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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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Beginners Part 1 of 2

“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.

In art, the eyes are portrayed as the most romantic part of the body. They are the windows into the work, where our attention is drawn first - the Mona Lisa being the most famous example. The eyes are our primary tool for witnessing the great moments in culture, through a lens, or through a painting or sculpture. We need to explore how the eyes and what we see are changed by the ways we look at things; things we know and have gone to find, or things we are seeing for the first time.

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 book1, 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 book, but his quote above can be used to start a debate about seeing and photography. Very simply, Bryson tries to stir up controversy by stating opposite views. He says the gaze is forceful, deliberate, and the glance is a passing look, and applies a moral difference between the two. In reality the two methods of observation are not that far apart.

How we look at things doesn’t really depend on how much time we spend looking at them. Often one quick look is enough - think of phrases like ‘love at first sight.’ Furthermore, no two people will see the same thing is the same way.

Bryson tries to say that the gaze is somehow morally superior to the glance, by suggesting the gaze is pure, and the glance something stolen.

An attempt to explain what he means is the act of viewing by a tourist, something we all have experience doing. Say you are a fan of the novels by the Brontë sisters, and you have imagined the landscapes where their novels were set in your mind. You decide that the family holiday must include a tour of “Brontë Country” in the north of England, and you go fully prepared with an itinerary of places mentioned in their books. You have come to gaze, with prior knowledge and expectation of what you will see. Now the landscape has become a symbol of something you have imagined, and you are either disappointed if it doesn’t live up to your expectations, or delighted if it does. The landscape has ceased to be just a landscape, but a symbol that has a moral value placed on it by your expectation. Your gaze, the deliberate look, focused and with knowledge, studies the landscape; you are trying to have it fulfill those expectations.

Imagine your family hasn’t read any Brontë books. They are just glancing out from the car window enjoying the landscape on a totally different level - Bryon would argue that this is a lower level than your gaze, but is this necessarily true? How can enjoyment be measure like this? It could be argued that the prior knowledge is a burden, dooming you to either like the landscape or not depending on your previous imaginings of how it would be. The other people in the group who know nothing of Brontë country are simply enjoying what they see for the first time - subtle differences, but telling nonetheless.

© 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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