Photography Contexts and Illusions: Final Essay

Tania Allen

BLS 340: Photography: Contexts and Illusions

Ann Millett-Gallant

December 8, 2009

Explaining “the Gaze”

In photography, an image is created according to the photographer’s vision, their desire; the end result has little to do with the subject’s whims or wants. In fact, the subject of a photograph – whether it is a landscape, a still life or a posed portrait – has little to no control of the photograph being taken of them.  The concept of “the gaze” is related to this voyeurism and objectification in photographic images.  By the very nature of their creation, photographs turn their subjects into objects to be looked upon whenever the viewer wishes to do so. The act of taking a picture, McGrath says, “imposes order” and “exercises an illusory control”, which she calls “characteristic of voyeurism” (320). I think too that much of the discussion regarding “the gaze” expresses how it has been internalized by women, how women do not actively display themselves to the eyes of men, but it is instead a subconsciously-controlled behavior. The main text quotes John Berger as saying that a woman “turns herself into an object” (Wells 170); that is to say that even when not being actively watched, a woman’s tendency is to behave as though she is. Somewhat related to the gaze, which by its nature involves a man looking at a woman from head to toe, “the stare” is indicated when a viewer looks upon a disabled person, predominantly, and is characterized by a “telescoped” gaze upon the evidence of disability (Thomson 347).

One example of “the gaze” can be found in Cindy Sherman’s work, particularly in her ‘Film Stills’ series of photographs.  Unlike the sexually aggressive mannequin series which portray S/M practices and a “fascination with the perverse” (Avgikos 340), Sherman’s Film Still series from the late 1970’s which portray “women suspended in passive states of waiting, longing and abandonment” (Avgikos 340).  In the above image, Sherman poses in a manner that can exactly be described by Avgikos’ assertions. She sits in the window gazing out as though waiting for someone or something. The posing of her legs, open and inviting, indicates a longing, perhaps inviting the male viewer to come and claim her.  The scene, empty but for a single chair and even that is empty and apparently forgotten, mirror the abandonment Avgikos speaks of. In posing in this way, the photograph reflects the woman’s knowledge that she is being watched, her acknowledgement of the constant surveillance by men.

Another photographer that uses voyeuristic imagery to portray the idea that women are aware of the gaze of men upon them at all times and display themselves in ways they believe appealing to them is Edward Weston.  Many of his nudes are posed much like the above image, about which the text comments ‘She does not look, pretends she is not being looked at, and yet in the same moment we know very well that she knows …’ (Wells 332). I think this images shows that unconscious desire to be seen very well, for the woman’s pose does not seem natural at all, but would no doubt be imaged as appealing to the male watching her.

“The gaze” as it is argued by Berger is simply a theory that women are objects to be looked at by men. But I think that idea became internalized by women, and that is what photographers such as Cindy Sherman and Edward Weston show in their work. Sherman’s Film Stills place women in seemingly casual poses that somehow manage to retain a distinct sensuality that seems to prove Berger’s assumptions, and Weston’s nudes seek to explore the feminine form in a way that invites that male gaze even though the subjects don’t seem aware of their voyeurs. “The stare”, on the other hand, is a relationship between a disabled individual and those who look upon their disability, and as such is more of an inappropriate relationship between the viewer and the viewed. Much like photography enables ‘the gaze” to be rendered acceptable by creating permanent images of the objects of that attention, photography serves to mediate the dis-ease between viewer and viewed by “authorizing staring”, by making it okay to examining the disability because it’s in a photograph. (Thomson 349).

Photography and Art

Art can be defined as the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. That can include the crafting of words, such as in prose or poetry or even playwriting, or the arrangement of visual elements, as in painting or sculpture or photography.  Like the painter and the sculptor, the photographer chooses the elements of the image he wants to focus on, and arranges them in a composition that is aesthetically pleasing. Photographic art has been included in galleries since the mid-19th century, though there is still debate over what qualifies a photograph as art. Unlike the painter and the sculptor, however, a photographer is not truly giving vision or form to the image they draw from within themselves, but using the people, places and objects around them to create an image.  As Szarkowski says in The Camera’s Eye, “photography [deals] with the actual” (99); which is to say that the visual has to already exist in reality for a photographer to use it – especially in the newest technology which has advanced the use and capabilities of photography, the digital photograph.

