Sunday, November 27, 2011

Feminism and the Gaze

The patch on the back of my hoodie

When I was in high school, someone gave me a t-shirt with the image above printed on it, and said, “this made me think of you.”  Oddly enough, I didn’t fully understand it at the time (I was 13) but was already out and proud as a queer person, an activist, a feminist.  I kept the shirt and wore it for years until it was too small, when I cut out the Barbara Kruger piece and sewed it onto the back of a hoodie, which I still wear all the time.  My relationship to this piece has changed over the years as my own identity has changed, fluctuating along the spectrums of gender and sexuality.         

After reading “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey and “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” by Craig Owens, I am stuck with the word “phallocentric” and somewhat skeptical of much of what they had to say.  While many of the points made held merit, many others seemed a little out of left field. 

Tom of Finland (about as phallocentric as you get, though in a gay way)

I first want to define castration anxiety, as it came up a lot in the readings and I didn’t always follow the arguments about how it related to male/female interactions, issues of desire and the gaze, etc. 

I know Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but here is what it had to say about Castration Anxiety: 

Castration anxiety is the conscious or unconscious fear of losing all or part of the sex organs, or the function of such.
In Freudian psychoanalysis Castration anxiety (Kastrationsangst) refers to an unconscious fear of penile loss originating during the phallic stage of sexual development and lasting a lifetime. According to Freud, when the infantile male becomes aware of differences between male and female genitalia he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and becomes anxious that his penis will be cut off by his rival, the father figure, as punishment for desiring the mother figure.

Owens claims that images of the phallus are not simply images, but rather carry a significant amount of meaning in our society. 

Like all representations of sexual difference that our culture produces, this is an image not simply of anatomical difference, but of the values assigned to it.  Here, the phallus is a signifier; it is, in fact, the privileged signifier, the signifier of privilege, of the power and prestige that accrue to the male in our society.  (Owens, 4)

Judith Segall. You've seen one, you've seen them all. 1994.

It is, of course, true that we live in a society that privileges men, and by extension, their phalluses.  But does our society have to be so dependent on an opposition of bodies?  Owens writes that “postmodern thought is no longer binary thought,” a point I was especially interested in, as binary systems of thinking rarely work for beings as complicated as humans and work equally poorly for larger ideas and cultural codes.   Owen challenges us to “conceive difference without opposition,” pointing out that women, in comparison to men, are seen as lacking this body part, as opposed to having power in their own bodies and anatomy, which is a product of our patriarchal society. 

He continues this train of thought not only in regard to people, but also in regard to ideas and art practices, as he points out with Martha Rosler.  Previously, artists had written alongside their practices of painting, sculpture, or photography, but they did not consider their writing to be an integral part of their practice.  Owens argues that Rosler’s approach of treating her writing as an equal and coexistent part of her practice is a feminist approach.  
I was particularly interested in Owens’ writing about the visual nature of sexuality, stating that the “feminist critique links the privileging of vision with sexual privilege.”  
Owens writes:

Freud identified the transition from a patriarchal to a patriarchal society with the simultaneous devaluation of an olfactory sexuality and promotion of a more mediated, sublimated visual sexuality.  What is more, in the Freudian scenario it is by looking that the child discovers sexual difference, the presence or the absence of the phallus according to which the child’s sexual identity will be assumed.

Freud’s sentiments are completely male-oriented, implying again that women “lack” something that men have.  It is assumed throughout the article that women perceive this lack and try to compensate for it in other ways.  These were some of the moments the writer lost me, and either I didn’t agree with or didn’t fully understand the points being made.

Owens does point out the male focus of Freud’s arguments, writing “although the reduction of difference to a common measure- woman judged according to man’s standard and found lacking- is already a denial.”

Throughout the readings, an enormous amount of power is placed on seeing, whether it be seeing a narrative, idealized film on the cinema screen and being encouraged to simultaneously desire the characters and identify with them, or whether it is making women visible as more than objects of male desire or anxiety, or signifiers of nature or morality, through the visual arts. 

Writing of female artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, Owens asks:

But what does it mean to claim that these artists render the invisible visible, especially in a culture in which visibility is always on the side of the male, invisibility on the side of the female?

