The following essay examines the various comments made and suggested by multiple theorists surrounding ‘the gaze’. These include French theorist Jacques Lacan and his discussions of how painters alter or manipulate their works to show their desired representations. Roland Barthes’ theories surrounding the gaze and the position the viewer is placed will also be explored. The most heavily influenced area of these investigations will include Laura Mulvey and her theories centred on the exploration of the male gaze. Each of these theorists’ (and others) studies will be examined to some depth, specifically detailing how each area influences audience’s views of different photographer’s works and in the media.
‘The gaze’ has been interpreted in many different ways. One includes the examination of the subject by Jacques Lacan, the French theorist. When Lacan began his studies, one section was heavily focused on paintings and the way the painter was able to alter a viewer’s gaze. Painters would recreate a landscape, a person, or objects, painting their interpretation of what was before them. From this, viewers are only given a view of what the painter wants them to see. In turn, the artist’s interpretation could not be considered a true representation. Through the progression of fine art, it was typically considered that paintings were the best way to document a scene or person of importance, and a ‘true representation’ of what was painted. Lacan has stated in ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis’:
“In the picture, something of the gaze is always manifested. […] Looking at pictures, even those most lacking in what is usually called the gaze … [i.e. eyes] something so specific to each of the painters that you will feel the presence of the gaze” (Lacan, 2004: unknown).
This statement expresses that when a painting is viewed, it’s possible to sense the presence of the painter’s gaze and how they are interpreting their surroundings. Furthermore, viewers gradually surrender their gaze for that of the painter’s, taking in each moment depicted. One way that Lacan has expressed this further is by stating: “[The painter] gives something for the eye to feed on, but he invites the person to whom this picture is presented to lay down his gaze there as one lays down one’s weapons” (Lacan, 2004: unknown). This ‘laying down’ of the gazed has a pacifying effect, creating a lulled sense of gazing with another’s gaze. Through this action, we as viewers get reminded of our ‘nothingness’ as we become trapped in surrendering our gaze.
These two statements by Lacan can also be related to painting’s technologically advanced successor, photography. An area where photography has raised questions about its depiction of truth is within documentary photography. With this format of photography, as well as TV documentaries, viewers are lead to believe that what is being presented to them is truthful. The content viewers are given may be shown in a certain light, or reveal just the extremes that photographers want to portray. Sontag expresses this in ‘On Photography’ stating: “A fake photograph (one which has been retouched or tampered with, or whose caption is false) falsifies reality” (Sontag, 1979: 86). One example of how a photographer has chosen to focus on one extreme is Steve McCurry’s work. A series of images taken of India by McCurry demonstrates how he has chosen to occasionally put emphasis on some of the poorer areas of India. The gaze the viewer is offered here, in figure 1, presents a more intrusive position on the subject. Whilst McCurry’s photos have a variety of subjects, they do appear to depict a very parallel aspect of a location. This gaze is one that continuously surpasses our own, as we let ours be taken over by someone else’s. Furthermore, viewers openly allow their gaze to be manipulated by the photographer’s as a form of escapism. To view art or photography is to escape your own mind, and take on that of someone else’s, thus it can be stated as taking on someone else’s gaze. From this, the debate of whether a photographer’s gaze is imposed on the viewers comes to light.
French theorist Roland Barthes explores a similar concept within ‘Camera Lucida’ circulating the idea of the photographer becoming the ‘operator’. He states: “I might suppose that the Operator’s emotions… had some relation to the “little hole” through which he looks, limits, frames and perspectivizes when he wants to “take”” (Barthes, 1993:10). In this statement, Barthes touches on the subject of the emotional impositions that happen because of the photographer. Furthermore, the gaze within the photographer’s work is limited due to their decisions about what they wish to capture. In addition to this concept, Barthes theories comprise of three sections, the operator (mentioned above), the spectrum, and the spectator. Within ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes explains the latter: “The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs – in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives…” (Barthes, 1993: 9). Here it could be noted that we as spectators are blindly taking on the information provided by the photographer. Viewers have no influence over what is presented, leading to similar interpretations of the work; the ones provided by the operator. This can also be seen within McCurry’s image in figure 1. The idea of the spectacle also becomes noticeable as it entices the viewer into the image, and in McCurry’s case, the gaze and subject matter of the poor draw the viewer in. David Bate discusses our desire to see something so vastly different stating:
“While ‘reality’ is what we believe exists […] it also involves what individuals wish to exist. Images of devastating poverty […] may, quite simply, not fit that wish, and it is here that the politics of vision comes to play a role […] of what viewers do with the knowledge presented to them” (Bates, 2009: 61).
