Tuesday, June 5, 2018

"Female Gaze"

I'm not sure I actually have much to add past what I wrote some time ago back here. But I am going to take a swing at it, because I've been reading and thinking for a while now.

The executive summary is: I think the phrase "female gaze" is, mostly but perhaps not entirely, code for "pictures of boobs but it's ok to enjoy them because female gaze" which is basically a scam. The goal is to make pictures men will like (boobs) while giving them an escape hatch from just being pervs.

I've been slowly working through a couple of volumes on the history of women in photography. Essentially, it seems to boil down to "same as it ever was." There have always been opportunities (variously limited), there have always been female photographers (sometimes more, sometimes less, never as many as male), there is often pushback, there is lower pay, there are specific genres that tend to be female dominated. But always, there are a few, a very few, who break into the most male dominated corners of the profession, of the field.

Having looked in the last weeks at many hundred photographs exclusively by women, I am slightly more firm in my notion that I could pick photographs by women out at a rate slightly better than random. Designing a proper test, though, remains intractably difficult. At this point I would simply recognize a lot of the pictures by female photographers that you could dig up easily.

Still, there does seem to be a slight tendency toward better emotional content, a more open, perhaps tender, approach. A difference more felt than seen, and correspondingly difficult to get your arms around -- and therefore quite possibly a chimera after all.

Whatever the differences, they are slight, unreliable. Men and women take, mostly, the same pictures. The difference between Artist A and Artist B will always be far far greater than the difference between Woman A and Man B, as photographers.

Back around to that male gaze thing.

As noted in the comments the last time I visited this, John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is relevant. Notably, Episode 2, which centers on The Nude. I spent some time watching and rewatching this thing lately, to try to extract from it Berger's way of thinking of these things and see how that fits with my own. I think I am largely aligned with him.

As I understand it, Berger's position and the approximate position of the women he interviews in the latter half of the segment, is that women are visually judged as if they were being examined by a man. There are ideas of availability (for sex), of the woman waiting for the man, and so on. This particularly appears in The Nude (The Nee-ood) in which the woman is explicitly displayed, is wearing in some sense a costume of her own flesh, posturing submissively for the male viewer. Even other women will judge a woman on these same criteria, because (as I noted in my earlier remarks) this whole mess is a long-standing social construct.

Berger notes that, occasionally, a woman will be depicted in a way that actually suggests herself, on her own terms, as she actually is rather than as she is objectified.

All of this material seems to swirl around the same set of ideas I favor when thinking about portraiture, the idea of the various masks we wear. There are the unguarded moments, the subject at ease just before perceiving the camera. There is Arbus's favorite instant, a moment later, when the face closes. There are various other masks that the poor portraitist imagines is his art -- the "camera face", and then there are the other poses and masks that appear later as the subject and portraitist work.

Berger's discussion, while never using the phrase, is clearly about "male gaze" probably because that phrase does not appear until 3 years after Berger's show. What makes it interesting and useful is that he provides a useful, if largely hypothetical, notion of what the opposite might be. If the underlying idea is of the woman posing or being made to pose, as an object for the judgement and pleasure of an abstractly conceived male viewer, then the opposite is the woman not so posing. In this, the woman appears as herself, as some kind of truthful representation of herself.

This, now, a bit sticky. Is this something that even makes sense? Is there a singular true Self that might shine through? I am not certain. I am content, though, with the notion that a picture might reveal more or less of some True Self or another.

The simplest case here is surely the action shot. The nude dancer, the nude rock climber (see Stone Nudes) are at any rate surely too busy to be doing much submissive posing for a notional male viewer.

As an aside, occasional commenter Eric Kellerman, accomplishes this is much the same way. He's doing some abstracting, and in that way objectifying his subjects, but they certainly are not "posing" in Berger's sense, they're not focusing on appearing available to the notional male viewer. They're quite busy making abstract shapes, they're fully engaged in something else. In a way, the game here is to override the default, easy "pose" of available-to-male-gaze by insisting upon another pose, one that demands the entire attention and body of the model.

