On Both Sides of the Mirror

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On both sides of the mirror

Lisa Dal Lago | University of Westminster |


ON BOTH SIDES OF THE MIRROR Myths and truths on female photography

Essay by Lisa Dal Lago

University of Westminster London ma Documentary Photography and Photojournalism Year 2013-2014

Contents Introduction












Introduction I have long been interested in the ethics of visual communications and the impact of the representation of women in the media. Media is a latin word that literally stands for “means” (as in means of transport), which is indeed a suitable term to describe every visual practice that seeks to convey a message, a story, sometimes even unwittingly. My starting point for the reflection upon the position of women in the media, as both an observer and an observed subject, was advertising. It is in fact almost automatic, considering the invading presence of promotional material coming our way and given the fact the most of the times there will be the image of a woman on it. The scope of my attention has broadened over the years, encompassing painting (especially in relation to its influence on other media), photography and film. In this essay I will mainly concentrate on the position of women in respect to the field of documentary photography and photojournalism. To do this, it’s essential I put those genres in perspective, tracing their evolution within the complex history of the photographic medium. It’s impossible to tackle the subject of the representation of women without exploring, at least in part, the role of the female gaze. Roland Barthes’s “Camera Lucida” has proved an extremely valid companion to disentangle the various layers that constitute the essence of photography. His words have reminded me that each image is at the centre of three sources of intentions: The Operator (the person who takes the photo), The Spectator (the person looking at the photo) and finally the Subject of whom the picture is taken. Since I often find myself being both the Spectator and the Operator, I started asking myself what is the role of the photographer in the perception of the picture itself? What is the difference of intention between a photographer and another, be it female or male? My analysis of contemporary and recent photographic bodies of work brought me to face some simple yet crucial questions: is there any such thing as women’s photography? What is the difference between photography of women as opposed to photography by women? When is it that one can confirm to be in front of a series discussing women? Women appear in numerous works, yet how was it possible that I could only define only a few series as “about


women/girls�? Don’t they also feature in many other photographs I have seen over the years, so why do I often remain untouched by them? In answering these questions, my research brought me to reconsider the essence of photography, its connection with language and the psychological aspects of communication itself. What is the nature of the gaze and how does it affect our perception and understanding of the world? This issue entails cognitive and psychological implications common to different media, including photography. If on the one hand reading an image means to decipher a code, on the other hand to photograph requires an active usage of such code. In order to decode the relationship between women and the photographic practice it is necessary to refer to their position in society and the circumstances bound to their actions. The image becomes a sort of mirror, where gazes meet and influence one another to the point they create new dimensions of reality. Every language (either visual or verbal) is by its nature a partial reflection of reality: as such it will never become fully clear unless one accepts its complexity. Because every language is a system, the ability to deconstruct the myths (that often transform into stereotypes) intertwined with it will prove equally crucial to understand such apparatus.


Section 1

Dynamics of image-making Photography is generally associated with concepts of art, means of representation and of visual communication: ultimately even if art is not necessarily concerned with meaning something or representing something it is still undoubtedly trying to convey, communicate, some kind of content or message. In this sense, art is often assimilated to language, though the latter falls into the realm of verbal communication. The connection between language and images is actually stronger than it may appear on the surface. Some of the most ancient languages used images as their signifiers, such were Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms: the latter have survived to this day, not only through Chinese itself, but also present-day Japanese and Korean idioms. This led me to an interesting consideration: images are perhaps a major substratum of communication itself, regardless of its form. The fact we don’t only look at a picture, but we also read it, accounts for the tight and complex bond that unites word and image. The practice of representing events is almost as old as the history of humanity: the scenes painted in prehistoric caves are a clear example of this. Moreover, painted scenes and portraits were not only carriers of meaning, they were also intertwined with rituals, as if they possessed some sort of power themselves (Benjamin, 1936). In contemporary society the role of images and the act of looking have become key to access to both knowing and sharing. In this regard, it is worth making a few considerations on advertising and the press. Nowadays the bulk of contemporary publicity is characterised by the use of photo-compositions, similarly the majority of printed newspapers employs images for commercial purposes, as much as sources of information. This practice is so ingrained in our society that we can hardly conceive a magazine or newspaper without pictures on it. In this sense the French paper “Libération” is an emblematic case: during Paris Photo 2013, the editors chose to release the November 14th issue deprived of all pictures, leaving empty rectangles and squares in their original place. As reported by the “British Journal of Photography, this decision was aimed at highlighting the importance of Photography”, at a difficult moment for the field itself. The impact is surely remarkable, as Brigitte Ollier, a journalist for Libération‘s Culture Desk, explained: “A visual shock. For the first time in its history, ‘Libération’ is published without photographs. In their place: a series of empty frames that create a form of silence; an uncomfortable one.