Clearly there is a lot of power in rendering the invisible visible.  Art made by female artists is bound to be different that art made by male artists, and thank goodness.  I loved Barbara Kruger as a young artist/queer person/activist.  Her work was inspiring and spoke to some of the oppressions I felt.  A few pieces by Barbara Kruger:

The Mulvey piece brought up many interesting points about the ideologies taught and perpetrated through mainstream cinema, but one of the things I was most interested in was her point about how technological advances in film making technology opened the medium up to a variety of filmmakers, creating radical and/or feminist films for the first time.  Because photography and filmmaking or video are so linked to technology, I found it interesting that the ability to make representational images of yourself or your community was tied up in the financial ability to do so.  Until the technology reached a more accessible, the only people able to make and market films were men, so of course it stands to reason that more affordable technology would give birth to feminist and radical filmmaking. 

In a summary of this power and its function, Mulvey writes:

The scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object) and, in contradiction, ego libido (forming identification processes) act as formations, mechanisms, which the cinema has played on.  The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of men 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 favorite cinematic form- illusionistic narrative film….  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.

The idea of cultural codes for how to treat women being taught through cinema is fascinating, as is the idea of creating imaginary worlds for the (sexually repressed) viewer to enter into and feel both desire and connection for the characters on screen.  

In regard to the gaze, I came across this really interesting show recently called "Man as Object-  Reversing the Gaze."  It is definitely worth a look.  Here is a description:

MAN as OBJECT - Reversing the Gaze
The exhibition ‘Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze’  will examine the visibility of men and masculinity from female/feminist/transgender perspectives.  In the context of this exhibition, the male figure will assume the historically 'female' role with the male body and its gender expression shown as spectacle for a woman's viewing and contemplation. This truly feminist stance positions the surveyor as critic of traditional gender roles, problematizing notions of 'men,' 'male,' 'masculinity,' 'women' and 'female.’ This is an inclusive show for women and transgender artists to challenge what it means for 'women' to look at 'men.'

And, just to end, a few of my favorite feminist art pieces by Catherine Opie:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Documentary Photography Reconsidered

In this week's readings, both of the pieces (Sekula and Rosler) examined the idea of the documentary photograph, calling into question its function within society and its social relevance and ability to affect change (or lack thereof).  This topic is particularly interesting to me, as documentary is a word I use to describe my work, despite its status as a four-letter word within the art world.  So is "beautiful," and I routinely aspire to both.  I noticed that at one point in the Rosler article she capitalized Beauty, which I found humorous and evidence to illustrate the contention of the word and subject within an art context.  

Early in the Sekula piece, I was interested in his assessment of the art world environment.   

Here, elite culture becomes a parasitical “mannerist” representation of mass culture, a private-party sideshow, with its own photojournalism, gossip column reviews, promoters, celebrity pantheon, and narcissistic stellar-bound performers.  The charisma of the art star is subject to an overdeveloped bureaucratism.  Careers are “managed,” innovation is regularized, adjusted to the demands of the market.

What, then, of the rest of the world?  Is art not relevant to a broader audience outside of the insular art world?  I was having a conversation with a friend last night about the merits of Sherrie Levine’s work, and though I appreciate her intent and her intelligence, my conversation centered around the fact that her work is essentially inaccessible and perhaps irrelevant if you are looking at it without a knowledge of the art world and art history.  That is not a good thing or a bad thing, just something that is.  It does, however, raise the question of who the audience is and what the work intends to do.  

This idea is similar to how Rosler describes irony:

Irony, however, is not universally accessible, for the audience must know enough to recognize what is at stake.

Sekula continues his investigation by tackling the idea of objectivity and truth in photography, two ideas that get especially slippery around the issue of documentary photography.

The only “objective” truth that photographs offer is the assertion that somebody or something- in this case, an automated camera- was somewhere and took a picture.  Everything else, everything beyond the imprinting of a trace, is up for grabs.  

This sentiment is very open-ended and leaves a lot of room for interpretation of imagery.  One issue raised specifically in the Rosler piece is the question of who benefits from documentary photography.  She uses the image Migrant Mother as an example, writing that the woman in the photograph never benefited directly from the success of the image, whereas it arguably benefited Dorothea Lange and her career.  However, Rosler points out that the image did have positive effects, both in the specific instance of causing local officials to fix up the migrant camps and perhaps in the larger instance of drawing attention to a larger social issue.  Reading this case study, I wondered whether a photograph needs to benefit the subject directly in order to have a positive impact and affect social change in the world.  I would argue that it does not, that the change affected may not fall directly on the subject, but on those who come after them.  Rosler pointed out that Migrant Mother may not have benefited the woman pictured, but it likely benefited those who came after her.

