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Self-absented portraiture

Question: In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

There are instances when it obviously does, for example in the series ’Annunciation‘ by Elina Brotherus which was included in the exhibition ‘Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity’ in 2013-14. The series of self-portraits deals with conception as indicated by its title’s reference to the religious myth of the Virgin Mary’s supernatural conception (Boothroyd, 2014).

Another similar example is ‘Mother’ by Elinor Carucci (Carucci, 2013). This monograph:

starts with her [Carucci] pregnant with twins and concludes when they are 8 years old – a moment when Caruccci saw a change and a growing independence in her children. The intimacy and sensuality for which she has become so well known is amplified … as she hugs, dresses, holds, licks, pulls, feeds, caresses and cares for her children (Bright, 2013).

Another similar series is ‘Kinderwunsch’ by Ana Casasbroda (Bright, 2010: 35). This project:

touches on the sensuality and intensity of physical contact and the complexity of relationships. Casasbroda’s photographs focus on the body as being at the centre of the mothering experience, and the pleasure of physical contact with her sons (Bright, 2010:35)

These three examples are of self-portraitists and make an easy point which the image in Figure 1 succinctly illustrates. Clearly gender is all encompassing in the creation of images such as these that deal with being a mother in a direct and visceral manner.

Self-portraiture does not feature to anything like the same extent in Sally Mann’s work of photographing  her children growing up (Mann, 2014), yet it is reasonable to suggest that the photographs equally reflect the mother/female perspective, even if controversially so (Woodward, 1992).

In the case of photographs whose subject deals directly with gender the issue is less straightforward, for example the photographer Thomas Alleman’s series ‘The American Apparel’ (Alleman, s.d). Alleman was driving in Los Angeles when he took notice:

of the billboard is not itself surprising, because the company has drawn extensive news coverage — several ads have been banned in the United Kingdom — for featuring highly sexualized, young, real-girl models. Defying — or enraging — its critics, the company also maintains a page on its website featuring stills and animated gifs of many of the pictures (Blaustein, 2013).

 Alleman sees the billboards as:

 “insurgent” advertising, with the use of amateur models and awkward, uncomfortable poses. Americans will accept anything, he believes, if it has proper production values, but these ads have “the porn-y look of this 16-year-old, apparently, being photographed by Uncle Julius in the basement.” The more he photographs these billboards, the more he wonders if we aren’t most disquieted by the inference that, in a postfeminist world, it still isn’t acceptable for the models to choose to engage in the process. Can they not make their own decisions about sexuality, as descendants of media manipulators like Madonna? He asked, rhetorically, “Are we a little creeped out by these pictures because these are confident women who are empowered, who seem to be in charge of what’s happening to them? (Blaustein, 2013).

Here a series of photographs question society’s and corporate attitudes to gender (see for example Figures 2 and 3). The issues and controversy is explored by photographing the objects – the billboards and their often incongruous surroundings – in a straightforward manner and the gender of the photographer is not apparent.

The opposite is perhaps the case where the photographer seeks to confront or reveal aspects of gender perception that exist unseen in society. This is true for example of Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ a series of self-portraits created from 1977-1980 (Sherman, 2003). This series is seen to have its inspiration in:

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 critical essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” This pivotal text in feminist theory utilized psychoanalytic concepts to present what Mulvey viewed as pressing concerns for feminists in cinema: principally, the presentation of feminine imagery as objects for an assumed white, heterosexual male scopophilic gaze. The idea of the gendered gaze had a profound impact on photographic art as well as cinema (Keen Graphics, s.d.).

In Sherman’s series she features in (‘masquerades as’; see fig. 4 and fig. 5.) various female stereotypical roles from Hollywood cinema. What makes the photographs so striking:

is that they seem to be from familiar sources, evoking memories of films whose titles are momentarily elusive. Yet the pictures do not reference specific films; rather, they are pastiches of generic movie moments … (Bright, 2010: 101).

In this way Sherman’s self-portraiture shows how femininity in Western culture is a masquerade of masculine desire (or the ‘male gaze’, above). Additionally:

By photographing herself in recognizable positions and poses, Sherman’s “Film Stills” raises questions about the lack of diversity of the women featured in mainstream images and the objectification of women’s bodies in film and photography. But perhaps more fundamentally, by inserting her own image into mainstream visual culture, Sherman underlined the porosity of the border between self and representation (Farmer, 2014).

Arguably Sherman’s gender is as important to this series, in its envisaging and execution, as that of Elina Brotherus and Ana Casasbroda  (above) is to theirs.

References

Alleman, Thomas (s.d) The American Apparel At: http://www.allemanphoto.com/THE-AMERICAN-APPAREL/1/ (Accessed on 03.02.15)

Blaustein, Jonathan (2013) A Fashion Fetish in Los Angeles [online] At: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/a-fashion-fetish-in-l-a/?_r=0 (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Boothroyd, Sharon (2014) Context and Narrative. Barnsley: OCA

Bright, Susan (2010) Autofocus. The self-portrait in contemporary photography. London: Thames & Hudson.

Bright, Susan (2013) The Most Intimate Dance: Elinor Carucci’s Photos of Motherhood [online] At: http://lightbox.time.com/2013/09/30/the-most-intimate-dance-elinor-caruccis-photos-of-motherhood/?iid=lb-gal-viewagn#1 (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Carucci, Elinor (2013) Mother. London: Prestel

Farmer, Ashley (2014) The selfie as a feminist act. [online] At: http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2014/selfie-feminist-act (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Keen Graphics (s.d) history and influence: confronting the gendered gaze [online] At: http://keengraphics.net/keenblog/2013/05/03/confronting-the-gendered-gaze-female-photographic-self-portraiture-in-the-postmodern-era/ (Accessed on 03.02.15)

Mann, Sally (2014) Immediate Family. New York: Aperture Foundation

Sherman, Cindy (2003) Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Woodward, Richard B. (1992) The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann [online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/27/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Carucci, Elinor (2004) The first week. At: https://timethemoment.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/iam_00036391_resized.jpg?w=735 (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Figure 2. Alleman, Thomas (2013) Untitled. At: http://www.allemanphoto.com/THE-AMERICAN-APPAREL/56/ (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Figure 3. Alleman, Thomas (2013) Untitled. At: http://www.allemanphoto.com/THE-AMERICAN-APPAREL/52/ (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Figure 4. Sherman, Cindy (1978) Untitled Film Still 21 [Gelatin silver print] At: https://media2.wnyc.org/i/620/350/80/1/4_Untitled_Film_Stills_Cindy_Sherman_21.jpg (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

Figure 5. Sherman, Cindy (1977) Untitled Film Still 3 [Gelatin silver print] At: https://media2.wnyc.org/i/620/350/80/1/Untitled_Film_Stills_Cindy_Serman_3_1.jpg (Accessed on: 02.02.15)

 

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