What is your “point of view”? Discuss, making reference to two or three visual examples and relevant material from the reading lists. By Irina Ildiko CSAPO
The definition of the idea of “point of view” is ambiguous and without ground in the lack of a certain relevant context attached to it. My endeavours to find a correct, precise, or perhaps interesting point of view, has led me to research various theoreticians and their studies that speak about a point of view and moreover, about looking at photographs. Further on, this paper will discuss various ways of looking at images along with two visual examples I have chosen to emphasize my own “point of view”. As a prelude to the discussion, the phrase “point of view” literally addresses opinions about things in general, whilst, in photography, specifically, the phrase refers to a physical standing point of the eye of the camera in relation to its subject (Campany, 2004). The two meanings are not to be necessarily separated however, as the they give rise to ulterior cultural and social aspects of images and treat the “looking at photographs” within new developed contexts. Moreover, “All photographs tell stories of looking” (Lutz, Collins, 2003, p. 354) and between these looks dynamic relations are born. The most complex system of looks I have come across in my research, is the one stated by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins in their exercise to treat “the gaze” in the example of National Geographic. The photographs presented in the magazine with their colonial portrayal of exotic tribes across the world make a wonderful explanation of how the gaze functions and is exchanged within the Western world and the Other. In this way the authors, have explored seven types of gaze. These refer to the actual gaze of the photographer through his camera, the magazine's gaze through the editing choices it makes, the reader's gaze, the Non-Western's gaze, the returned looks of Westerners at the latter,
the gaze surprised in reflections of the mirrors in photographs and
ultimately, an academic gaze (Lutz, Collins, 2003). From all these, I will further select and address later in the paper several of them, especially the photographer's gaze, the returned reflections of
gaze in mirrors and the academic gaze, which will be my own point of view. On the other hand, Burgin asserts that photography as a signifying system simply needs “a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject” (Burgin, 1982, p 146). Based on these relations and inspired by film theory, Burgin further mentions four types of look in the photograph: the look of the camera as it records the event, the look of the viewer as it looks at the photograph, the looks exchanged between people in the photograph and the look of the actor towards the camera (Burgin, 1982). The last two types of looking will be addressed in the discussion with visual examples as well. Even so, the photograph as an intersection of looks needs to be deciphered in a way that the “point of view” of the viewer himself makes sense and is thoroughly fixed and absorbed. In this sense, Umberto Eco states that “Man is a semiotic animal” (Eco, 1884, p. 202) and thus semiosis is achieved through perception and experience (Eco, 1984). In addition to Eco, Lacan in a 1973 paper titled “Four Fundamental Principles Of Psychoanalysis” is also relevant in defining perception based on the distinction between “eye” and the “look”. The first refers to physical seeing, a Cartesian way of looking, whereas the “look” stands for outer perceptions and experiences, born within the exposure to the Other. This would be the situation in which we are exposed in front of a mirror for the first time and the effect is that we feel completely different people. This duality of object-subject is to set ground in our perception, as we see ourselves as objects in the eyes of the Other (Von Stosch, 2005). This (reversed) identity concept is called “mirror stage” and Lacan defines it as a “projected anticipation of the own body's wholeness as represented in the mirror” (von Storsch, 2005, p. 246). This would also call for a similar situation in the example of the National Geographic photographs mentioned before. I mentioned the concept of “mirror stage” because I will later address it in my discussions and also because I would like to further introduce the concept of mirrors and photography “enabyme”. Craig Owens brings up the concept in close relation to that of the mirrors. The phrase “enabyme” describes a piece of text that duplicates/reproduces its structure within its body. At the level
of photography, the concept functions as a photograph within a photograph with the help of a mirror's duplicating reflection (Owens, 1992). This is based on the idea that the very duplication of an image refers to the process of photography. Thus, a photograph as a mirror image, duplicates the subject. Moreover, the concept of “myse en abyme”, which is synonymous with “internal mirror”, can also translate into “any internal mirror reflecting the totality of the work that contains it” (Owens, 1992, p. 76). It can be viewed as simple reduplication (a piece of work that demonstrates a relationship similar with the work in cause), reduplication to infinity (a piece of work that contains a relationship similar with the work in cause that itself contains further reduplications) and aporistic reduplications (a work that contains work which includes it) (Owens, 1992). The term “reduplication” however, is no more than a mere tautology in this case, as it suggests doubling of a third time or several times further. In addition, Owens mentions in his paper “Photography en abyme”, the existence of three types of doubling (which I shall later use in my own interpretations of images): the photograph, the mirror and the Other, which together combined (but not necessarily), will give rise and will clarify the reader about my own “point of view”. Equally important, I have chosen two visual examples to interpret, discuss and perhaps dismantle in the light of the concepts presented above. These are Jeff Wall's “Picture for Women”, and as a great act of narcissistic, I have chosen a piece of work which I have done over a year ago, titled “Ceci n'est pas un autoportrait”, which comes to serve as an interesting 'photographic dish' among Jeff Wall's own work.. Firstly, I have chosen Jeff Wall's “Picture for Women”, because the image was somehow problematic to me at a first glance. To put it simply, my ways of looking were seriously tangled in an intellectual intersection of gazes: my gaze at the picture, the gaze of the characters in the image, the gaze of the camera and of the female character at me, the Other, the outsider and the confused viewer. I had not understand the complex plays between the subject , the mirror and the camera entirely, until I have not made my own research on the image and thus have finally contributed with my own reflections on it.
