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Documentary & portraiture photography

2.1 The gaze in portraiture 2.2 Image and text 2.3 Case studies
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“A division separates the activity of the gaze, prolonged, contemplative, yet regarding the field with a certain aloofness and disengagement - from that of a glance, a furtive or sideways look - carrying messages of hostility, collusion, rebellion and lust.”

Norman Bryson.

JamesThe eyes are the single most defining characteristic of how we relate and define each other - the most important place to look is into another’s eyes - to see the truth of their communication, to reveal, verify and understand for ourselves what we see in each other and the world around us.

The eyes are also the most romanticized part of the body in art. They are mythologized, eulogized and never explained, which adds to their mystery and perpetuates their use as the most dynamic focus point of the great works of visual communication. We owe much of our richness of culture to the feelings we describe through our arts through what we have witnessed with our eyes and through the eyes of others. It is this relationship of the created work, by the person of vision or passion, with the process of seeing that needs exploring through the quote above.

Norman Bryson is an art historian who looks at the way we see things based on class models of who we are in society. In his book, he tries to explain that looking is a predetermined act, based on the cultural luggage we bring to the things we see. He talks about painting in his book1, but his quote above can be used to start a debate about seeing and photography. In simple terms, Norman Bryson tries to enliven the debate by stating two polar opposite views to encourage reaction. The division between glance and gaze is somehow a division of intent - the gaze is forceful, concentrated, the glance is a passing look, something noticed in the midst of engagement elsewhere - a pleasant coincidental distraction. Yet both ways of looking, of which there are as many as us, are not so dissimilar.

Our fundamental understanding of the world does not rely on the quantity of time we give the subject of our intentions. It relies on the quality of thought and technique of translation if this observation is to be successfully communicated though an artistic representation. The universal truth that no two people are alike leads to the conclusion that no two people see the world in the same way.

Quiet simply, Bryson applies a moral value to the act of seeing relying on the perceived intent of the viewer in terms of the subject. This moral value is inferred with the division between gaze as somehow pure, masterful, and glance as something stolen, illicit, subversive.

There is no real evidence that I have read or through my own experience that would suggest that the longer one looks at something, the better the insight into the inherent meaning of the subject in view. Often, the opposite can be true, a glimpse of something can reveal more that a prolonged study, clichés like “can’t see the wood for the trees” come to mind.

While it is true that there are levels of observation, best described in the nuances of the language we use, verbs like; to look at, to see, to view, etc. all relate to the same action in varying degrees, and these degrees are dependent on degrees of attention, rather than moral valuation.

Bryson regards the gaze as a channel, and a used channel to define a power relationship, and a socio-political relationship between the author, the work, the viewer of the work - pretty much everything to do with process. Except that looking at the moral possibilities doesn’t explain how the length of time one sees a work as a viewer, an author, or a subject can influence the understanding on any number of sensory awareness levels.

The distance between the gaze and the glance is not a moral conundrum, as playfully presented, nor is it a game. It is more important than that, and should be taken seriously. Unfortunately Bryson’s attempt to seriously explain the difference falls, like those he has influenced in photographic practice and writing, on a caste system of interpretation, understanding and perception.

© John Frederick Anderson


1 The Gaze and the Glance in Vision and Painting
The Logic of the Gaze, Norman Bryson, 1982, Macmillan

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