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Camera Obscura

Why is it almost a shock to see a photograph of oneself when we see ourselves in the mirror every day? Susan Bright, curator of influential exhibitions such as Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood at the Photographers’ Gallery and guest curator of PHotoESPAÑA 2019, muses on the strangeness of being photographed.

In 2007 I curated an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery called Face of Fashion. As part of this exhibition we commissioned Corinne Day to take a new portrait of Kate Moss. Kate came to the private view, and when it was time for Day’s photograph of her to be unveiled, she went up and stood beside it. The paparazzi crushed forward. As the veil was pulled away they went into an intense sixty-second blast on the living Kate standing beside Day’s image of her.

Kate transformed. Her face and body literally changed. Her movements became languid and languorous, almost as if she were underwater. She was totally in control of absolutely every part of her body and face. Clichéd as it sounds, she also literally shone. When it was time to stop she held up her hand and the photographers obediently put down their cameras, and without skipping a beat she returned to being the chatty, affable girl next door.

The power balance between photographer and sitter is more than equal with Kate - in fact it tips in the favour of the sitter

I always think of that moment when I have my portrait taken. I think about how good she is at her job and how she blows out of the water the received ‘truth’ about models being in the control of the photographer. The power balance between photographer and sitter is more than equal with her in fact it tips in the favour of the sitter - an unusual relationship that I feel lucky to have witnessed. I also think about how at ease she is with her body, how well she understands the resulting photograph, how it will resonate and what it will look like. She knows exactly where to place her hands and how to turn her feet. For this reason, I am in awe of models like Kate, whom I think of as the silent movie stars of the 21st century, able to express so much with the slightest of gestures.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s me. Like many people I hate having my photograph taken. And as any photographer, who has taken on the challenge can tell you, it’s not easy to do. I have even been told by quite a prestigious portrait photographer that I was their most difficult sitter ever, apart from Dame Barbara Cartland, (a badge I wear with pride). The procedure is a strange one for me - it carries me out of my body. I become a giantess, my arms feel wooden and I do a weird thing with my mouth to cover my teeth.

Unusually for a woman I like my body. It has grown strong over the years through running and swimming. It worked hard in pregnancy and childbirth and all that shows. But my feelings change when I see a photograph of myself. I seem to grow out of myself, towering over any others who might be in the picture with me, and my shoulders become twice as broad. This of course says more about my body image than anything else (and suggests I am not so comfortable in this body as I think). As I pose my head is racing with a million thoughts - ‘get it over with’, ‘take it’, ‘am I doing the weird mouth thing?’, ‘do I look like I am posing?’ I am totally absorbed by these thoughts, and detached from what my body is doing. I wonder if Kate goes into her head too? And if she does, is she just at ease with this transcendence and able to objectify it as a skill set? She seems to find being photographed almost relaxing.

There is privacy in the mirror image as opposed to the public nature of a photograph

Like most other people, I usually hate the resulting photograph too. Why is it almost a shock to see a photograph of oneself, when, after all, we see ourselves in the mirror every day? It is as if there is a rupture in our sense of self that happens when the camera is lifted and pointed at us. I think this is down to the way we look at ourselves. If we are looking in a mirror we either glance, or else forensically examine our face close up. We might still look with received notions of beauty and come up short, but these shortcomings mean something different in a mirror. There is privacy in the mirror image as opposed to the public nature of a photograph - and this changes the reality of our double chin or lined forehead. In a photograph our face and body have escaped private contemplation. They have become part of our persona, not just of ‘me’. A persona that is often not pretty enough, tall enough, young enough, thin enough or sexy enough.

But not enough for whom? And by whose standards? Theories of ‘the gaze’ have been an attempt to explain those questions and clarify a semiotic understanding of how images work, extending the idea of subjectivity of difference which emphasises that we are different creatures from one another when we are looking at images as opposed to creating them. In 1975, Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was published in Screen magazine. It still ricochets through most critical writing on photography and the female body today and has played a vital role in the history of looking at women through a feminist prism. Mulvey argued that the classic look of Hollywood cinema in particular was organized around a heterosexual male dynamic where men are active and women appear. Woman is ‘spectacle’, characterised by her ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ and man is ‘the bearer of the look’. Mulvey named this set-up ‘the male gaze’. Central to her essay, and to theories of the gaze more generally, is the notion of desire. This presentation of woman assumes that she is there for the pleasure of the male viewer, passive and object rather than subject.