One of the easiest commonalities between painting and photography where we are talking about art photography is the adherence to certain “aesthetic conventions” (253) which painters also used in their works.  Also, many fine art photographers, such as Henry peach Robinson, drew upon well known fables and allegories as their inspiration. In comparing the following two images, both based upon the Tennyson ballad The Lady of Shallot, it is clear there are striking similarities in the aesthetic considerations made by both artists. The soft focus and single point of perspective evident in both the painting by John William Waterhouse and the photograph by Henry Peach Robinson are both very traditional ideas about the composition of an image.  In the introduction to The Camera’s Eye, Szarkowski goes into great detail about the tools the photographer has at their disposal in creating an artistic image in fact (98-103).

Photographs can then be compared to paintings because they use similar visual techniques. But they are strikingly different as well. Comparing the same images, you can see the sharpness of the trees in the photograph compared to that of the painting, and the reflections on the water are too perfect to have been captured by a painter’s brush. Painters are limited by their medium, just as photographers are, and the details evident in the photograph simply couldn’t be repeated in the painting because of that. In his essay The Museum’s Old, The Library’sNew Subject, Douglas Crimp also discusses these differences, explaining how The Photographer’s Eye seeks to “define those things that are specific to photography” (423). He goes on to talk about how photography, like painting and sculpture, found a place in the art world separate from its original purpose. Photography is separate from painting because it is more immediate, because it is more critical, because it relies upon the actual world. This is even truer in digital photography, because of the immediacy of the image capture, and the detail with which it is taken.

The image above is of a small little chapel in the high desert of New Mexico, the Santuario del Chemayo, a rather well known pilgrimage site in Chimayo, New Mexico, nestles in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains not far from Santa Fe. I took this shot while we were travelling there a little more than a year ago. I took this photograph with the digital SLR camera my husband got me as an early birthday gift a couple years before, but never really learned to use, so I can’t really claim that it’s fine photography. Most of the work was done by the camera itself.

In looking at this image I’m reminded of a couple of things we covered in the class. Specifically, the way photographs were used by the FSA to record people and places, as a sort of archive or documentary. At first I thought to assign that sort of meaning to this image, because in a way, the image documents a place I was able to visit, someplace I might never get to see again. However on further reflection I would instead consider it straight photography, not documentary as the FSA photographs presented. I made no attempts to manipulate the piece, and if one were to return to the chapel at around the same time of year, they would see the same image as the photograph shows. It’s not able to be considered documentary because there is nothing in the image that would be considered making an appeal to the viewer (Wells 69). Had I taken a photograph of the collections of children’s shows or crutches within, all brought to the chapel as a prayer for someone, that might have been a documentary photograph, but this simple image of the outside of the chapel is not.

I have over a hundred images from this particular trip, most of them scenery or something similar. Although they function as more of a record of the trip than as any sort of artistic piece, I suppose if I had taken more time and if I had known the camera’s workings better I could have managed a very artistic image. Szarkowski talks about the elements of art in a photograph (99-103), and I can find these in the image above without much trouble.  First, it deals with the actual .. the location exists in reality. There is a frame, which in photography exists as the line between the image, and the pieces that were cut away from it, is visible as the trees to either side of the chapel and the blue of the sky above. These are all elements of other artistic mediums that have been borrowed by photography that I can see in the photo of the Santuario del Chemayo.

Works Cited

Avgikos, Jan. “Cindy Sherman: Burning Down the House.” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Crimp, Douglas. “The Museum’s Old, The Library’sNew Subject.” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Henning, Michelle. “The subject as object: photography and the human body” Photography: A Critical Introduction. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

McGrath, Roberta. “Re-reading Edward Weston: Feminism, photography and psychoanalysis.” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Price, Derrick and Wells, Liz. “Thinking About Photography”. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Price, Derrick. “Surveyors and Surveyed.” Photography: A Critical Introduction. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Szarkowski, John. “Introduction to The Photographer’s Eye.” The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Thomson, Rosemarie. “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York: NY University Press, 2001. Print.


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