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Nu - My Depiction of Women

Sep 9th, 2020 • UncategorisedStories

This is a rewriting of my blog post of January 2019, now cast as an interview to give context to my statements.


Q - You are known for your forest and environmental documentation, you have also photographed naked women, how does this sit with your other work?

It is integral with it.  Photographing naked women has been a significant part of my work since 1970.  Environmental documentation came later.  In 1970 the photography of women was the 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.  Julian referred to the danger that my work as a whole could be given less regard because of my work with women.  This line shocked me.  (It was Julian who instigated the angst ridden nightmare that was my 1994 - 2017 Bunbury Regional Art Gallery survey show.  I spent most of the exhibition opening drinking Guinness in the Rose Hotel, and had to be dragged back for the speeches.)

Q - Why women

It is about getting to know.  I find that photography, as with drawing, can help one to know the thing being photographed.  I do not usually photograph that which I know.

Q  - How do you see your work with women on a personal level?

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.  Like my depiction of the landscape, my work with naked women is becoming increasingly and intentionally political.

The women I have worked with since 1970 have engaged with the work willingly and have enjoyed the experience of being naked, the experience of being seen naked and the experience of being photographed naked.  In most cases they have actively collaborated in the development of the work.  Without this engaged participation and collaboration the pictures thus far 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 feel comfortable with themselves and having the strength to be seen for themselves.  The crucial word here is engaged, without subject engagement there is nothing.

It takes me ages to develop a feeling of ease with a new collaborator for the images to have engagement.  I have never been at ease with people.  I find portrait work with artists quite easy, but with normal people I go through Hell.

This openness and trust 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 during the generation of new ideas and images.  At the peak of my work I feel the work forms itself and I am merely the amanuensis.

Q - How does your work fit with current arts practice?

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 to 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.

Workers using photographic media are the most criticized in regard to female depiction.  Sculptors, painters and writers are given more tolerance and can almost do what they want.

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.

Post Secessionist Czech, 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 serious work.  I enjoy clarity and I tend to use strong visual design strategies.

I also use the largest format 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.

Q - You just mentioned alternative process and Romanticism, how would you compare your photography to work with women in other media media?

Photography is by its nature an objective medium.  Photography depends on a tangible subject to produce 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.

Q - What is the Male Gaze and how do you see it in relation to your work?

I see it from an arts historical perspective, and it has never affected the way I work.  But to answer your question The Male Gaze is a term used in feminist debate to refer to the 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.  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 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.  Also I question the new "Fine Art Nude" field of photography, which is rarely fine, rarely art, rarely engaged, never political and despite the subject matter, rarely erotic.

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 basic 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.

Q - In the statement by Mulvey there is the observation that photography of women objectifies them?  The quote was “The gender power asymmetry is a controlling force . . . “

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.

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 no longer 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.

Part of this planned new direction is choice of subjects to work with.  I prefer to 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.  I am happy to work with women who have wrinkles or scars, but tattoos are a problem as they are a visual distraction and distract from the intended story.

Q - How do you go about showing your work?

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 weaponized.

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!

Q - Do you have any final thoughts about your work with women?

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.


I will end this with a response from a friend based from Prague who visited my 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


Currently my three web-portfolios of work with women are hidden, and will be until the new portfolio of work is printed and on-line.

I have plans to try this essay as a video interview in the near future.

 

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