This essay is as much a self examination of my current thoughts on the depiction of women as it is to make general statements, which I do anyway, but . . .
A key word is scopophilia, the pleasure of looking, with drawing or photography we make this available in a still and lasting form.
Sue, Royal Crescent, Bath, Somerset 1970
This photograph is from one of my first work with a naked woman. Although now very dated, it is an image important in my working history. This image is subject to many of the criticisms I now raise.
I am mainly known for my forest and environmental documentation. I have also photographed women. Photographing naked women has been an occasional but significant part of my work since 1970. Environmental documentation came later, in 1970 the photography of women was a prime focus of my work.
My current thinking, and my thinking is constantly evolving, comes as a response to a sentence from Julian Bowron, in his introduction to the Mandurah iteration of my survey show, John Austin - Survey II.v. Julian referred to the danger that my work as a whole could be given less regard because of my work with women. This statement shocked me, and caused me to consider my work with women, resulting in this essay.
I work with naked women as my work is about getting to know. I find that photography and drawing can help one to know the thing being drawn or photographed. I do not usually photograph that which I know. This also applies to my work with land, which is why I now rarely photograph the forest I live in.
Naked or nude and personal approach
I have always attempted to make my images with women personal and honest; strong engaged images rather than "beautiful pictures". Thankfully a quality of humour has also crept in at times. As in my depiction of the landscape, my work with naked women is becoming increasingly and intentionally political. (In my notebooks are notes and sketches for possible future work, this is to be very strongly enviro-political.) I do not do pin-up or girly pix.
Alana, Portrait, Fremantle WA 1992
This portrait of a friend is just that, a simple portrait
The women I have worked with since 1970 have engaged with the work willingly and have enjoyed the experience of being naked, of being seen naked and being photographed naked, scopophilia in its narcissistic form. In most cases they have actively engaged in the development of the work. Without this engagement the pictures could not have been made. In turn my response to the women who have worked with me over the years is an enormous level of respect for the women who have the courage to be seen for themselves. The crucial word here is engagement, without subject engagement there is nothing.
Hoiwever, it generally takes me a while to develop a feeling of ease with a new collaborator for the images to show engagement, In the beginning there is generally a feeling of awkwardity. I find it easiest to work with women who have an arts background of some kind. In gebneral I find portrait work with artists quite easy, but with normal people it is not easy. Professional models, however, can be probematic to wortk with as they often go through a series of "art" poses. These are generally aimed at appearing as "body beautiful". I am not interested in "body beautiful" and want natural human images.
Kat Campbell, Fremantle WA 2011
See Kat in the Casts for the story
The openness and trust just mentioned needs to work both ways, of course, so I always make time for talking over coffee well before working. This is not just idle chatter, we discuss the ideas for the work and look at sketches. But once we start work the session usually goes its own way and usually plans get abandoned as new ideas and images occur. At the peak of my work I feel the images form themselves and I am merely the amanuensis, the pictures form of themselves and all I do is pick them up and put them in the camera.
Naked and nude depiction compared to other media
In the Arts World view there seems to be a shift to neo-prudery in keeping with the world wide move to the political right and Christofascist repression. It seems to me there is a conflation in the Western mind between the depiction of naked people and pornography; the regular blocking of relatively innocuous images on Facebook is an example of this. There is also the resurfacing of the Male Gaze argument, but a little on that in a moment.
Workers using photographic media are the most criticized in regard to female depiction. Sculptors and painters are given more tolerance and can almost do what they want and are celebrated for it.
However, this may be an Anglo Saxon thing, Czech photography seems to be healthy in this regard, and I hope it still is, there is a great history of Bohemian photography of women, from Frantisek Drtikol to Jan Saudek and even Miroslav Tichy.
Karri Canopy Aerial Performance, 2005
(Post Secessionist Czech photography placed emphasis on graphic design elements, often to the point of formalism. These Czech and European formalist elements are what helped drive the move to Straight Photography, however much American photo-historians will tell you they invented it. Remember that Steiglitz was educated in Berlin, ‘though his early work was influenced by the Photo Secession, dreadful smudgy romantic rubbish. Sadly, round the world there are still have people working with wet plate, alternative process printing and soft focus lenses.)
I digress, I am by nature a bit formal, and this shows in my work. I enjoy clarity and I tend to use strong visual design strategies.
I also use the largest format film camera possible in any situation. Large format cameras give a follicle by follicle account of skin, every wrinkle, scar and other mark is shown in an almost tangible way. To answer this I am now also using an old Leica with a wide angle lens to record the shape of a session, literally snapshots. I enjoy the looseness of the snapshots and they are a foil to the design formality of the real pictures. I am also using the Leicasnaps in other areas of my life.
Photography as an objective medium
Photography is by its nature an objective medium. Photography depends on a tangible subject to modulate light fo form an image in a camera, which makes photography, film and video different from other visual media. Writers, poets, painters and sculptors can freely invent, but even when staged and directed a photograph is a recording of a visual event at a specific time and place. A photograph is an objective document regardless of the subjective content.
Alana, Abyssinia Rocks, 1993
The "Male Gaze"
Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975
Note - I am currently re-reading this essay and from a different perspective, but more on this later . . .
The Male Gaze is a term used in feminist debate to refer to the viewingh and depiction of women by men. Since 1975 the rightness of the depiction of the female nude has been questioned, and before I examine my own work in this context I will give two quotes regarding Male Gaze, but before that I quote from John Berger, who in 1972 famously stated.
"To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. . . Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. . . Nudity is a form of dress. . .
Ways of Seeing, BBC, 1972
Historically the phrase ‘The Male Gaze’ came from film critic Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).
