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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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Intermediate Part 2 of 4

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

John Loengard.

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 which is as much of a fiction as it can be a truth.

Here lies the contradiction; that the viewer of a scene can (with a pre-imagined ideal of that scene and the excitement of the pilgrimage to the at 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.

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, 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 peers, 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.

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.

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