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Representing Women

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
hans memling vanity

Vanity by Memling

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

The real function of the mirror was otherwise.  It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.

From Ways of Seeing by John Berger.

From toilet walls to looming advertising billboards women have been sexualised and objectified in the name of art (and commerce) since man could scribble on dirt. I have my doubts about contemporary visual culture too. There is the fashion scene where emaciated adolescents represent the national desirable body and there are the kick back campaigns by ‘real women’ like Colleen Rooney bringing size 14 back to the beauty industry.  

How should women be represented in visual culture?  

After the recent furore surrounding John Inverdale’s sexist comments about Marion Bartoli it seems our society is still struggling to figure out the answers to this important question.

Some might say that the problem lies in sex. When a women is represented as being a confident, thinking, independent creature in control of her sexuality then the balance is being restored. A popular feminist view is that women need to be represented as powerful and successful and that passivity is the issue that needs to be challenged.

The problem is that whatever side you support you end up propagating a myth.
The myth that women can have it all.  Or that they can’t.
The myth that women are there to be looked at.
The myth that men are the powerful sex.
The myth that ‘real’ women have stretch marks.
The myth that in order to do justice to women they have to have lawyer potential and resent living at home with their 2.4 kids. Implying that all clever women suffer from Housewife Syndrome.
It’s reductionist and we are bombarded by it. The common denominator is that both men and women have been guilty of discriminating against the other sex but I can’t help but think that throughout history and in a patriarchal society / world, women have had it worse. Dustin Hoffman experienced a revelation in a particularly unique way.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPAat-T1uhE?feature=player_embedded&w=640&h=360]
Given the challenges, can you think of any photographers representing women in an interesting way?

Posted by author: Sharon
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81 thoughts on “Representing Women

  • Spontaneously, I would say Cindy Sherman but not so much for her famous film stills as for her later work particularly her representation of aging women.

  • I think it would be very dangerous for any man to answer this question given that the gender first promulgated the situation.
    What I would say though is; rather than ask who represents women in an interesting way, shouldn’t we be looking at how to change the mindset of men on how they approach the subject and depict women on an equal basis?

  • How about Eve Arnold? What little I’ve seen of her work seemed totally focussed on the individual rather than the gender.
    And at the other extreme – and at the risk of inserting my head in a lion’s mouth – Helmut Newton is interesting – irrespective of what else we might think of his work.

  • Where to start?
    Jenny Saville, Hanna Wilke, Helen Chadwick, Jo Spence, Barbara Kruger, Judy Chicago, Francesca Woodman, Rebecca Horn, Marina Abramovic, Elina Brotherus, Ana Mendieta, Laura Mulvey, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Yoko Ono, Elinor Carlucci, Louise Bourgeois, agree about Cindy Sherman, and of course Tracey. All women and mostly railing against a patriarchal state of affairs. Most are or have been marginalised only one or two have become mainstream – well we know why that is. There are more, but the scope of the market dwells in other areas, though the areas it often dwells on is what these artists rail against.

  • Really fascinating article, Sharon, and ensuing discussion. I recently found very interesting how Andy Murray is presented. We know him because we have seen him as an outstanding sportsman – we have seen every sweaty pore, every hair on his beard, every sinuous limb straining, in short, we have seen him at his elemental best and yet, Anna Wintour has to manipulate that excellence in to a sexy man-about-town cardboard cut-out to advertise whatever she was advertising. Is that her wanting to depicting her man as she wants to see women (with no known excellence) depicted in American Vogue? Is that her form of equality?

    • @vickiuvc – just looked up the Laurie Simmons link, doubt anyone else has so far judging from the lack of response. Is she commenting on the outrage of objectification by parody I wonder. On first glance I thought she’d objectified women by removing their identities but then I looked closer. I’m guessing her model was very expensive but just because of what it is she makes a very definite statement on representation.

      • @watlvry
        As I understand her—but I am still investigating—she uses the models to point to the way in which the female role has been ‘created’. Of course, I could be horribly off-piste here! Have a few more books to get through. But she resonates with me because of the tableau and the use of model/dolls. When you say the model was expensive, I presume you are referring to the Japanese lifesize model? Here is a link to an image which shows her shooting the smaller size: http://smuttyeyed.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/laurie-simmons-brief-bio.html

  • These are great names – what is it they are doing that you think is against the grain? Challenging? Different?

