I have revised my project a little. I am now calling it Hometown Nights instead of Oxford at Night and I am extending its scope to include not only the city of Oxford but its immediate environs. This therefore now includes Kidlington, a large and directly adjoining village of some 14,000 people which in practice has become an Oxford suburb.
This has turned out to be an interesting addition because suburbs and old city centres are very different places. A suburb has different architecture, a different treatment of space, a different purpose (residential, not commercial) and much else. In other words, this is a challenge not only of photography and interpretation but of psychogeography.
If the world situation changes and I revise my project back strictly to Oxford, what I learn here will be put to good use in the closer-in city suburbs within the Oxford ring-road.
The reflective task for this week is to Identify and research a real-life group exhibition that my work might fit into, establish its intent and discuss it.
I will choose the ‘London Nights’ exhibition held by the Museum of London in 2018 as an exhibition that my own work would fit well into – though clearly I would have to travel down and make some photographs of London first! I have been doing just that for many years anyway, in fact, though not for my degree course. My project is on urban night photography and that was the subject of this successful and wide-ranging exhibition which surveyed the field from Paul Martin to Bill Brandt to contemporary practitioners like Rut Blees Luxemburg. (Sparham 2017)
In the book of the exhibition Anna Sparham, the Curator of Photography at the Museum of London, makes several points relevant both to the exhibition and to my practice. (Sparham 2018) I would say that the intent of the exhibition was to show not only the history of night photography but also to show what is distinct about it, how it reflects changing times and cultures, and also how night photography is well suited to portraying the restless energy, rush, mysteriousness and alienating strangeness of any great modern city though in this case specifically London. Sparham writes:
‘The notion of the night is, after all, where the imagination has always run wild.’ (Introduction)
‘The concept of night photography is best explored through images that stand distinct in appearance to daylight.’ (Introduction)
‘The unsettling sense of change or loss can be intensified at night, when limited light adds to the drama and tension.’ (78)
‘Fear, threat and suspicion often lead the imagination to blend with reality.’ (86)
Sparham goes on to note that ‘voyeurism, privacy and surveillance’ are all issues with urban night photography and are becoming more so.
To unpack these remarks a little (the images that follow are not from the exhibition):
Night photograph has to be approached as something quite distinct. It is not simply photography without daylight and won’t produce successful images if treated as such. Brassaï’s spooky deserted streets are highly atmospheric at night but during the day are just another bland boulevard.
Sparham points out that images made at night need to capture ‘an aesthetic and characteristic distinct from the diurnal’. (Sparham 2018: 125) Blees Luxembourg always comes to mind as a practitioner successful in this aspect and she is certainly an influence. However, so is David George. Blees Luxemburg is adept at photographing the city at night, but to my eye George has the surer sense of place and is more clearly photographing London at night. (George 2020) A sense of place is an issue here. I am photographing Oxford at night, not Leamington Spa.
Night jumbles up our senses and primal instincts come to the fore. We are more alert to danger. This sense of disorientation is an essential ingredient of night photography and, when allied to the uncertain and the deserted, produces a sensation of the uncanny. Almost all the practitioners I am mentioning – Brassaï, Brandt, Hido, Blees Luxemburg, George – are accomplished at this. It is one of the most important things I need to learn.
Good images require tension. Aesthetics alone, in the sense of beauty, colour, light, are not enough. The search for tension is perhaps why Brandt used his wife as a stand-in for a pedestrian or even a lonely streetwalker in some of his night photography, and of course Brassaï went for the real thing. In addition, tension creates a story. The moment there is tension we start to ask ‘What if?’ or ‘What happened?’ This is clearly an important ingredient for some practitioners. For example, it could be argued that the only difference between an arranged tableau by Gregory Crewdson and an image by Todd Hido is that Crewdson has introduced a character and set up a story. The other qualities – the low light, the dodgy suburban buildings, the feeling of alienation – are very similar.
