Documentary &portraiture photography

2.1 The gaze in portraiture 2.2 Image and text 2.3 Case studies
Go back Go forward Print this page Bookmark this page Download PDF

arrow The gaze in portraiture: Beginners | Intermediate | Advanced - 1 2 3 4 5

Advanced Part 4 of 5

So in a photograph, gaze is used as a device by the photographer and the subject to direct the social interaction between the viewer and that person being photographed in the portrait.

In amateur photographic guides the language of the gaze is reduced to one of the alpha dominant in the social role. The photographer is gifted with divine power to capture images for his satisfaction and purpose, regardless of the outcome for those photographed. The gaze is hunted, and the subject subservient. This extends to professionals, especially photojournalists, who are filled with a righteous calling to record at whatever expense. It is an old dilemma, and one without resolution here.

The inflection is always on the controlling photographer, rather than the amount of control, if any, the sitter has. Obviously in an arranged sitting, the subject has made a choice to attend, and be photographed, but for candid work, where the photographic opportunity is a glance, the lines are more blurred. Would it be fair to say that any portrait not made with the express consent and cooperation of the subject is stealing? To some extent yes, but how does our predominantly male imperial culture regard this experience? As evidence that requires gathering for a greater good? The people are subjects of scientific scrutiny? The methodology and the language and the cultural imposition are confusing. Is the formal gaze of the conspiritorial sitter is more honest, or more manipulated?

In order to examine these issues it is best to discuss specific photographers, and their contributions to their working method. It must be said, that compared to painting and other longer established media, the study of the gaze in photography is minimal and inadequate. Often it is a derivation from works on painting or cinema, which draws interesting and sometimes relevant parallels.

The first study is about a photography project undertaken in the old USSR called "Russian Self Portraits" by David Attie in the 1976. As part of a cultural exchange program, Attie used the technique of collaboration to allow ordinary people to photograph themselves with large format equipment. The results were processed in a special darkroom set up so the people attending the exhibition could see the whole photographic process, and the resulting prints exhibited.

In Attie’s words, “the pneumatic cable release was held as if a foreign object, people looked away from the camera, at the lights, or themselves in mirrors positioned so they could see what the camera was recording.”

The pictures showed ordinary people against a plain studio background, plainly uncomfortable with having the photographic equipment around them, yet voluntarily accepting the process which they are putting themselves through.3

In this free environment, are people aware of the gaze they give the camera? Every face tells its own story, not all fit into any category, some chose to glare at the camera, others are confused as to which way to look. The issue of control in the series is confusing- are the Americans, with their high tech presence, regarded as dominant in the photographic relationship? Are the Russians feeling and understanding this possible relationship? Or is it working on a much simpler level? Are these people taking the opportunity to experience something new in terms of cultural exchange, but being familiar with the process of photography, using the experience to record themselves in perpetuity?

In this process, the whole experience of photography is striped bare and laid out in a exhibition hall, including the participatory experience. Attie is left as a shutter cocker, a technician for the participants. There is minimal communication due to language separations, everything is happening on a visual level. The understanding of this level of control and opportunity is reflected in the pictures- meant to be as records of self, and treated as such by the subjects. Pictures show people dressed in Sunday best and not really full of ideas on how they looked in on film, but of ideas of how they looked in real life, and wanted that on film. Their gaze is their reflection.

© John Frederick Anderson

3 Russian Self Portraits
David Attie, 1977, Thames and Hudson

arrow Next page | Back to top