The extensive legacy of Laura Mulvey’s hugely influential article and her insistence that ‘psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form’ has dominated the way in which the male gaze has been considered for decades. Nowadays we no longer always view films in a cinema so much as on the web. Sitting at home, stopping, speeding through and pausing as opposed to being in a darkened cinema – the images are the same, but the context subtly, or profoundly, changes their affect.

Could there be a gaze that is inward? A desire for the self (think of those selfies)

Does web viewing produce other kinds of gazes? It has certainly produced other types of looking - such as the lurker who watches all, but doesn’t contribute, and the surfer who digests information and images in an almost intermediate distracted state which, as the theorist David Bate suggests, is almost half way between full consciousness and sleep and in line with Freud’s definition of daydreaming. Could there be a gaze that is inward? A desire for the self (think of those selfies) that is less about subject and object and more about a refashioning of subjectivity in a positive way. Or more pessimistically is this inward gaze a shift from an external judging male gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze? Which of course flips back to why we may hate photographs of ourselves.

The fact remains that a gaze of some sort is inescapable in our society and the structures within which we gaze means that whomever makes pictures, sees them, shares them, comments on them and demands photographic representation is entangled in a web of appreciation. I would suggest that the male gaze, which is understood as one that looked at, desired and fetishized, is now driven by a different kind of connoisseurship. Appreciation of images is now linked to their automatic ‘shareablity’ prospects and potentials, just as our consumption of information and entertainment is in general. The man is deciding if a woman is good enough to share and on what basis. Perhaps what is happening is that information and entertainment are being consumed now in line with how images of female objects were once exclusively consumed. This echoes the private/public dichotomy within the female experience of self in mirror/self in a photographic image.

The gaze of a lover is permitted, and the photograph that may result from that gaze is private

And here, I want to loop back to Kate Moss. In 1993 Mario Sorrenti was commissioned by Calvin Klein to photograph his girlfriend for Obsession perfume. The commission came off the back of seeing private photographs Sorrenti had taken of Kate while on holiday with her. And this, I think, is key to thinking about the gaze as it has been used when deconstructing photographic images. What is going on here are issues of public and private, of permission and agency. After all the gaze of a lover is permitted, and the photograph that may result from that gaze is private. When this is translated to the gaze of a photographer whose purpose is to sell perfume, it invites the viewer rather creepily to look upon Moss with obsession, and it is turned into something completely different.

Moss has commented on this photograph often and has noted Sorrenti’s obsession was not with her, but with the act of photographing. He would demand again and again to take her photograph for that campaign. During an interview for SHOWstudio she claimed that she demanded him to stop, and that he would shout ‘lay down’ at her constantly during the ten days of the shoot. She said she did not want to work all the time and that he was abusing their relationship as lovers. They split shortly afterwards.

Blown up on a billboard the picture of her is presented for the pleasure of male desire

Blown up on a billboard the picture of her is presented for the pleasure of male desire, rather than it being a record of her own enjoyment. A private gaze, as I imagine Sorrenti’s first was when he first snapped the picture that was to be the inspiration for the campaign, was one which was shared and enjoyed by both the person doing it and the person at whom it was directed. It was not stage-managed. It happened in the moment. I can imagine their gazes lingering on each other and the atmosphere tightening between them, the camera not distancing them, but bringing them closer together. Kate was still an object of desire, but permission had been granted, there was consent and intersubjectivity. The experience was not just that of viewing the scene from a male point of view, but a social once where touch and smell and pleasure were all vital components of the scene. Both visual and sensual are at play.