Just as I imagine I see a specific moment in an Arbus picture, a specific mindset in the subject, one might imagine a similar phenomenon in a more passive picture. Berger makes the case for 3 paintings which he characterizes as quite different from the usual European nudes, which he feels depict the woman as herself rather than as the object of the man's view. Looking at these, I see, I think, what he means. The women, while more or less in repose, feel more introspective, they feel as if they are perhaps not posing, posturing, intimately aware of the painter's gaze. The subjects appear to be in themselves, inhabiting their own bodies as it were, without much concern for the viewer. They are, in a way, just as busy as the Stone Nudes, but with their own thoughts and emotions rather than with The Wall.

Which leads us around to Jörg Colberg's latest, a review of yet another bunch of sexy pictures of young women, by a woman, supposedly under the safe umbrella of the female gaze. Now I don't know what the hell Jörg means when he says "female gaze" and I am moderately certain that he doesn't either. He could no doubt write or speak a torrent of words about it, but they would not mean anything.

Let us examine the sample pictures from Rayon Vert through the lens of my interpretation of what John Berger has to say.

I dunno about you, but I ain't seeing it. These women appear to be completely aware of the gaze of the camera, indeed they appear uncomfortably aware. They strike me as struggling to pretend that it's not there, while simultaneously posing in the usual ways. The first one, in color, might be a moment as the model is in motion, or any number of things, but what it appears to be is a model literally thrusting her nipples toward the camera, while demurely looking away in a transparent and clumsy sham of introspection and unawareness.

This is soft-core porn dressed up in the guise of 3rd wave feminism, with a bunch of words about rejecting the patriarchy. This makes it ok for people like Jörg Colberg to look at some pretty young tits while allegedly not being patriarchal assholes.

I like looking at pretty young tits, whether they're posing, posturing, oblivious, or something else entirely. I decline to feel shame about this. I also decline to be taken in by some would be artist "giving me permission" as long as I toe the line on a bunch of post-modernist bullshit. I don't need your permission, and I don't need your po-mo bullshit either.

Now, I dare say it is possible to truly photograph a nude woman, in repose, at a moment of un-selfconsciousness. A woman, perhaps still posing, but at any rate not posing under the aegis of traditional male-based ideas. It might be easier to photograph such a woman simply pretending successfully, it is after all, called "acting" and I suppose it's possible. It's bloody rare.

I can think of a small handful of such pictures, maybe.

What seems to be all too common is female artists photographing naked women, often but not always beautiful, and then writing some nice sounding text that lets men off the hook because "female gaze", which allows the men to quietly and yet publicly enjoy the tits, leading the men to say nice things about the art. That's one way to get a grant, a show, or a book deal, I suppose.


  1. Hey Andrew, I greatly enjoyed your post and take on the subject. I have not read Berger's book in decades and just sorta skimmed over Colberg's piece. Some of my random thoughts on the subject are that Berger's book really had a point especially since it pertained, of course, to only predigital art/photography. It certainly made me think and since I do a fair amount of portraits and occasional female nudes, the whole issue is never totally out of my mind.
    It seems to me that with the huge growth of picture taking in the digital age, and the rise of the selfie there has been a shift from the male/female gaze to, let's call it the cross-gender 'erotic gaze', practiced by both male and female photographers or picture takers. One only needs to scroll through IG, for example, to see that there are a whole lot of 'male gaze' photos taken by women.
    So my feeling is that the terms male and female gaze ought to be put out to pasture and that different 'ways of seeing' are not really gender specific. They do exist of course, and I think they ought to part of every photographer's and critic's sensibility.
    One of the fairly current bodies of work that, for me, touches on this issue is Todd Hido's Excerpts from Silver Meadows. Larissa Archer wrote a wonderful piece about it, and faces some of the problems I have with it square on.


    1. I kind of agree about the terms. "Male gaze" should, at best, be relegated to cinema, where it makes sense as the definition of a specific, common, kind of artifice.