It’s noticeable, information is missing, as if we had become a mute newspaper. [A newspaper] without sound, without this little internal music that accompanies sight” (Laurent, 2013). Albeit Ollier’s statement might sound excessively metaphoric or evocative, there is no doubt that the reader will feel the uneasiness of a missing visual referent to complete and understand the text. In our era, the presence and intrusion of pictures in our lives is higher than any other, especially since the advent of the internet. Professor Giovanni Sartori (1997) argues that the human being has transitioned from “homo sapiens” to “homo videns”. According to him, television was the means that truly disrupted the established way to be informed about the world: more and more children watch television long before they can read or fully understand language. The “homo sapiens” living in a forest of symbols evolved with the invention of writing: that is the beginning of civilization; on the contrary television fosters a return to more ancestral skills. Sartori further adds that while language is highly coded, an image: “It is not seen in Chinese, Arabic or English. I will say so again: it is merely seen”1 (Sartori, 1997, p. 13). This provoking statement is first and foremost expressed with video in mind, and yet it sounds quite reductive, even when applied to such context. If it is true that television is marked by a distinct supremacy of vision over language, then the dynamics of understanding are akin to cinema and most of all photography. A visual product, whatever its form, is always soaked in an abundance of other cross-cultural references, such that it will likely both hinder and aid understanding of the message. No doubt, the picture of a dog doesn’t really need any form of translation, if our first concern is to state the existence of such animal (ICOON visual dictionaries exist specifically to overcome language barriers). However, the majority of the pictures we see are far more complex than that; photography is not merely concerned with the happening of an event (that which is), it is engaged in a debate around the reasons why such event occurred. Photojournalism and Documentary Photography are not interested in stasis, but in movement, i.e the unfolding of situations. This originates a paradox that cannot be overcome, for the camera stops time, confining every signifier inside a flat surface. Far from representing the entire truth, photography is extremely fragmentary:


The Italian text reads: “non si vede in cinese, arabo o inglese. Ripeto: si vede e basta”


a single photo is not only important for what it explicits, but for what it hides. Outside the frame the flux of life contains every circumstance that led to the event captured by the lens: this flow is the ‘blind field’. Every detail that is not pinned down by the photograph is as important as the photograph itself in the process of understanding the story we are being told (Barthes, 1980, pp. 57-59). The tragedy is that we will hardly ever have access to that realm, which is still bound to crucially affect the sense of the picture from behind the scenes. The sense of ambiguity that arises from street photography makes this issue particularly evident. Similarly to the flow of the television programmes, this genre presents itself like an edit of bits of time and space put together in a non-linear edit. The lack of specific information regarding the context in which the actions depicted are carried out makes it impossible to establish their significance without doubt. Street photography highlights the inherent difficulty in making visual representation universally understandable without more anchors. We cannot help but wonder who are the people we are seeing, what is their role in the environment referenced by the image. Though it is true that in a way we are in front of an instant fresco of reality, we are suspicious because our understanding relies entirely on the good intentions of the photographer. This poses questions in regards to authorship, personal responsibility and manipulation of information. In his work “Cause of Death?”, John Hilliard gives a visual exemplification of these implications. The four black and white pictures show the same man lying down on the ground covered by a white sheet, yet each of them shows a different crop. The viewer can infer that the original shot is the same, yet the framing drastically alters the sense of the pictures by hiding or disclosing new elements beside the body. Each picture is accompanied by a one-word caption (“crushed”, “drowned”, “burned” and “fell” respectively) to complete the change of meaning caused by the editing (Hacking, 2012). “Cause of Death?” engages in a discourse over the deceptive nature of representation. Furthermore, it practically shows how easy it is to manipulate information, by simply excluding certain elements from the composition. Every photograph doesn’t only convey a message in a passive manner, but actively produces content by means of composition. As Maggie Murray observed: “Photography is essentially a process of selection” (Spence, Solomon, 1995, p. 114), consequently this implies a political responsibility. When a


photographer chooses to portray an event, to expose one reality instead of another, he or she is also incidentally making a political comment by highlighting one specific variation of all possible worlds existing out there. For this reason mass media are at the centre of a tense debate: “Between what things mean and how they mean, is a perpetual struggle for control” (Gamman, Marshment, 1988, p. 2) that divides groups of people into polarised factions of publishers vs writers, capitalists vs workers, women vs men. All forms of representation are in relation with one another: though the “tools of the trade” differ, all media constantly borrow tropes from one another. The combination of elements originated in other contexts allows for new views on the world, and yet it also alters our parameters of understanding, as a side effect. An old symbol is suddenly capable to give life to new cross-cultural meanings. Among the artistic disciplines associated with visual communication, painting, advertising (as a sub-category of graphic design) and photography are so connected with one another, it is almost impossible to mention the influence of one, while excluding the other two. Analysing this exchange of symbols leads us to a more conscious reading of photography, instead of remaining on the surface. The pose of the subject, a person’s gaze, the light, the composition are all revealing of cultural constructs that have impressed themselves on our minds over the span of centuries. It’s not by chance that many photographic portraits remind us of paintings: art offers new views as much as it solidifies ancient customs. Advertising makes abundant use of photography, as well as referencing traditional paintings. The result is a form of representation that wittingly operates a surgical translation of a phenomenon into a symbol. Advertisements condense the original sources into one layered artwork, packed with definitions, and more importantly, subtle connotations. Photography, Advertising and Painting are all media, a word itself charged with significance. The latin word medium is a key term in my analysis of visual communication; it condenses in itself two essential concepts: the conveyance of a message and the form that serves such purpose. A medium acts as an intermediary, it works as a filter, therefore it cannot be substantially neutral by its nature. This condition further increases its complexity when considered in relation to the content it bears. Every message is coded and it refers to a whole set of signs imbued with cultural connotations. Though generally the media differ in form, they often share the same patterns


