The series aims to capture two of ‘the rawest and most eloquent forms of nature’: A diverse range of New Zealand women, as well as 20 breathtaking local landscapes.
The women pictured, thanks to the skill of Steel’s artistic hand, blend seamlessly into the background environments, which vary from farmlands, to rivers, to mountains throughout the North and South Island.
The series came together over the course of two years, as the two long-time friends and creatives worked on the BodyLandscape project when they could alongside their commercial endeavours and personal lives.
Steel says he had done a bit of bodypainting in the past, while Quérée was well versed in taking beautiful landscape photos, so the two discussed ideas over a few wines and decided to combine painting, the human body and nature photography.
The pair made a website and did a call out on Instagram and Facebook looking for volunteers and outlined exactly what was involved: i.e. stripping down in rough, outdoor terrains for several hours.
He says the goal was to make the series as raw as possible, which meant they didn’t want to go for one particular, distinctive look.
“We didn’t want it to be a fashion, beauty or sexy thing, we just wanted to show real people in New Zealand to tell the story,” Steel says. “Someone in the series is a marathon runner, someone’s a lawyer, while someone else works in retail.”
Once they had gathered a database of volunteers, they narrowed it down by drawing on who was available in the particular area of the country they were shooting in that week.
“If there was someone we hadn’t shot – different body shape or different ethnic background, we’d prioritise that as well,” he says. “There was not as much age and ethnic diversity as I would’ve liked – 18 to 36 was the age range – but seeing as we used social media to promote it, it’s probably symbolic of who’s using it.”
As for the landscapes selected, Steel says they worked off a map and tried to showcase as much of New Zealand’s diverse landscapes as possible – from coastal white sand beaches, to the mountain ranges, to the grasslands typical of the expanses of farming country in Aotearoa.
The shooting process would work by Quérée first taking an image of the landscape to work off, then looking through his camera lens with the woman in the shot and directing Steel where to paint.
“The very first shot probably took like three hours, but after that, the process got smoother and smoother we finally got it into a really slick operation of one or two hours,” Quérée says.
Some of the landscapes were more rugged than most. In one particular shot in the South Island, the woman is posing nude in -3 degrees. In order to stop hypothermia setting in for her while she stood posing for hours, there was a bit of behind the scenes DIY work involved.
“We had those heatpacks that you take up the mountain and we’d tape them all over their back and legs to keep warm, or they’d be standing on them or holding them,” Quérée says.
As for the more intimate action of painting on someone’s body rather than a canvas, Steel says it was very personal.
“The challenge was making everyone feel comfortable, which is why we had that website and were very upfront about what we were doing. Then obviously going to these destinations, we’d be in the car or plane for three to four hours getting to know them.”
The pair also ensured the nudity in the project didn’t inspire the wrong message.
“We didn’t tell anyone to shave or do their makeup or hair or smile, we tried to keep it as neutral as possible – we didn’t want it to be sexualised,” Steel says.
“The theme is New Zealand identity and female identity and individual identity, so we also didn’t want to paint the faces because that’s yours and identifies you as you.”
But what they didn’t realise initially was the stories that would emerge in the process. One woman had been sexually assaulted and this was her way to claim her body back, while another suffered from body image anxiety issues and had only allowed one person to see her naked her whole life.
“The photo is insane and she looks very zen and not stressed, but she wrote on her Facebook that night how the experience let her claim her body back and was very empowering for her,” Steel says.
“When these types of stories started to come out, we realised there was a lot more depth to it than just painting some people in New Zealand. We’ve started to sit back and think ‘Woah, this is crazy what conversations are arising now.’”
The photographs are being sold in limited numbers on the BodyLandscapes site, while the full exhibition is running 10am until 5pm until end of day Thursday on level eight of the building on 4 Williamson Ave, Ponsonby.