Night photography reflects the time, culture, ethics and so on of where it is made. Thus surveillance, for example, has become a pressing contemporary issue. It has become so partly from a climate of fear, and partly from the increasing encroachment of private capital in public spaces. What used to be open or merely neglected is often now fenced off, surveyed by CCTV and patrolled by private security companies. Unless one wishes to live in a bubble, these things are now part of the night and should therefore be noted. This marks a move away from the more aesthetic ‘beautiful mysterious’ of Eggleston or Shore forty or so years ago. A comparison here would be with Mark Power’s ongoing study Good Morning America. (Power 2020) Many of the images in that have very sharp social edges.
How would my work fit into the above and what might a reviewer say? I hope a reviewer would say that my work portrays Oxford in the way that David George portrays East London or Todd Hido portrays suburban America, though in my case sometimes with a sharper social bite. Perhaps they would also say that while my practice is clearly in this tradition, it is not unique enough to be truly distinctive.
So, finding my own voice within this long tradition emerges as my number one priority.
I guess the point of this week’s topic is to show how all photographs contain messages, including political messages. I need to be aware of that, especially in my own work, and also aware of how a viewer is likely to receive those messages. They may be received very differently depending on the context (e.g., in a newspaper or on the wall of an art gallery).
The question of the role of aesthetic choices in this struck me as fascinating. It goes to the heart of the debate over the practice of Sebastãio Salgado (see below). I particularly like Susie Linfield’s approach in her excellent book The Cruel Radiance (Linfield 2010), because she takes a much wider and more forgiving view than either Ingrid Sischy (Sischy 1991) or Susan Sontag (Sontag 2004).
‘Photographs excel, more than any other form of either art or journalism, in offering an immediate, viscerally emotional connection to the world. People don’t look at photographs to understand the inner contradictions of global capitalism, or the reasons for the genocide in Rwanda, or the solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. They—we—turn to photographs for other things: for a glimpse of what cruelty, or strangeness, or beauty, or agony, or love, or disease, or natural wonder, or artistic creation, or depraved violence, looks like. And we turn to photographs to discover what our intuitive reactions to such otherness—and to such others—might be. There is no doubt that we approach photographs, first and foremost, through emotions.’ (Linfield 2010: 22)
In order words, photographs may be there to change us or to shock us but they also perform many other functions and are interpreted in many other ways. This becomes clear in Linfield’s essays in her book on James Nachtwey and Giles Peress. (Linfield 2010) Personally I find Nachtwey’s meticulously composed, distant, almost formal images of suffering much more deeply disturbing than a typical combat photograph. Peress shares some of the same qualities but he is also very effective in suggesting something by showing only its traces. One can see this in his image of a beleaguered Kurdish mountain village. This is apparently normal life among the women and children – but it isn’t normal and both they and we, the viewers, know it. See Fig. 1.
The question of traces, the after-the-event, leads on to David Campany’s idea of ‘Late Photography’ in Safety in Numbness (Campany 2003) not least as a niche that the still image can occupy in the face of citizen journalism and instant video news. I do not entirely agree with Campany’s conclusions, however: ‘We may have been able to see the damage afterwards, but at the cost of a sense of removal. Photography was struggling to find a way to reconcile itself with a new position beyond the event. And it was discovering that sombre melancholia was a seductive mode for the still image.’ (Campany 2003)
Campany is describing the images of Joel Meyerowitz at Ground Zero in New York, but ‘sombre melancholia’ is only one of a wide range of emotions the still image can arouse. The still image can arouse anger, for example, as in Martha Rosler’s approach to the traces of homelessness in her classic The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems. (Rosler 1974-5) There is a similar approach to the same subject and its traces in the practice of Leif Claesson. (Claesson 2020).
Rosler raises a very good point present in the work of almost all the photographers mentioned this week: ‘Documentary as we know it carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful.’ (Rosler 1989: 306) I had not realized how problematic documentary can be, and Rosler’s point feeds right into another question, whether truly shocking images can change anything or, instead, leave the viewer feeling apathetic and helpless. It is clear that this issue has long been widely understood – see for example Berger 2009: 32 – but I am not sure that anyone has found a conclusive answer. What is left are strategies: some work, some don’t.
