Category Archives: Reviews

A Matter of cleaning up: treating history in the work of Allan Sekula and Jeff Wall

I came across this journal article purely by chance and as it relates to image and text I made a few brief notes.

By comparing the works of Allan Sekula and Jeff Wall, van Gelder considers two photographic artistic methodologies. She also looks at the different ways that Sekula and Wall treat the relationship between the photograph and its caption(s); diverging attitudes towards the pictorial aspects of photography; the interaction between their essays and images – which differs widely.

‘there is a larger montage principle at work than that internal to any single work, or even book. Any retrospective look allows for that larger montage to emerge’.

Allan Sekula

Sekula’s preferred method of working is to encourage the viewer to consider his entire project in totality, with ‘cross-references and meaningful links to invisible but recoverable images’.  Sekula is sceptical of the legibility of the individual image and so prefers to present his work as a combination of text and images.

Build a sequence based on another picture that is not part of the sequence.

Allan Sekula (artist statement)

Photographs that were not part of an exhibition/presentation, but which were part of the original concept often contributed to the conceptual framework he was working with. The absent photos are part of his visual thought pattern. Sekula works with diptychs and triptychs, double and triple motifs that change the content of the images slightly. So the captioning of his images is quite important in providing clues to the relationship of the images. His captioning is quite cryptic, subtly concealed, often providing links to other images or even essays, not working on a one-to-one relationship with the image they are paired with. (This might be why I found the one exhibition of his work I attended a few years ago quite confusing – wish I had know about this at that time).

Both artists are art critics in their own right as well, but the way they present their work is again entirely different. Sekula does not delineate his critical texts from his images in his presentational methods – both are always intermingled. Wall, on the other hand, does not exhibit his photographs together with his essays. His essays are published in exhibition catalogues or art magazines. His way of working confirms the division of labour between the artist and the critic. He is an artist/critic. Wall fixes the meaning of his photographs with his use of text, while Sekula tries to get rid of the discursive schism between the critical essay and the images.

‘[A]s soon as you create a relay between a text and an image, you undermine any purist claims for either text or image. Neither element is foundational. The image is no longer the truth upon which the text is a commentary or subjective gloss, nor is the text a pinning down of a truth that is otherwise elusive in the image’.

Allan Sekula

For Sekula ‘an image is always part of the larger montage that is made up by the non-totalitarian totality-to employ a Deleuzian term-of his photographic archive’ (more on Deleuze here). Sekula’s texts help to contextualise and further the work and offer the viewer an insight to the photographer’s point of view. His texts and photographs are so interwoven that it is difficult to discern where Sekula the artist or Sekula the critic begins and ends.

van Gelder then compares of a few of Wall’s photographs with those of Sekula’s and goes into a little more of the specifics of the points mentioned above.

Reference List

van Gelder, H. (2007) A matter of cleaning up: Treating history in the work of Allan Sekula and Jeff Wall, History of Photography, 31:1, 68-80, DOI:10.1080/03087298.2007.10443503. Available at: [Accessed 14 August, 2017]


Criticizing Photographs – An Introduction to Understanding Images by Terry Barrett

This is an amazing little book – so jam packed with crucial and helpful information and I was so luck to purchase it for $0.01 plus shipping (which amounted to $6.50). The edition I purchased was not the latest edition, but the third edition is still entirely relevant in my mind.

Barrett first defines what art criticism is – the process of describing the work, interpreting it, evaluating it and then theorizing about it. “Criticism is informed discourse about art to increase understanding and appreciation of art” (p.3). He then goes on to explain where sources of criticism can be found – books, art magazines, exhibition catalogs, press. A few of the photography criticisms can be found in Artforum, Art in America, Afterimage and Aperture and even Time to name a few.

According to Ralph Smith (Journal of Aesthetic Education), there are two types of criticism:

  • exploratory aesthetic criticism – judgment is concentrated on the aesthetics of the image to see if it will fit within the confines of a work of art
  • argumentative aesthetic criticism – this is where critics evaluate the aspects of the work against certain criteria and standards and try and persuade others that the manner in which they have interpreted and evaluated the art is the correct way.

Andy Grundberg argued that there are two approaches to photography criticism:

  • applied criticism – practical, immediate and directed at the work (used more often in journalism)
  • theoretical criticism – philosophical attempts used to define photography (geared towards aesthetics).

Barret then takes the reader along the correct journey of learning how to describe photographs. Describing a photograph is a data-gathering exercise. This process involves:

  • describing the subject matter (identifying persons/objects/places or events in a photograph). Of importance here is also taking note of what is not included in the frame.
  • describing the form (this is how the photograph is composed). Attention to how the photograph is composed, looking at the elements of design within the photo.
  • describing the medium (what is the art object made of). Some photographers texturize their photos using embroidery, textiles or paint, or different processing techniques e.g. cropped, cyanotype and so on).
  • describing style (recognizing an art movement e.g. surrealism, paying attention to subjects that a photographer chooses to photograph, learning to spot individual tropes).
  • comparing and contrasting one work with another is extremely important. This is something that the OCA tutors are endlessly encouraging us to do as this helps us find our voice.
  • apart from looking at internal sources, it is also important to look at external sources of information (the background information coming from the photographer’s history, press releases, interviews, exhibition catalogues and learning the back stories).

