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Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

By Jenny Wonderling | September 9, 2023

Elsa Marie Keefe is a Hudson Valley artist who makes photographs of naked people. Like many photographers before her (Sally Mann, Maplethorpe, Jock Sturges, Vanessa Beecroft and others) whose creative work focused at times on the nude form, this young artist has also been inciting a lot of controversy and conversation about what the differences are between art, obscenity and pornography.

Like all of the artists mentioned above, Elsa has quickly realized that in spite of what may inspire her and be an expression of her courage and visions, such lambasting can quickly taint broader cultural perceptions, have huge economic and personal emotional implications as well as pose potential legal ones.

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

When Mapplethorpe’s series of sexually explicit and homoerotic photographs were displayed on the walls of a Cincinnati art museum in the 90s, the director, Dennis Barrie, was soon indicted. Yet the same photos were exhibited in a nearby university just weeks prior to no incident or backlash and were instead heralded.

This inspires the long-pondered question:

“What is and isn’t art and why?”

Even posthumously, Mapplethorpe and his images continue to be targets and central figures in a First Amendment melee over the legal meanings of art and obscenity. Thankfully, in the case of Dennis Barrie, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. California (1973), “that for a work to be denied First Amendment protection it must lack ‘serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.'” It took the jury a mere two hours to acquit the director. Still, the political fallout is writ large.

In 1990 another photographer’s work was under fire. Jock Sturges’s prints of nude women and children were confiscated by the FBI, even though all had consented to model for him. His equipment was also confiscated. After a 17-month investigation, charges were dropped.

Photo by Jock Sturges

Photo by Jock Sturges

Photography Jock Sturges

Photo Jock Sturges

The photographer Vanessa Beecroft has “staged thought-provoking, large-scale public experiments in relational art — titled sequentially (VB01, VB02 and so on), sometimes politically charged and often featuring large groups of nude or nearly nude female models.” Yet in spite of her impact, her show at the Guggenheim Museum in 1998 had strict parameters imposed upon her artistic expression and social commentary. Meanwhile, Sally Mann’s profound and exquisite work has been under similar scrutiny, she has received heaps of hate mail and has been pummeled in the press. While the government never took action against her either, such condemnation has certainly affected public perceptions, sales, her creative freedom and her family’s personal life.

Photograph by Vanessa Beecroft

Photo by Vanessa Beecroft

In her own defense, Sally Mann sardonically quoted Oscar Wilde who long ago pronounced, “that the hypocritical, prudish, and philistine English public, when unable to find the art in a work of art, instead looked for the man in it.” Alina Cohen, in astutely wrote, “Wilde died in 1900. Over a hundred years later, we’re still debating—albeit with more nuanced ideas about how power functions—whether artists’ foibles and oversights render their work unfit for exhibition halls, publications, and screens big and small.”

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Yet nudity has been a focus of artists’ work for as long as art has been made. (Venus of Willendorf figurines, for example, found across Europe date between 25 and 30,000 years old.) To many, there are few greater beauties than the naked form, yet as Puritanism still impacts perceptions of the body and sex, we continue to debate that idea. As a result, we see fewer and fewer healthy examples of non-sexualized nakedness or clothing-optional spaces. Our prudishness is even affecting how art history can be taught in schools in some places, including censoring the work of the great Michelangelo. NPR absurdly, tragically reported, among others, that “Hope Carrasquilla, a Florida principal who was asked to resign in March after sixth-grade students were taught about and shown a picture of Michelangelo’s David statue.”

Michelangelo's Statue David from David and Goliath

Elsa’s work is playful, earth-honoring, celebratory, visceral and sometimes emotionally raw. It documents and explores, along with her written entries on social media, what it means to be a woman, a human being, and a creative force. She is honest about her life’s challenges, her judgments of her own body, her breakups, breakdowns and financial struggles, and especially about how the confinements of perceptions are impacting her work and life. Her site was taken down off when she shared an image of an intergenerational family of nudists on a cliff. For other images of herself and other women, she has received hate mail. Her images and videos have been appropriated without consent and shared on porn sites. Instagram images have been flagged and blocked, her accounts closed without even a conversation. All this has affected her exposure in the art world and online, and in turn, sales. Now money is tight. Sometimes she can meet the obstacles with humor and patience. Sometimes, quite frankly, she feels wrecked by it all, especially because naked is how she feels most herself and most alive. This is a freedom she wants to share with others, to validate the beauty of their humanness and their connection to the natural world, as her family has done for her. She does this by offering others a safe space to express and be fully themselves. She documents their unfurling (or lack of) inhibition in her lens, and or deepens safe spaces through her workshops like the one she has upcoming on September 29th in Woodstock, Goddess Healing Nature Retreat. In it she offers “a NUDE circle & healing art experience.” But adds, “However you don’t have to be literally naked if you don’t want to be. Just wear something that makes you feel nude, vulnerable or cozy.”

