Not too long ago I had the opportunity to revisit the idea that "photography is a language" which it is not. I thought about it some more.
Cinema is a language. At the very least, the way movies are usually made is to assemble the pieces according to a fairly well defined,
teachable, system that is very linguistic in character even if it perhaps falls short of some specific definition of "language." The linguistic part
isn't the part with the camera, though, it's the part that comes afterwards where the output of the camera is cut together into a movie.
A clip of an actor speaking a line of dialog enjoys much of the same ambiguity a still photograph does. The clip spans time, giving you a taste
of before/after in ways that a still does not, but it is nevertheless free floating. Cut that clip together with another actor speaking
a response, and make sure the faces are looking in opposite directions, and that eye-lines match, and so on, and abruptly the meaning of the clip
is much more nailed down. The character is in conversation with the other character. Continue in the same way for long enough, and you have a movie
in which a story is told, relationships are revealed, and so on. Much of that meaning can be imposed after shooting is completed. In extreme cases
all the meaning is imposed in the edit.
When we speak of cinema, we speak of these completed objects. These are finished statements, written in a language, which nail down by the
use of that language much of the meaning we might make of the film. This is the point of the language of cinema editing. This is why a language
has been devised to do this work: because film makers want to nail down the meaning, they want to say coherent, specific, unambiguous things. He said
this to her, she shot him in the forehead, and then left through the glass doors, feeling upset and angry. Not everything is nailed down, of
course, nothing ever is. But the point is that there is much that is nailed down.
We tend to think of a photograph at least mostly as if it were outside of any context, as free floating. We treat photographs in roughly the way
we would think about a single clip of film, before it is edited into a movie.
This is important: It is tempting to apply theory and ideas from cinema to photographs, because they are in some sense the same medium. This is
invariably a very bad idea. Film theory applies almost exclusively to the finished product. It is a theory about objects which are linguistic
in character, about objects that say things intended by an author (pace Barthes.) Film theory is, if anything, about the ways authors can say things with
film, about the ways they cannot say things, about the ways the things the film says are or are not what the author intended.
Photographs are not like that. They are non-linguistic, and most of the meaning we make of a photograph does not arise from the author's intention
but rather from what we imagine the author's intentions to have been. There are signs and symbols in a photograph, but for the most part these
are not organized into a sentence-like structure which carries meaning. The signs and symbols in a photograph simply are, radiating their
ambiguous meanings. The distinction here is something like the difference between literary criticism and etymology.
You can, of course, edit photographs in a way that is analogous to the way we edit movies. This is referred to in modern parlance as "sequencing"
and there is no coherent, teachable, school of how that should be done. Advice on sequencing invariably comes out to "print them all out
and stick them up where you can look at them. Then shuffle them around until you want to die." You know you're done when you know you're done,
objective criteria, or even shared criteria, for done-ness would be considered gauche and a violation of the artist's true expression.
You can, of course, apply cinematic methods and produce a sort of
stupid "movie" but mostly this isn't what you do. Sequencing, anyway, is largely an art-school affectation with 1000 different flavors,
and is thoroughly divorced from photography as a cultural force, as a cultural phenomenon.
The idea of male gaze comes out of the theory of cinema. It is the notion that women and men are commonly presented differently in movies.
The women are victims, passive, sexually available, and so on. The men are active, heroic, and so on. You observe these things at the level
of "text" in a movie. You can "close read" by counting lines of dialog, you can measure screen time, and so on. You can look narrative structures, etcetera and so forth. You can probably re-task all the techniques of literary analysis to a movie to demonstrate this point, and you discover something real. "Male gaze" is an actual thing in movies.
You cannot meaningfully apply these methods to a photograph, or really even a grouping of photographs.
Re-tasking "gaze" to still photographs is essentially nonsensical. It's like applying differential calculus to dogs. This is why we've
ended up with a theory of photographic gaze that is impossible to explain, you can "just see it" and if you can't you "need to do the
reading," except that it invariably is just a proxy for the identity of the photographer and how much the critic likes them.
It is notable that Mulvey's original formulation of "male gaze" makes it clear that women can and often do make movies in which "male gaze"
is a phenomenon. "Gaze" in Mulvey's formulation, is a well-defined property of a movie, which exists independent of the identity
of whoever made the movie. You can basically fill out a spreadsheet for a movie and see how much "male gaze" is in it. You cannot
say any of this for the corresponding photographic concept, because the latter is a mess, and it's a mess because "gaze" is an
attempt to apply a quasi-literary concept to a medium that isn't even linguistic, let alone literary.
In general, any attempt to apply cinematic theory to still photographs is as doomed as an effort to apply literary criticism to etymological
problems, and for exactly the same reasons.