watery-eyed. They were so emotional about the whole thing. Then they said no."

He never received an explanation, but Cordelle assumes his work was simply too controversial. "That's just the way it's been," he says. "The kids are a hot-button issue, especially since Barnes & Noble was indicted down in Alabama for selling Jock Sturges books — what they called 'child porn.'"

He's referring to a 1998 incident where an Alabama grand jury indicted the bookseller for child pornography for carrying books by Sturges and another photographer. The case was dismissed, but, Cordelle says, "the point was to fire a warning shot across the bow to publishers. That this kind of thing might cost you five figures in legal fees if you pursue it."

When he was turned down by a major New York publisher who'd published the extremely controversial Mapplethorpe, Cordelle knew he was really in trouble. But the editor had said "a whole bunch of nice things about the project," so Cordelle called her up and asked for her reasoning. She admitted that she had a real problem with two of the photos. Two? Cordelle puzzled over this. So it wasn't the kids, then. It turned out that the photos in question were of women whose legs happened to be spread apart. It seemed he couldn't win. The editor didn't suggest removing them and going ahead with the rest of the book — not that he would have. Not a chance.

Cordelle's luck changed in 1999 when Paul Rapoport, then a music professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, attended a Century Project exhibit at a Naturist Society gathering in Massachusetts. Rapoport was struck by the powerful pairing of the images and stories, and invited Cordelle to show his work at McMaster.

What Rapoport witnessed there was like nothing he'd seen before. "My goodness, all kinds of things happened," he says. "People were crying. One student came across the sixteen-year-old, Katie, the anorexic, and was just bawling her eyes out and then ran from the room. The next day she came back with her parents and a couple of friends. That's the kind of thing that has happened. People develop an intense concentration. It's not unusual for someone to take two to three hours going around the exhibit, reading everything, and then going again."

Rapoport kept tabs on Cordelle, and joked that he'd one day start his own publishing company so that he could publish the Century Project. Ultimately, that's just what he did. In 2002, Rapoport launched Heureka Productions, dedicated to naturist titles. Bodies and Souls, officially released in mid-November, is the company's fourth book. "You don't have to be a big publisher with an office on Fifth Avenue to publish this stuff," Cordelle points out. "It turned out to be a much better deal for me than I could've gotten from a bigger house. I picked all of the photos, and Paul wouldn't have changed so much of a comma without my approval."

So far, Borders has ordered about a hundred copies to place in its stores. Barnes & Noble — still cautious in the wake of the child porn fiasco, Cordelle says — has requested only one. Buyers can order it through any bookstore, or from Amazon, but whether the average Joe will ever trip across it is anyone's guess. "There's a hierarchy of the kinds of images that have been deemed, and culturally constructed, as a problem," Rapoport explains. "When you see some of the images in the book, people who don't believe in examining things within context get set off."

"I suppose they'll look at the book in corporate, and decide from there," Cordelle adds, referring to Barnes & Noble's single copy. "We don't know what will happen."

The Lupin Lodge talk is Cordelle's first with his book in hand. After a half-hour or so, he takes questions. There aren't many. In contrast to his more mainstream and college audiences, nudists don't bother asking whether a straight guy who shoots so many pairs of breasts might spring the occasional on-the-job erection. (It's a question Cordelle usually poses himself — and answers, in the negative — as a way of letting his audiences know that no question is off-limits.) Nor are they surprised to see a cheerful twelve-year-old posing nude beside a backyard tire swing, or dancing down a balance beam.

A woman in her early fifties with a dark bob and a paisley red velour top — clothed, like everyone else in the chilly room — raises her hand. "I'm Toni, and I was the caretaker for Mary, the 94-year-old pictured over there." She points to the far wall. "Taking part in this was a big thrill for her."

Mary's photo, snapped in 1999, is always the last in Cordelle's exhibit, which at Lupin contains 31 photos but more often numbers 80. Mary had been a nudist for less than a year when Cordelle photographed her in her San Leandro home in a cherry-hued velvet armchair that matched her glittering gemstone earrings.