More information to the Goddess Healing Nature Retreat HERE.

From Bare Roots

Elsa grew up in a bohemian and well-educated family that celebrated freedom, creativity, and people relaxed in their naked form–both around each other and in the world. Her father, an amateur photographer, regularly documented their family’s daily life, with a “clothes or no clothes” attitude that embraced an honesty of expression. Elsa’s mother described feeling like an alien in her long-ago suburban world and even as a girl sought out solitary walks that led her to ponds and forests. When Elsa’s mother was recently asked why she liked to be naked, she answered, “I just felt closer to nature, like it was a gesture to connect; like I was communicating with nature. I felt more embodied and I think that’s what the world needs today: more embodiment vs. being in our heads. You slow down when you’re naked. You feel the water. When you have bare feet you don’t charge through nature. You feel the ground…you just feel more alive.”

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Sacred Nature

These “evolved hippies,” as Elsa describes her parents, set her on a path that would have her questioning societal norms, embracing her wild form, and communing with nature and others in a way that works to remove boundaries of separation. In her Artist’s Statement on her (newest) site, she wrote:

“We are all born wild. Being naked is our primal truth. My photographic practice is about remembering our sacred nature and celebrating how our bodies mirror and embody the natural world. My imagery explores relationships between the human figure and the elements by integrating the subjects into the landscape through palette, composition, and contour. I aim to capture moments of freedom through the lens and share healing in global collaborations. Within these works, I am questioning the collateral effects of the porn industry and how they reinforce shame and discomfort around the human form. I hope to convey vulnerability and the inherent conflict of innocence versus sexuality. The history of language and art has always referenced shame as part of our existence, and the images are a reaction and an attempt to rewrite a society-imposed narrative. The process aims to liberate collaborators and viewers by finding freedom in expression and safety in oneness.”

What Is Right, What is Wrong?

In one Instagram post, Elsa candidly wrote, “Today I was offered money for sex. This has happened before. This time it feels different. It feels real. It feels dark, out of the question, yet necessary. I really need money right now. I immediately felt and thought no, but I really thought about it, I’m still thinking about it…It’s very confusing for people who look at my art because most humans associate nudity with sex. So I suppose when people see the freedom of expression portrayed through my images and art, the nude human body acting as a vehicle for communication, they assume that I want to have sex, or will have sex, or are willing to have sex. This is not the case. My work for many years has been all about the innocence of the nude human form, and this is how I feel on the inside, normal, innocent, despite my life experiences that could be categorized as insane or inappropriate.”

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

“Although I am in a phase where I’m exploring sexuality within my work and personal life, attempting to heal past trauma, this does not mean that I want to or I’m willing to have sex with anybody except for someone whom I’m in a relationship with. I am solely interested in healing past traumas in my personal life and understanding sexuality from a deeper physiological, psychological and artistic standpoint. I am praying so hard that by choosing to follow my heart and my intuition, making this choice essentially turning down between $100-300k per year (minimum) for a few hours of my time each week, that somehow the universe will present opportunities to acquire money in different ways. I am praying for a patron, an angel investor, anyone who truly sees what I am trying to do, my energy, and wants to support the purchasing of art materials I need, housing costs, and who wants to support my journey. I’m trying so hard to take this as a sign that money and opportunities around money are on the way… What is sex? What is work? What is right? What is wrong?”

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

In another post, Elsa asked, “Do you think posting photos of myself naked and or modeling takes away from my art or me as an artist? After careful consideration, I’ve decided to start @onlyfans@elsamariekeefeart‘ again as it is the only place I can share some of my #art without being censored. Part of the conversation surrounding my work is about sex/sensuality/the porn industry… so as controversial as this site is, it is a part of the discussion surrounding the work I do. After a long month or two away from this platform and away from technology/art/ life, I decided to start using this platform again because it is the only place where I can share my most vulnerable, arguably sexual or sensual work. I started my first page here in order to share and show the Vulva Project. I will continue to do that here but with much more care and contextualization. This platform comes with so much negativity and corrupt connotations. I hope to break the barriers here and within our greater collective consciousness as I heal my own wounds and traumas… after all, sexual energy is primordial energy and part of the human experience.”


Recently INSIDE + OUT had the opportunity to settle in with Elsa for a shame-free exchange about these topics that seem so relevant to these times. Here’s what she shared:

INSIDE + OUT: Why do you feel that your work is controversial to others, even in this day and age?

