Representing Women

Back in August 2019 I posted an article on Representing Women by Linda Nochlin. Reading that post recently, I realised what a load of drivel it was. It made no sense, so I thought I would give it another go.

In my first attempt, I said that there was a lot to take in. Having read the book again, it occurred to me that one of these reasons is the number of cross references that I needed to look up. I’m still doing this research and it is hard work. The academic level these series of essays are primarily aimed at meant it would never be a walk in the park.

To offer a summary or paraphrase Nochlin’s analysis of the art and artists in this book would be doing her a disservice. What I can say is that the work chosen to feature in the book illustrates perfectly the points she is making. It is not a complete historical record and there is no way a book of this size could cover everything. But the end result makes the reader reassess the narrative of the imagery they see around them and to question what that says about women.

This book does not include Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, the essay Nochlin is most well known for. In my opinion it is worth reading this in conjunction with this book.

Representing Women is a reminder of the pioneering work by Linda Nochlin in this academic field. Looking back, I wonder why the likes of Kenneth Clark and John Berger came across my path a lot earlier than her. Maybe I was looking in the wrong section or maybe it is just the patriarchy in play. Whatever the reason, I do hope there are plenty of students today and in the future that have at the top of their reading list one of Nochlin’s publications.

Linda Nochlin 1931-2017

Stay at home V

Spending time at home allowed me to discover two projects by a couple of photographers. Age Cannot Wither Her by James Hall assisted by Mischkah Scott and the Naked Truth: Plymouth Unveiled by Jojo.

I want to start by saying that the intention here is not to put down these projects. I am certain that the photographers worked hard to make them come to life. And I want to be clear that any negative thoughts, on my part, is not aimed at the sitters who decided to participate. Without these people no project would ever get off the ground and they have my full admiration.

Best way to describe these works are portraits of women not wearing any clothes. They also share their relationship with their own body in the accompanying text.

As far as I can tell, there is no connection between the two photographers. Naked Truth is a collection of black & white images taken in the Plymouth area of the UK back in 2017. Age Cannot Wither Her is of older women in colour images. With no date in the book I can’t say when it was produced. But what these two projects have in common is the intellectual justification for the work – giving a voice to the women in the photographs.

Jojo acknowledges in the introduction to his book the issue of the male gaze. He dismisses this criticism by explaining his work flow used to mitigate the problem. Therefore, being a male photographer, according to him, is irrelevant. To be fair, he does say that he intended to produce a male version in 2018. But this misses the point. It is generally acknowledged that there is an imbalance with men as creators and women as the unclothed subject. I mean, why did Jojo not create the male version first and then following up with the female?

As a side note, I am aware that he has previously produced a similar portrait project with a mix of men and women. But my point is still valid, what is the bias for producing images of women?

James Hall, in his introduction, quotes from the books The Nude by Kenneth Clark and The History Of The Nude in Photography by Peter Lacey. Hall says he wanted to challenge what he read in these publications.

It has been a long time since I read The Nude and I don’t have a copy of The History Of The Nude in Photography, so without knowing what it contains I can’t say too much about it.

The emphasis of the female nude in Hall’s analysis of the Kenneth Clark book is my main issue. You would think that Kenneth Clark’s book was only about young female nudes reading what Hall wrote. But checking my copy of The Nude, roughly half of it is about the male nude.

The predominance of the female nude over the male, of which Raphael’s Judgement of Paris is the first example, was to increase during the next 200 years till by the 19th century it was absolute.

The Nude, Kenneth Clark (Chapter IX – The Nude as an End in Itself)

It could be argued that the photographs produced by Hall only adds to that predominance.

I also need to take issue with Hall saying that the subtitle of Clark’s book is A Study of Ideal Form. My copy of The Nude says it is A Study of Ideal Art. It might seem minor but the difference between the two words is, to me, major.

My reading of Clark’s book has always been that the nude is seen as the pinnacle of any artist’s portfolio. With the artists who produce nude pieces being at the top of the class. So it is not a surprise that so many artists want to join this club. To say that the book is about body perfection is not how I read the book.

Having said that, it may not be Hall’s fault if his version of the book uses this revised subtitle.

I assumed that The History Of The Nude in Photography was a recent book. So was a bit surprised to discover that I was wrong and the paperback edition had been published in 1969. I do wonder how relevant is the book if it doesn’t cover the explosion of photographic images over the last fifty years.

Have these two projects succeeded in giving a voice to the women in the photographs? In my opinion, a minute speaking into the microphone is not the same as a permanent seat at the table.

I can’t help but think that the rational being put forward by Hall and Jojo is a way for them to clear their consciences to carry out this work. Which, if I am right, says more about the photographers than the platform given to the sitters.

When I look in the mirror, I have to ask the question, have I been doing anything different with my project?

Stay at home IV

Still not going out much but watching a lot of online content. And if you want somewhere to go BBC Ideas is a great place to stretch your mind.

One of these videos is about the porn industry.

The argument is that it is an industry that has a history of treating and paying women unfairly. And that a lot of porn depict women enjoying unrealistic situations so should be banned.

But by making it illegal, surely this will drive production underground. And if this happens, the working conditions for all involved will be worse than the current situation.

Watching this interview with Emma Thompson on Newsnight, she makes the argument that the treatment of women in the “mainstream” film industry is pretty poor too.

Now that I am spending more time being able to watch classic films, it does make me wonder what it says about our culture in which a film like Citizen Kane is admired but contains a scene in which a man hits a woman hard on the face during an argument. It might not be “real” but there are way too many films that are placed on a pedestal in which they treat women in a way that makes me wince.

How are we to expect the porn industry to have a clean house when looking around you see how dirty the “Hollywood” industry is? You could argue that the latter has a much bigger influence on our everyday lives than the former.

Like Emma Thompson says in her interview, there needs to be a diverse set of people at every level for real change to happen. All male crews, writers, directors and producers really need to be a thing of the past.