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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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."


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