Toni Angle had begun to explore nudism shortly after Mary hired her, and to her surprise, Mary one day asked if she could accompany Angle on a jaunt to Lupin or to The Sequoians in Castro Valley.

"We'd sit in the shade, and she'd go topless," Angle recalls in a phone interview a few days after Cordelle's talk. "Mary had an incredible memory, and she'd recite Shakespeare with a man there. He'd start it and she'd finish it. She was such a lady!"

When a Lupin employee familiar with Cordelle's project asked her if Mary might want to participate, Angle says her employer was delighted. "I thought, 'What if your family finds out? I'm going to get fired!'" Toni recalls.

Mary, a lifelong Mormon, had no such qualms. "She was so excited, like somebody going to their senior prom," Toni says, "I think she enjoyed an aspect of it being a little bit naughty."

They kept the eight-by-ten color print on the living room mantel, behind a photo of Mary's late husband. Mary joked that her children would get a kick out of discovering it there after she died, which they did when she passed away at 97.

Angle says the exhibit has made her less apprehensive about her own future. "I used to have the fear, like a lot of women my age, that breast cancer may be right around the corner," she tells the group at Lupin. "I worried that if I lost a breast I wouldn't be able to be a nudist anymore, which I enjoy so much. But after seeing the exhibit I said, you know what, I could do it, no matter what happens to my body. I appreciate that."

She plans to share her appreciation. Angle left the talk with several copies of Bodies and Souls. "I can't wait to take this book to work," she announces. "Everybody at my job knows I'm a nudist — I told them right away, you know, so they'd know." She pauses and looks around. "After all, this is just a ship that we travel through life in, and we're going to get barnacles and whatever along the way."

Cordelle hardly set out to empower a bunch of women he'd never met. After graduating from then-all-male Hamilton College in New York, he spent a summer bumming around Europe. Back home, he put in two years as a researcher in a Harvard biochemistry lab, followed by four years in a Ph.D program at Brandeis University. In his downtime he became enthralled with skydiving. "I lived to jump out of planes," he reflects. He became an instructor and racked up more than five hundred jumps. Even after seeing a girlfriend die because she pulled her chute too late, he kept at it. Rapoport, perhaps fittingly, calls Cordelle "the most tenacious person I've ever met."

In the meantime, the young man, who previously had only dabbled in photography, began to note the powerful, provocative photographs cropping up in newspapers and magazines, such as Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a Vietcong prisoner the instant before his execution. They stuck in his head. Ultimately, Cordelle decided that to do something he found meaningful, he might have to take a risk. So he dropped out of grad school and used a $4,000 inheritance as down payment on a fixer-upper farmhouse in New Hampshire. He supported himself working construction while he brushed up on his photography skills.

"We were brought up to think very independently," remarks Guy Cordelle, Frank's younger brother. "The other aspect to it is that, as we grew up, we learned that there were things we could do to earn money to survive, in a sense. Frank started out as a biochemist but cast that to the wind to follow his love for photography. His carpentry skills enabled him to meet the bills."

Cordelle found work shooting for ad agencies and publications including Life and Newsweek. He had no niche, per se, but managed to maintain his base in New England by taking on all kinds of assignments. He photographed rock stars, politicians, robots, vacuum cleaners, and rose petals. And, in what would lead him directly to the Century Project, he spent several years photographing disabled athletes.

Cordelle fell into it by chance. His girlfriend at the time refereed track events at a local center for disabled kids, and he began tagging along with his camera in tow. He went on to shoot regional and national championships, and exhibited the images at local galleries. When someone made the offhand remark that, until seeing his photos, she'd never thought of a handicapped person as a "real" person, he knew he was on to something.

