All white Western males see white Western females as shoppers and homemakers.
All photographers are voyeurs.
Women would maximise all other women’s potential as actors if they controlled the human gaze.
or put another way what is wrong with the world is ….
This weeks’ reading caught my attention. The above statements might be a summary of what a simplistic reading might conclude. My response is that control of the ‘Gaze’ is a power struggle. The struggle is between biological stimulus response mechanisms, ideologies of capitalism, socialism, communism and possibly naive-ism and of course feminism and ‘men-ism’ (is there such a word or is it assumed this is the world we live in?)
To understand the gaze it is useful to consider the purpose of looking. As an organism the eye is one of the organs used to sense the world. It seeks out danger and that is its main purpose. It is there to keep us safe. It is also there as part of the process of perpetuating our genes. Keeping them safe is one task and then reproducing them is another. Eyes seek ways of keeping us safe and perpetuating the genes. I accept this is simplistic too and requires pages of justification but it is a response on the same level to the reading given to us this week.
Let’s consider Deborah Bright first as she considers the way landscape is presented by artists and photographers.
‘The sort of landscape I am referring to, and which I think photographers have a stake in revealing, is that landscape which J.B. Jackson has called ‘a field of perpetual conflict and compromise between what is established by authority and what the vernacular insists on preferring.” ‘(Bright, 1985)
There is a lot good in these words for a current photographer to pursue with interest. I believe Bright can go further to explain why we ended up where we are. It is important to recognise that over the last century there has been ideological warfare seeking to establish the best solution for a fair society. The dreams and promises of communism and socialism turned in to a nightmare and the promises of capitalism gave growth and prosperity but massive inequality.
As each ideology sought to make its case, and win its battles, photography was part of the armoury. It makes sense that as one system creates benefits it glorifies those benefits in art and photography. This can explain why we are where we are and also supports Bright’s case for photographers to do more with landscape photography today to show the battles being fought now. This is happening with our own Jesse Alexander dwelling on liminal space and many others exploring the very current issue of climate change.
More from Bright.
‘But most troublesome is Adams’ tautological acquiescence to his self-announced inability to make pictures “that would somehow indict the new strip mines to the north.” Tellingly, he slips into the passive voice to point to a transcendent cause: “it apparently was not given me to do.”
Given by whom, one might ask. God? Nature? John Szarkowski? Who told Robert Adams that he could not make photographs that would indict the new strip mines to the north?’ (Bright, 1985)
Bright needs to be clear here. Is she saying it was Adams role to shine a light on the strip mines to the north? Is it more pertinent to ask why someone else did not make these images available? Is she saying capitalism is wrong and xxxxism is right? If so which is the system she is proposing and where is a good example of it for her to make her case. Today there is no such problem with many photographers pointing their camera at problems the current economic order creates. See my blog on Arles last year where examples abound.
More from Bright.
‘By containing beautiful photographs of potentially volatile subjects within an ambiguous high-tech/political/ecological theme concept, the individual works are highly marketable without offending potential collectors who are disproportionately members of the corporate moneyed class.’ (Bright, 1985)
I can see she is having a dig at the moneyed classes and how they have kidnapped art and photography. In the non moneyed classes of communism and socialism the power elite also decides what is given gallery and page space. My request is if she is going to have a dig then illustrate where human beings have done better.
Finally Bright on landscapes used by women.
Most “landscapes” used by women—the home, beauty salon, shopping mall, etc.—are designed by men for maximum efficiency in the promotion of
impulse buying and over-consumption. How might such spaces be critiqued and reimagined by feminist designers and photographers for the benefit of maximizing women’s potentials as social actors rather than shoppers?’ Bright, 1985)
There is a PhD to write on this so how to respond in a few words? Marketing works when a willing public is willing to buy what is being marketed at them. This is true of gamblers and marketing of gambling companies to them, drinkers and marketing of drinks to them and women and what women want. Do women want the right things in the current society? Who am I to say. I don’t need most of the things that I buy but know if all of us bought nothing then the current system would collapse.
Enough on Bright. I can agree there are new roles for photographers today and fortunately many are taking great risk to enter that space. If she wants to criticise where we are then she needs a much more comprehensive analysis of why we are where we are today.
Now to Laura Mulvey’s essay on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. I have a prejudice that when analysis is heavily dependent on quoting Freud then it is built on sand and the proposer is on weak foundations.
Consider a summary of her take on the cinematic gaze.
‘The scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object), and, in contradistinction, ego libido (forming identification processes) act as formations, mechanisms, which this cinema has played on. The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favourite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film. The argument returns again to the psychoanalytic background in that woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat.’ (Mulvey, 1975)
Refer to my introduction comments on the purpose of looking. If this is saying cinema plays to what the organisms eye is seeking then fine. Imagine cinema in which it did not do this. The problem I have with passive woman and active man is that in my experience, subjective I know, women and men equally enjoy some of the classic films such as Hithcocks’s Rear Window and Mendes’ American Beauty. I understand there is a tension between the feminist view on what women should like and how they should behave and how many non feminist women respond to that.
Mulvey has more.
‘Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into, the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire.’ (Mulvey, 1975).
Yes it does and is that a bad thing? Again, if it is, it is important to illustrate where the better system works.
Creating a fair society is a challenging process for human beings. We appear to be very greedy and self interested as individuals within the species. Many who argue for climate change drive large cars, travel huge distances on holiday and own more than one home. Many who are appalled by poverty have several empty rooms in their homes and larger bank balances than they need for their lives.
There is no perfect system yet. The best and fairest system I have lived in was in Singapore. Housing for the workers, a great healthcare system, fabulous infrastructure, as safe as anywhere in the world and lots of work for those who want it. The only thing is it is a dictatorship.
Photographers have a role to shine a light on what is wrong. Once that role is done then differing ideologies can fight for the right to have power to correct it. If photographers can show what is wrong and also give examples of what is right and where it works well then that can help those who fight for the right to govern.
A very stimulating week!
Bright, D. Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men. An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography. Exposure 23:1 (1985). It was revised and published in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Alternative Histories of Photography (Cambridge: MIT Press), 1987.
Mulvey, L. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, vol. 16, (Autumn
1975), pp 6-18 accessed http://www.screen.arts.gla.ac.uk/ Feb 28th, 2020.