Photographs need to be interpreted. “Interpretation occurs whenever attention and discussion move beyond offering information to matters of meaning” (p. 37). Photographs are not as straight forward as we seem to think. There is always something left out of the frame (or included) purposefully by the way the photographer composes the image, creating a tone or mood and imparting his/her cultural or philosophical/psychological frame of mind to the viewer however subconsciously this process occurs. An interpretation should be a logical argument that has substantiating points which culminate in a logical conclusion. There are various interpretative perspectives which I will just name, but won’t go into detail otherwise this post will be too long.

  • archetypal interpretation
  • feminist interpretation
  • psychoanalytic interpretation
  • formalist interpretation
  • semiotic interpretation
  • Marxist interpretation
  • interpretation based on stylistic influences
  • biographical interpretation
  • intentionalist interpretation
  • interpretation based on technique

The important thing to remember is that there is no specific right or wrong interpretation. Sometimes more than one interpretative perspective can be used – it all depends on the image.

Types of photographs: the early days of photography grouped photographs into two categories: pictorialist (modern day terminology = manipulated) and purist (modern day terminology = straight). The pictorialist photo is one which is judged by its effects (or Photoshop techniques) while the purist image is judged purely by aesthetics through realism.

John Szarkowski in The Photographer’s Eye identified five characteristics unique to photography:

  • the thing itself (the actual)
  • the detail (the facts)
  • the frame
  • time (exposure)
  • vantage point

New categories of classifying photos are:

  • descriptive – all photos are descriptive as they all offer up visual information about people, places and objects to the reader. some photos are not meant to be anything more than descriptive e.g. ID photos, x-rays, surveillance images.
  • explanatory – there is a slight difference between explanatory and descriptive photos. Time-motion studies like those undertaken by Eadweard Muybridge would be an example of an explanatory classification. Szarkowski’s theory on photos being windows would also fit here. “Most explanatory photographs deal with subject matter that is specific to a particular time and place and that can be dated by visual evidence within the photograph” (p. 64). See Larry Clark’s Tulsa as a prime example.
  • interpretive – also explain but don’t offer any scientific evidence. They are personal and subjective and fictional in nature. These fit Szarkowski’s theory on mirrors in that they reveal something personal of the photographer and are frequently more self-expressive – see Duane Michals’s work.
  • ethically evaluative – these images make ethical judgements, praising or condemning society. They are passionate and frequently politically motivated and underlying there is a call to action being sought from society.
  • aesthetically evaluative – this is the category most people would consider “fine art” – the beautifully photographs of landscapes, aesthetically light bodies (Mapplethorpe) or nudes (Irving Penn), still lifes and street photography. Of importance here is also how these photos are printed and presented.
  • theoretical – this category includes photographs about photography. These comment on issues about art, politics of art, representation and other theoretical issues. Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills are a good example here. Conceptual art/photography also fit this category – see Jeff Wall’s work.

When interpreting a photo it is important to acquire some prior knowledge of the work if possible, namely who created the photo, when, where, how and for what purpose. This is contextual information.

  • internal content – the subject matter, medium and form – consider the resulting relationship.
  • original context – knowledge of applicable theory and back stories can add to our understanding of the photograph.
  • external context – the place/situation where the photograph is viewed. The reading or meaning of a photograph can change quite dramatically if it is hung in an exhibition or presented in book form or online.

Evaluating photographs: “the terms evaluation and judgment are synonymous” (p.116).  Barrett states that “a judgement is a what that demands a why. Judgements … depend on reasons” (p. 117). Sound judgements have three components: appraisals that are based on reasons that are founded in criteria (p. 119). Appraisal statements usually contain words such as “strong”, “remarkable”, “lacking” or “weak”. Reasons are statements that back up the appraisal statements (the why). Criteria are the rules upon which the appraisals are made. These usually have foundation in art theory and aesthetic theory. The criteria are often derived from common art theories, which I will mention very briefly:

  • realism – one of the oldest theories. Also known as Mimesis or mimeticism. This again corresponds to Szarkowski’s “windows”.
  • expressionism – also known as expressivism. Respect for the artist’s individuality and creativity (pictorialism fits in here). This corresponds to Szarkowski’s “mirrors”.
  • formalism – associated with modernism. “Formalism insists on the autonomy of art … “art for art’s sake” – and on the primacy of abstract form rather than references to the physical or social world” (p. 123).
  • instrumentalism – the rejection of the idea of art for art’s sake and appropriation of art for life’s sake – concerned with the consequences of art.

Finally Barrett wraps up the book with a chapter on writing and talking about photographs. He gives very helpful tips on observing the work and note taking, and provides a few examples of evaluative essays and outlines the process of writing a critical essay. Finally he finishes by providing helpful pointers that can be followed when talking about photographs in various scenarios.

Reference List

Barret, Terry (2000) Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. (3rd edition) Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company

Landscape Stories (2011) Larry Clark “Tulsa” [online] 3 mins 9 secs. Available at: (Accessed 25 April, 2017)

The Memory of Photography by David Bate

Just some brief notes on this journal article that I’ve read by David Bate. His paper addresses the “specific contribution that the invention of photography has made to the relation of memory and history” (p.243).