I do think the strategy of suggestion and traces works, but perhaps that’s just me. It is at least the approach I am taking in my own project. I will show the traces of homelessness, of people, of events, of an uncanny feeling that ‘something happened here’. I think this is more powerful (and more ethical) than showing the thing itself. See Figs 2 and 3.
Finally, the question of aesthetics and the practice of Sebastãio Salgado. Ingrid Sischy makes one very strong point in her appraisal of his work: ‘To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.’ (Sischy 1991: 92) This is spot on, if it genuinely is tragedy. Too much of the rest of her article struck me as a depressing example of the snobbery and elitism of the East Coast arts establishment. It was neither a fair nor an accurate appraisal of Salgado’s work. I much prefer the more subtle and intelligent approach taken by David Levi Strauss in his essay on this subject, particularly ‘Why can’t beauty be a call to action? Being politically correct does not signify much unless the work is both visually and conceptually compelling. To be compelling there must be tension in the work.’ (Levi Strauss 2005: 9-10)
This returns us to several things. First it returns us to the qualities of the image itself. Second it suggests that practitioners and artists should be assessed with an open mind on the basis of what they can do, not on what they can’t. Some people are documentarists and perhaps involved in politics, and others simply aren’t. That is not who they are. Salgado strikes me as one of them, someone in love with the visual, the poetic, the mysterious, a bit of a visionary. There is nothing wrong with this.
It is also the case that we live in a consumer culture. Key to reaching an audience is widespread dissemination on TV, social media, in the press and through popular books. Without that audience, no message will get through no matter how worthwhile. Salgado has that audience and reach, as does the Attenborough Life team, for example. The issue is how to work with them and use their platforms of persuasion, not against them. Railing against them will change nothing.
BERGER, John. 2009. About Looking. London: Bloomsbury.
CAMPANY, David. 2003. ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of Late Photography [IN] David GREEN (ed.). Where Is the Photograph? Brighton: Photoforum.
ROSLER, Martha. c. 1989. ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts on Documentary Photography’ [IN] Richard BOLTON (ed.). The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 303–40.
Vision 2020 at Falmouth was above all fun, informative and enjoyable. I really liked the theme of sustainability and climate change because the presentations showed me how much I don’t know about the world today and the outlook of those who in a few years will be running it.
Standouts: the workshops on studio lighting, medium format photography, speedlights and preparation for print. The first two were entirely new subjects for me and both were fascinating. I particularly liked the way medium format imposes its own slower and more considered approach to making photographs.
Zed Nelson’s film The Street was a definite high point. (Nelson 2019) I have walked that street in Hoxton countless times and never noticed the half of it. This is a great example of the power of in-depth research and it also raises a point about hyper-realism: the extent to which stills and film show us what is really there but usually hidden by our own inattention and the flow of time. The Street is a fine example of visual storytelling with so many lives woven in and out of the film. And these lives raised so many ‘what if’ questions: what if the developers had left the street alone, where is he moving to, will the pie and mash shop survive, what if Colleen had married her beau all those years ago? An image is only a fleeting slice of time but as the film showed, in reality that time stretches back seven or eight decades in the memory of some. To them that time is real and in its many interviews with the street’s residents the film brought that time to life.
The Street is also a story about the often confusing and brutal realities of change in modern Britain with its unequal power dynamics. This has encouraged me to reflect on the degree to which I too am involved in a project which will tell a story whether I like it or not. Therefore it is up to me to identify the story I am in fact telling, analyse it and identify its key elements. So, a bitter-sweet and compelling work that is helpful for my practice.
I was deeply impressed by the quality of the work and enormous care that had gone into each of the FMJ presentations. And I really appreciated the longer presentations by Toby Smith on ‘Visualising Climate Change’ and also Jo Coombes’ work on the Adgreen agency. Both struck me as great examples of how to build a career (or photographic practice) ethically, intelligently and with purpose. The do’s and don’t of marketing one’s work effectively were helpful in both cases – something else I need to know a lot more about.
