What's Wrong with This Picture? 

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

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"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.


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