  • Great article and touched by the D Hoffman link.
    It is surprising that in a society highly sensitive to political correctness and minority rights that we still wrestle with the acceptable representation of and by women. By the very act of making a distinction by gender, in my mind, undermines the intent…it is disempowering. Yet it is clearly omnipresent in our society. I guess ‘what interesting things female photographers have focussed their efforts on’ reflecting on their merit rather than their portrayal is more empowering. Helen Levitt is one such example. She worked in a male dominated environment in a time far more prejudiced than now. She accessed her subjects perhaps because they weren’t intimidated by her presence, and gender I am sure contributed to that.
    Interestingly on this website http://www.wipnyc.org/, a site dedicated to women photographers (strange that there should be a need), there are many fabulous female photographers, many of which have women as their choice of subject too.
    I like the work of Maisie Broadhead very much because it opens up, rather than closes down, a dialogue about contemporary culture in the context of the classical paintings. This dichotomous pairing to me highlights much about the origins of such persuasions to the gender in the first place, without appearing judgemental.
    Jon Uriarte’s, a male photographer, ‘Men under the influence’ series looks at the role of men and women and the shared domestic environment and makes his own strong and sadly humorous statement questionning gender roles from both a male and female perspective.

  • I had a mix of thoughts. I was interested in the comment re Andy Murray which led me to ponder that, in my experience, I’ve never met a one-dimensional person so why shouldn’t he show his sexy, urbane side. Would it be more ‘interesting’ if it had been a nude portrait? The recent documentary about him also added to the richness in placing him in a context of being a survivor of Dunblane. There are so many aspect that we can explore as photographers and other artists.
    I then remembered the work of the late John Coplans http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2003/sep/05/guardianobituaries.obituaries . He has been described as a feminist male photographer as he challenged the concept of the gaze and the female body, plus classical notions of beauty. I had to get through the challenge of looking at an elderly naked body (more difficult given my increasing age!) before I could appreciate the beauty of every curve and line that circumscribes our physical form.

  • Surely the presumptions and pre-conceptions about women need to be challenged all the time. We’ve got the Law then we need to be ever-vigilant. As a 1960s feminist, I happen to think slim women look best in most clothes,though not always. The situation that most annoys me in when women don’t make an effort to dress themselves in whatever style. No style at all is pure arrogance. Come on old women, make the most of what you’ve got and stop being so beige…… Mario Testino?

    • I suppose that the term feminist artist does seem rather essentialist today. I can only speak for myself, of course, but it makes me think of artists like Carolee Schneemann. However, and that is a very big however, the articles mentioned do show that feminism is still needed.
      How about a new term that shows that we have moved on but that some people (probably a minority in the West) were left behind?
      How would you actually describe yourself? Feminist? Post-feminist? Or ……….?

  • What’s the panel’s view on “boudoir photography” as currently popularised by several female photogrhers, most recently Kate hope well-smith in professional photographer? Are they collaborating with a sexist view or do they think it’s feminist?

    • I’m not sure it matters in the scheme of things Brian, I get more fed up with the way women are represented in the visual culture at large and the way it seeps in almost below the radar affecting every aspect of your life. “boudoir” photography is a new one on me, but as far as I can see its only to be expected given the world we live in.
      I think it is almost embarrassing to be feminist now because people project particular ideas onto you and you just end up stereotyped in another way. Better just to rise above the whole thing as far as is possible, and concentrate on living the best way you can. At least in the western world we have more freedom than women in other places and so its possible for us to make our own life choices. So in my view the best thing to do is to try and do that intelligently.
      I saw an exhibition by Olivia Arthur “Middle Distance” the other day, which deals with womens lives on the border between east and west, possibly that’s affected my view on it!

  • I don’t really know Well-Smith ;but from what I could see on her website, I would say neither. ( how others then interpret her images, is a totally different story, of course) I personally think she just enjoys making beautiful pictures. And that brings me back to Cindy Sherman whose work (most of it, anyway) I don’t see as feminist and Eve Arnold who Nigel mentioned. They both followed their interests, and they are both highly regarded photographers – not just because they are women. Isn’t that the way it should be?

  • What an interesting article! Thanks, Sharon. I loved the Dustin Hoffman clip–I actually got choked up–and I LOVE the movie Tootsie. I will be sharing that clip. I have a friend who is a lighting director in Hollywood. He talked about the lighting and ‘Vaseline on the lens’ tricks used to ‘soften and beautify’ women. My teenage daughter often points out the way women are presented in the media–it’s more upsetting than it is laughable to her, and I agree. I often refer to the great James Brown song lyrics, ‘This is a man’s world–but it would be nothing… nothing… without a woman or a girl.’

    • Cynical me—let’s remember that Hoffman is an Oscar-winning actor. But seriously, it is a great interview and sums up brilliantly the way men have been brain-washed into thinking that all that is of importance when it comes to women is heir physical appearance; and their position as possession/object.