  • Archives – not just photo albums, but also corporate institutions, museums, libraries, estates, state-owned collections, hard drives.
  • Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever states that “an anxiety about memory always has an element of death or “destruction drive”, “of loss” at work in it” (p. 243). I wonder if this would be related to the fear of losing that particular memory?
  • Freud – we use mnemic apparatuses to supplement our memory, i.e. writing notes on paper, wearing spectacles, hearing aids, cameras.
  • The mnemic (artificial) devices we use are modelled on our sensory functions that they designed to supplement.
  • Freud draws a distinction between “Natural Memory” (normal capacity for recollecting memories) and Artificial Memory” (the technical devices are invented to support natural memory). We no longer have to remember everything – can now write it down or save to a hard drive.
  • He argues that “with every tool man is perfecting his own organs … In the photographic camera he has created an instrument which retains the fleeting visual impressions, just as a gramophone disc retains the equally fleeting auditory ones; both are at bottom materializations of the power he possessed of recollection, his memory” (p. 244).
  • If photography is regarded as one of the artificial memory devices that support human memory, what impact has it had on human memory and cultures?
  • Derrida questions whether the psychic apparatus is better represented or is it affected differently by all the technical devices available for archiving and reproduction. (I’m going to have to research Freud’s theories a bit as I really don’t know anything about his work, but from a quick search it seems that psychic apparatus is something to do with the unconscious part of the mind that handles repressed phenomenon). Derrida is of the opinion that the way something is archived affects the inside mental state.
  • Collective Memory: archives, libraries, museums, public institutions were developed for collective public memory. In the 19th century industrialization heralded in a new era of public memory – “commemoration”.  Public monuments were erected and photography was invented. Photography “multiplies and democratizes memory, gives it a precision and a truth never before attained in visual memory and makes it possible to preserve the memory of time and of chronological evolution.
  • Le Goff states that the family album expresses the truth of social remembrance. Looking at family albums is like an initiation rite for new members. The album represents moments of unity from the past that in turn confirm the present unity.
  • The point of view of the family archive is not neutral. Whether the photographs are taken by the father (patri-archive), mother (matri-archive) or children (sibling-archive) this type of photography offers the family (in a loose sense – comprising friendship groups and social networks as well) a new repository for memories. This in turns allows various social groups to find an identity with a common visualized memory.
  • Other types of photographic archives are produced by:
    • the state (e.g. police, government, ethnographic archives)
    • the media (e.g. newspapers, television, documentary archives)
    • the arts (e.g. museums, galleries, private and individual archives)
    • independent social groups (e.g. political, cultural, economic)
  • Derrida argues that an archive is not a question of the past, but rather one of the future. “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow” (p. 248).
  • Photography is one of the most important technological inventions because it develops visual memory – a meta-archive. “It has the capacity to incorporate and absorb other existing visual memory devices within photographic re-presentation” (p 248).

    Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, 1844 by William Henry Fox Talbot
  • Bate then uses a photograph taken by Fox Talbot in his book Pencil of Nature to illustrate a meta-archive. The photo he refers to is “Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, London, April 1844”. The photograph denotes the construction of the memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square. Nelson perished in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. According to Jacques Le Goff this photograph reveals a double phenomena. On the one hand there is the construction of the memorial in a public space which serves as a literal memory and on the other there is the photograph which is a memory device in and of itself. “The photograph is a means to register the monument space. The memory of Nelson is .. being constructed and re-presented as a subject matter of Talbot’s camera” (p. 249).
  • Prosthetic memory: Michel Foucault postulated that popular memory was obstructed by these “apparatuses” in such a way that “people are shown not what they were, but what they must remember having been” (p. 250). The truth value of archival images is never totally accurate – they are more like “partial truths“. These notions emerge as a public ideology of memory.
  • Not everyone remembers visually (visuel). Some people’s memory is auditory based (auditifs), others remember by gestures and actions (moteurs). However Freud maintains that our childhood memories are mainly visual.
  • Mnemic-traces: our own mental apparatus has an unlimited capacity for new data and “lays down permanent – even though no unalterable – memory-traces of them” (p. 251), while the devices we created to aid our memory are rather imperfect.
  • According to Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams, our “unlimited receptive capacity” is divided into two systems. The perception-consciousness which receives receives sensory perceptions, and sorts them out according to our instinctive impulses. Some of the data is not retained as a permanent record – more like a temporary repository which is wiped clean after each use, while the other permanent traces are “preserved in “mnemic” systems lying behind the perceptual system” (p. 252).
  • No memories are retained in the unconscious (there is no concept of time or reality there) only these mnemic-traces.
  • Memory is located in the preconscious – this is memory we can recall at will. Because it is in the preconscious we can also randomly forget the memory, albeit on a temporary basis, in order to make way for new memories.
  • The memories located in this preconscious-conscious space contain what Freud calls “screen memories”. These are fixed images that we remember from childhood. Freud goes on to say that such memories cannot necessarily be taken as accurate, but should be subjected to an “analytical enquiry” (p. 253).
  • Memories can also be subject to the same process as Freudian slips. I had to refresh my knowledge on Freudian slips, which is explained most eloquently in this BBC Future article so I’m posting the link directly to the article instead of paraphrasing it. Slips of memory have commonly been depicted in art e.g. in surrealism.
  • “Temporarily, the childhood memory can be retroactive … used to represent the thoughts and impressions of a later date (connected in someway to that original memory scene); or else the content of the screen memory has been “pushed ahead”, appears as later and is used to contain an earlier preceding experience” (p.253).
  • A third type of screen memory is also evident where the memory is directly connected with what it screens.
  • These permanent memories are based on a sense of “forgetting” or the substitution of one memory over another (overlaid or embedded inside it). “The work of screen memory has the purpose of having one memory within another one, which functions through repression (resistance to remembering) and displacement” (p. 253).
  • Bate then goes into a lengthy explanation about an image used as a space or location for memory-traces.  Important in this is the distinction between “voluntary” and “involuntary” memory (terms used by Marcel Proust in his work In Search of Lost Time. Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum corresponds to Proust’s “involuntary memory”. Bate states that the studium is comparable to voluntary memory where cultural and public associations can be made. A punctum is an involuntary response to an image. It makes us react and if we try and find an association by using our memory, this may lead us down a path where we find repressed memories or memory-traces.  “Voluntary memory is like the work of history, but involuntary memory belongs to personal affect” (p. 254).
  • Bate then demonstrates this process by using Fox Talbot’s photograph of Nelson’s Column as an example. Briefly he found that there was something involuntary that was affecting him when viewing this image. Looking back he realised that he was very familiar with Nelson’s history, having grown up in Portsmouth literally in the shadow of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. He states that he had a screen memory stored away from his childhood years. However he later realised that what activated his involuntary reaction to the photo was in fact a novel by Susan Sontag in which Nelson was featured. “This book has triggered retroactively a personal memory via a photographic image” (p. 255).
  • I have to wonder if this punctum/involuntary memory is always triggered by a repressed memory or can it be applied to a surprised reaction (i.e. one where no memory can be discerned) as well?
  • Memory is both fluid and fixed. It is also social and personal.
  • “In terms of history and memory, photographs demand analysis rather than hypnotic reverie” (p. 256).
Reference List

Bate, David (2010). The Memory of Photography. Photographies, 3:2, p 243-257, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499609

Gorvett, Zaria  (2016). What Freudian Slips really reveal about your mind [online]. Available at: [Accessed 25 March, 2017]

Time (2012) Sigmund Freud’s Theories [online]. Available at: [Accessed 22 March, 2017]

The Ongoing Moment – Geoff Dyer

I started this book back in August 2016 en route from South Africa to Canada. Initially I thought it would be another essay type book similar to Berger’s Understanding a Photograph, but I was pleasantly surprised once I got going.

The structure of the book is quite unlike any other book I have read – there are no chapters! Instead Dyer presents the viewer with totally different historical take on photography. Starting off with the subject of the blind beggar he weaves his way through photographic time comparing and discussing all photographers who have photographed blind people, seeking out the similarities in style and content, gradually moving on to buskers, blind or not playing the accordion. The plot of the book is akin to the game of Chinese Whispers. And so Dyer’s theme changes like a skilled weaver changing the colour of the tapestry thread, covering subjects from hands, to toilets, to nudes, to backs, hats, staircases, chairs, beds, benches, fences, barber shops, men in coats, windows, roads, drive-ins, gas stations, brooms, doors and so on.

Its the type of book that is so rich and verdant in meaning and at the same time light-hearted and easy to understand. None of Barthes dense, convoluted language here – thank goodness! I am in awe at the amount of research that must have taken place in order to thread this book together in the way it has been written. In the words of Robert Frank (p 5) Dyer’s book is a “project … that will shape itself as it proceeds, and is essentially elastic”.

Reference List

Dyer, G (2005) The Ongoing Moment. New York: Vintage Books




Veils and Sunglasses

In trolling my university’s online library database looking for articles on the gaze, I came across an interesting journal article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture written by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein on Veils and sunglasses. Briefly the article examines the mechanics of the veiled gaze and the “cool” sunglasses, as well as looking at whether the veiling of women promotes or prevents fetishisation and compared the veil to the technique of cropping. My brief notes follow:

The Face Veil and Sunglasses
  • Both the veil and sunglasses serve to disrupt the gaze, especially true in case of the eye-covering veil which is similar to that of sunglasses.
  • The subject cannot be gazed at –> becomes a spectator.
  • The veil allows women to look out without being seen (compared to mashrabiyya, Arabian lattice work on windows).
  • To see without being seen is empowering and liberating to the women. (I think this must be part of a cultural identity in order to feel empowered by wearing a veil. Personally I would feel quite subjugated).
  • There is no reciprocity or returned gaze.
  • “The problem is that the person who is completely veiled is too invisible for others as a person and cannot always fully participate in the social game played”.
Kabul, Afghanistan by Steve McCurry
Kabul, Afghanistan by Steve McCurry