and frequently borrow symbols from one another. This dynamic operates within language in a very similar way: words like “dog”, “cane”, “chien” and 犬 change in aspect, but their referent does not. The cultural level adds further meaning, to the object we are conjuring up through representation: this is most apparent in religions. A picture of a cow in the Western countries might only evoke a quiet stroll in the meadows, whereas in India it might take on a sacred aura, because of its connection with religious beliefs. As a consequence, visual communication can be described as a corpus composed of different layers that interact with one another: each part must be analysed not only by itself, but within the context and the characteristics of such relationships. I will now show evidence of how these cross-contaminations reveal themselves, and what they consist of, in practice. Early examples of promotional material using images as a prominent feature are the French affiches, or posters, that were produced for the popular social events of the time. Many affichistes were painters by profession, who lent their artistry to a different form of expression: in the 1890s Henri de Toulouse Lautrec famously portrayed the Moulin Rouge star Jane Avril not only in paintings, but also on posters for the cabaret house itself. Alfons Mucha, the iconic Art Nouveau artist, gained fame after creating elaborate theatrical posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt. His commercial output also included clients like “Job Cigarettes”, “Biscuit Lefèvre-Utile”, “Cycles Perfect”: each print features intricate patterns and almost divine maidens, signature elements of his style (Rauch, 2006). These girls were reminiscent of those found in many Pre-Raphaelite (Mucha was himself an estimator) paintings: the clothing, the soft and lost gaze of the subjects are the same. In this transition from painting to advertising, women were appearing as a key symbol from the the very beginning. Photography was born around 1827 when Nicéphore Niépce succeeded in his experiments and obtained the first photograph. Louis Daguerre subsequently resumed Niépce’s work and eventually invented the daguerrotype in 1832, a process that was used for decades to come. Painters and artists soon began to make use of this new scientific wonder: John Ruskin, Roger Fenton (though he later left his mark in the history of photography with “The Valley of the Shadow of Death”, Fenton was a painter), and Edgar Degas all took pictures themselves; others like Eugène Delacroix and Dante Gabriel Rossetti collaborated with photographers and friends to create portraits, as a reference point for their artworks (Hacking, 2012). The introduction of dry plates in the 1870s and the


substitution of celluloid for glass were crucial advancements that allowed photographers to move out of studios and closed spaces in general, to venture out in the world (Rosenblum, 1994). When the Kodak box camera debuted in 1888 by George Eastman, photography became even more flexible and accessible thanks to the newly invented roll of film and the possibility to entrust Eastman’s company with the processing. It is worth noting that Kodak’s first extensive campaign 1893 presented a woman in a striped dress proudly standing on the shore with a box camera in her left hand. The “lady in a striped dress” remained part of their marketing strategy until the 1920s (Cecere, 2011). Eastman’s company set the pace for many other businesses that employed pictures of women to publicise and represent their products: in Italy, Agfa used a similar approach to Kodak and in 1923 commissioned painter and graphic designer Marcello Dudovich to create a character for their upcoming advertisements. The “woman in red” became the icon associated to the Italian brand, and it was later replicated in different versions for other Agfa European branches. During the 1910s in America, in Italy, and in England stylised women featured on the covers of catalogues, photography publications and photographic manuals (Cecere, 2011). If the “lady in a striped dress” retained a serious and fierce look, these covergirls were all graceful and pretty creatures, sometimes looking ecstatically at a picture, sometimes with their gaze lost in thought or captured by some placid scenery. Women were no less potential customers than they were decorative elements to make the product aesthetically pleasing. Photography was expanding its popularity among members of the bourgeoisie, emerging as a profession as well as trying to establish itself as art at the same time. The number of women actively participating in the flourishing industry is worth a mention: “by 1900 there were more than 7,000 professional female photographers in the United Kingdom and the United States” (Hacking, 2012). Nevertheless, this apparent success should not mislead us: throughout Europe women had limited access to photography, for both cultural and economical reasons. Julia Margaret Cameron, though an amateur, left us a great amount of work , but it should be noted she was able to practice photography thanks to her social status and her positive financial situation. In France, “la nouvelle femme was urged on the one hand to redirect her energy toward ‘internal cultivation’ and on the other, to express femininity in personal adornment and interior décor” (Rosenblum, 1994, p.118). In England, Catherine Barnes Ward


remembered that “many British photographic societies did not welcome women […] there were little professional or psychological support for British women” (Rosenblum, 1994, p. 89). In some instances even when a woman’s experiments led to a substantial corpus of images, this would be ignored by the public and specialists of the sector, thus subsequently lost from memory. Alice Austen’s street pictures from the late 19th century America were almost about to suffer the same treatment, if her glass-plate negatives hadn’t been found by a researcher in 1950 (Gonzalez, 2013). The First World War brought about drastic changes in society, it destroyed lives as much as it tried unwavering certainties. In a state of emergency every person who could fill in the gaps left by men at the front was eagerly accepted. Women started flocking into the work force, and in parallel increased their presence in photo studios. Professional female photographers were generally supportive of one another, often welcoming apprentices. Others, seeking to master the medium, entered institutions to be taken by male mentors or were employed in studios owned by men. Tina Modotti’s interest in photography was kindled after she met Edward Weston, whose guidance helped her develop her skills and talent with success. On the other hand though, Berenice Abbott suggested that many other aspiring colleagues were not so fortunate with their male counterparts: when their work began to be perceived to be as competitive, the women were forced out of their job in the studio (Rosenblum, 1994). In its struggle to emerge as art, photography adopted many topoi from painting, among other influences. In 1857 O. G. Rejlander realised a composition in the fashion of the Old Masters’ paintings titled, “Two Ways of Life” (Hacking, 2012, p 116). In this picture he posed models in two main groups, one representing dissolution and one enacting virtue. The architecture on the background is reminiscent of the School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520), although the general construction of the image is far from the rigour of the Italian Artist, rather it bears a sense of excess more typical of the Baroque period. The curtain hanging from the top of the picture hints at the theatre, turning the whole scene into a strange sort of performance. “Two Ways of Life” with all of its cross references to other accepted forms of art was an ambitious tentative to elevate the status of photography. It wasn’t only classical painting to provide source of inspiration, but also contemporary trends in the fine arts. Zaida Ben-Yussuf was an English portrait


