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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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Advanced Part 3 of 5

GarryMore to the point is the study of the gaze regarding portraiture. In a more perspectivist analysis, the narrative is suppressed, in favour of a descriptive visual surface. The world presented is different to the beholders position, and not reliant on it. The image is not just contained in the frame, but extends beyond it. The perspectivist savors the discrete particularity of visual experience and resists the temptation to allegorize or typologize what it sees.

Value, moral or otherwise, attachment to either perspectivist or perceptivist way of looking, when applied is counter productive. Even Bryson, to his credit again, mentions in “The gaze in the extended view” that discoveries come in terms not of my making, indifferent to my morality. “Vision is something built cooperatively over time”.

In Bryson’s terms, the gaze ‘arrests the flux of phenomena outside the mobility of duration the viewing subject unites his gaze with the founding perception in a moment of perfect recreation of that first epiphany.” Here Bryson suggests that the absolute eye is universal. The conjunction of the work and the viewer conforms to a universal perception. The original standpoint of the viewer is subjugated to the secondary in favour of the universal vision conformed to by the process.

It is in human nature to create the ideal, and try to mould the world to that ideal.

But abandoning any form on universal understanding of ideals leaves theorists with conundrums, which are unacceptable if a theory is to have success. In order to try understanding the mechanics of the gaze let us abandon the theorists, and examine the practitioners of photography specifically, with reference to these points presented thus far.

Before I look at photography specifically, let us study some ideas about the role of the gaze in human social behaviour. Early studies of the gaze began in the seventies. One such study is “The Gaze and Mutual Gaze” by Michael Argyle and Mark Cook. In this book, the phenomenology of the gaze, the biological and cultural basis of the gaze is examined.

Gaze in a natural context is dependent in humans on defining the relationship with the people or group where eye contact is made. In social terms, the gaze is first introduced in babies in the feeding stage, the look of affirmation between babies and mothers. The sight limits of early humans are that of the distance between heads of the mother and breast feeding child. Later this develops and becomes more complex, but the determining factor in social relationships is the gaze between the dominant members of a social hierarchy and the lowered gaze of the subservient.

The 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. Mutual gaze is arousing, and depending on the situation may lead to attack or withdrawal. The gaze is also a threat signal between same and different species, leading to flight or aversion of gaze in submission.

The direction of gaze in a social context is often toward the most dominant member of the group. Studies of primate groups suggest they have an attention structure in which attention is directed upwards to the most dominant animals, and that this attention hierarchy leads to social cohesion.

This also applies to humans, and explains why low status people look more than high status - and are often disbarred from looking at their piers, by separation or by decree, and in a variety of dispersed cultures.

In humans and primates, eye signals are also used in courting, an affiliate signal. In all other species, gaze is primarily for aggression.

The gaze has cultural meaning which is impossible to separate from the circumstance - Navaho Indians are taught not to look directly at another person during conversation. Among the Wituto and Bororo Indians in South America a speaker and listener both look at outside objects during conversation, and a story teller turns their back on listeners and addresses the back of the hut. In Japan people do not look each other in the eye much, but are taught to look at the neck, which bring the eyes and face into peripheral vision. In Nigeria and older or high status person must not be looked at directly in the eye during conversation. There is a learnt taboo in gaze in most cultures, which is past on to children during socialization.

© John Frederick Anderson

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