Maggie West’s Color-Drenched Nude Portraits Explore the Spectrum of Gender and Sexuality (NSFW)

Chelse Debo by Maggie West

Whether you’re sending nudes or attempting to free the nipple, there is no denying the inherent and unapologetic power of nakedness, the electric combination of empowerment and vulnerability that can be found in a nude portrait. Los Angeles-based photographer Maggie West unpacks that power dynamic in her second photobook, a sublime collection of neon-drenched nude portraits that goes beyond the binary, accentuating and celebrating the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality in all of its gorgeous, nebulous glory. Titled “23,” the photobook features 23 nude portraits of both cisgender and transgender artists, models, musicians, and adult performers, all basking in the hypnotic glow of West’s signature saturated lighting, as if pulled from the hazy outskirts of a dream world.

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Hannah Vandermolen by Maggie West

Coupled with essays on modern sexuality and sex culture by former porn star/novelist (and West’s real life boyfriend) Christopher Zeischegg, writer/activist Gaby Dunn, trans model Arisce Wanzer and MTV’s Darcie Wilder, “23” is a tender, powerful, and necessary narrative, one that embraces individuality, rejects politicization, and elevates the diversity of our bodies and sexualities amidst a kaleidoscope of rich color. West has created a stunning series trembling with sensual energy, the dreaminess of her photos emphasizing the calm defiance and unposed vulnerability of her subjects.

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Christopher Zeischegg by Maggie West

The photos in “23” are unlike any nude portraits I have seen before, and not just because they are flushed with color and seemingly lit from within. They celebrate the body in a way that is both empowered and natural, deftly maneuvering past the typical gender tropes to a place that feels refreshingly real, a vivid landscape of intimacy and individuality. The inclusion of essays on sexuality from a diverse range of authors creates a multi-faceted and much-needed discourse about the spectrum of gender and sexuality, revealing a emotional nakedness that is just as electrifying as its physical counterpart. We chatted with West about the inspiration behind her new photobook and what pushes her to keep exploring the boundaries of intimacy.

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The Kaplan Twins by Maggie West

Can’t get enough of West’s neon nudes? We don’t blame you. “23” is out April 26th, and West is celebrating with a launch party on the rooftop of the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where you can snag a copy of the book for yourself. The event will include live readings from “23” contributors, as well as a special performance by RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Alaska Thunderfuck. Mark your calendars and don’t forget to RSVP, because it’s certain to be a magical evening.

Tina by Maggie West

Tina by Maggie West

Q&A

LF: Hi Maggie! What was the inspiration behind “23?”

MW: I felt like a lot of existing nude photography books dealt with sexuality in a very binary way; masculine men, feminine women, etc. With “23,” I wanted to make a book that had a more contemporary outlook on gender and sex. I felt like our generation should have a book of nudes that was more inclusive to different gender and sexual identities.

LF: What drew you to create a nude photobook?

MW: Nude photographs are timeless. When you strip away garments and setting of a photo, the viewer gets a really focused portrait of the individual.  In “23,” I feel like the nudity accentuates the fact that gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. The viewer is presented with a set of bodies that are simultaneously very similar and yet extremely unique.

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Kira Noir by Maggie West

LF:  Your photos capture both vulnerability and empowerment. There is a sense that there’s more to the photo than just a naked body. What are you hoping to convey about gender and sexuality?

MW: I am trying to convey that both gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum.  I don’t believe that anyone is 100% one thing. We all have a combinations of individual traits, attributes, and preferences that contribute to a unique identity.

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Ryan Cassata by Maggie West

LF: How did you find the models you feature in “23?” 

MW: Some of the models I knew from previous shoots, some are friends of mine, and some I found online via Instagram or other social media.  Slay Model Management, LA’s first transgender modeling agency, was also super helpful during the casting process. It’s a really great mix of people.

LF: Your first book, “KISS,” delves into the intimacy of kissing, letting the viewer witness a secret moment between two people. Both “KISS” and “23” explore facets of intimacy. How was the intimacy in “KISS” different than the intimacy in “23”? What inspires you to keep exploring the boundaries of intimacy?

MW: “KISS” focused on intimate moments between two subjects whereas the subjects in “23” are engaging more directly with the viewer. I think my focus on intimacy comes from a desire to depict authentic moments in artificial settings. I find this juxtaposition of genuine emotions and synthetic lighting to be really fascinating.

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Hannah Vandermolen by Maggie West

LF: The photos are accompanied by essays about contemporary sexuality from a range of writers, including a trans model and a former porn star. Tell me a little about that – why did you choose to include them alongside the photos?

MW: I felt like the subjects of sexuality and gender are far too extensive for me to adequately cover in a typical artist’s statement or forward. I wanted a diverse set of voices and opinions to introduce portraits of such unique individuals.  I am a huge fan of everyone who wrote for the book and I am thrilled to have such talented writers contribute to this project.

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Janice Griffith by Maggie West

LF: Your work confronts current events in a way that feels poignant and timeless. The inclusivity of “23” feels incredibly important given our political climate. Did that affect your creative process?

MW: I believe that if you are doing a nude book that is a reflection of contemporary sexuality, it would be absurd not to include trans men and women and other people who don’t conform to typical gender norms. To me, this inclusion feels natural and necessary.

LF: Your work typically features experimental lighting that casts a surreal glow on your subjects. What appeals to you about creating within this dream-like state?

MW: My work often deals with examining genuine emotions within artificial settings. Color perception is a fundamental part of our visual experience.  I’ve found that when you dramatically alter colors of a subject, it causes the viewer to stop and re-examine the subject.

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James Darling by Maggie West

LF: What advice would you give to your younger self?

MW: Pay your parking tickets on time.

LF: What is your favorite thing about Los Angeles?

MW: Mexican food.

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Lauren Young by Maggie West

LF: What’s next for you?

MW: I have a lot of projects coming out this year. Later this month I have a large vertical billboard going up on Sunset Blvd through West Hollywood’s Art on The Outside Program.  I also have a piece in The Standard’s MOBILIZE! Project, which is currently on view in their West Hollywood location. Posters are being auctioned off to benefit the ACLU.

Overall, I want to start doing more large scale installations and public art projects. I built an installation for FLORA and am currently working on one for the 23 Book Launch Party.  I’m really excited to do more work in that medium over the coming year.

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Aaron Valenzuela by Maggie West

LF: How fast do you live?

MW: 65 mph. 

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Sabel by Maggie West

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