photographer who established herself in America in 1896 and opened a studio in New York. Her “Odor of Pomegranate” dated 1899, shows a clear resemblance to “Isabella and the Pot of Basil”, a painting by John White Alexander of two years before (Rosenblum, p. 77). Ben-Yussuf like others made a profitable use of contemporary Art Nouveau imagery, very appreciated by the costumers. From the 1880s until the end of WWI, the Pictorialist movement was the chief vanguard in the photographic field. Masters of this style included Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglietz, and Alvin Langdon Coburn among others. Their aim was to apply principles pertaining to (contemporary) fine art to their photographic work. “The White Trees” by George Seeley displays the typical softness in tones and form that could also be found in the Impressionist paintings. The “Pond-Moonrise” (1904) by Edward Steichen depicts a night scenery amidst the woods, dimly illuminated by the soft and diffused light of the moon: similar landscapes were painted by James Abbott Mc Neill Whistler in his Nocturnes around 1870s (Hacking, 2012). Even if many decades have passed, these same dynamics can be witnessed in present-day advertising and photography. During the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s oeuvre and the Pop Art movement, contributed to loosen the boundaries between art and advertising for good: modern visual communication has clearly inherited its appearance and modes of representation from this mix. The following examples will provide further proof of this. Ray Ban’s campaign “Never Hide” used the visual style of Andy Warhol’s serigraphs to publicize their sun glasses. Pop art itself put the ideas of fame and consumerism at the centre of its artistic discussion. Nan Golding, who authored Bottega Veneta promotional pictures in 2010 didn’t diverge from the usual imaginary of many other staged fashion shoots. The pose of the model itself is also very reminiscent of Venus in countless classical paintings. Far from fading, the instances of cross-influence within image-making is alive and well, and keeps resurfacing in all different fields of representation.


PAGES 18 and included in

In this page: top: Thomas Rush, d.kele. Ray-ban Colorize Campaign (2009) bottom:

Andy Warhol. Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962)

In the next page: Nan Goldin. Bottega Veneta Srping Summer (2010) top:

bottom: Tiziano.

Venere e il suonatore di liuto (1555-65)


and 19 are not in the preview


Section 2

Gaze and culture Cognitive processes are a complex mechanism that absorbs and remixes a huge number of different stimuli. These can be related to our specific experiences as single individuals, unwritten societal rules, education, upbringing. The variables are indeed many, but they all actively work together in shaping our views on the world. Those same conceptions become visible in our approach to our jobs and in our relationships with other people: that is why it is perfectly possible to trace these mechanisms in all instances of visual communication. Jungian psychoanalysis has long confirmed that our mind transforms our experiences and our beliefs into symbols when we dream (Jung, 1964): history of art shows us that this process is further translated into practice through creativity. Paintings, advertising, photographs are all drenched in symbols, signs and messages telling of our personal standpoint towards the world as well as shedding light on the social norms in force. Each form of representation, as a generator of meaning, in turn influences the viewer’s way of conceiving reality, to the effect of actively reinforcing (or counteracting) psychological attitudes in people. To choose an object and representing it equals transforming this object into embodied memory: through representation we create our collective memory. Laura Pulvey notes: “it’s from popular culture that most people in our society get their entertainment and their information..it is here that women (and men) are offered the culture’s dominant definitions of themselves” (Gamman, Marshment, 1988, p. 111). This happens because through representation we enact a process of identification (both as authors and as viewers) which reveals itself since childhood. In her long experience as a pedagogue Belotti stated: “Through [their] drawings it is possible to infer how the little girls see themselves, other males and the reality that surrounds them.”2 (Belotti, 1973, p.177). Culture is not only constituted by written information and it cannot only be acquired through textbooks: it is also composed by numerous attitudes that are handed down orally or by social interaction. Our upbringing can seriously influence our perception of ourselves and our roles within society and if we are not able to break free from those mental constraints, we may not ever realise


orig.: “attraverso questi disegni, si capisce come le bambine vedano se stesse, I maschi e la realtà circostante”.