And it is here, between the sensual and visual, that I think the threads concerning photography and perfume can perhaps be pulled together more tightly rather than their co-dependency for advertising. The commonality between them is memory. Photographs can evoke memories; they can create false ones (do we really remember the event or just the photograph?) and are used as tools for remembrance. Looking at old snapshots they reverberate with their own quiddity. My own relationship to them is in line with Geoffrey Batchen’s writing on photography and memory, in that they are not about recalling appearance or enhancing a memory but instead they can be seen as extended acts of anamnesis -‘a state of reverie’ -and, as such, explicit gestures of remembrance. They are the visual equivalent to smell or taste; they are about feeling as well as seeing. They operate just as nineteenth-century photographic jewellery does, with its addition of hair or clothing to the photograph. Each object, for example a locket containing a tiny photograph and a lock of hair, becomes, as Batchen suggests ‘a talismanic piece of the body’ which ‘adds a sort of sympathetic magic to the photograph, insurance against separation, whether temporary or permanent’. This desire to stay connected means that object becomes as loaded, filled with emotion and longing, and ultimately loss.

I find photographs of loved ones on phones to be like old daguerreotypes wrapped up and precious in their little containers

Of course, when I talk of a photograph here, it is a physical thing, not an image on a phone. When a friend first showed me a picture of their girlfriend on their phone I was horrified. I found it disrespectful that he did not have a ‘proper photo’ tucked lovingly into his wallet, and kept warm by the placement of it next to his body. I, like everyone else, have had to change what I think of as a photograph, and now I find photographs of loved ones on phones rather more like old daguerreotypes wrapped up and precious in their little containers, and rather more charming for it. Seeing digital images on phones in this way has made the non-object in fact turn back into an object through the container or shrine of the mobile itself. By seeing it like this images of loved ones can once again carry the requisite emotional charge once held by being a printed-out thing you touched.

Memories, like scent, cannot be controlled, and the transportative effects of both olfactory and photographic memories can evoke a time, sometimes abstractly, sometimes inchoately and sometimes vividly, in such an intimate way that I believe other senses or objects fail to quite achieve. But the effect is different with scent, for me at least. Whereas the memories when seeing photographs are ultimately tangled with feelings of loss, the memories of a scent are sharper and often more complex. They remind me instantly of the person or the place. The same seems to be true for others. For example, I am always surprised by the amount of times that people, when describing their grandmothers, so often comment on how beautiful they were and what perfume they wore. Having seen many photographs of said grandmothers I would say that most of the women were on the whole somewhat plain, but the patina of the old photograph gives them a distant beauty. But the fact they remember the smell so vividly almost conjures up the real person. She is both there and not there, her presence is uncannily near, smelling of Rive Gauche or 4711.

As a medium photography remains forever elusive, just like the vestige of somebody’s perfume once they have left the room.

In my twenties, I wore Ysatis by Givenchy. To smell it now, I am horrified by its overwhelming ‘perfume smell’ that seems to lack any subtlety and grace. The memories of breathing in this smell are bitter sweet, but precious, having made me who I am today. Memories flash into my head... my dad driving me to parties, a certain ex-boyfriend, my best friend buying it too and me feeling totally affronted as it was ‘my smell’, and my now husband buying me the pure parfum (not the eau de parfum) and me not understanding that in the possession of a such a potion, less is definitely more. These memories come in short sharp flashes, unable to be lingered over as a photograph is, with all its visual clues and inherent melancholy.

But such nostalgia is a long way off from the start of this essay that was concerned with my own discomfort at being photographed. This is perhaps yet more evidence that I am more comfortable writing about photography than being the subject of it. My real interest in photography is not the actual taking of an image - the moment that has long been privileged in the aesthetic histories of photography - but instead the wider social and cultural implications of it. I tire of photography often, swear to take my intellectual curiosity elsewhere, but I can’t seem to pull myself away from it even when I want to. It’s both a blessing and a curse to not be able to read a book, smell a perfume or pose for a portrait without wanting to swim in the wider repercussions of the medium. Thoughts often come in fledgling and fragmentary forms, and demand that I slowly pick at them until some kind of sense is made. As a medium photography remains forever elusive, just like the vestige of somebody’s perfume once they have left the room.



Susan Irvine

Susannah Baker-Smith

Photographs from Kate by Mario Sorrenti
courtesy of Phaidon