  • A comparison of sunglasses and veil revealing the eyes (like the niqab) reveals more interesting analysis.
  • Both veil and sunglasses provide a selective covering of the face.  With the veil the eyes are uncovered, with sunglasses the rest of the face, bar the eyes, is uncovered.
  • Communication with a woman wearing a face-covering veil is difficult. She is less audible through the folds of material and also her hearing is impaired by the covering over her ears. Similarly it is equally difficult to communicate with someone wearing very dark sunglasses.
  • Research done by Marshal McLuhan shows that African-Americans aspire to a “cool” semi-presence which can be traced back to the time of slavery where the men would adopt a “cool mask” as “an extension of the instinct to survive”.
  • The wearing of sunglasses on the bandstand evolved as a method of self-expression. The use of sunglasses is a “mask to deflect the gaze of others without causing conflict”.
  • “It seems that since then the cool pose of supreme indifference has become “eyes hidden behind shades” able to symbolize habits of transgression and irreverence as a world view.”
Photograph by Hassan Hajjaj, Morocco
Photograph by Hassan Hajjaj, Morocco


  • “Hot” is any kind of information that is very defined and does not require much to be added. Here McLuhan argues that hot media is that which is more mathematically orientated or linear and logical – every thing is cut and dried. Cool media, on the other hand, leaves information open to interpretation. Speech would be cooler than images.
  • A cool person wearing dark sunglasses lacks data because the glasses “create the inscrutable and inaccessible image that invites a great deal of participation and completion.”
  • The face defines one’s identity. It is an “intimate and legally responsible part of the body”.
  • Botz-Bornstein states that the eyes are the “most private and most “unofficial” part of the face” because they are directly connected to the brain and our thoughts are revealed more closely through the eyes than through any other part of the face. It is extremely difficult to disguise or control the expression of the eyes.
  • The use of sunglasses only became more widespread in the 1920’s.
  • Two differing views: Huxley’s view: wearing of sunglasses is a weakness “addition has its origin in the fear of light” . Virilio’s view: interprets it as “coolness” because the wearer of dark glasses becomes stronger. “The wearer of dark glasses knows that the protectors-propagators of bodies and images are loaded weapons”.
  • In Latin America dark sunglasses are symbols of prestige, or those aspiring to better status. Represent aloofness and distance that is present in those statuses.
  • Sunglasses protect the wearer from light, even at night. No disturbing gazes can penetrate the dark shields and thus make the wearer more powerful. The wearer of sunglasses appears cool – doesn’t frown, grimace or show signs of stress.
  • Sunglasses and veils both have combination of presence and non-presence, create mystery. But the mysteries are resolved in different ways.
  • The person wearing sunglasses while revealing important parts of the face to us, forces us to reserve any final judgement because the gaze is missing. We are unable to decipher the real intentions which are conveyed by the eyes, thus the “meaning can never be construed.”
  • The veil has been symbol of “inscrutability of the East” for centuries.
  • “The face of the woman who is wearing the face veil is like being put on a psychological operation table exposing only the most important parts of her psyche, which remain analysable, hypnotisable, and vulnerable. The eyes give us access to “hot” information because as long as we see the eyes, we can decipher her state of mind (is she afraid, shy, defiant, etc.)”.
A woman is showing wearing a niqab in this 2011 file photo. (AP / Shakil Adil)
A woman is showing wearing a niqab in this 2011 file photo. (AP / Shakil Adil)


