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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 3 of 4

garryIn 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.

Even more complex is a circumstance which happens in cinematic language known as "look back". This is best described as a reciprocal gaze of the screen to mesmerize or entrance the intended audience. In “It looks at you, the returned gaze of the cinema”, Wheeler Winston Dixon explains2 “there is a look that is returned by the frame, by a force deep within the field it embraces, a force focused by the rectangular dimensions of the screen, a window, a portal, an emitter of light to an audience.”

In photography, one can easily swap terminology to analogize the parallel relevance. The difference is in the time the viewer has to witness the look back. In the film, the medium is moving, in the photograph, the medium is still, but does this negate the look back or intensify it?

The power of the returned gaze, I suggest, is not in the time one is exposed to it. In films by Andy Warhol, his "Screen tests" made in 1960, the camera is static and gazes intensely into the eyes of the subject, and vis a vis. These are elongated stills, as much as they are a departure from cinematic procedure. They borrow from each medium but stand alone as a departure from both.

Watching the different subjects, they behave in different ways, Lou Reed, for example, glances at the camera, never really spending too much time in contemplation of it. Others, like Dennis Hopper, both gaze and glance at the screen. Either way one is compelled to look - and the compulsion needs to be explored.

In defining the device in use with the look back, one has options in theoretical language. The hyper real approach would define the camera a machine capable of moving through time and space, the freedom of hyper reality allowing the transgression of boundaries of subject / object, active / passive and gender gaze. In this environment it is impossible to isolate the process of the real, or prove the real. It is elusive, independent of time. It tends to lead the viewer inevitably to look within themselves.

Conversely, there is the idea that the screen shifts the conception of the real by using codes of visual culture, by inserting a screen of signs, layers of recognized meaning to which one defers. This reduces the look to the symbolic, the real being understood as an effect of representation, which the viewer has access to decode as a privilege of being at the top of the evolutionary tree. This suggests an imposition of order over too variable a set of circumstances - and divides the glance and gaze on the moral and temporal grounds disputed earlier.

There remains to be done a major study on the dynamic between viewer and object in photography. Dividing the glance and the gaze on moral grounds based on outmoded colonial precepts forms a starting point, but fails to go beyond the empirical and simplistic.

© John Frederick Anderson


2 It Looks at You, the returned gaze of the cinema
Wheeler Winston Dixon, 1995, State of University of New York Press,

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