I wonder, is this the role of the documentary photographer?  Is it their responsibility to directly benefit their subjects, as their subjects are benefiting them?  Arguably, the success and mass reproduction of this image was out of Lange’s hands.  Especially since the image was taken for the Farm Security Administration and the image didn’t even belong to Lange herself in the way we think of art photographs now (anyone can get prints from FSA negatives through the government), the conversation about who benefits from the success of the image is even less concrete than it might be if Lange had sold the image in art galleries for thousands of dollars immediately after taking it.  

I personally believe that every image-maker has a responsibility for what they put out into the world, and if you are dealing with a potentially political subject, you should treat it with caution, or at least be prepared to stand behind your point of view.  I feel that it is irresponsible to put work into the world and take no responsibility for how it is received, but I also do not feel that the photographer can every really control the independent life of their work, no matter how conscious or aware they are.  

I was interested in this passage from the Rosler piece:

Documentary testifies, finally, to the bravery or (dare we name it?) the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble.  Or who, like the astronauts, entertained us by showing us the places we never hope to go.  War photography, slum photography, “subculture” or cult photography, photography of the foreign poor, photography of “deviance,” photography from the past- W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Larry Burrows, Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Danny Lyon, Bruce Davidson, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Walker Evans, Robert Capa, Don Mcullin, Susan Meisalas… these are merely the most currently luminous of documentarian stars.

I understand this point more clearly when it is assumed that the photographer, starting from a place of privilege, is somehow gaining access to a less privileged group of people, photographing them, and then displaying their photographs for their own privileged art world group.  But what happens to this notion when a photographer is photographing within one of these categories, as a part of the community?  I would argue that the dynamic is quite different.  Or does the simple act of photographing elevate the photographer to a more elite status than their subjects?  I am primarily interested in the mention of subculture photography.  I think it is assumed that with photographs of the poor or photographs of those in war in third world countries, those being photographed are most definitely not in the same social class as those doing the photographing.  But what about other groups, where the photographer and their subjects are part of the same community and interested in engaging in a productive dialogue and not a relationship of manipulation that benefits the photographer and not the subject?  I think there is huge potential here for a different kind of discussion.  

The work of David Prifti is called to mind (especially his piercing and suspension series), specifically with the use of the word "subculture" photography.  Does it function as a vehicle to empathy and understanding, or is it like Rosler implies, a portal into a world that we want to observe from an elevated position, thankful that we can look at the "other" from within the white-walled comfort of a high art institution?

I instantly think of my own work within the transgender community, as I have been aware of these issues of representation and who benefits from that representation since the beginning of the project.  I fully believe in standing behind your work and the social statements you are making with it, especially if it is documentary in nature or showing an under-represented group of people to a larger public.  Photographic representation carries with it a deep power, and to ignore this power and make images thoughtlessly or without an understanding of the weight they will carry seems irresponsible to me. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Landscape: Topography and Photography

I enjoyed reading about Timothy O’Sullivan’s involvement in the Wheeler survey of the American West because it made me see O’Sullivan’s work in a new light.  I have always viewed his work simply as early landscape photography, but I ignored both the context in which his work was made and its early political implications.  Robin E. Kelsey writes:

Borrowing graphic possibilities from the work of geologists, topographers, and other survey specialists, O’Sullivan devised a specialized pictorial rhetoric to persuade viewers that the survey was securing practical gains in knowledge and that his medium could take part in this effort.

Timothy O'Sullivan: Anasazi ruins (the "White House"), Canyon de Chelly, Arizona, 1873

I am interested that he borrowed techniques from other scientists and had the goal of obtaining mathematical or scientific information from his photographs, which echoes the intent in early uses of police photography as we read last week.  Ultimately, however, O’Sullivan’s images were used primarily as political propaganda to persuade congress to give more and more money to the survey effort.  As explained in the article, there is no real way of obtaining scientific information from photographs, though as part of a larger survey effort they do supply important information.  Kelsey writes:

Wheeler himself expressed uncertainty about the value of photography as a tool of geographic surveying… The camera, in short, failed to measure….  If photography could fix images onto a precisely calibrated grid, it could become a useful tool for mapping, the primary activity of the survey. 