Penryn is a lovely campus. The welcome was warm. The thought and preparation that had gone into Vision 2020 were awesome. I am very grateful and hope to visit again next year. It’s too good to miss!
NELSON, Zed. 2019. The Street [Film]. London: Verve Pictures
The topics in Week 6 have led me to think about the importance of context and decoding in my practice, the kind of power dynamics that may be going on in it, and how my work may be received by others – my audience.
Well, I could start by saying that I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class male – all true but also an invitation to self-castigation. All I can do is try to be as aware as possible of the influences that have formed me.
Context and decoding mean that I need to think carefully about what I am looking at before I press the shutter. I need to ask myself ‘What is really going on here?’ Otherwise, the danger is that I will end up photographing surfaces – shiny and alluring no doubt – but miss the dynamics of what lies beneath them.
Power dynamics lead straight to ethics. As a photographer I have a fair degree of control. I can choose when I press the shutter but my subjects cannot choose when or how they are photographed. I need to be aware of that and not objectify people or places.
The wider context of my work is that for the moment at least I am following in the footsteps of practitioners such as William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and Mark Power. This is all about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, expressing the uncanny, not glossing over difficult social realities and power imbalances, and not privileging any particular thing over another. Everything is potentially material for my lens. In the words of Stephen Shore, ‘To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photograph is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.’ (O’Hagan 2015)
This feeds into thoughts about the audience for my work. These are photographers known for their books and so my intent is for a book in same tradition. A question to resolve is how to tell a story in such a book because a book tells a story whether one wants it to or not. Story-teling is very much a work in progress for me.
There are, however, many different kinds of book. This week has helped me to think about that. I do plan a fairly conventional photography book but looking at the practice of Dyanita Singh has led me to think that in addition I could produce many variant ‘books’. (Singh 2020). A ‘book’ can also be a box, a frame or a concertina containing cards not pages. Dyanita Singh, for example, offers her images in sets of many different formats.
Now, my work in progress this week. The first two slides contain material from Richard Misrach and Gueorgui Pinkhassov, text and images. This is the intent I tried to keep in my mind as I went out to photograph.
HARRIS, Melissa. 2015. ‘An Archival Interview with Richard Misrach’. [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/archival-interview-richard-misrach/ [accessed 3 Mar 2020].
Two things in particular stood out for me this week. First is the degree to which our images put out a view of the world – an ideology, in fact – whether we are aware of it or not. And second, that in a largely visual culture now almost drowning in images, it is easy to forget that what we may take to be real, solid, permanent very often isn’t at all. What is required here is what Andy Grundberg identified in his review of the 1988 exhibition ‘Odyssey: the Art of Photography at National Geographic’ (Grundberg 1998): ‘Rather than approach the Geographic archive as a resource that required decoding and a context, they apparently settled for connoisseurship. … what is required is a critical point of view.’ (Grundberg 1998).
So what arises is the question of objectification in images, intentional or otherwise. While this was certainly the case in the long-gone glory days of National Geographic and its coverage of tribal cultures around the world, in fairness National Geographic never claimed to offer more than ‘A Quintessentially American View of the World’. Like Life magazine, National Geographic was a very successful piece of popular culture, and perhaps it still is though much of its output is now online. National Geographic offered a window on the world to many people who had no other and it also offered a host of science-based articles on animal behaviour, biology, archaeology and so on. It is easy to be overly critical of the National Geographic approach. In the magazine’s heyday, many of its readers would have been aware of a very different reality – war, famine and chaos – around the world offered to them nightly on TV news, so perhaps they saw through the dream too but enjoyed it all the same.