Elsa Marie Keefe: Well, first of all, the nude human form is the base of all my work. Although nudity is something extremely natural and normal and second nature to me, I’ve come to find out that most of America still has many issues, insecurities and shame associated with nudity. And then on top of that, I’ve really been pushing boundaries in recent years. I have been working with nudist families around the country and working at nudist festivals and campgrounds, just promoting family-friendly, innocent nudity, which is the way that I grew up as a kid, capturing this on camera. So I’m photographing my friends who are raising their children naked and free in the woods.

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

As I’ve approached and moved through my Saturn Return into my early 30s, I’ve started to realize my own sexual trauma, and how it relates to my psyche as well as the collective psyche and shame around the body. I started something called the Vulva Project and I’ve begun looking deeply into the more sexual or sensual side of nudity and photography; I’ve been really exploring. The most recent narrative within my work has been focused on the duality between innocence versus sexuality and finding this balance within my work. I really try to find a way to honor and promote the innocent, family-friendly nudists, and culture while also honoring and sharing my own evolution, my own personal journey, and overcoming shame surrounding the vulva, sex and sexuality. So that dance and that balance and juggling act has been very interesting and tough for me. My work has been taken out of context by people like a certain social media guy recently. But it’s been very interesting because I’m always thinking to myself, “How can we raise our children to be healthy, happy, naked, free and running through the woods?” Also, how can we maintain and explore our sexuality and sensuality within our personal lives and relationships? How can we exist in and experience such a duality in a balanced way again, promoting innocence and then also honoring ourselves as sensual beings?

Can you tell our readers a bit more about your work?

I specialize in working with the nude human form and nature, but I also have a studio setup. I can offer endorsed sessions and then I also am able to do more classical portraiture headshots, boudoirs, family portraits, kind of your run-of-the-mill photography, client work of any sort…pretty much everything short of big weddings, but I offer anything and everything photographically. In addition to still fine art photography, mixed media work, and photographic client work, I create videos. I also work as a director, producer, model and actress depending on the project.

How long have you been doing all this?

I have been shooting professionally for over 10 years. My work started in fashion, commercial photography, and then I transitioned to fine art photography. I still work with small businesses and brands when the energy is aligned. I’ve been doing art for my entire life of 30+ years, and it’s taken on different forms.

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

So what do you think is the most challenging to people that are not celebrating the body in the ways you are? Why do you feel like it poses such a threat?

I would say that a lot of it stems from religion, and also from the way that we are brought up in this culture where we are taught to feel shame about our body and about the human form. Some people can be very affected in a negative way just by seeing the nude human form. And then, when I was actually sharing my family portraiture… when people see naked children…especially with one of the hot topics in today’s media being child pornography and child trafficking, which of course, they’re very important subjects, but like anything, is now part of cancel culture and like anything popular is oftentimes taken to the extreme, or people are utilizing these topics as clickbait to move forward their own following on social media platforms. So I found that a lot of people will look at the photographs of a mother nursing a child, or a nudist family, and they’ll immediately assume it’s child pornography. Or they’ll be very scared, and they’ll get very protective because they haven’t had experience with those things in their own lives…with not having been able to be truly free as a child or being able to raise their families that way. I’m no longer sharing those images online due to a recent media situation; I’m only going to be sharing those in gallery shows in the future, and in my fine art books.

It’s also tricky because the children haven’t necessarily given permission, or they don’t realize the impact that they’re having or may have. They’re not of an age to be making such important decisions for themselves.

Right and… most of the children I have worked with are very evolved. Some of them choose not to be in the photos, and so they’re not. Some of them choose to be. I want to share my perspective: I’m an adult now, and my parents took photos of me as a kid naked my entire childhood because I was always naked. My dad was into photography and so he just captured our entire lives, clothes, no clothes. And me being an adult looking back on that…I am so eternally grateful that he took the liberty to take those images because it’s helped me remember who I am, it’s helped me remember that sense of freedom. It was capturing the moment. And, yet I totally see where there could be a lot of blurry lines. That’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned recently with the media backlash: realizing all of the implications around this.

I’m definitely taking a step back. I’m barely posting photos online anymore. At the same time, as one of my fellow artists said recently, as I was crying for hours about this, she reminded me of something her professor said, who also did family portraiture of nudes. Her professor said, “It’s just a picture; it’s not that big of a deal.” You know, sometimes we make this stuff and we get so worked up; we’re all looking for something to get passionate about. We get so worked up about these things as artists and creators, that it becomes life or death, it becomes so dramatic. That’s something I’m trying to remind myself of: “Okay, it’s just an image. I know I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve only captured families living their lives. I’ve had model releases for every single picture. I feel like when you do something that your heart is in the right place, and your intentions are good… I’m just trying not to let the fear and the hatred that is being exploited and exposed and disseminated to me across platforms affect my mental health as much as possible right now.

