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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"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."


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