        • Agreed only ‘some men’; but my reading of Berger, the recent Thames Valley meet where we discussed Berger; this article and the ensuing conversations have made me realise just large that percentage is. Seriously, I was never aware of this! 😉

      • Is it not, perhaps, as much of a problem (more?) that a significant percentage of women have been ‘brainwashed’ into thinking that physical appearance is all that is of importance? (And I’m with Nigel on the situation with men – I’m certainly not convinced that this would be true of the majority of men.)

  • I’m fairly confident that it is the majority of men, and without the people in this group’s feedback (and my wife and daughter’s views) I’d be one of them.

  • Sharon, you ask …
    “Given the challenges, can you think of any photographers representing women in an interesting way?”
    I am not thinking so much of the photographer but of a singular image by Sebastio Salgado. The link is here …
    As I understand, this is not the inside of a brothel rather it is a meeting space for women of a Brazilian tribe. They have not taken their clothes off for the photographer (other images of these women also show them as living naked) and the image is not overtly erotic though it’s sensuality can hardly be denied; it is certainly not pornographic in intent. Sadly I have heard objections to it by people who can not perhaps understand how others live; Christian culture seems infused with guilt about sex and a missionary group did try to convert the Zo’e until they were banned from Brazil by the government! I do not know how the photographer gained access but he lived with the tribe for a longtime and one feels that these women were willing subjects and free of the kind of hang ups people often have about their bodies in the so-called “civilised world”
    I would like to know more about these women. They are of the Zo’e tribe and some are applying a red dye to their bodies; they seem to be a group of women contentedly gossiping with each other yet what makes this image special? Woman being pictured as woman perhaps … I don’t think you have to have the male gaze to like that.
    Yes, I wonder what some women might think of this image … perhaps they should try and understand the feelings of the women pictured before they let forth! As for what other men might think … !!?
    As the Beatles once sung … “Dear Prudence won’t you come out to play!”

    • A question though. Are there similar pictures of naked men in the exhibition? I don’t get the impression that there is although I may be wrong. And isn’t the very large lip piercing symptomatic of the “women as beauty object” argument. I imagine its quite painful at times and they all have one – which suggests compulsion to me.

    • “perhaps they should try and understand the feelings of the women pictured before they let forth!”
      I’m not really interested in speculating about the women’s feelings so much as I am interested in why you’ve picked this photograph out of all possible photographs representing women. For me the problem with it is the way it encourages us to view it… nothing at all to do with women having no clothes on or the sensual air.
      Not my use of the word people not women!
      I think that as visual artists we should be aware of the way our own natures effect how we see. I’m more interested in work that seeks to make that come into our awareness, so that through looking at an images we become conscious of how we see images of the “other” and through that construct our own identities, as that way we become more self aware.

      • “I’m not really interested in speculating about the women’s feelings so much as I am interested in why you’ve picked this photograph out of all possible photographs representing women.”
        Recently, I have seen the Genesis exhibition and been reading about it. My reasons for choosing this image are suggested above although I have to admit, it was not my original choice which I could not find online. Is my choice one of the male gaze? Probably but I think this image must resonate with some women in a harmonious way.
        Not sure I understand your final point about becoming more self-aware!

        • It certainly has a staged look! It reminded me a bit of Faye Claridges use of painted backdrops. As I remember from the talk JSU and I went to….her references to the other (some of them are about Morris dancers, for those who wonder…) http://www.fayeclaridge.co.uk/statement.html are made deliberately and the obvious set up ness is meant to make one aware of that in order to introduce a sense of the uncanny which is intended to make the viewer reflect on how they see the image and so become aware of themselves in relation to it.
          In art talk I think this is called relational subjectivity. I personally think that matters a great deal in art study as it helps you see that the way you see things is only one way and not the “truth” as you become aware how you project yourself into the image.
          Anyway I’m not at all sure Salgado had given any thought at all to that side of things!

        • “It certainly has a staged look! It reminded me a bit of Faye Claridges use of painted backdrops.”
          To me this is clearly not a staged photograph but a record of tribal life. The women are in some kind of room constructed from branches and leaves …
          If there is something uncanny about this photograph it is not introduced or constructed
          I would say that Salgado reflects on his work but not perhaps along the lines you suggest. As you write, ” … the way you see things is only one way and not the “truth” as you become aware how you project yourself into the image.”

        • I find it a bit presumptuous to make judgements about the way another is viewing an image … my reasons for posting can only really be known to myself … yet more to the point, if one is aware of one’s projections, one is surely to a certain extent free of them. The two images I have posted are not about my idea of what woman is …. frankly, I have no idea … it is about the way photographers have chosen to portray them in response to Sharon’s request to post “interesting” images of women.