“The gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.”
“This means that the male viewer is the target audience, therefore their needs are met first and that this problem stems from an old fashioned, male-driven society. . .”
Recently, 2016, Kathleen Navin restated the Male Gaze position in relation to poetry at the start of an essay on three women poets, I quote
“Women hold the central position of object in the majority of literary tradition whereupon they are written of, for and upon as the ‘other’. These representations do not recognise the individuality of each woman, nor require the authority or consent of women. The ‘gaze’ is processed by a receiver/reader as knowledge of reality. Although the ‘gaze’ creates a shared reference and aesthetic experience, it is disempowering to women as it is coded by male subjectivity from a perspective of desire or pleasure. The ‘gaze’ has created a popular conception of women as sexual object, without power or agency, as subordinate to the male”
“To redirect the gaze women poets must claim their identity beyond objectification by owning their autonomy through inter-artistic relationships . .”
Bareknuckle Poet Volume 2 - 2016
To the fundamental problem with the Male Gaze stance is that it loses sight of the basic biology of seeing. Humans use sight as their primary sense. In addition to enable the finding of food, shelter and to see danger, sight is also used to find a breeding partner. This simple observation leads me to accept the idea that it is a biological imperative that makes women visually attractive to men, in particular healthy women of breeding age. This is in our biology and is the basis of the desire of men to look at women. By extension, this desire has also driven depiction of the female nude in art, not only in Western art, but also in Asian art and in ancient Egyptian and Roman art. This implies that the depiction of the female nude is primarily erotic, but it does not have to be, and my images are not intended as such.
Nude, Melaleuca Swamp, 1996
The mirror to this is that an objective image possesses a subjective content, like the Taoist symbol showing an alternation of opposites, each with the seed of the other within itself. This dance of opposites is one of the reasons a photographic image can be so powerful.
To sum up the above, the general argument is that the depiction of women shows them as objectified for male desire and in this process are disempowered. I agree that the most of the depiction of women is disempowering. Examples of objectification exist in mass media and advertising.
Male Gaze and "Fine Art" Nude Photography
This discussion brings me to the current "Fine Art Nude" field of photography, which is rarely fine, rarely art, rarely engaged, never political and despite the subject matter, rarely erotic. This trend, usually about "body beautiful", is one of the great sheet anchors to the acceptance of images of naked people. If anything makes me agree with the truth of the Male Gaze argument it is the subjugation, objectification and commodification of women in current "Fine Art Nude Photography".
I will stop these thoughts before I join the host of commentators on Mulvey's essay, which I urge you to read in full.
Naked as a enviro-political vehicle: future work
For me the photography of the female nude in the twenty first century has become a political act. Celebration of perceived beauty for itself is not enough and it is now important to make images that confront and question the viewer, for the image to look back into the viewer and question their position towards the depicted women and by extension to the natural world. This is to be melded with a strong enviro-political stance.
Part of this planned new direction is choice of subjects to work with. I only work with women who have natural pubic hair, which is important to me on several levels. On one level pubic hair denotes woman, while shaved connotes child. On a practical level pubic hair is a visual shield against the disclosure of too much personal information. Shaving is partly a political thing, anything unnatural being done can be a political thing; shaving appears to be a cultural norm foisted on women, and one that brings me back to Mulvey, who in the introduction to Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema stated.
“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world”.
To me shaving is part of this process of disempowerment.
I am happy to work with women who have wrinkles or scars and other signs of life, but tattoos are not acceptable as they are a visual distraction from the intended story. So, shaved and tattoos are out, bigly! This, of course limits my choice of co-workers.
Woman Diving, Denmark WA 1997
Exhibiting and showing prints
Traditionally it has been via exhibitions of real silver gelatine prints, and more recently very carefully selected groups of images on my website, but my pages of women are currently hidden. The exhibited work was also carefully selected.
A recent practical concern of mine is the mass circulation of images possible with digital media. When images are exhibited in a gallery people with camera-phones can make quick snaps and upload them to the Wise and Wonderful Web in a few seconds. (This was done by school boys in Mandurah during my exhibition in September 2018.) Because of this digital "sharing" I have deleted almost all images from this website that can identify a specific person. This has meant showing faceless images, which is a pity, but it is a partial answer to the digital sharing problem. This is, of course, self censorship and troubles me, but that is another impost from the 'information society'. In 1970 things were freeer, more open and very different, long before the evilnet was invented and weaponised.
My favoured means of showing my work is as fine, matted, silver gelatine prints or as original drawings. An image in a book or magazine does not have the depth of a real print and on a computer screen an image looses almost everything. Silver jelly rules!
Naked, current thoughts
Final thoughts, well final for now, my thinking is constantly evolving. I have frequently felt pressured about my work with women, but I am glad I have done it. It has been an important aspect of my work since 1970 and I do not apologise. My work has never been continuous and has mainly occurred in brief snatches of time.
There is also the temptation to return to charcoal drawing and to learn ink drawing. But not etching, that is even more process oriented than silver photography. I find digital photography to be tedious. I enjoy making real silver jelly prints in a darkroom.
At the moment I am only interested in my future work, both in the Wheatbelt and with women .
I will end this with a response from a friend from Prague who visited the John Austin Survey II 24 year survey exhibition, and who commented
". . . And "Woman and Clay" made me so uncomfortable I had to look away several times before I could take in the fluid and starkly sensual depiction of a woman embodying nature. To see the goddess innate in every woman hanging in front of me was astonishing and empowering."
RD, personal communication 2017
John Austin, Quinninup
updated January 2021
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