With this, Bate expresses how viewers accept the reality that is presented. Furthermore, Bate touches on the representation of the poverty-stricken population, which McCurry has focused his gaze on. The idea of a reality being what we desire alters the way viewers engage with a photographer’s work. An alternative reality becomes less surreal as photographers modify angles, colours, and other areas when editing, and being meticulous regarding the composition of their images. From the outset, a viewer’s gaze is being shown the photographer’s chosen ‘reality’ they’ve decided to create.
Another French theorist Jean-Paul Sartre explored the concept of how we observe reality. Sartre has been noted to follow the idea that we, as viewers, tend to see reality as something that is not quite what we believe it to be. In turn, this concept introduces the idea of the ‘Other’. The ‘Other’ surrounds the notion of a being that is different from us, whether it’s a small or large difference. One example that demonstrates how the ‘Other’ is an imposed view is from Craig Owens and Scott Stewart Bryson. Within their book ‘Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture”, Owens and Bryson explored how a photographer holds a position of power over the viewer: “The photographer inevitably functions as an agent of the system of power that silenced those people in the first place: (Owens, Bryson, 1994: 178). With this concept, it clearly depicts the photographer as the position of power, thus imposing their view of the ‘Other’. In addition to this, the representations created through their work appear to potentially come from a wider source than just the photographer. A further example of this can be seen within Sartre’s book ‘Being and Nothingness’, Sartre states: “By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as an object, for it is as an object I appear to the Other…” (Sartre, 1943: 302). Through this statement, Sartre places the viewer in a substantial position. The position of judgement allows the observer to place him or herself accordingly to what is before them. This would ultimately make the viewers place themselves above the ‘Other’ depicted within any given photograph. Moreover, Sartre is also noting how we as viewers may place ourselves within the position of the subject in the images. Moreover, Sartre also explores how the gaze of the ‘Other’ takes away our freedom as viewers, and denying and falsely identifying ourselves.
The ‘Other’ could also be seen as something we strive to achieve. One form of photography that creates this illusion is advertising. When viewing images from billboards, magazines, newspapers and other areas, we place ourselves within those images. The aim of advertising is to show viewers something they will want to purchase, and so advertising lends itself to the notion of the ‘Other’ through something viewers don’t currently poses. In turn, this alters the gaze of a viewer through strong suggestions created through photographers, as well as agencies that promote the advertising images. When examining the gaze presented within advertising further, theorists have covered multiple concepts thoroughly. One theorist, Laura Mulvey, studied the gaze and focused heavily on the viewpoints surrounding the male gaze. The male gaze is a study on how women have been represented within the media, including advertising, film and TV. Typically, women are places in positions that are either provocative, or demeaning. In addition to these areas of research, Mulvey also examined the psychoanalysis of visual pleasures. In her book ‘Visual and Other Pleasures’, Mulvey denotes: “An idea of a woman stands as a lynchpin of the systems: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies” (Mulvey, 1989: 14). This quotation examines how a female presence represents the lack of something that men are not able to present themselves.
As a further development by Mulvey, she also expresses the theory that a woman is there for the visual pleasure of the men and women enjoy being viewed: “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at” (Mulvey, 1989: 16). Through this, there is two terms that Mulvey used to express these two views: Fetishistic Scopophilia, and Sadistic Voyeurism. The first, Fetishistic Scopophilia, surrounds the notion of “building up the physical beauty of the object from something dangerous into something satisfying itself” (Mulvey, 1989: 21); the second, sadistic voyeurism, is where “pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt (immediately associated with castration), asserting control an subjecting the guilty person to punishment or forgiveness” (Mulvey, 1989: 21). As a further investigation of Mulvey’s theories, it can be seen clearly within multiple outlets, including magazine covers; these demonstrate how women are depicted in either a Fetishistic scopophilic way, or a sadistic voyeuristic way. One well-known magazine that presents women in a scopophilic manner, which obtains the most prominent gaze, is Sports Illustrated. The magazine has been publishing issues since 1964 with various editions available. The most controversial edition of the magazine is Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. From the release of the first issue, there’s been only 1 female athlete on the cover, and 3 female athletes mentioned inside. The controversy from the magazine stems from the reaction by women and feminist groups; they state the magazines swimsuit issues promote the harmful concept that women are just a product for men to visually consume. In figure 2, the cover from the 2009 swimsuit issue features Israeli model Bar Refaeli. This particular cover conforms to the beauty standard generated by the media, with a tall, slim, tanned woman with long, flowing fair hair. Susan Sontag begins to question this ideology of beauty in