This absolutely astounded me.
I was surprised enough, when researching the art history of images of Adam and Eve, to find so many — I found at least a hundred, although I couldn’t use them all in my blog entry (link here), and amazed at how many Cleopatras there have been (link here). But nothing prepared me for the contemporary onslaught of actors and supermodels coiled up with pythons, boa constrictors and other serpens photogenica.
I believe the current flood of these images began June 14, 1981, when, after Vogue editor Polly Mellen asked model and actress Nastassja Kinski what she liked and she said, “Snakes,” a Burmese python was corralled for the scheduled photoshoot with Richard Avedon.
Avedon took to the idea, and asked if Kinski would consider posing nude with the beast. She said yes.
In a PBS interview, Avedon said, “Nastassja spent two hours on a cement floor naked.”
“They anchored the snake around her ankles,” and waited to see what would happen. Shot after shot did not work, he said. Then finally, after many takes, the (snake) undulated across Kinski’s hip and slowly made its way toward her head.
In a Washington Post interview about the shoot, the story continues:
“ ‘Natassja, this is it,’ Avedon said in a hoarse whisper, ‘Just try to relax!’
“Seconds later the snake came to within inches of the actress’ ear, then almost languorously extended its tongue, as if in a kiss.
“Another classic; another Avedon moment.
“ ‘She [Kinski] rose to the occasion,’ Avedon exulted, grinning, ‘the snake rose to the occasion. I rose to the occasion’ – all in a moment that would have been impossible to plan.”
Mellen said she did regret one thing. “I wish I hadn’t put that bracelet on her.” The Patricia von Musulin bracelet reminded us that this was, after all, a fashion shoot. Mellen said she had wished for it to transcend that.
The photo, first published in the October Vogue that year and in a second incarnation became one of the most popular dorm-room posters of all time.
But like the face of Helen and the thousand ships, the photo launched a thousand imitations.
Perhaps the most notable came 20 years later, when Kinski’s daughter, Sonja — not yet born when her mothers’s iconic photo was taken — posed with an albino Burmese python for photographer Michel Comte. The photo was commissioned for the 400th edition of the European magazine, Photo. It was published in June, 2003.
But that was just one of a flood of similar photographs. Most notably was the set-up by French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier on July 29, 2014 of actor Jennifer Lawrence. It was published in the Feb., 2015, issue of Vogue.
They are hardly alone. Among other actors and models photographed with giant snakes are Elizabeth Hurley, Jenifer Bartoli, Irina Shayk and Rocia Guirao Diaz. You will notice in the picture of Bartoli, she is wrapped with an albino Burmese python.
The yellow snake is striking, and has become the go-to snake for such photographs. (Perhaps too much: The mutant yellow python is one of those now terrorizing the Florida Everglades, having been set loose by exotic-animal collectors who kept them as pets until they got too big and unwieldy to keep around the family cat.)
The history of art is full of tropes, or memes, that get reused and developed over the centuries. I wrote about several of them in a 2014 blog entry (link here) in which you can see one pose progress from a fresco on the walls of Pompeii through the millennia to Manet’s notorious Olympia.
Supermodel and Playboy’s Miss November 2016, Ashley Smith upped the ante, with six shots by Giampolo Sgura in the fall/winter 2011 edition of Antidote magazine. She is selling snakeskin shoes and handbags.
Snakes and naked ladies have a long history. It began with classical images of goddesses, through countless paintings of Eve and the serpent, into Baroque paintings of Cleopatra and her asp and down to Victorian Orientalist fantasies feeding the prurient interests of its respectable bourgeoise audience. It reawakens with the artistic ideas of Avedon and flows down to advertising snakeskin handbags. For pop stars like Britney Spears, it becomes a stage accessory.
Could it go any lower? Well, how about pornstar Kristina Rose, star of 2009’s immortal Gluteus Maximass, and her own snake photo.
One could go on. Naomi Campbell got into the act (another yellow python), and so did Czech supermodel Karolina Kurkova (upper right), best known as a former Victoria’s Secret “angel.” And transgender model Andreja Pejic sidled up to the snake when still known as Andrej (lower right).
The horizontal pose isn’t the only one to become overused. There are plenty of vertical snake ladies. Sonja Kinski did one of those as well, along with Kate Moss — both yellow snakes — and Rachel Weisz.
Rihanna gets her photoshoot, mixing metaphors as both Eve and the Medusa. International models seem to love the pose, too.
There are really just too many to keep up with.
Then, there are the portrait heads.
They usually use smaller snakes, but many so beautifully colored, they are practically jewels.
You think that’s all? Well, it goes on.
Yet, all this is really not so new. This spate of snake ladies is only a more modern and glitzier version of the familiar snake lady of the carnie and freak show.
The snake charmers and
the tawdry end of the entertainment business that used to travel from town to town hoping to gather a few bored gawkers into their tents.
Then, there a million tattoos with the trope. One sees a long, slow descent from goddesses to dockside ink parlors.
But I don’t want to leave you with a sour taste in your mouths, so I will end with a flourish, from the camera of photographer Mike Ruiz and Zink magazine, in which Miss Piggy harks back to the immortal Nastassja.
Click any image to enlarge