Jan 28th, 2019 • Uncategorised
Naked - A prolegomenon (Formerly the Male Gaze)
This is a revised version of a Blog post from 25th January 2019 titled The Male Gaze. I am indebted to Sarah Drummond for her comments on the original post. As a result I hope this version is clearer.
Personal History of Seeing
My love of sharp, clear images comes from my hyperopia and astigmatism that was not corrected with spectacles until I was seven years old. Since then seeing has been an obsession, first microscopes, then cameras. The subject of my seeing has always been natural things. This has not changed through my life, and the obsession to see and to show what I see with the greatest possible clarity is still with me.
This post considers my photography with women, which has been a significant part of my photography since 1970. I have always tried to make this work personal, engaged and honest represation of the subjects of my photographs. I have worked with the natural environment, or what is left of it, since the beginning of my photography, and I see my work with women as part of my depiction of nature.
The Male Gaze
That being stated, I am aware that since 1972 the rightness of the depiction of the female nude has been questioned and I feel it right to examine my future plans and ideas in the light of this debate.
John Berger famously stated, 1972
"To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. . . Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. . . Nudity is a form of dress. . .
Ways of Seeing, BBC, 1972
Historically the phrase ‘The Male Gaze’ came from film critic Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).
“The gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.”
“This means that the male viewer is the target audience, therefore their needs are met first and that this problem stems from an old fashioned, male-driven society. Her theory on how women are portrayed in film and the media is just as prevalent today as it was in 1975 when her text was first published.”
Recently, 2016, Kathleen Navin restated the Male Gaze position in relation to poetry at the start of an essay on three women poets, I quote
“Women hold the central position of object in the majority of literary tradition whereupon they are written of, for and upon as the ‘other’. These representations do not recognise the individuality of each woman, nor require the authority or consent of women. The ‘gaze’ is processed by a receiver/reader as knowledge of reality. Although the ‘gaze’ creates a shared reference and aesthetic experience, it is disempowering to women as it is coded by male subjectivity from a perspective of desire or pleasure. The ‘gaze’ has created a popular conception of women as sexual object, without power or agency, as subordinate to the male”
“To redirect the gaze women poets must claim their identity beyond objectification by owning their autonomy through inter-astistic relationships . .”
Bareknuckle Poet Volume 2 - 2016
The general argument is that the depiction of women shows them as objectified for male desire and in this process are disempowered. I agree that the much of the depiction of women is disempowering. Examples of this exist in mass media and advertising. I will not give examples here, but they are common.
In the mind of the general public there seems to be a shift to neo-prudery keeping pace with the world wide move to the political right and to religious extreemism, as in the number of Christo-Fascist world leaders at the moment. It seems to me there is a conflation in the general mind between the depiction of naked people and pornography. The regular blocking of inocuous images on Facebook is an example of this.
Workers using photographic media are the most criticized in regard to female depiction. Sculptors, painters and writers are given more tollerance and can almost do what they want. I presume this is due the fact that video and digital photography are the chosen media of pornography. The work I am discussing is not pornography
To confuse the issue, there is currently a field of photography described by its adherents as "Fine Art Nude". This area is without engagement, aesthetic relevance or political position. The models are generally clones of an idealised hairless body form and are interchangeable stereotypes. In this field no wrinkles or scars or signs of aging are allowed. Photographers who follow this school reproduce the same images year after year. I do not work in this field.
Objectivity and Subjectivity in my work
Photography by its nature is an objective medium. Writers, poets, painters and sculptors can freely invent, but photographers depend on a tangible subject to produce an image in a camera. Even when staged and directed a photograph is a recording of a visual event at a specific time and place. A photograph is therefore an objective document regardless of the subjective content. The mirror to this is that an objective image possesses a subjective content, like the Taoist symbol showing an alternation of opposites. This constant dance of opposites is one of the reasons a photographic image can be so powerful. The constant reciprocation between subjective and objective reading, each containing the seed of the other, giving a presence, dynamism and engagement unique to photography
Restated in terms of my photography of women, even the most personal and subjective picture has an objective component and the most objective picture of wrinkles and aging has warmth and humanity glowing within it
In a normally clothed society the depiction of naked women should yield engaged, powerful, and demanding images. I believe my work is distinct from the normal depiction of the nude and that my work depicts strong women who are empowered enough to collaborate in the making of such images. In my planned work I want to make mages that show compassion and strength and with political and environmental relevance; mages that celebrate but also shock and confront the viewer. My plans for future bodies of work have the depiction of women as strong people, while at the same time softening the figure-ground relationship so there is a mergence between the woman and the landscape
I celebrate hair and wrinkles and scars as part of the normal female human body. Pubic hair is important to me on several levels. On one level, pubic hair denotes woman, while shaved connotes child, and on a practical level pubic hair is a visual shield against the disclosure of too much personal information. However, I accept that shaving and tattoos are now the norm, and I accept and work with these.
As already stated, I see my women photographs as contiguous with my work in the forests where I live and the more celebratory work on the coast at the southern edge of the forest. The women I have worked with since 1970 have not only engaged with the work willingly and have enjoyed the experience of being naked, being seen naked and being photographed naked. In many cases they have actively collaborated in the development of the work. Without this engaged participation, and at its best collaboration, the pictures thus far could not have been made.
Care and image use
An obvious concern is of women being recognised when images are exhibited in a gallery and people with camera-phones making quick snaps and uploading them to the World. This is countered by discussing this with the women I work with and them being at ease with themselves and the images and being open about the work. If they are trolled, their simple answer is “Yes, this is me and I am happy with myself and my body”. But in these days this takes a very self-aware and self-secure person
I will end with a response from a friend based in Prague who visited my Bunbury exhibition, and who commented
". . . And "Woman and Clay" made me so uncomfortable I had to look away several times before I could take in the fluid and starkly sensual depiction of a woman embodying nature. To see the goddess innate in every woman hanging in front of me was astonishing and empowering."
Rachel Daubney, personal communication 2017
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