Gazing at Photographs
How do we look at photographs? With a male gaze, empirical, tourist or an array of many other potential labels we can give or imagine. How do I look? What influences me in the way I see? Considering the subject of gazing at photographs, it has been interesting to discover that I have never really given it much thought before.
We are all shaped and informed by our family, friends, wider community and differing cultures in which we live and however much we may like to think we are thought-islands, able to come to our own conclusions when thinking about the ways we digest images I have found that perhaps I am more culturally influenced than I thought.
When it comes to scopophilia, voyerism and fetishism my initial thoughts are “no, that’s not how I see” – perhaps it is the sexual connotations that make me say that simply because my work tends to be without humans I don’t feel that these words apply to my gaze.
But with further reflection, perhaps if we divert the overt sexual links then in fact they do. Scopophilia is explained by Freud1 as the subject taking other people as objects of (sexual) pleasure by subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze and Angier said in Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography that voyeurism wasn’t about sexuality per se but distance is its basic condition; an essential separation between the seer and seen2. So taking out any sexual context, as I create my images am I complicit in taking my non-human subjects and techniques and subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze, and what about the distance that exists already between me and my subject matter?
When describing my gaze in the student forum this week, I said it was akin to voyeur and tourist. I view the world with an inquisitive eye – but my interests are where I focus my gaze and are influenced by my personal beliefs. In relation to my environmental slant I watch what humans are doing to the world through issues such as consumption, food production, population growth etc. but I am also a bystander in this – a voyeur. I see a scene unfold. My work helps me stay informed and by scrutinising my chosen topic I hope the things I gaze on will in turn be gazed at.
As I work within the landscape, using nature itself to create my work Urry’s3 description of the tourist gaze has resonated with me. In his The Tourist Gaze REVISITED he says that “the tourist gaze endows the tourist experience with a striking, almost sacred, importance”. This has made me wonder if when I look at the world around me I always see it through this tourist viewpoint. I am part of my everyday surroundings but they never fail to show me something of splendour and endow this feeling of wanting to secure it.
In response to this a fellow student commented that he felt my work “could be associated with the Empirical possessive gaze” and was struck by the thoughts of a maternal gaze; a loving, caring, compassionate gaze, one that endlessly worries about the future of those under my care. But he did question whether his was a “patriarchal patronising viewpoint of mine just because you are a woman?”.
For me this was an incredibly interesting perception. I would never describe myself as maternal in the commonest understanding of that word. I have chosen not to have children and have never experienced maternal desire in that sense. Yet I do care passionately for family, friends, my dog, other animals, and the world around me but does that need to be labelled maternal? Don’t men care for these things too? I do see that my work can be understood as gentle and delicate as opposed to in your face or aggressive, but again I do not feel that is simply more likely to be because I’m female. My work is driven more by frustration and anger at my own species apparent difficulty in seeing the need to be caretakers for the earth – simply because such wonder is worth sustaining whether or not the human race remains or not.
Thinking about this suggestion of a maternal gaze made me wonder how others would see my work. It does not upset me that people may see it as female – I am one – what is important that they grasp that its gentle voice isn’t without powerful comment. The work could be useful as an educational tool too, not just shown in an artistic sense. Although I hope that those with a predisposition to environmental matters may find my work of interest for me, making this subject become less about preaching and more about involvement is how I want people to interact and respond to my work – and that can be anyone who look upon it.
When sharing images in a webinar discussion this week, I decided to show a photograph that I imagine non of my fellow students would expect me to show. It was a portrait, one with a hint towards S&M maybe. For me, it is more tongue-in-cheek, with the dog (a painting) staring at the lens as the model, in a higher elevation as if the tables are turned and it is the master and the model wears the dog collar.
It was good to hear that people were intrigued by the image, that they felt it hinted at more before and after, and that the fact that what is supposed as the main subject (the beautiful woman) isn’t what is sparking curiosity and that creates the potential for a rich image. The artist Joachim Schmid was mentioned by the tutor as it he felt the image had hints of his work that related to photographs of the places sex workers lived in. And considering this week we had also seen Merry Alpern’s4 Dirty Windows project where she had taken photographs from a hidden spot through a window of a sex club opposite on Wall Street, New York. This more obvious voyeuristic style is not something I’m planning on trying, I prefer to work direct with people when I do so. But by looking at the images anyway there is a definite sense of being a voyeur, regardless of any sexual response.
For me this week I have gained more from the discussions about nature and female and how we view disability in photography. Take a look at part two to find out my thoughts on that.
But back to where my gaze is when creating and now looking at the above image. Have I simply created something to pander to the male gaze or perpetuate it? I hope not – I hope the humour and/or other stories imagined make it more than that.
- http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/pmahon/scopophilia.html [accessed Feb 24, 2017].
- Roswell Angier,Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5HgpBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA79&lpg=PA79&dq=angier+voyeurism&source=bl&ots=I2VpRe6dpL&sig=wxL51hQH5YkjPxC5WS-pjeWgv8U&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj_1_PKwqnSAhUKIsAKHbnIB8wQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=angier%20voyeurism&f=false [accessed Feb 24, 2017].
- John Urry, The Tourist Gaze REVISITED: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002764292036002005 [accessed Feb 24, 2017].
- Merry Alpern interview: https://www.publicprivatesecret.org/articles-essays-interviews/interview-associate-curator-pauline-vermare-with-artist-merry-alpern