  • The concealment of the mouth also has strong symbolic connotations. Documentation by Freud –> “female symbolism of the mouth, its vulnerability to penetration, and to the unconscious association between the eyes and the male generative powers”. But the covering of orifices for fear of penetration is not a sign of coolness, but “the hiding of information as well as the disruption of one’s own stare definitely is”. According to Botz-Bornstein the hot exposure of the woman’s eyes doesn’t permit the expression of real coolness. While she can communicate her emotions through her eyes, she has no official means to formulate her message through other facial expressions. This contradicts the concept of the veil as a vehicle of coolness.
  • The mouth is symbolically also the official communicator. The mystery of the face veil is in the hiding of the official information (the mouth) that is supposed to complement the intimate one (the eyes). “The veil has so often been evoked in the context of erotic intentions because here the intimate message is sent out without being complemented by any official confirmation.”
  • The eyes generate an attraction which in turn leads to a desire to scrutinize the rest of the face.
  • The mechanics of the dark sunglasses works in opposition to this. The official part of the face is exposed, but it loses its “attractiveness” because the real meaning of the features cannot be construed. “The result is mystery but not primary eroticism”. The sunglasses divert the gaze instead of encouraging further inspection. This is why they are “cool”. They create interest, arouse intrigue occasionally, but do not attract.
  • What if a face veiled woman wears sunglasses – how would that be construed? The veiled gaze is active, the cool gaze is detached, expressing indifference “that challenges the other to attempt to attract its interest”. In order to be cool is “the interplay of official messages with more or less construable unofficial messages”. Sunglasses worn by face veiled women cannot have any strong erotic connotations because the male gaze will not be supported by desire.
  • Lacanian scheme of the paradox of desire:  “desire is sparked when something embodies or gives positive existence to its nothing — its void”. Desire wants confirmation that the “object (rest of the face) is really there and possibly desires us”.
The Veil as a Fetish
  • The pattern of “hotness” becomes evident when the “feminine attraction is suppressed in a way that the subject will definitely refuse to discover what is underneath the veil Then the veil itself becomes “hot.” When the veil’s hotness becomes extreme this turns into a fetish.
  • Fetishism plays an important part in Freudian psychoanalysis where the fetish represents a substitute of a phallus which the woman lacks. Both Freud and Baudrillard concurred that fetishism is mainly a male proclivity. Apart from the phallus, the other most classical fetish is that of the doll. “The process of fetishisation turns the woman into a phallic doll in the sense of a smooth and blank effigy on which male desire can be projected”.
  • The question is posed whether the veiling of women contribute or prevent this kind fetishisation.
  • According to Sarah Kofman there is a strong parallel between veiling and fetishisation. She states the reasons women have for veiling themselves would join up with a man’s need for a fetishism, and with her interests at stake, would make her an accomplice. “The surface of the fetish-woman is smooth and nothing is supposed to disrupt the creation of male desire that is sparked when looking at a blank body screen”. In a quote by Christine Braunberger the point was made that tattoos on a female body are supposed to disrupt the male perception of the female body and thereby prevent fetishisation – the tattoos disrupting the smoothness of the female skin.
  • Similarities/dissimilarities of the veil and the tattoo are: the veil can be taken off, the tattoo is permanent; the veil has an ‘underneath’ (the woman). Both work within the elements of desire, smoothness and male gaze.
  • When a male tattoos a woman he will exercise control and turn her into “a desiring subject whose focus he can control”. When the woman applies the tattoo herself the male loss of control over the inscriptions on the woman’s skin are akin to impotence. The man can no longer project his desires  on the female skin and he has to accept that other men might be attracted by the tattoo. This loss of control prevents the fetishisation of the woman. (I have to wonder how many young girls would have their bodies tattooed if they were aware of this bit of psychoanalysis).
  • Botz-Bornstein asks the question – does veiling disrupt the process of female fetishisation in a similar fashion or does it work in service of fetishisation? There is a big difference between a man forcing a woman to wear a veil and a woman who chooses to do it on her own (possible self-feishisaton). Baudrillard states “women can either be turned into fetishes or they can decide to “perform this labor of continual fetishization on themselves”. When a woman chooses to fetishize herself, she will do so in such a way that she still appears appealing to the male. A man who puts a veil over a woman is able to control her desires.
  • “The woman who decides to get a tattoo … clearly disrupts the process of her own phallicisation because she destroys her skin’s blank surface. … The veil emphasizes smoothness and combines a phallic shape with doll-like attributes”.
  • The mystery created by sunglasses disrupts fetishisation categorically more so than the veil because “it does not re-enact the person in the form of the blank screen”. There is no direct correlation between the sunglasses to the control of the wearer’s desire, where there is with the veil.
Conclusion: Concealing, Cropping, Cutting
  • Sunglasses are “cooler” –> covering of the eyes mystifies the person in cooler way than the covering of the mouth. Covering of the eyes does not invite fetishisation, where veils can become fetishes.
  • One might argue that veils are cool in a similar fashion as Facebook profile photos are sometimes cropped. These are cool because they make the subject look mysterious. But the cropping function was designed for the alteration of pictures and not real faces. The cropped photo appears more stable and enigmatic than in real life and can also function as a cool mask. “A cropped/veiled face in real life is not necessarily as cool and mysterious as a cropped face on a photo”.
  • Cutting is a gesture in which one can transform any subject into an aesthetic subject. It is an act of stylization.
  • Sunglasses follow the logic of cutting, the veil conceals. Sunglasses and tattoos “attempt to disrupt the gaze by disturbing existent structures; they do not merely hide the body’s surface, but involve parts of the body in a playful act of stylization”.
  • Not impossible to put the veil towards cutting and cropping mechanisms –> headscarf –> an act of stylization that does not conceal. It is more an accessory. The veil as religious symbol is incompatible with fashion because fashion is playful by nature and one can always step out of the game (take the veil off).
Antony Jones/James Whatling/Getty Images. Dogs. Dogs. DOGS ARE EVERYWHERE
Antony Jones/James Whatling/Getty Images. Dogs. Dogs. DOGS ARE EVERYWHERE


  • The headscarf adds value to the appearance of the woman because like sunglasses and tattoos, “it disrupts the gaze by weaving it into an aesthetic game that the wearer engages in to explore diverse stylistic possibilities.
  • Another example of cutting the veil is the hijab bo tafkha (“puffy hijab”) where women fix a large decorative flower on to the back of their heads with a hairclip under the hijab. This gives the impression of having a beehive under the veil. This device allows women to play with the shape of their head.
  • The hijab is limited to hiding and is not an item of stylization, often rendering the wearer’s face as artificial and rigid or expressionless.

Certainly a lot of fascinating arguments to consider. Once it has all sunk in, I’m sure I’ll come back and add a few more comments and questions.

Reference List

Botz-Bornstein, T (2013) ‘Veils and sunglasses’ in Journal of Aesthetics & Culture Vol 5 Issue 1, 2013.