one of her essays inside her book ‘On Photography’ asserting: “So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become a standard of the beautiful” (Sontag, 1979: 85). From this, it can be determined that it’s the way in which photographs are taken that can adjust the gaze or perspective of the viewer and what is seen as ‘beautiful’. In relation to Mulvey’s scopophilia theory, the photograph used corresponds to the definition of transforming something, or in this case someone, into something else that is ‘satisfying itself’. Additionally, the suggestiveness created through the model’s position, hand placements and the direct eye contact lure the viewer into the image itself. The gaze that has been created, as well as deemed acceptable, is one that is influences by the male audience’s gaze. Other viewers of the magazine align their gaze to fit the male gaze that is more predominant within the media. The male gaze is also considered the ‘active’ gaze, as men are engaging with the photographs presented, taking in all aspects of the image to consume them for self-gain. The opposing view of this is the ‘passive’ gaze, which is usually associated with female characters/models as she represents the raw material, along with being looked at, but not looking themselves. Sontag again expresses the concept of beauty and what we do to achieve it by observing: “… photographers made seeing into a new kind of project: as if seeing itself, pursued with single-mindedness, could indeed reconcile the claims of truth and the need to find the world beautiful” (Sontag, 1979: 87). This revelation made by Sontag regarding the ‘single-mindedness’ of searching for beauty links to how the male gaze is so obvious and recreated, it’s easy for viewers to find something beautiful to look at. From the way people in certain adverts are shown, models in clothes shop window displays, women on TV, they’re all depicted following the standardised male gaze to entice an audience.
The second aspect of Mulvey’s theory is sadistic voyeurism, where there’s a sense of ascertaining guilt. Mulvey links this to Freud’s psychoanalysis theory of castration anxiety, in metaphorical terms in when there is an intense, irrational anxiety surrounding emasculation from women. This could be demonstrated through figure 3, of Ronda Rousey graces the cover of another Sports Illustrated magazine in 2016. The photograph used for this cover, which is not on the swimsuit issue, places Rousey in a dominant position. Furthermore, the angle of the camera is below her eye line, which creates the illusion of her look down upon the viewer. Through the different way she has been presented, there is a strength added to her. Moreover, because of her superior and leading position, there could be cause for some men to potentially feel inadequate to her, resulting in negative reactions to the magazine cover. In retaliation, men may begin to view her in the sadistic voyeuristic manner, by gaining the urge to try to dominate her, or begin to accept her position as a possible higher authority figure. Additionally, there appears to be a limited amount of the male gaze being shown within this image. Men and women would view this cover and men may feel intimidated, but women may begin to feel a sense of pride that there’s a female athlete on the cover for the main magazine. Moreover, women can start to see themselves within these roles of women who have power and strength to offer rather than selling themselves short by presenting their bodies for men to gazed at.
There are different ways of interpreting ‘the gaze’. To begin with, there was the exploration of how painting has made an impact on photography, and it’s links with how a painter chooses what to paint for viewers. This is all brought forward to photography, and how a photographer manipulates images, whether pre or post-edit. This examination opened to the concept of what we consider ‘reality’. Furthermore, it questioned how a reality is constructed through what a photographer decides to capture. This lack of reality leads on to how there’s a constant gaze being given to audiences within advertising, film and TV. The search for something beautiful is also considered, and looking at how the male gaze is a predominant gaze that we as viewers align our own to. All of these have been progressing through the decades from painting, to cinema, TV, and advertising. To conclude, the artists influencing the gaze of viewers has been gradually developing through the years and developments within the art world. It is something that will be visible for audiences to see, however due to the ‘beauty’ shown, an alternative gaze will continue to supersede our own.
Barthes, Roland (1993) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books.
Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books. Gallop, Jane (1994) Feminism and Psychoanalysis: The Daughter’s Seduction. London: The Macmillan Press.
Lacan, Jacques (1994) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. London: The Hogarth Press.
Mulvey, Laura (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures. London: Palgrave Maccmillan Publishers.
Owens, Craig (1994) Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. California: University of California Press.
Sartre, Jean-Paul (1943) Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge.
Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.
Figure 1. McCurry, Steve (Unknown) India #74 [Photo] At: http://stevemccurry.com/galleries/india?view=grid (Accessed 02.03.15)
Figure 2. (2009) Sports Illustrated Cover – Bar Rafaeli [Photo] At: http://www.si.com/swimsuit/search?term=2009+issue (Accessed 07.03.15)
Figure 3. (2016) Sports Illustrated Cover – Rhonda Rousey [Photo] At: http://www.foxsports.com/ufc/story/ufc-ronda-rousey-lands-sports-illustrated-cover-051215 (Accessed 10.03.15)