“Picture for Women” (1979) is usually represented in exhibition and art catalogues along Edouard Manet's “Un Bar aux Folies Bergère” (1882), the most representative painting to inspire Wall in the “Picture for Women” (Campany, 2007). Truly, the aesthetic values of the image are modernist and pictorial, and Thierry de Duve has spoken about Jeff Wall as a “painter of modern life” (de Duve, 1994, p. 12) that would ultimately become a photographer. In the painting, the point of view is that of the male reflected in the mirror in the back of the barmaid. Similarly, the point of view in Wall's image, is constructed within a male's gaze as well (Jeff Wall himself) reflected on the female subject. Nonetheless, the photograph addresses frontally the viewer's point of view. This is because, the image features conventions of photographic displaying and posing. The pose of the female subject is similar in body language and facial expression as the barmaid in Manet's painting. Even so, I had difficulties of where I should first lay my eyes off in the picture, because as a viewer, the ambiguous gaze between the characters is misleading. Jeff Wall is known to construct moments of unease within his photographs (Campany, 2007). I believe that this blatant uneasiness translates itself over to the viewer, which is caught as a voyeur looking at a man looking at a woman. In this context I believe, the idea of the masculine gaze objectifying the woman is quite evident or as Laura Mulvey in her paper “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” refers to the concept of scopophilia. This presumes a dominant-subordinate relation between a male and a female (Burgin, 1996). She
also refers to the idea that the woman has an obvious quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness in a visual culture organised by the unconscious of patriarchy” (Campany, 2007, p. 21). The presence of the camera in the middle however, monumental, but nonetheless a silent observer, has the coldness of a surveillance apparatus which interrogates the viewer. The way the camera looks at the viewer outside the image has to some extent the same effect of Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odissey”, computer Hal. It is immobile, staring directly at and “into” the viewer, at the Other, which stares back into the camera. Perhaps we can almost hear it say in a relaxed and mellow psychiatrist's voice “Hallow Dave, you're looking well today!” right before the viewer is sucked into the image to fully experience the awkwardness between the two characters. More so, when I first encountered Wall's image “Picture for Women”, I was confused as to whether Wall used a mirror or not. Nothing indicated towards the existence of the mirror. On one hand, I was sure the image I was seeing is a reflection on a mirror, a duplication of the space and depth, perhaps because of a slight difference and desaturation of colours regarding the male's clothing. However, on the other hand, I could not stop wondering what if Wall had not used a mirror but a second camera. After all, he could have easily tricked the viewer into a deception of broken and dysfunctional gaze. It is only after I consulted the diagram by Thierry de Duve of the spatial arrangement within “Picture for Women” that I realised I had been right in the first place (de Duve, 1994). That is to say, my “point of view” was right, but not in a good or bad value scale obviously, but at the level of perception, I had intuited the complex relations doubled in the mirror. Leaving “Picture for Women” aside, but not entirely, I had agreed with myself in an act of narcissistic courage, that I would discuss the next picture, a self-portrait I had done a year ago. I chose to do this one in particular because of the obedient lait-motif of the mirror and in a way it contradicts Jeff Wall's “Picture for Women” in the terms that I had fabricated and manipulated the gaze of the camera. Simply put, it is a self portrait realised within the reflection of the mirror, but the eye of the camera, for the technologically curious, an Olympus OM2, is not the real point of view that addresses the spectator. The real point of view from which the picture was taken has been
carefully erased from the space.