The notion of shooting nudes had been brewing since Cordelle's post-college stint in Europe, when he had his first brush with public nudity. The next step suddenly seemed clear. "Those athletes were photographed as real people — which is simply the way I've attempted to photograph women," he says. "As opposed to somebody sitting there on a satin-sheeted bed looking like the horniest thing in the world. I really wanted to try to present a more honest and all-inclusive description, if you will."

Cordelle kicked off the project in the early 1980s. Depicting women nude was entirely new to him, so he practiced on his girlfriend, as he would on others to come. "I think a lot of guys assume that as a matter of birthright they know how to photograph women nude. It's like, we know how to be good in bed, you know?" He laughs. "And both of those statements are complete bullshit."

From the start, Cordelle found his subjects through word of mouth. "Volunteers came to be very crucial," he says. "I can't tell by looking at you what happened — you have to tell me. It's not a question of running an ad in the East Bay Express asking people to pose for a hundred bucks a pop. I wouldn't get the people I need that way."

His initial focus was on finding women of all ages, and he didn't dig too deeply into their issues. One of the women he shot was a girlfriend who he only later found out was anorexic at the time. "In those days the word anorexic didn't exist in the public lexicon," he says. "But it's a key example of the problems that women face trying to live up to society's standards. One of the things I've had to do, really, is learn and grow and broaden my horizons."

A few years into it, Cordelle got up the courage to ask a friend who had breast cancer that was visible through her skin. It was the first time he'd photographed someone who had "something going on" apart from age, and suddenly, his artistic vision widened. The project promptly took over his life. In 1994, after he'd done a few small shows, he was invited to exhibit at Dartmouth College by a women's-studies professor. He has since held more than fifty college exhibits, typically staying a week at a time.

Jenny Miller, a counselor at the College of St. Benedict in northern Minnesota, first heard about the Century Project in the late '90s. After she joined the college staff in 2000, she was eager to bring it to her campus, but wasn't sure if it would fly at the fairly conservative Catholic school. She laid the groundwork carefully. "The first time I remember being excited, but a little anxious. I thought, in the worst case scenario, someone's going to fire me because I brought this here," she says.

That 2003 exhibit, and another two years later, went off without a hitch. "I actually had fewer problems than I thought I would have," she reflects. "The nudity is not a sexual nudity. You're not viewing women as sexual objects. If anything, you come away from the exhibit focused on everything but their nakedness."

Miller has integrated the Century Project into National Eating Disorders Awareness Week at St. Benedict, as other schools have done. "Many of the women are our students' age, and they speak directly to issues they're struggling with: 'I used to hate myself. Sometimes I still do. Here's how I get by,'" Miller says. "You go in there and you think, 'Okay, I just saw everyone from a small child to a ninetysomething woman completely naked, and they were okay with it. Maybe I can be, too.'"

One of Cordelle's most provocative shots is of a St. Benedict student who was pursuing a graduate degree in theology. The student suggested he photograph her sitting in the bathtub with her menstrual blood trickling toward the drain. And that's what he did.

Miller has seen scads of strangers thank Cordelle personally. "Frank has been hugged by people he's never met before," she says. He takes it in stride. "He's just so down to earth, with a delightful sense of humor. A great conversationalist who always has the right thing to say. Normally when men are like that, I don't trust 'em as far as I can throw 'em, but Frank is who he is. He doesn't have any pretenses about him, and nothing fazes him. I don't think he realizes what impact he has really had."

He's also a cheap date. He drives to the campus, uses a comped meal card to eat at the dining halls, charges what Miller thinks is far less than he could, and spends up to twelve hours a day earnestly answering questions he's heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Miller already has him booked for 2008. "I've said to Frank, 'If you ever find a permanent home for this exhibit, I'd like it to be here.' It's such an amazing thing — that's the best way to describe it. It's like you're walking into a room of women, not just looking at photos. And I miss it once it's gone."

Cordelle says he can close his eyes during a crowded show and tell which photos people are taking in by their reactions. He strategically places boxes of Kleenex throughout, but by the end viewers typically find themselves laughing. "There are a lot of tough stories, but the older it gets, the happier it gets," he says.