Adil, Shakil (2011) A woman is showing wearing a niqab in this 2011 file photo [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 February, 2017]

McCurry, Steve (n.d.) Kabul. Afghanistan [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 February, 2017]

Antony Jones/James Whatling/Getty Images (n.d.). Dogs Dogs. DOGS ARE EVERYWHERE [online] Vanity Fair. Available at: [Accessed 3 February, 2017]

The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures by Susanne Holschbach

One of the essays in the exhibition catalogue of Street & Studio An Urban History of Photography is of particular relevance to this section of the course. Whether one makes a street portrait or a portrait in the studio, the essence comes down to the posing.

The history of the pose dates back to the 1850s where the purpose of portrait photography was for “self-representation or remembrance” (Holschbach p. 171) and later on for the purposes of identification. Due to the slow exposure speeds of cameras back then, subjects were usually seated when they had their photographs made, sometimes their heads were put into some sort of vice to keep them still. Alan Trachtenberg’s observation was that “sitters were encouraged to will themselves into the desired self-expression … creating a role and a mask” (cited in Warner Marien 2014).

On left: Carl Durheim, Joseph Ackerman, 37 Jahre alt 1852-3. On right: Emile Tourtin, Theodore de Banville, in Galerie Contemporaine, 1876-80
On left: Carl Durheim, Joseph Ackerman, 37 Jahre alt 1852-3. On right: Emile Tourtin, Theodore de Banville, in Galerie Contemporaine, 1876-80

Holschbach’s essay refers to the two images above at the “contrary poles of the photographic portrait in the nineteenth century” (p 171). Both photographs reveal something about the subjects’ self-perceptions and social standing. There are subtle differences in their poses. The gentleman on the left is sitting very awkwardly on the chair, his hands crossed over on his lap  rather tensely. His clothes are rather worn. His hat is perched on the studio table beside him. The subject stares directly at the camera. In contrast, the gentleman on the right is well dressed and sits in a rather relaxed fashion enveloping the chair (there is only a sliver of it visible on the right). His hands are clasped comfortably across his stomach and he looks off into the distant, making no eye contact with the photographer. One gets the sense that there was more direction from the photographer on the left than the one on the right. The nervousness of the subject on the left is quite tangible, while the gentleman on the right exudes confidence as if he has done this many times.

“… the pose is at once a conscious attitude and an involuntary expression of psychic dispositions and social norms. It can intimate the conditions under which the portrait was created, and it can bear signs of agreement as well as resistance.”

Holschbach (p 172)

The statement above is of particular relevance to the photograph of the gentleman on the left. The Swiss government proceeded to document all traveling salespeople, other itinerants and homeless people in an attempt to curtail their movements and to force them to lead more settled lives. Photographs taken for these identification purposes could later be used for warrant posters if the person strayed from his/her designated area of abode (Warner Marien, p 68).

One of the definitions  of the verb “to pose” is “to claim or pretend to be somebody/something”. The very nature of this means that subjects deliver themselves to the camera in a manner that they would like to be seen, whether it is a true rendition of themselves or not. Aspiring middle class people would have their portraits taken with backgrounds depicting sumptuous rooms or surroundings in an effort to relay how far they had brought themselves up in the world.

“… once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

Barthes (1981, p 10)

Subjects have learned to emulate postures and expressions. Children do this in their play copying and teenagers experiment with various seductive expressions in front of the mirror trying to mimic their favourite film star. Adults learn to alter their expressions and body language to fit to conform within the work place. Philippe Halsman developed a strategy when photographing his subjects. He would end the session by asking them to jump. His rationale was that a person cannot control an expression, facial muscles and limb muscles at the same time. During this transient state (the jump) the mask falls and there is a glimmer of the real person (Holschbach  p 173).

Philippe Halsman, Edward Steichen, 1959
Philippe Halsman, Edward Steichen, 1959

“Posing is an act that is both active and passive” (Holschbach p 174). Rineke Dijkstra’s series of young prepubescent girls in nightclubs shows how they mimic their popstar idols in poses and gestures. This copycat behaviour also happens on the street. “It is a fundamental mechanism of intersubjectivity (a shared understanding that helps us to relate one situation to another): in order to be perceived and recognised as a person at all” (Holschbach p 174). Personally, I think a lot of this behaviour is down to consumerism. We are constantly bombarded by images on the internet and glossy magazine advertisements that young women especially turn to in order to determine how to “act”. Fashion photography no longer sells clothes, but sells sex, extravagance, and temperaments, as well as the perfect, ideal (yet impossible) body that every woman is urged to strive for.

With the arrival of handheld cameras, photography moved out into the streets and was no longer hampered by the confines of the studio. “The snapshot came to substitute the staged photograph, the ideal of being natural replacing that of being representative” (Holschbach p 176). A resurgence in the popularity of the studio portrait happened in Africa. Numerous photographers spring to mind here: Malik Sidibe, who photographed young people in their latest nightclub attire in a very minimalist studio space, while Philip Kwame photographed people against elaborately painted backdrops of cityscapes, airports, offices, and exotic locations, sometimes proudly displaying their latest acquisition. The clients’ “poses are emblematic gestures through which the subject associates himself with his surroundings, seeing his ambitions fulfilled in the very photograph” Holschbach p 177).