    • Unfortunately, as much as I loved the majority of this exhibition, I found the stylised images of these tribes women harking back to the images produced by the male explorers of the ‘dark’ continents during the 19th century. These 19th C images were certainly made for the titilation of men and made me feel personally uncomfortable. Indeed, while I was taking notes, one rather doddery old chap came over to ask with a lech whether I had “taken her number”. Point made I feel! Whether Salgado has consciously or unconsciously made the decision to photograph in this style is immaterial, it still shows how pervasive this sort of representation of women has been and still is.

      • “These 19th C images were certainly made for the titilation of men and made me feel personally uncomfortable.”
        I dispute that statement! Photographs of tribals made in the earlier days of photography were made for ethnographic reasons. Some images may well have gained currency because of their subject matter but the photographer was there recording people and if women were naked as a custom, they were recorded as so, even in the Victorian era, an age known for its prudery.
        In Salgado’s photographs he did likewise, photographing the Zo’e women as naked since that is how they live; the men were also pictured naked and the full portfolio includes about an equal number of both sexes.
        Are you suggesting the approach of the photographer is sexist? If so, should the tribe then not be photographed because they live naked!?
        I wonder what the “doddery old … lech” who came over and made a remark that sounds like it was of humorous intent thought of you … pouring over a photograph of naked women!?

        • By the way, I do not dispute that the photo/s made you feel personally uncomfortable!
          I decided to have a look at your blog and the first image that confronted me was of a semi-naked man! In fact, many of your images are of males – nothing wrong in that of course.
          As “Losingfaithinwords” says, we need to be aware of our projections whatever they might be; to understand our own seems possible, to interpret those of others we do not know a bit far fetched.

      • Sharon
        In regard to your original post, I find myself wondering …
        1. Why you posted a photo of a painting rather than a straight photo!?
        2. Why the female pictured was naked rather than clothed?
        (this blog-discussion seems to have taken a rather self-analytical course)

  • We recently had a study day at Look 13 – the Liverpool International Photography exhibition where we saw the work “Drape” by Eva Stenram & which I have reviewed on my blog (http://annagoodchild.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/look-13-liverpool-study-day_14.html). At the time the mixed gender group of students decided that it depends on which gender you are as to how you see the series. It was only after I had looked at Stenram’s website on which I saw her other series that I decided how I was to see the work. I wonder if those who were there are now still of the same opinion.

  • Replying to losingfaithinwords, having difficulty in this thread knowing where to jump in!. I hadn’t thought of Faye Claridge but can see what you mean, and now wonder about her use of custom and ritual. What I thought about the ‘Studio shot’ was firstly about the disingenuousness of creating a studio of a large amounts of rain forest flora close by a scrubbed area of forest to be used as an airstrip. And this ‘studio’ which then decoupled the women from their surroundings – those surroundings that might provide context for the body rubbing.
    Rather than creating the studio..”to isolate the people from the forest, from their environment which is sometimes over rich, and to reduce it to an almost neutral background, which is these green leaves in order to make the cultural details stand out.” If he had contextualised this custom (red body rubbing (and the use of the berry in cooking – which he seems to have ignored!)) within the societal norms of the Zo’e tribe, much as, say Claridge does with re-presenting those English customs in the archive it perhaps might have made more sense to me. It was an artifice to isolate their ‘otherness’, to remove context and meaning in a presentation that would otherwise never exist, except in the mind of the photographer

    • In isolating the individual from their environment. if we are going to bash Salgado; then surely we should throw the same stones at Irving Penn for his “Worlds in a Small Room” series; or even closer to home his “Small Trades”; and Avedon’s “In the American West”; and Zed Nelson’s “Disappearing Britain”? I know this is deviating from the context of the original question posed by Sharon; but all of the above took a similar approach—wherein does the difference lie?

        • Amano
          Then it seems that your beef is not so much against the fact that they were isolated from their environment; but rather that you were beguiled into thinking it was a natural environment. Surely, Salgado, by showing this as a studio shoot on the website, is as open as the other were?

