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Naked - The depiction of women, a prolegomenon

Jan 28th, 2019 • Uncategorised

This is a revised version of a Blog post from 25th January 2019.  I am indebted to Sarah Drummond for her comments on the original post.  As a result I hope this version is clearer.

This post considers my photography with women, which has been a significant part of my photography since 1970.  I have always tried to make these images personal, engaged and honest represations of the subjects of my photographs.  I see my work with women as part of my depiction of nature and the landscape.  Like my depiction of the landscape, my work with women is becoming increasingly political.

I know a lot of practicing photographers and models will question my spending time and energy considering this, but I feel that to photograph the nude in this time needs serious consideration.

The Politics of the Nude I
The Male Gaze and The Feminist Debate

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.”

From film-theory-basics-laura-mulvey-male-gaze-theory

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

To sum up the above, 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.

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 extremism, as in the number of Christofascist 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 innocuous 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.

The Politics of the Nude II
Current Thoughts

To photograph the nude in current Western society is a political act.  Mere celebration of perceived beauty is not enough and I feel it is important to make images that confront and question the viewer; mages that arrest their attention and are not ignored as "more of the same"

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, each with the seed of the other within itself.  This dance of opposites is one of the reasons a photographic image can be so powerful.  The reciprocation between subjective and objective reading, each containing the seed of the other, giving a presence, dynamism and engagement unique to photography

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, each with the seed of the other within itself.  This dance of opposites is one of the reasons a photographic image can be so powerful.  The reciprocation between subjective and objective reading, each containing the seed of the other, giving a presence, dynamism and engagement unique to photography

Currently

In a normally clothed society the depiction of naked women should yield engaged, powerful, and demanding images.

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.

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.  My plans for future bodies of work have the depiction of women softening the figure-ground relationship so there is a mergence between the woman and the landscape.

Care of 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 was done by school boys in Mandurah during my exhibition there in 2018.  I have therefore deleted almost all images that can identify a specific person.  This has meant showing faceless images, which is a pity, but it is a partial answer to the digital sharing problem

Final Words

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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