The self portrait is titled “Ceci n'est pas un autoportrait” (2010) and it makes obvious reference to Rene Magritte and his famous 'smokey' title: “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”, but my image stands as a reference to a portrait of Rene Magritte, realised by Lothar Wolleh, in 1967. Indeed the title of my image is self explanatory: this is not a self-portrait, it is a mere representation of a portrait, a representation of a photograph, doubled by its mirror counterpart. Stylistically pictorial encased in a tableau-like representation, it has a similar effect like in “Picture for Women” only this time, it is more evident it is taken into a mirror, perhaps not so at a first glance, but the name of the camera is reversed. Moreover, the device to which my self-portrait would have been legitimate, the Olympus OM2, did not shoot and I only used it as a prop, as a misleading artifice to built my then surrealist dialogue with the viewer. The real medium from which the self-portrait has been realised is not in the gaze of the viewer, as it is hidden within the photographic space. The digital camera with which the image was created was erased from the doubled reflected canvas as an inconvenient element which would tell the viewer the truth: that I had not used the analogue camera, but a digital
one, which I have even taken out of the picture. The camera lies in “essential invisibility” (Foucault, 1980, p. 14) just as in Diego Velásquez' painting “Las Meninas”, the royal couple represents the centre where the entire representation is ordered. So is the camera a centre of representation to which lines of gaze intersect on the canvas-like mirror. The photograph is in fact a lie, but then, the title comes to defend it by stating the truth. The photograph become true again, eventually. Leaving aside the values of truthfulness in photography as this is not the evident interest in this discussion, I would like to emphasize the true character of the viewer. I have made the viewer a voyeur, perhaps even on purpose. My face is bathed in light coming from an outer window, an aperture that sheds light and emphasizes my gaze. It is as though, my “point of view” is put under a spotlight and from that angle, my gaze is surveilling across the framed space. My face is not glaring into the view point of the erased camera as it would have been obvious making a direct contact with the viewer, but I had looked away. My face is looking at something within past the gazing point of the viewer, being conscious that I am being looked. I have turned my face away just to make the viewer a voyeur. He is now looking at me looking at myself, because that is the true nature of my gaze. I am looking at myself in the mirror. Like Narcissus who has found his reflection and fell in love with it so am I gazing at my reflection. Unlike Narcissus still, my look is patronizing, perhaps even objectifying. I have made myself an object of my own photography. I am at once a voyeur and an exhibitionist. In the same way, perhaps this is what happens to photographers that double their image in a mirror with a camera. Similarly, as it functions in “Picture for Women”, my self portrait uses the conventions of displaying and posing. It is a frontal pose, almost confrontational because of the evident patronizing gaze. It could almost address Manet's painting “Un Bar aux Folies Bergère”, because of it's enclosed frames and vivid colours, even my pose could scantily suggest that of the barmaid in the painting. However, it would be a forced parallel to make, as my self-portrait is incomplete. It lacks the reflections and the male gaze. One might even say that in a feminist tempest, I have erased the male gaze represented in the digital camera annihilated from the picture, to denounce
scopophilia. Although, such a theory would make sense, I must admit this is not the true reason why I have chosen not to represent a male gaze. In a way, the self-portrait is a portrait of my my own point of view, which has a feel of being lost, sliding among viewers' gazes and carefully avoiding them. It is in fact, an enclosed relation between the camera's eye reduplicating me in the mirror, looking at me and who I, myself, am looking at my reflection. It is a circle of gazes, sterile and relentless, that allows no one to disturb them. This self-portrait could very well function in a manner of Lacan's stage mirror concept in which I am experiencing my own self and body wholeness as an Other, distancing myself in selfalienation as an objectified otherness. In addition, the mirror in this stance that separates me from my other, also functions as a heterotopia (Campany, 2004). My self is now split into a double self, reduplicated by the mirror, the real which I think I am and the anticipated Other, that lives in an indefinite space. After all, the multitudes of ways of looking and the complex and dynamic relations that are born within the looking at photographs are all heading towards the idea of intersubjectvity (von Stosch, 2005). Philosopher Vilém Flusser explains the intersubjective point of view as being a combination between the objective perspective of photography, which cannot exist purely in its form, and the subjective point of view of photography, which is obsolete. It is within this idea that I dare to reside my conclusions of this paper, adding that “Photographs are frozen views of the world, created while looking for intersubjectivity - they are views that can be shared with others.” (von Stolsch, 2005, p. 248).
Bibliography: Owens, Craig ‘Photography en abyme’(1978) Beyond Recognition: representation, power, and culture. University of California Press, 1992. Burgin, Victor, 'Looking at Photographs’ in Burgin (ed) Thinking Photography. Macmillan, 1982. Campany, D., 'A theoretical diagram in an empty classroom: Jeff Wall's Picture for Women' in Oxford Art Journal, March 2007. Campany, D., ‘Left, Right, Wrong, Right’, Source [magazine] no. 39, 2004. Lutz, Catherine & Jane Collins ' The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes: the example of National Geographic' in Liz Wells ed., The Photography Reader, Routledge 2003. Burgin, V. ‘Perverse Space’ In / different Spaces Columbia, 1996. de Duve, T. Discussion of Jeff Wall’s image Picture For Women in Jeff Wall, Phaidon Press 1994 Eco, Umberto. ‘Is the mirror image a sign?’ Semiotics and the philosophy of language. Macmillan, 1984. Foucault, M. ‘Las Meninas’, opening section of The Order of Things Tavistock, 1980. Von Stosch, A. ‘Beyond the Looking Glass: Kubrick and Self-Reflectivity’ in Crone (ed) Stanley Kubrick: Photographs 1945-50, Phaidon, 2005.