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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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.


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