        • Hi Vicki
          Even when the explanatory video was finally pointed out to me it took time to locate it as it is one of 4. With the photos by Avedon, for instance, it is obvious that the person has been abstracted from his locale since a plain background is being used; I was never seduced by that methodology. With the Salgado image, I thought that the women were in some kind of room set aside for the practice of rubbing themselves with dye (my misunderstanding-projection) being unaware of the studio construction which I still find unnecessary … why not picture the women in their natural environment in some way rather than an artificial edifice? One’s understanding of Salgado’s black and white work as separate from commercial assignments is that it is pure documentary but evidently this it is not so …

        • Amano
          All of the works I mentioned were documentary and not commercial, and all were black and white—therefore the connection with Salgado’s work is there.
          All documentary—especially if it is portraiture demands ‘intervention’ by the photographer—in this case, as John pointed out above, Salgado created a neutral, albeit natural background to eliminate the potential visual cacophony of that background, consequently highlight the ‘otherness’ of the subject.
          And this was my original point—that the ‘decoupling’ of the people from their environment was in essence the same as the works mentioned. Whether the background was blatantly an artificial background—canvas; or a natural one as in the Salgado image seems immaterial, my point—that there has been intervention in order to eliminate distraction—remains the same.
          We are all guilty of this in some way or another—even the framing; or use of shallow depth of field to eliminate detail in backgrounds where we cannot control the positioning of subject—this is artifice. But as you imply in your post, your objection comes from the fact that you were seduced into believing that the background had some further significance.

  • Leaving Salgado aside for a moment, here is a photo by Cartier-Bresson; it was taken many years ago in Mexico …
    As I understand, the woman is a prostitute and looking out from the premises in which she is kept … I choose this image because it shows the kind of oppression women continue to suffer. I do not feel attraction to the painted woman who stares out at one rather pity.
    Is not this image is a complete opposite to the one by Salgado where the women are free to be themselves … albeit within the limit of their tribe!

  • This isn’t frequently, but I take photographs of both men and women. I’m not aware that I am representing any of them in the sense of objectifying the women or making the men seem powerful etc. I take the photographs because people look interesting to me in that particular context. Maybe this is because my subject concerns the interaction of people with their environment and so I’m now beginning to wonder whether this depersonalizes them, whether female or male.

    • Ah, fascinating that this has been picked up by the BBC. Jade Beale’s project was one of the things that prompted me to Commission Sharon to do this piece.
      Personally while I think it breaks down some barriers, it reinforces other stereotypes…

      • Interesting that the link from the main BBC News site says “Are real women’s bodies still beautiful … ?” whereas the article itself says “Are women’s bodies still beautiful … ?”. I wonder how we photographers should read that introduction of the adjective “real”?

  • “Real” is code for women who wouldn’t usually be considered as the idealised specimens used for modelling, or … I am trying to put this in a non-derogatory term but I can’t think of any.
    Dove played a big part in highlighting “real” beauty in a campaign a few years ago where they used over-weight, wrinkly, or old women in their underwear, although they were all paid models/actors too.
    Conversely am I a “real” man? Depends who’s asking..
    To your point, the term “real” implies that some women are not real, so in my view it should be indicative of a political agenda, even if it’s trying to be politically correct they’re still offending some poor women who starve themselves just to satisfy some weird fashion dictat.

    • Not sure how to react. Should “pretty women” be considered a photographic genre and/or patronising? I enjoyed many of the images as art but being grouped together in this way puts a different feel to it, exploitive even.

    • The Daily Mail is a symptom though, not the problem. The problem would be the whole of western society who tolerate this denigration of women.

  • Theres an interesting interview with Jacqueline Springer on Woman’s Hour today, talking about “Blurred Lines” a music video by Robin THicke, directed by a female director. The topic starts at the beginning of the program with contributions from younger members of the public…..I thought the interview with JS was really worth listening to as it covered most of the problems with female representation in visual culture today, including that we’re so desensitised to sexism now we don’t even notice it.

    • Thanks for the link; will give it a listen. Think you struck the nail on the head with the “that we’re so desensitised to sexism now we don’t even notice it”—that’s where I was prior to reading Berger; my meeting with the Thames Valley Group; and this post by Sharon. And now I am visually so much more aware!

  • Wow everyone – thanks for all these interesting responses. I have just been away on holiday so wasn’t ignoring you but it might take me a while to look through these…. 🙂

  • I was reluctant to contribute to this post because of misunderstandings and subsequent interpretations that might arise. To be honest, I am no longer bothered by this and would like to reference another photo …
    This image from the early 1970’s was initially rejected because it showed “full frontal nudity” but later it was used on the understanding that it was never shown cropped around the girl (it is the expression of terror on the boy’s face that I find of particular interest). It became a classic image that is considered to have changed the course of the war.
    The photographer was crying when he took the photo, took the girl to a hospital and insisted on her being treated and, thanks to her near miraculous survival, is still in touch with her today.
    My own feelings around this image are complex (I sponsored an Asian child) but my main reason for choosing it is the topic of this blog.

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