PetalsSynopsis: Petals is about vulvas, that gateway to life.  Myths have been created about the genitals of women, a primal source of sexual wonder and magic. The vulva is still often a mystery, sometimes even to whom it belongs.

Nick Karras has brought a refined aesthetic sensibility to the forty-eight black & white photographs of the most sacred part of a woman’s body. The female form has been forever the subject of the visual arts of sculpture and painting. Photography brings the hard challenges of realism. Karras achieves an exquisite balance between an expression of art and the natural delicacy of a woman’s vulva.

Petals, by Nick Karras 8.5

I stumbled upon this book while visiting my local sex-positive sex shop. I’m a big fan of coffee table books, and of photography in general, and I was immediately taken with this one. I loved the idea that a man had taken pictures of women’s genitals without trying to make the pictures erotic, in effect making a relatively-objective document of the vast array of vulvas that nature has graced womankind with.

There was another similar book, ‘Femalia’, but I liked this one best because the photography was monochromatic, thereby making the differences about basic form, not about racial background; almost any of these so-called petals could belong to almost any woman. The book was an unpretentious hardcover book in a slipcase: the overall package was simple and dignified; it didn’t feel exploitative in any way, shape or form. (um.. pun not intended)

It took me a long time to get around to buying it: as with many photography books, and especially given that it would never be mass-marketed, it was rather pricey. For years I sought it on eBay, in the hope of finding it at a decent price, and would scour local stores for a sale. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it would cost about as much to order it directly from Karras himself – so I did, figuring that he deserved the immediate returns.

I was quite pleased with my purchase when it finally arrived in the mail. Not only was the collection of pictures classy and gorgeous, but it also included a documentary on the making of the book, in DVD format. Also available separately, it is included for free with the purchase of the book. Personally, I thought that it was a great deal, but mostly I was intrigued to discover the man behind the camera and find out what went into making this important document.

I say “important” because I honestly believe that each man and each woman should rest their eyes on the contents of this book – much like its author and many of its participants do. The petals that grace these pages at the very least can show us a side of ourselves that we would otherwise never see, let alone understand. Even more so, I believe that it potentially has the power to heal women and men of the shame and disgust that they feel about this sacred place.

As a matter of fact, Karras started this project for this very reason: his partner felt shame with respect to her own vulva, and he wanted her to understand that  what she considered ugly he found beautiful. So he took pictures of her. When he showed them to her, all her misconceptions were cast aside; she had no idea that she looked the way that she did to his eyes. Word of mouth made it that he eventually felt compelled to expand on the project.

The fact is that many women, young and old, even in this day and age, don’t know their genitals very well; unlike men, they can’t just look down and see them. Many feel shame for various reasons, through their upbringing, traumatic life experiences, …etc. A book such as this one allows women to see the many variations of normal that exist (to quote a gynecologist in the documentary) and, thus, see and realize that they are normal and beautiful too.

On the DVD, we find out about the making of the book: Karras’ inspiration, his frequent discomfort about taking these pictures, the reactions of publishers (including Larry Flynt), of the lesbian community, and the impact it had on the participants – Karras states that only about a half dozen of the 100 women were proud of their genitals, whereas the rest all felt conflicted about them. Many were relieved after seeing themselves and seeing the pictures in context.

The documentary also talks about the need for women’s acceptance of their own bodies: there are interviews with a few sex educators and feminists, including Betty Dodson (who attempted a similar project in the ’70s). There is a discussion about labiaplasty, a growing practice in recent years. Betty Dodson was adamant that the porn industry could be blamed (they routinely do these surgeries there!), because it is used as sex education when it’s actually sex entertainment.

But, for all the intellectual discussions, there are also lighter moments, such as the book release party, which featured a guest poet, reading from his “Cunt Variations”, consisting of the many words that are used to describe women’s vulvas and vaginas. His humourous analysis was both crude and insightful. And there was Ina Laughing Winds who looked at the pictures and described the women’s sexual experiences based on the way their vulvas were formed.

It was very interesting short film, and, to top it all off, the DVD includes a full 3/4 hour of extra interviews and discussions. Fascinating stuff!

But, first and foremost, ‘Petals’ is a book. And it’s about the pictures contained therein. Because, aside from a small foreword and an interview with Karras bookending the tome, its content is displayed with no introductions, taglines, names, comments, or judgements; over the span of 100 pages, we are treated to elegant portraits of women’s most mysterious and misunderstood space. It’s a book of delicate flowers, all different and yet all so very beautiful.

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