Documentary & portraiture photography

2.1 The gaze in portraiture 2.2 Image and text 2.3 Case studies
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Advanced Part 2 of 5

”There are very few deadlines shorter than a subject’s patience.”

John Loengard.

Even worse, this “how one understands art” caste system is based on a theory of a social class system that still is part of English society, yet never fully agreed upon.

To be fair to Bryson, in his writing he doesn’t mention the class system per se, but it is implied via a hierarchy imposed his “superstructure”. He uses the analogy of the sign, a constructed formation of recognition that cannot be understood without analysis of social economic base.

The class system is later applied to the subject of gaze by John Taylor in “A Dream of England2”.

Bryson also takes the understanding that if the subject viewed is one that has been represented to the viewer in a previous context and medium, in a book, a postcard, etc, then the process of looking is reduced to recognition of that subject as a sign that fulfills the expectation of the journey. This reduces the artist to an interpreter, one who colludes with the viewer of the finished work into allowing a personal interpretation to give the work its meaning. Nothing stands alone - nothing innocent of a conspiracy of sight - and meaning through analysis, coding and placement into a hierarchy.

Thus the gaze has a complex process behind it, rich in meaning and history, social judgment and assumed masculine superiority. The gaze has purpose, confining the elusive, challenging the furtive look - the glance.

Once again some moral righteousness has been applied to the furrowed brow of the gaze - its seriousness delivering insight. The glance is a second division attribute of a passer by, unable to see the same things as seen by the educated mind. This is said without irony - and with almost scientific evidence of a history of English landscape tied to the rural myth of “Ye Olde England” that Americans and Japanese tourists come to see.

Are these tourists fools, buying a dream they cannot see? What are they looking at - the landscape or their own interpretation of it, or their own ignorance, blinded to it by the reality they find themselves in? Is anything iconic spared the irony of universal inaccessibility? Are we all, travelers (gazers), tourists (glancers), or trippers (lowest of the low - blurred snappers), victims of our inability to see anything for what it is, but only for what it represents itself as to us at our unauthentic, hyper real visit?

If so, the things we see but do not spend prolonged attention studying, are the real things that haven’t had the time to be iconoclised and separated into objects of gaze by artistic representation or otherwise. Are they universal truths on another level that humanity has yet to glamorize by social convention? How do we look at these everyday occurrences, yet to be famous enough to be famous? We glance past them with out barely registering their importance.

This is talking about the glance as a one way system, upon a landscape that cannot talk back. So it is with portraiture that we find the most difficult relationship with the gaze and the glance.

In a fixed canvas, one where the perspective of the viewer and the seen is given as an understood, the power relationships are between a reflection of a geometric space in a canvas, and in the geometric space of the eye. The relationship that these two plains have is based on a subjective valuation unique to the viewer at a particular time. This is of course, counter intuitive as is the ideal of a true vision is as much of a fiction as it can be a truth.

Here lies the contradiction, that the viewer of a scene can, based on pre-imagined ideal of that scene, and the excitement of the pilgrimage to that scene, can see the scene differently than imagined, explained, or hoped. It is a unique coincidence, giving rise to experience. The same circumstances apply to the viewer who looks upon a work of art, or anything.

© John Frederick Anderson

2 A Dream of England, Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination
Jon Taylor, Manchester University Press, 1994

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