San Francisco folk musician Faith Petric can't quite recall how Cordelle wound up photographing her nude ten years ago, but she has a simple explanation for why she agreed to it: "I guess my whole life, in a way, I've felt that if people have a reasonable request for my help, I'll do it."

At her home in Cole Valley, the 91-year-old peers at the photo Cordelle selected for the book. In it, she sits on a wooden bench, legs crossed, leaning against a tall bookcase filled with titles such as How Can I Keep from Singing? to The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs. Sunlight pushes through a lace curtain-clad window, dappling her chest and stomach. She stares at the viewer through large round glasses, her lips pursed, not quite smiling. Asked what she thinks when she looks at the photo, Petric shrugs: "That's me." She provided an equally terse statement to accompany her photo in the book: "Choose your parents wisely."

This is the first time Petric has seen a collection of Cordelle's photos, and she studies each photograph carefully. "She's calling herself old, at 52!" she chuckles, indicating a photo of a sturdy woman with a pixie haircut who appears so full of aplomb that at first you don't notice the long, neat scar that slices across the left side of her chest where a breast used to be. "Put your hand on it, pounding away, sending signals to the world: I am. Funny old, freaky old, scarred old me," the woman, Kana, had written alongside her photo. Petric reads the rest in silence. Cordelle's postscript notes that Kana's cancer had returned and that she died not long after the photo was taken.

Another photo shows a woman in a yogic headstand. "How I envy her. I wish I could stand on my head," Petric laments. "I don't do those things, though I suppose it would be helpful." She does, however, still write a column for Sing Out! magazine, host twenty or thirty folkies at her house for twice-monthly sing-alongs, and perform at several festivals a year.

When pressed, she offers a single thought on nudity, gleaned from changing backstage and in other cramped quarters during her two decades of touring, which began at age 56. "If you just go ahead and calmly do it, nobody cares," she says. "It's when you call attention to yourself by trying to cover up that people notice."

As for the notion that women should hide or alter their bodies as they age, she'll have none of it. "It's the dumbest thing, that growing old is something you're supposed to be ashamed of!" She bats a hand through the air. "Psssff!"

For his part, Frank Cordelle seems a bit less comfortable about getting older. Asked his age, he's uncharacteristically coy. "Why?" he volleys back softly, gray eyebrows arched. "Does it matter?"

It's a curious reaction for a man who says he's completely fascinated with how you get from the first image in his book, that of a baby girl being born, to the last, of regal Mary. He says he doesn't feel much different about his body than he did when he began the Century Project more than two decades ago. He's always been pretty content with it, and he stays in shape with long, frequent hikes in the Oakland Hills. He calls it going to church.

A few days after his visit to Lupin Lodge, the photographer sets off on an eight-mile trek through Redwood Regional Park. He knows every inch of the trail — how long it takes to climb the steep hillside switchbacks, and where to stop for water, or to find a fragrant bay laurel tree. Cordelle moves swiftly and deftly, but seems in no great rush. After a brief break for a granola bar and a small piece of dark chocolate, he bends over to pick up a scrap of trash someone left behind. He talks about those grad-school mornings spent leaping from airplanes and of the solar house he built for his mother, who called him up one day, at 87, and said, "Okay, okay. Put me in your damn book." He also reveals that it's been more difficult than he'd imagined to find community in Oakland, and that meeting women he's interested in dating has been particularly tough. Numerous ex-girlfriends weave in and out of his stories, but he's never been married.

Later that afternoon, he gives a tour of his office-slash-bedroom in the Glenview district house he shares with an old friend, doing the odd bit of carpentry in exchange for a break on rent. Since making the Century Project his sole photographic endeavor, Cordelle has worked hard to make ends meet, relying on the modest fees for his college exhibits and the generosity of others. One New Hampshire couple regularly sends him a check for "five figures," he says, and every so often he'll receive a small donation from someone who's visited his Web site, TheCenturyProject.com, where he notes the financial demands of his work and requests assistance.