how many damaging constructs are simply imposed on us before we can protest to some effect. This is the case with gender norms, that even after a hundred years of debate are still extremely rigid and disrespectful of human’s individual inclinations. Moreover, this indoctrination starts from very early on in a child’s life. In 1973 Italian pedagogue Elena Gianni Belotti published an essay titled “Dalla parte delle bambine” (“On the Side of Little girls”) where she analysed in depth the extent of social conditioning on girls (and partially on boys) from their very first wailing. Even if the book shows horrifying scenarios that sound almost anachronistic today, it still offers very relevant observations on topics that are far from dead. One of them, is on the notion of female sensitivity, a sweeping phrase that among other things - is used to describe any artwork a woman has produced and that shows some form of caring disposition, delicacy or intimacy: “The all-too-celebrated feminine instinct is universally considered like a ‘natural’ emanation of a creature who is biologically destined to motherhood and raising up children. As such she is ‘naturally’ equipped with divinatory powers that allow her to act in the best possible way in regards to her offspring. All of this is actually the outcome of the conditioning towards submission, which in turn demands to constantly take care of ideas, humours, reactions and desires expressed by the dominant individuals”3 (Belotti, 1973, p.183). The praise towards this sort of otherworldly skill that women seem to possess by innate virtue, is the same that was pronounced around 1900s in regards to women photographers: “Women were supposed to have an ‘intuitive’ knack of furnishing studios with taste, of arranging hair and garments to good effect, of putting sitters at their ease” (Rosenblum, 1994, p.74). As this account shows, commenters at the time clearly forgot that hairdos and domestic arrangements were all that a woman had access to at best, excluding very few exceptions. The fact I am referring to the turn of the XXth century should not be misleading: similar remarks are made on the work of contemporary female conflict



“Il tanto celebrato intuito femminile, universalmente considerato come emanazione ‘naturale’ in un essere biologicamente destinato alla maternità e all’allevamento dei bambini e quindi “naturalmente” dotato di poteri divinatori che gli consentono di agire nel modo migliore dei loro riguardi, è anch’esso il prodotto del condizionamento alla sottomissione e della necessità che ne deriva di tener conto costantemente delle idee, degli umori, delle reazioni, dei desideri degli esseri dominanti.”

photographers who focus on the suffering of the civilians instead of catching military action scenes. The claim is that the photographer turned her gaze towards families and wounded people on account of their female sensitivity; there is no concern for what were the circumstances leading to the shot itself, not to mention the embarrassing silence over the “sensitive” war pictures taken by men (Mitchell, 2009). This kind of outlook on women’s existence - permeated by double standards has been in place for centuries, we have evidences of this throughout history and the history of art. Even before the advent of photography in the case that a woman became successful as a painter or a sculptress, she would still have to face endless hindrances in her progression, and after death even eviction from mainstream history books. In “The Story of Women and Art”, professor Amanda Vickery embarked on a journey starting from Italy’s Renaissance to Georgia O’Keeffe Mexican period, during which she showed the extent of women’s genius as much as the social boundaries they had to face. The documentary revealed a few interesting facts: women’s presence in art though low, can be traced many centuries back. Their genius was sometimes acknowledged by their peers, and by contemporary commenters as well. Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives” contain biographical information and praise towards female artists whose name is hardly known nowadays. This is one critical point: no matter how much an artist accomplished in her life, no matter how great her genius, more often than not her work would just be considered second-class by mainstream culture hubs. Nowadays we would be tempted to consider the position of professional women artists (designers, scientists etc.) as one of privilege, a position where they are truly considered for their value. Sadly it is much more complicated than that. Natasha Walter (1994) in her book “Living Dolls”, explains how stereotypes on gender norms are alive and well, and still affect our perception of women and men alike. This mindset finds a number of different outputs that finally result in the so-called “gender gap”. Women are still evaluated based on their gender, and on wether they abide by certain customs. Even if women have far more access to a big variety of jobs and levels of education than in the past, there is still diffused belief that females are fitter for certain kinds of occupations, instead of others. The dynamics described by Belotti in 1973 are echoed in “Living Dolls”: little girls are still raised to be princesses or trendy dolls from an early age, and as they grow up they are subtly discouraged to take interest in topics (especially if scientific) that for some odd reason are still deemed not lady-like enough.


The difficulty in eradicating these misconceptions derives from the fact that they largely act in our unconscious, so when a man or a woman promotes such attitudes, will often do so without even realising it (Belotti, 1973). All of these considerations over the cultural context in which we live, can help us understand what is the position of an image maker towards his or her subject. Moreover, it allows us to read the content of a photograph with a more critical eye: we become aware of patterns of meaning we may had not even considered before. Representation brings forward a cross-contamination of meaning: in depicting an object and sharing such work we are also offering our audience all the connotations intertwined with the referent itself. Some associations are so imprinted on our minds that is hardly possible to separate them from the object they inhabit. This process works in both directions: the suggestion of sex is always represented with a half-naked woman, at the same time every image of a woman with little clothing is considered as hinting to something sexual. Old myths about women still live in the photographs we take of them, in the portrayal of their gender in the media. And yet, culture is not only the mirror reflecting our present condition while re-asserting old patterns and behaviours. It is also a space that can actively contribute to changing the status quo, but to do so we must query the psychological dynamics behind our gaze on the world. Photojournalist Maggie Murray started debating the outcomes of her own practice early on in her carrier: “Was it objective? Or didn’t it give us hidden messages about attitudes to women, to black people, to anyone powerless or disadvantaged? Did it show us the truth?” (Spence, Solomon, 1995, p 111). These questions can be easily applied to the concept of gaze. The gaze itself is never neutral: our eyes extend our mindset, our beliefs, our traumas, our feelings on everything they pose themselves on. This is why a portrait of another person, is always a self-portrait of the author too. The surrealists believed that a photo-portrait possessed phantasmagorical and hallucinatory qualities “because of their supposed capacity to reveal the unconscious desires of the sitter of the viewer” (Hacking, 2012, p.125). A photograph doesn’t happen through the camera, the instrument only makes it concrete: the process of taking a picture is a process of viewing. Through the gaze we carry out an act of showing and concealing at the same time. We only reveal a portion of the subject we depict: the emphasis on that aspect is strong enough to annihilate any other possible way of interpreting the