However, in its current state, “[photography] was not yet for [Wheeler] an adequate instrument for surveying the West.”

Though O’Sullivan was clearly very invested in these survey efforts and was given more responsibility and leadership than most photographers, it is also stated that “at times, he struck a skeptical note, making pictures that called into question the capacity of photography to deliver epistemological gain.” 

From the Miriam-Webster dictionary:
Epistemology: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.
It is also interesting that a huge amount of money was spent creating photography albums to distribute to members of congress in order to be given more money to continue the effort.  This is one of the earliest examples I have read (and I would assume one of the earliest examples in existence) of photography being used as a propaganda or political tool to further a project or cause, which in turn brings up the issue of photography and truth, and our human instinct to be moved by photographs or believe something more intensely once we see it represented on paper. 

Visually, O’Sullivan sometimes composed his photograph so that the area of interest was centered and included on the side a recognizable object to imply its scale, such as a hat.  He also included a ruler in some of the images, allowing for a sense of scale and blending techniques used for the acquiring of scientific information in his photography.  In Same as it every was: re-reading New Topographics  by Toby Jurovics, Lewis Baltz’s photograph Fluorescent Tube, 1977, is then compared to the ruler photograph taken by O’Sullivan in 1873. 

The way that Wheeler represented facts and objects was archival but incomplete, and therefore gave an illusion of a scientific investigation, but in reality contained very little scientific information.  If you were to look for thoroughness in his work, you would be disappointed, as he seemed to photograph certain objects or rock formations through a scientific lens but ignored others completely.  The way in which he represented Native Americans was also problematic, as the article states that he was encouraged through governmental and military pressure to make it appear as if chaos could break out at any time and that Native Americans were essentially unstable and could present a threat if not constantly monitored and controlled.  In this way, O’Sullivan was creating a fiction regarding an entire group of people in order to raise popular and governmental support for military involvement in the west.  Again, this situation illustrates that the idea of truth in photography is slippery and problematic.

I enjoyed reading the introduction to New Topographics as well as the new take on it by Toby Jurovics. 

Jurovics writes:

One of the challenges with interpreting New Topographics has been the inability to separate the subjects of these photographs from their meaning- what they are of from what they are about.

As an artist, it is somewhat strange to me how strongly the theme of the show seemed to overshadow the individual work or intent of the artists.  While the show was billed as a somewhat distanced approach to image making, Jurovics argues that “the goal of Adams, Gohlke, an Baltz’s photographs was to encourage empathy and concern” by photographing things that had previously been overlooked or perhaps lacked the grandiosity of a landscape painting. 

Jurovics writes:

Given the popular expectation for landscape photographs to resemble Yosemite Valley at its most theatrical, it is unsurprising that the restrained prints of New Topographics and the comparative banality of their subject matter was confusing and off-putting to many viewers. 

I especially enjoyed this quote from Frank Gohlke:

The dignity of grain elevators, the precision, intelligence and grace of their formal language, their majestic presence within the landscape all seem to confirm the faith that, given the right circumstances, we will make visible the best that is within us.

Jurovics continues, “again, he asks us to look beyond the act of identification or cataloguing to discover purpose and meaning.”

This last sentence is especially poignant.  In Gohlke’s pictures, he is asking us to see so much more than a grain elevator.  There is a discrepancy between what the photograph is of and what it is about, which is a fundamental issue in photography and has been at the core of many of our readings this semester. 

Frank Gohlke, Grain Elevator

Abandoned grain elevator, Homewood, Kansas, 1973

Grain elevators, Midway Area, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1972

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Photography and Power

The idea of the photographic archive is interesting to me because it something I take so completely for granted now.  This week’s readings drew attention to the fact that the systems we currently have in place for archiving images, and for obtaining legal information about people from images, did not always exist.  This seems like a rather obvious sentiment once you begin to think about the relatively short history of photography, but my experience of the world is one in which photography and identification are so intrinsically linked that I haven’t given much thought to the way this system and idea came into being. 