Nevertheless, the need for contextualization and decoding remains and is important. (They are, to begin with, a foundational approach to dealing with advertising.) Examples are the objects of popular culture decoded with striking insight by Roland Barthes in Mythologies. (Barthes 2009) This approach has been wittily updated by Peter Conrad in his BBC Radio 4 series 21st Century Mythologies (Conrad 2014). The upshot is that is it easy to see the surface and miss the deeper picture, whether it is the story and power dynamics behind the Nando’s Chicken franchise or the Shard (Conrad) or behind wrestling spectacles or steak frites (Barthes). Many practitioners do try to contextualize their work, too. Stephen Shore has talked widely about his practice (Shaw 2018), as has Richard Misrach (Harris 2015). The essays and reviews of Robert Adams can all be read as contextualizations of his landscape practice (Adams 1981) which then emerges in bodies of work such as Los Angeles Spring. (Adams 1986)
However, the message of the week is that the sheer number of images in our world makes contextualization and decoding both harder and more important than it used to be. In the words of Jean Baudrillard, ‘We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.’ (Baudrillard, 1994: 79). In Simulcra and Simulation, Baudrillard suggested that the modern world’s multiplication of signs, symbols and images leads us to take representations for reality, or even representations of representations for reality. (Baudrillard 1994) Baudrillard went on to say that ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland … The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.’ (Baudrillard 1994: 12-13) – statements that have stuck because, I suspect, they are both absurd and strangely true at the same time.
A final point. Images can also show us what we cannot normally see, often because something happens too quickly for our ordinary vision. In this regard images can heighten our reality – the hyper-real. This is a problem in the Baudrillardian sense because we can only actually see a representation of what happened – for example, a bullet passing through an object in a millisecond. However, this is also a source of art and freedom. At their best, images which catch these things freeze a moment from the flow of time and offer it to us as something that was there – a fleeting combination of elements – but which normally we simply would not notice. An example is this tableau by Alex Webb, a moment when everything came together, then fell apart. (Webb 2020)
I shall be covering my work in progress and how this week’s idea impact it in a following post.
ADAMS, Robert. 1981. Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Millertown, N.Y. : New York: Aperture .
ADAMS, Robert. 1986. Los Angeles Spring. New York, N.Y.: Aperture.
BARTHES, Roland and Annette LAVERS. 2009. Mythologies. Revised ed. London: Vintage.
BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
CONRAD, Peter. 2014. 21st Century Mythologies. [radio broadcast]. BBC Radio 4, 2014.
The topic this week was the Gaze. I went out with the gaze of William Eggleston as my intent, or at least that of the ‘Beautiful Mysterious’ which is the title of a recent book on his practice (Adabie 2019)
First, here are four images by Eggleston that I tried to keep in mind as my intent, followed by some of my own work in progress. The idea is that nothing before my lens is favoured, but nothing is rejected either. I am looking for the special in the ordinary.
ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.
In looking at the photographic gaze and my own practice, I doubt I can do better than to quote Richard Misrach:
‘ … all art reflects one’s politics, whether consciously or otherwise. Certainly, some images are more overtly political than others. Sometimes the politics are layered, problematic, and very complex. Being a white, male, American artist affects or skews my perspective on everything I do from the outset. The best I can do is try to keep this self-consciousness at the forefront while I work, and not assume that the “truths” I discover are objective or universal.’ (Harris 2015)
Substitute English for American and that sums it up. However, what really matters here, I think, are the ethics of one’s position and the intent of one’s practice.
To begin with, I am not that interested in scopophilia and voyeurism (Mulvey 1975) though it is important to be aware of them. I like the visual and take pleasure in it, probably more than most people. That is why I enjoy photography.
I think this manifests in two ways in my practice.
First, I can easily get lost in the dreamy details of a scene and end up chasing those alone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this but it can lead to rather weak images which rely entirely on abstract expression and from which thought, intent, a punctum is missing or at least insufficient. This course is helping to correct that. The following image and its dreamy bokeh would be an example
Second, my ethics are fairly straightforward. I am photographing in urban environments where it is very important not to invade other people’s privacy, or frighten or antagonise them, or remove their dignity or stereotype them by portraying them photographically in inappropriate ways. In a culturally diverse city like Oxford where people come from all over the world, this can be a tough challenge. That said, however, I am no saint and I am perfectly capable of being opportunistic.
For example, I made this image of an ‘uncurtained’ interior in the first module of this course.