original referent. There is a sense of absolutism embedded in the gaze, such that we often only show those elements that support our personal rhetoric. Unless the photographer has a very strong ethical code, there is a serious risk this rhetoric becomes one of exploitation. As a consequence, this approach destroys the sacrality of the other person, and transforms him or her into a sentient slave. In very complex contexts like conflict photography, this issue is more relevant than ever: war is in itself a tangled matter. It involves hundreds and millions of people, in different countries. A conflict evolves through various attacks happening at the same time, by the hands of different factions: if we add political implications to this mix , it is clear how war is not a topic to be easily squared. The photograph of a crying little girl in Iraq, after she lost her family in an attack of the American military, is enough to enrage the public and turn opinions against the government. This was in fact a photograph taken by Chris Hondros in 2005: Samar Hassan had lost her parents, while she and her family was driving back home and fatally failed to stop at a checkpoint (Bohr, 2011). The story doesn’t end here, though. Her brother was wounded in the shooting and paralysed, consequently the American government arranged for him to be taken to the US to receive adequate medical treatment. The stages of his rehabilitation was covered by Michele McDonald and published by the “Boston Globe”. In one image it is even possible to see Rakan, the little boy, dressed from head to toe like spiderman. The two series offer two different accounts of war: one denounces the horrors of death and loss and the other is somewhat trying to make up for it, in an attempt to offer a positive side to a tragic event. In both cases the viewer is left wondering wether what we are seeing are really children and victims, instead of instruments to support or oppose the ongoing conflict. The gaze transfigures the subject, acting effectively like a means of representation. To “transfigure”, in fact has an interesting etymology: from Latin “trans= beyond, over, across” and “figurare=to give form”. Our gaze confers another form on reality, one beyond its simple appearance, sometimes even away from its true essence. The eyes catch systems of symbols and subsequently transforms reality into other systems of symbols: “ The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s.[...] Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you


believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.� (Calvino, 1974, p. 13). All of these signs are in turn pertaining to the specific set of knowledge which contributed to originate them. By means of the camera we project desires on the other person: we are not really looking at the human being in front of us, but the meaning we want to bestow on him or her. The subject becomes the carrier of our fantasies: this is very apparent in the way advertising tries to sell us life-styles as much as commodities. Thus, the gaze produces knowledge, new identities, and people; like Denzin (1995) affirmed in regard to film: “we find ourselves product of the cinematic gaze� (p.1). A woman observed through the male gaze is often charged with his desire, as such, she is completely transfigured from her original state. The person observing this representation of herself is likely to identify with that image; or else she will feel extremely diminished by it because of the obvious differences occurring between her and the model. Thus, women observe themselves and the others through a male perspective and the pattern of desire imbued in it. This causes a separation between the identity of the woman and her replica: the gap between reality and desire is impossible to fill. In conclusion, thanks to its ability to transfigure the gaze becomes at once significant and signifier (the sign and its form).


Section 3

Women and their mirrors Every photograph is the product of two points of view: that of the Operator (direct observer) and the Subject ( the person, scene or object observed). The third point of view is that of the Spectator (indirect observer), who later comes in contact with the photo (Barthes, 1980). It is worth mentioning that both Operator and Subject are also Spectators, first because they are both consumers of images and secondly because through the camera they are put in relationship with one another: they cannot help returning each other’s gaze. The final result of this encounter is the photograph, a shiny mirror where gazes collide and merge. What does this mirror tell us about women? Women have of course appeared in photographs from the very beginning, and from very early on they have also portrayed the world around them through the camera. And yet, from these first examples it is very difficult to detect a real form of narrative, or rather in Barthes’ (1980) words, a punctum. Majority of portraits from the 1880s until 1920s ca generally gives us great material for the studium: fashion trends, glimpses on customs, descriptions of social status, but there is virtually no context, no unfolding of events or feelings for a longer period of time. Some images remain immortal, like the portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar or the dreamy women in Imogen Cunningham’s Pictorialist period, but they offer little insight on individual women’s life. It is true of course that photography at the time was unaware of its full narrative potential, thus every picture taken is rather like the piece of a jigsaw. No story can be perceived unless one sets out to collect as many pictures as possible and analyses them like an archeologist and an anthropologist would do. On top of this, there is another obstacle that prevents us Spectators to grasp more information about those women: the pose. At the time majority of portraits required to sit for the photographer, a condition in which the subject was far too aware of the camera and like we all know too well, trying to strike an impression. Barthes (1980) illustrates this dynamic eloquently: “Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance to an image […] an image -my image- will be generated: will I be born from an antipathetic individual or from a ‘good sort’? If only I could ‘come out’ on paper as on a classical canvas, endowed with a noble expression