The only hint in his room of the subject Cordelle has spent so much of his life thinking about is a stack of August 2006 issues of N magazine, published by the Naturist Society. His photo of 21-year-old Christy — the woman who once had the gall to wear a tank top, sans bra, to the mall — graces the cover. Hanging over a bookshelf stacked with boxes of photographic paper and recordable CDs is a photo of a 21-year-old Cordelle at soccer practice, his knee wrapped in a bulky white bandage. He was intentionally injured twice in college games by opposing players, he explains. As a result, "I went through a long period of not trusting men."

Another photo shows Cordelle with Guy, his brother, a few years later, a curtain of hair flitting past his shoulders. A third snapshot is of his mother as a young woman, sailing on a boat in New York harbor shortly after emigrating from Germany. She died a few years after he took her photo for the Century Project.

A wooden bar, strung with baseball caps, runs the length of a doorless closet. "I get one at every college I visit," he explains. On the wall above his computer he's hung a US map dotted with red thumbtacks to mark where the project has taken him, and a dozen or so snapshots, including two of his old house in Bennington, New Hampshire. He lived there for thirty years before selling it to move West, and says he misses the sauna and studio he'd built, and the apple tree out front. Yet "I actually felt kind of liberated when I sold it," he says. "I couldn't fix up a house and do the Century Project at the same time."

The photographer has no idea how many minds and attitudes he's changed through his work. He wears a counter around his neck at his exhibits, which he unobtrusively clicks as people enter — there've been tens of thousands, all told — but he doesn't quiz attendants on the way out. He does, however, set out a comments box, which invariably fills with responses and model requests. By the final day of one recent exhibit, fifty women had volunteered to be photographed.

While exposure certainly has made Cordelle's task easier, it's taken him a quarter century to get to this point, and he's hoping the project doesn't take half a century to complete. The first book contains 97 photos of women of 58 different ages. For the next book, he aims to shoot all new photos. Besides filling in the age gaps — "I call myself the Century Project, so I've got to get to somebody with a three-digit age," he says — he hopes to find a woman who has undergone genital mutilation, a domestic-violence victim whose body still bears the evidence, a pregnant teen, and greater diversity. He still expects to encounter what he calls "wild card" subjects — women whose riveting histories extend well beyond his wish list.

The photographer has no grand expectations that his initial book will change the world, but the added publicity could broaden his access to potential models and help him to finish his endeavor sooner rather than later. He can't say what, exactly, he means by "finish," but he's not worried. "It will tell me," he says of the project. "I know that sounds kind of vague, but I have complete faith in the fact that it will tell me when it's done."

Bodies and Souls certainly won't make Cordelle rich. It isn't the sort of book most people would leave on their coffee table. And while his work may have touched the lives of countless viewers, he's still a bachelor living in a rented room at age 63. During his Lupin Lodge visit, when someone questioned why he doesn't undertake a male version of the project, Cordelle replied candidly: "There's a point at which I need to do something different and get a life."

His response was serious. Yet perhaps if Cordelle one day reaches the century mark himself, he will look back and realize that, sure enough, he's had a life all along. In fact, he has changed the course of history for at least two people: women who divulged to him that they were suicidal before seeing his exhibit, that it literally saved their lives. It's something he frequently reflects upon, even as he wonders when he'll again have a house of his own, and maybe even a family beyond the women he's photographed, whom he's come to think of as just that. He knows it might have been wise to put the project on hold for a few years here and there to hustle for high-paying work, but he doesn't regret the path he's taken. "There have been so many strong responses along the way that I just could not have walked away."

Frank Cordelle traded a steady paycheck for what might have been an ordinary, if creative, career. Nearly four decades later, only he remains to be convinced that he does have a life. And that it's an extraordinary one.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation