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. See Figure 1.
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). See Figure 2.
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’ (Cole 2017: 124). See Figure 3.
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. 2nd edn. London: Fairchild Books/Bloomsbury.
BRIGHT, Deborah. 1985. ‘Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography’. Exposure 23(1), Winter [online]. Available at http://www.deborahbright.net/PDF/Bright-Marlboro.pdf. [accessed 25 February 2020].
BUTLER, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge, vii
COLE, Teju. 2017. Known and Strange Things : Essays. London: Faber & Faber.
ELKINS, James. 1997. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.
FRIEDLANDER, Larry. 2011. ‘Friending the Virgin’. SAGE Open 1(2), 215824401141542 [online]. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244011415423 [accessed 25 Feb 2020].
FRONSDAL, Gil. 2005. The Dhammapada: A New Translation. Boston, MA.: Shambhala Publications.
JANSEN, Charlotte. 2017. ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’. British Journal of Photography (Issue 7859. Vol. 164. May 2017). London: British Journal of Photography.
MULVEY, Laura. 1975. ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16(3) [online]. Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema(printversion).html [accessed 25 February 2020].
STURKEN, Marita and Lisa CARTWRIGHT. 2009. Practices of Looking : An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd edn. New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press.
Figure 1. Jimmy SYME. 1937. Toffs and Toughs.
Figure 2. Edouard MANET. 1863. ‘Olympia’. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Figure 3. Muholi ZANELI. 2016. Ntozakhe II, Parktown, Johannesburg.