– thoughtful, intelligent, etc.!”(p.10-11). Posing acts like a barrier between the essence of the subject and the inquisitive eye of the photographer. This disruption ultimately generates a multiplication of impressions: “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes us of to exhibit his art. […] I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture” (Barthes, 1980, p.13). These remarks are meaningful even for modern-day documentary photography and photojournalism, because it casts a doubt on how deep the insight of a photographer can go when he meets his subject’s eye, in pose. However, considering how portraits taken during la belle époque (especially after the invention of the carte de visite) were dealing with status and formality, Barthes comments are all the more enlightening. One of the very first instances of a woman’s narration and reflection upon herself through the photographic medium comes from the French artist Claude Cahun, who was mainly active from the 1920s onwards. Her visual discourse belongs to the Surrealism, in that she explored “the irrationality of dream narratives, the limitations of realism, and the insights of the subconscious” (Manders, 2014). In her practice she collaborated with her life-long partner Marcel Moore, with whom she realised a volume titled “Aveux non avenus” in 1930. Cahun wrote the text and, together with Moore, crafted ten photocompositions to accompany it. The illustrations investigate notions of the self and of perception through a series of collages suspended between nightmare and ironic fantasy. Her photography is concerned with questioning the expression of identity, and with unravelling the millions of different forms it can take. A single portrait would never fulfill the task, as she wrote: “I scatter myself too widely for that.” (Manders, 2014). There doesn’t exist only one version of Claude, but many. Each of them, she can wear and change like a dress or a mask: in one photograph in fact she appears wearing a cape, decorated with face masks. Identity is almost like an object to be constantly turned and reshaped, against every notion of immutability. In “Keepsake” she appears like a head under a bell jar, with her eyes staring vacantly in front of herself. The sharpness of the image, as if it was made for a catalogue, suggests the idea of a woman as an object, to be kept safe, unchanged, no longer free. The peculiarity of her production lies in the incredible variety of styles and techniques she employed: collages, double exposures, superimpositions. While she is the interpreter and protagonist


of her portraits, she is also transfigured by her own art. She is a performer that temporarily embodies visions, emotions and ideas that actively put into discussion norms of society. In her most famous portrait titled “Don’t kiss me I’m in training”, she dresses like a sort of pierrot, with excessive make up to highlight her feminine facial features, yet as a whole displaying the body of a man. Coupled with the ironic phrase “Don’t kiss me I’m in training” written across her chest, the photograph challenges binary gender norms and preconceptions about femininity. Her aesthetic clashes with the sugary and painterly vision of women that had permeated all the Pictorialist movement and photography in general until the end of WWI. The performative act captured through the lens is a mode of expression we are familiar with thanks to the work of Cindy Sherman from the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that Cahun and Moore used this form many years before, in such a complex context for women and art, accounts further more for their genius. Cahun’s work is particularly significant because it highlights the importance of intentions in revealing the subject, in activating what Barthes defines as “the adventure” in a photograph. It does not suffice for a picture to contain a woman to imply the punctum. It is the insight, skill and sensitivity of the photographer that can make a subject truly alive and visible, the protagonist of a continuous narration. It is because Cahun discusses herself consciously, that she is affecting us directly and with such strength. The bulk of imagery regarding women and authored by women though, is propelled in large scale by the feminist movement resurfacing between 1950s and 1960s (Rosenblum, 1994). Feminism disclosed the possibility and necessity of a consistent, continuous and massive narrative about women. Like Cahun’s oeuvre shows, there were examples of works that dealt with women’s condition (think also of Tina Modotti’s photographs in Mexico, with her honest and non-idealised depiction of motherhood) well before the outbreak of the feminist movements, but they were far less numerous and much easier to ignore, because of multiple social, ideological, economical reasons. The impact of feminism was so strong on photography that, regardless wether a professional considers herself as part of the movement or not, it would be impossible for a great part of modern women’s photography to even exist. The debate kindled by seminal texts like “Le deuxième sex” and “The Feminine


Mystique” by Bettie Friedan, allowed women to become aware of their disadvantaged status in all matters — economical, political, societal and personal. Thus, they were compelled to “review the ways they had been neglected in the past, to investigate societal causes, and to look inward in order to consider the ways in which they had related to the world while growing up” (Rosenblum, 1994, p. 259). One way to regain possession of their thoughts and vision was through the diary form and its photographic equivalent: the snapshot. This particular style of image “had long been considered like the insignificant province of females who annotated and kept family albums. Now it became a tactic for revealing the real but unacknowledged relationships between women, their spouses, their chidren, and their possessions” (Rosenblum, p. 264). Jo Stanley highlights the importance of the diary as the most direct means to read about women’s life as it is perceived by them. She traces a short evolution of the diary from Victorian England to more recent times: “Traditionally, men have seen women’s diaries as a threat. Women were said to be witches just because they kept them […] In 19th -century Britain, a diary could function as a way to keep Victorian women quiet and perhaps to display (marriageable) feminine virtues. Like creating seaweed albums or watercolour paintings, keeping diaries indicated, gentility, sensitivity, ability to order ‘nature’.[…] In the mid-to-late 20th century, by contrast, some women have seen diaries as a place of freedom from external control, a place try out new behaviour and ideas “ (Spence, Solomon, 1995, p.24). The feminist re-evaluation of the diary form and the snapshot, cleared the way for such an intimacy in portraiture and the documentary genre as was never seen before. Nan Goldin’s work would never have been considered acceptable before this significant shift in visual approaches. Notably, Goldin caught the New York of the 1980s and 1990s through her direct experience and that of her friends as they dived (sometimes fatally) into the hype of the underground culture scene (Hacking, 2012). Her series of photographs on sex and relationships are some of the most intense, honest and raw depictions of their kind. There is no attempt to embellish the protagonists of her story, everyone is equally vulnerable and exposed. This high level of participation of the photographer into her subjects’ life stretches the boundaries of voyeurism and poses the question to the viewer as all. We are watching Nan and her friends as they go to parties, engage in sex, as they sleep, as they fall ill, as they lie in a hospital bed. We feel like we