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

What about Nudism in the Hudson Valley?

I’m new to the Hudson Valley. I moved up from New York City. I don’t have too much experience in this area but I’m looking forward to connecting with like-minded people. I’ve already met a few folks who will go plunging in a river together without a bathing suit, but I know that there are very few places up here where it is legal and accepted. From what I’ve heard, there are quite a bit more areas in nature that used to be open to nudists in nature, as well as activities that have been shut down. There are still a few places where I’ve gotten naked and gone into swimming holes but I know that it’s probably not legal. I just make sure that nobody is around. I was part of a really big organization the past couple of years called I was traveling all over the country to different nudist grounds and festivals with them and promoting family-friendly content. They too, were completely slaughtered by the media from this one guy on Instagram recently. A lot of what I was doing with them was promoting nudity online as they were getting their platform up and running.

It says on the site, “If it was totally natural to be naked, we would have been born that way.” Hilarious, not to mention…true.

Yeah, that was my main job for a while and they were canceled on Instagram; they shut down everything and with it a big source of income. They realized how uneducated most of America is and how many hurt people there are out there. Unfortunately, we can’t promote family-friendly nudity online because of where our entire system is at. They are getting their website up and running again though, trying to get proof of concept, but they will not be including families. We’ll just be including adults, to avoid any more backlash.

If you could be given a wand to wave and you could help people embrace healthy intimacy and healthy body awareness and body relationships in a widespread way, what would you do to bring that forth?

I would encourage people to find a safe and secluded place in nature, whether that be in your backyard or if you live in a busier area, make a little private section in your backyard outside and just let yourself lay naked on the earth. Let your skin absorb the sunlight for at least 20 minutes a day if possible, even just starting with a five-minute session of just laying naked in nature. One of my favorite practices is Yoni tanning, where you actually allow the sunlight to absorb into your genital area or people could try naked yoga. These are all practices that are really, really cathartic and liberating. If you’re too scared, or if it’s just too new to go outside, just spend a few minutes naked in your home, besides when you’re in the shower of course, or besides when you’re getting changed. Just allow yourself to be nude for five minutes, whether it’s just, you know, in meditation, or laying on your back and breathing, connecting with different parts of your body energetically, or just stretching, and just start there and see how you feel. And then if you get more comfortable, you know, maybe attending one of my nude women’s healing circles that I have, from time to time or there are a bunch of different nude nature events. And finally, obviously, my passion is photography, and making the body a piece of art through the lens of the camera. So do a photo session with me, see how it feels to be naked in nature and become a piece of art yourself!

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Can you share with us the most beautiful experience you’ve had with a woman who, because of a workshop of yours, or a photo session with you, was able to express a more compassionate sense of self?

Well, these spaces allow us to connect with our own bodies on a much deeper level and not judge others. The first circle I was hosting was through an organization in New York City. A young Hasidic Jewish woman attended who had never, ever been naked, outside of getting changed. Between a shower and putting on her clothes, she came and sat naked with us and just experienced such a sense of liberation. I loved doing these when I was living in the city especially because I would get such diverse walks of life. Another woman named Kajal from India, had not been naked beyond showering and changing as well. Her brother had just died, and with us, she experienced this great catharsis within her own mind and body. Many tears were flowing. Being completely stripped out of clothing allows you to be even more in touch with your own body’s sensitivity and sensations in both the psyche and in your physical body. So she was able to really grieve the loss of her brother and share her experience with us, while also overcoming this collective sense of shame that many of us have with our bodies. Ever since that first meeting, she’s come to all of my healing circles. Since then, she’s written books and is really helping the world heal in her own way as well. Those are just a couple of examples.

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Any last comments about how your childhood shaped who you are?

I grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. My mom said, “We raised our kids to love nature. We used to say to them, “This is your church. See the beauty. Smell the air.” Thinking back, I realize it was about embodying the divine within, bringing in the divine… we weren’t exhibitionists, we would always seem to find campsites or places where it was okay to be naked. It’s actually pretty simple; it was a spiritual thing. We didn’t go to church, we considered the majesty of the world. If you take care of Mother Earth, she’ll take care of you…it was an ethos, a philosophical belief system. Connecting with the land… it was always part of my life, even in high school we would go to Minnewaska Falls and get naked. Nature doesn’t get dressed up for you. Why would you get dressed up for nature?

Naked Truth, an Interview with Elsa Marie Keefe

Featured Interview by Jenny Wonderling for INSIDE+OUT UPSTATE NY.

Click HERE to see all of our exclusive interviews with the amazing folks that proudly call the Hudson Valley home.

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