Is this voyeuristic? It is tending that way and it certainly would be were there people in the picture. However, had there been people in the frame then I would not have made the photograph. Privacy would have been invaded. That said, I am now avoiding images like this and am concentrating instead on what the outside of people’s residences says. I am trying to concentrate a little more on the uncanny, the spooky and the surreal – the approach that has been called the ‘beautiful mysterious’, the title of a book on William Eggleston. (Abadie 2019) So the following image represents for me, now, a more ethically informed gaze:
Another question here is the degree to which I control or express power through my practice. I certainly do, though I am trying to do this in particular ways. Two examples:
First, one intent of my practice is showing the other side of Oxford in contrast to its public image as a prosperous and elite university town. Therefore I am not showing the formal, postcard views of grand buildings but I am trying to show what those buildings may be saying from other angles. And what they may be saying is raw power, questionable money, elitism and an indifference to those who live among them. That portrayal is an intent, a deliberate choice. So here is my gaze upon a prestigious new building, the Blavatnik School of Government, shown from a less usual angle.
The second example is photographing people. I have done very little of this because generally – so far – my practice has not been about it, though that may change. Portrait photography is a big challenge for me in terms of ethics, power and control.
I am comfortable with the following image – though I don’t think it is a particularly good one – because I asked the subject’s permission. The image was made with consent. He is someone I have chatted to on and off for many years.
I would like to take a more considered and formal portrait of this person with better lighting. This will require getting to know him a little better. The question of manipulation – because I want something, a portrait photograph – arises. I imagine this question must arise every time a portrait photograph is taken and I don’t think there is any easy answer. All I can do is be aware of the situation as outlined above by Richard Misrach and of the importance of respecting the other person’s dignity.
There is also a subject that is likely to arise with almost any urban photography at night: homelessness. I can and do have an uncompromising gaze on the power relations of a society that allows it to happen, but I am simply not prepared to show the homeless directly. It strikes me as unethical and exploitative. There are many ways of approaching this subject indirectly, of which the practices of Martha Rosler and Leif Claesson are two examples. So the following image is my gaze on this difficult matter. It focuses on the signifiers not the signified:
So overall what is my gaze? Somewhat sceptical, critical and dyspeptic, I think, at least when examining power relations in society – but I hope reasonably fair. Is easily, too easily, drawn to the merely visual and spooky, perhaps, but then this is often where the poetry lies. Finally, do I assume that my way of showing Oxford is the only way or universally true? Of course not. It is just one person’s view, nothing more.
ABADIE, Ann J. (ed.). 2019. The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston. Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses.
The gaze – how we look at and in turn are looked at – is a wide and complex subject. I am not sure how much I have taken in after barely a week’s acquaintance so I have divided this topic into two parts. Here, I will say what I understand so far about the gaze and in the next post I will try to explain how I think it impacts my photographic practice.
The consensus is that the gaze is about power. It is the expression of a society’s power relations and the degree to which we objectify others. Photography itself is also an expression of power.
The best definition I have found so far is from Sturken and Cartwright: ‘To gaze is to enter into a relational activity of looking. … The gaze, whether institutional or individual, thus helps to establish relationships of power. The act of looking is commonly regarded as awarding more power to the person who is the object of the look. The traditional of institutional photography, in which prisoners, mental patients, and people of various types were photographed and catalogued … function to varying degrees to represent codes of dominance and subjugation, difference and otherness.’ (Sturken and Cartwright 2009: 94, 111)
Ironically, the gaze is easiest to see when furthest away. It is very hard to see in oneself. Thus is it not hard to recognize the colonial gaze fixed upon unruly natives, the cold gaze of the penal system (‘mugshots’), the dehumanizing forensic stare of the medical gaze at least in the nineteenth century or the bizarre humiliations arising from the gaze of crackpot theories like eugenics. There are also the gazes of class and privilege – think Eton or Harrow, household servants, miners or today migrants and refugees.