are part of that life, of her life and yet, we are not, we are simply spectators led by the hand by the author herself. Her production never falls into the trap of dull snapshots of the everyday, because underlying each of them there is the undying desire to investigate gender, identity and sexuality in a sort of continuous evolution. She started taking images of her friends as a tribute to her love to them, and to the fascination of their life together (Heron, Williams, 1996). Later her photographs assumed a political connotation as she tried to raise awareness on the consequences of AIDS (Hacking, 2012). The diaristic form was also adopted by photojournalist Abigail Hayman in the 1970s (Rosenblum, 1994), although her series reveals open connotations of protest. “Growing Up Female” is not only the account of the photographer’s first hand experience, but it also depicts rather sharply the extent of stereotypes on womanhood that permeated society. In “Women”, we see three customers of fairly different ages while they are intent on doing their shopping in the supermarket. All three are wearing hair rollers, while the younger woman in the foreground is wrapped in a fashionable flower patterned dress. The older lady immediately behind her is bent on her trolley while holding a box with a tight expression on her face. The mundane setting, coupled with the frowned faces of the two women paint a surreal scene where expectations of beauty collide with the constraint of domestic duties. Another photograph shows a similar stark contrast between a middle aged woman, in dark formal attire, her hair visibly coiffured, while she stands in front of a row of mannequin busts displaying different types of lingerie. In this picture, Hayman is commenting on the contradicting demands for women’s respectability who also have to satisfy their role as a desirable object. In the eyes of society female sexuality is reduced to an inert marketable item. Monette & Mady is a recent project by Swedish photographer Maja Daniels, which focuses on ideas of identity in regards to the elderly. In this case, the format of the journal is employed with a particular blending of staged shots and of casual moments. The two women in the series are twin sisters and performers: they live together, they work together, they often finish each other’s sentences, eat the food in the same quantities and dress with the same outfit. Danjels stated that one of the reasons why she chose to tell Monette and Mady’s story was that she felt there was a lack of images that would give an account of women’s life in the old age. This kind of reasoning resonates with the same kind of awareness promoted by


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Conclusion We still live in a forest of symbols, we are still flâneurs, yet now navigating amidst architectures of images. Our gaze produces culture and it is produced by culture itself. Looking informs our approach to knowledge. “There are no simple truths, only fragmentary and multiple perceptions seen through the structures of our (and others’) fantasies, which then have to be made sense of in the light of other knowledge” (Spence, Solomon, 1995, p 86). The debate around the interpretation of images and the significance of representation is still open and likely to evolve and enrich itself over time. Similarly the role of photographers and their modes of expression will change according to the times and to new ideas. Interest in women photographers and their work must take place across a more universal spectrum: it cannot be confined to a small group of specialised consumers, it must also be taken into consideration and analysed by the general public. Otherwise, the risk is that women’s work will remain ghettoed and will never be fully able to change fixed perspectives on our world. Feminism has gifted us with many new voices and invaluable views, and it must be kept in high regard for this. Nevertheless, the types of narration it has originated should not ever be considered as the product of a mysterious sensibility, separated and in opposition to that of people as a whole. Feminism is not the counterpart of male chauvinism. Though it may seem an irrelevant statement, the current debate on the exploitation of the female body in the media, proves there are still plenty of misconceptions regarding Feminism and a disregard for the role of women in society. It is not a matter of wether feminine sensibility exists, it is a matter of engaging with different experiences as people. What good is it talking about women sensitivity, if this is only to separate them from the whole history of human kind? A female’s perspective on the issues that regard women’s condition must never be looked through the lens of pre-conceptions and should be never taken as a universal proof of what all women are like, or of what they feel without exception. It should never be labeled as a product of a girl’s sensitivity, if that is another way to imply it is not really part of what all human beings can feel or experience. Women’s work is inspired by and influenced by the cultural context typical of the time in history they are living in. This is the primary criteria that should be


followed when reading any artist’s (designer’s or scientist’s) work. Some stories and experiences explored in women’s art might be considered typical of the feminine world (these can be issues regarding menstruation for example) and as such not accessible to another gender. These are mere excuses. Every story and every human experience, is different and consequently never fully accessible to anyone other than those who lived it in the first place. There is no such thing as a gender’s sensitivity, but there exists people’s sensitivity and that varies from individual to individual. Men are capable of equally insightful skills, and empathy. Ultimately photography is genderless, it is a space where the emotions, the events and the impressions of human beings are discussed and shared. Models of behaviour influence our ability to read phenomena and affects our view on our society and women, but we should not let these patterns overshadow our judgement nor our emotional intelligence: “A look at what women have produced throughout the history of photography suggests that the answer to wether they see differently from men is not easily determined, despite the issue having been raised repeatedly over the years. Women have seen differently at different times and […] their outlook has spanned an uncategorizable diversity.” (Rosenblum, 1994, p.260). Women’s photography is the photography of one big community: humanity.


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