Photograph by Philip Kwame
Photograph by Philip Kwame

The studio can be both a site of control but it can also be a place where fictional characters or identities are created. According to Holschbach (p 177) the “playful potential of the pose” only truly comes into being when the photographer engages in self-portraiture, when he/she is alone in the studio, with no observers as can be seen in Cindy Sherman’s works.

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.

Holschbach Susanne (2008) ‘The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures’ In: Eskildsen, U; Ebner, F; Kaufmann, B (eds.) Street & Studio An Urban History of Photography. London: Tate Modern

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1989) (4th edition): Oxford: Oxford University Press

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th edition). London: Laurence King.









Face On: Photography as Social Exchange

One of the books my tutor recommended that I read is Face On, which is edited by Mark Durden and Craig Richardson. Face On sets out the history of documentary photography, but more importantly examines the relationship between photographer and subject. The book is divided into four essays:

  • Negotiating Power
  • Empathy and Engagement: The Subjective Documentary
  • Reality Gaps, Assumed and Declared
  • Contractualities of the Eye

The photograph is revealed as a tightly focused space of negotiation within which the politics of looking and posing … is played out.

Joanna Lowry (p. 11)

The first essay deals with the relationship between the photographer and subject and Lowry illustrates this power struggle by referencing Tracey Moffatt’s video Heaven which was shot on Bondi Beach where young men parade their bodies, strip down and change next to their cars and pose with their surfboards. Lowry (p. 13) makes the point that a social relationship exists between the photographer and subject when the subject poses in front of the camera. “Within the cultural economy of the image the pose represents the point at which value is set. This is the moment of transaction when the deal has finally been struck” (Lowry p 13). This in turn, is an act of communication in which the identities of both the photographer and the subject are formed.

face-onMikhail Baktin, a Russian philospher developed the idea of ‘dialogical text’ building upon the work of Saussure. He looked at language as an act of communication.

The utterance that was always, … bound into a relationship between two people: that was always from somebody, always directed towards an addressee, and always anticipated a response.

Lowry (p. 15)

Within dialogical text are a variety of structures of power and authority, however the binary opposite of the dialogical is the monological where there is no opportunity for response, where the speaker is in total control of the language/image. Steve Edwards, professor of art history at the Open University puts forward that the photographer’s studio is the place where the final power resides with the photographer and thus is a monological site. This is the essential binarism between street and studio. Lowry goes on to discuss Jurgen Teller’s Go-See’s project, comparing it to Rineke Dijkstra’s The Buzzclub project and then moves on to discuss the implications of when the subject is paid to pose as in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s and Boris Mikhailov’s works. All of these photographers’ works can be categorised as have dialogical relationships. There is an ongoing struggle of power between the photographer and the subject.

The second essay deals with social documentary, concentrating quite a bit on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Durden, author of this essay states (p. 27) that Walker Evans used to shoot his subjects “face on, upstanding, composed and commanding respect … Evans himself never shows his face”. As Evans himself stated his style was one of “the non-appearance of author, the non-subjectivity” (Durden p. 27). The quandry between documentary and aesthestics is discussed in James Agee’s writings for Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee finding this ‘ethically troubling’ (p. 30). This work is then contrasted by Richard Billingham’s and Tom Hunter’s portraits of working class families in which their economic struggles are portrayed.

Documentary negotiates difference and the ways in which this difference is negotiated determine its political effectivity.

Durden (p 36)

Chapter three deals with assumed identities as in the series Front by Trish Morrissey (which I commented on in my Context and Narrative module) and Jennifer Bornstein’s Interventions which are also self-portraits of Bornstein posing as siblings or family members of complete strangers. “here is the deliberate removal of identity and it’s replacement with a sequence of false alliances and friendships (Richardson p 47). These staged intimacies and constructed social communities serve to “highlight the false construct of objectivity in documentary photographic practice” (Richardson p 40). Other photographers work mentioned in this essay are Philip-Lorca diCorcia (Hustlers); Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Touch Sanitation: Handshake Ritual); Roderick Buchanan (Me and my neighbours).

The most important aspect of the photograph is its exchange of interest with the viewer, but the agreement made with the subject is nonetheless indicative of the kind of society in which it is made.

(Hunt, p 53)

The final chapter is written by Ian Hunt and deals with the work of Boris Mikhailov (Case Histories). The series is about the homeless in Kharkov, Ukraine. All the subjects were paid and photographed naked or very scantily clothed. There is a very strong sense of deprivation running through his images, but also one of a mutual contract having been agreed upon, albeit that the subjects are openly manipulated into posing. Jennifer Bornstein’s work mentioned above contrasts this in that the subjects are not paid, but willingly take part in the constructed community. “Bornstein’s authorship is to be found in what cannot be regulated in the fleeting encouters as well as in the enabling architecture of those encounters she has set up” (Hunt p 60).

There is much to learn from the old ways as they renew themselves and adapt and are reinvented against new opponents …

(Hunt p 66)

Reference List

Durden, M and Richardson, C. (2000) Face On: Photography as Social Exchange London: Black Dog Publishing Limited