But all that, one might argue, is ancient history. In recent years critics and practitioners have turned their attention to the gazes that define the power relations of the contemporary. Thus the male gaze and patriarchy in general have become a key element of feminist discourse (Mulvey 1975) and extend into subjects not immediately obvious, such as landscape photography (Bright 1985). This in turn has spawned an interest in the female gaze (Jansen 2017). I suppose I should bring in voyeurism and scopophilia here but I will try to cover those in my next post.
These things are important because they define the fault lines that run through our societies now. For example, our attitudes towards disability, race, ethnicity and gender have changed greatly in the past half century. How we look – our gaze – reflects those changes. Unless we are aware of these things, we will understand neither current social issues nor artists and practitioners creatively involved with them. Another example is the many expressions of the gaze and of social issues in portrait photography. (Angier 2015)
However, in each case it is important to remember that the gaze is mediated by the photographer. How the photographer chooses to make the image is also a form of gaze and will have a influence on how we read the result. This matters because visual experience is not nearly so straightforward as we may think.
Vision is a reciprocal process and reality is largely a mental construct. That what we see is created inside our heads – a blend of vision, personal experience and learned behaviour – is in the opening verses of the Buddhist Dhammapada: ‘All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind.’ (Fronsdal 2005) James Elkins has the modern take on this: ‘My principal argument has been that vision is forever incomplete and uncontrollable because it is used to shape our sense of what we are. Objects molt and alter in accord with what we need them to be, and we change ourselves by the mere acting of seeing.’ (Elkins 1997: 237)
Looking as a culturally determined and learned behaviour has a long history. Larry Friedlander has an interesting essay on this considering among other things Rembrandt’s portraits, particularly his self-portraits, and ‘Las Meninas’ by Velázquez. (Friedlander 2011) Of course both Rembrandt and Velázquez were expressing their own conditioning and the cultural assumptions of their time, but the point is that their paintings suggest they were well aware that a complex and reciprocal process of ‘looking at’ was involved.
The object does indeed stare back and each time we look at it both we and the object have changed. By the time one gets to Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863), the process has become much clearer and both the nature of the gaze and our ability to understand what is going on are far more overt. ‘Olympia’ caused a stir we can very easily understand today, given that it depicts a courtesan who is defiantly not submissive: ‘the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position.’ ( Butler 1990: vii)
The study of painting makes clear that the gaze is not binary. We look at and are looked at, but we also look into a painting (or text) and the objects inside it may look back at us and/or at each other, or they simply look outside the frame altogether. And in photographic terms, the lens adds a kind of meta-gaze across the whole field. This is a cat’s cradle of reciprocity and is not at all easy to unpick.
Two final points have arisen from this for me. First, in none of the week’s readings has there been much mention of wonder, curiosity, lyricism, even joy, or the calm and neutral meditative gaze encouraged by for example Zen Buddhism and which has in turn inspired a whole movement in contemplative and dharma arts including photography. One might argue that these are hardly pressing social issues but it is wearisome to live in a world of politics alone, one that has no time for the extraordinary talents of a Lartigue.
Second, I wonder whether it is possible to flip the gaze. The key ingredient here is trust. This is a subject well touched on by Teju Cole discussing the work of African photographers such as Seydou Keïta and Zanele Muholi in the post-colonial and post-apartheid eras. (Cole 2017: 121-5) Once there was fear and distrust but after independence people were able to meet as equals and therefore as themselves. Keïta’s famous ‘Odalisque’ (‘ Reclining Woman’ from the 1950s–1960s) offers a proud, free, independent woman. And as Cole says of Muholi, ‘ … she shows people as they wish to be seen. … Muholi doesn’t grant her sitters independence – they are independent – but she makes their independence visible.’
In other words, the gaze and its politicising tendencies are a form of imprisonment. We impose our values on something and thereby objectify it. But when people trust that they are meeting as independent equals, there is no need for such power plays. The gaze falls away, leaving what it was always trying to deny or to destroy: freedom.
ANGIER, Roswell. 2015. Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. Second ed. London: Fairchild Books/Bloomsbury.
STURKEN, Marita and Lisa CARTWRIGHT. 2009. Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd edn. New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press.
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