I have previously thought a lot about how photography was used as an anthropological tool to study humans and how this was exceptionally problematic in defining ideas of “the other.”  Throughout the readings I often thought of the Midway at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and how anthropologists put people from other cultures on display, inviting Chicagoans to come and observe these “other” and “foreign” people.  

The assumption that you can obtain information about races, intellect, criminal tendencies, social class, or any other aspect of humanity from a visual image is problematic.  The discussion in this week's readings about the many attempts that were made to use photography to either capture or read this information instantly made me think of early daguerreotypes made to illustrate "a negro type," which in turn made me think of contemporary artists who engage within this tradition, such as Carrie Mae Weems.  Below are images from her series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, which is owned by the Harvard Art Museum.  The text of this piece is:

You Became a Scientific Profile / A Negroid Type / An Anthropological Debate / & A Photographic Subject, 1995-1996

In this work, Weems copied Daguerreotypes in the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard and used them in her own work in a drastically different context.  Interestingly, the Peabody was not at all pleased with how she was using them, as she didn't get permission, and asked her to quit making this series, though they agreed she could keep any work already made.  The fact that the Harvard Art Museum acquired these four pieces is ironic to me, with one museum at Harvard ordering an end to production and the other buying the product.  But this is just how the story was told to me.  Regardless, Weems' work is clearly engaged in a dialogue with the early practice of using photography from a position of power to try to capture, explain, and further typify an entire race or group of people.  I would argue that Myra Greene's work engages in this dialogue as well.  The readings addressed both ears and eyes as major signifiers of things such as intellect and ability to have pity or empathy.  To what extent can we read or judge character by purely physical characteristics?  I believe Myra is asking these questions with her work "Character Recognition."

Alan Sekula’s “The Body and the Archive” was fascinating to me because it illustrated the ways in which photography was used (and perhaps misused) as an archiving tool as a system of archiving things that are impossible to archive visually.

The article about Fiona Tan's project Correction was interesting for many reasons.  Throughout all of the readings, the fallacy of objective photography came up continually.  Just as there is no process by which we can deduce mathematical information or character analysis from images, there is also no such thing as an objective photograph.  Whether in the 1800s or today, photographs "transmit to those who view them the principles and prejudices of those who make them." (Joel Snyder).  Therefore, attempting to pull scientific or ethnographic information from still photographs is inherently problematic because the images were informed by the prejudices of the maker.  The information "learned" from the photographs is also heavily dependent upon social norms and ideology and relies heavily on what the viewer wants to see.  It is, in no way, a scientific or judgement-free way to obtain information.  

The broader link between photography and power or as Foucault would argue, between seeing and power, is both fascinating and also a bit terrifying if you think about it too long.  The custom of having an image on identification documents is so standard that we hardly question it now unless there is a problem with the particular photograph or a discrepancy between the way the person looked at the time of the photograph and the time of presenting the resulting document to an official.  Additionally, we are accustomed to the custom of fingerprinting, which is also a relatively new way of identifying people within an archive. 

This week's themes also called to mind the work of Taryn Simon, specifically her project The Innocents.  The statement for The Innocents begins with this sentence:

"The Innocents documents the stories of individuals who served time in prison for violent crimes they did not commit. At issue is the question of photography's function as a credible eyewitness and arbiter of justice."

I wish I could conclude by saying that we have moved beyond the idea of the photograph as a document of the real, as something that contains an accurate assessment of character, intelligence, innocence, etc., but unfortunately I think these ideas are still heavily entrenched in our culture. 

Sekula writes:

“Bertillon” survives in the operations of the national security state, in the condition of intensive and extensive surveillance that characterizes both everyday life and the geopolitical sphere.  “Galton” lives in the renewed authority of biological determinism, founded in the increased hegemony of the political Right in Western democracies.”  (Sekula, p. 376)

Photography still holds great power, and as such, is very easy prey to an abuse of that power.  This is a struggle for any photographer whose work is political or identity-based.  I certainly think about it a lot with my work.

But, more broadly, outside of the context of photographers and "fine art" photography, the idea of the photograph containing proof or a truth about someone is perhaps more present than we are consciously aware of, and has roots in a very particular history, as Sekula describes.  It is interesting, then, as the readings point out, that many histories of photography completely omit police or anthropological uses of the medium, as they heavily shaped the way that photographs function in society, arguably more than early photographs made for aesthetic or art concerns.