NU, the Depiction of Women
Jan 28th, 2019 • Uncategorised
Photography with naked women has been a significant part of my photography since 1970.
Writing this essay was triggered from a line in Julian Bowron's speech to open the final iteration of my second twenty four year survey show at Mandurah Alcoa Gallery in September 2018. In his introduction Julian referred to the danger that my work as a whole could be given less regard because of my work with women. (There is a generally held view that the depiction of nature is good, but depicting women is not. The implication being that women are not part of nature . . . !)
I have always made my images of women personal, engaged and honest. I see my work with women as part of my general work, which also includes my landscape and littoral images. Like my depiction of the landscape, my work with naked women is becoming increasingly and intentionally political.
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 Gov't sanctioned Christofascist religious extremism. It seems to me there is a conflation in the Western mind between the depiction of naked people and pornography, and the regular blocking of relatively innocuous images on Facebook is an example of this. There is also the resurfacing of the Male Gaze agrument, but more on this in a moment.
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.
The Male Gaze is a term used in feminist debate to cover the discussion of 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 I will give two quotes. 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 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 much of the depiction of women is disempowering. Examples of objectification exist in mass media and advertising. Also to be questioned is the new "Fine Art Nude" field of photography, which is rarely fine, rarely art, never political and despite the subject matter, is rarely erotic.
I feel the feminist argument 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 gives the biological imperative that make 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 femail nude is primarily erotic, but it does not have to be, and my iimages are not intended as such
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.
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 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, and on a practical level pubic hair is a visual shield against the disclosure of too much personal information. (I used to suggest that the desire of men to be with shaved women was that they really wanted to be with little girls, but suggesting that caused too many confrontations, so I no longer suggest it.) I am happy to work with women who have wrinkles or scars, but tattoos are a problem as they are a huge visual distraction.
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 tor the strength of women who feel comfortable with themselves and being seen for themselves.
A recent practical concern of mine comes from 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. This seemed to be an interest in pubic hair, something alien to them.) 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 . . .
Final words I have at times 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. As I stated at the beginning, this work has not been continuous.
I will end these thoughts 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
Note, the three archive pages of images of women are currently not visible on this site, but will be restored when the new 2020/2021 work is introduced to this site.
← Return to Blog