HOW FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY'S "GAZE" IS MORE COMPLEX THAN YOU THOUGHT
Talking about fashion photography can be strange. The terminology that we use – for whatever reason –always seems to have some kind of double entendre; think “Taylor Hill shot by Mert & Marcus” or “Mario Testino captures Kate Moss for W.” The repeated connotation of violence is probably inadvertent, but, when it is used to link a (usually) young woman to a typically much older male photographer, it can still feel disturbing, even if we know that it is incidental. I had this same feeling of sharp discomfort earlier this year, when Adwoa Aboah, Adriana Lima, and Slick Woods (all tenacious, powerful women with something to say) were accompanied by the caption “Alasdair’s Girls” on the cover of Katie Grand’s Love Magazine for Issue 17.5. The label of course referenced the shoot’s photographer Alasdair McLellan, but I couldn’t help cringe at the connotation that these women (not girls) somehow belonged to him, as it more or less implied.
But the more that I considered the conundrum, I realized that to a certain extent, a fashion photographer does exercise a great deal of power over their models, both in terms of their authority to represent them via their personal interpretation, but also, in tandem with the dynamics of their gender privilege. The dynasty of male fashion photographers that shoot almost every campaign and cover have long exercised their power to represent women in ways that are totally unbalanced. The ‘male gaze’ is less about a specific aesthetic, and more about the history of dominance, and at times, aggression, with which it is charged. Conversation over the last year has often turned to the slew of young female photographers on the come-up – think Petra Collins, Harley Weir, and Charlotte Wales– and the purported ‘female gaze’ that they are contributing to the homogenous fashion landscape. But the female gaze isn’t just about creating equal opportunity; it is about disrupting the patriarchy.
Feminist scholar Diana Fuss has written about the tension between fashion photography and sexuality, highlighting the repeated trope of depicting a woman who “desires to be desired by men,” with whom the female viewer is expected to “over identify.” The intention is, of course, leveraging a sale, but is also limits the depiction of women to what heterosexual men find to be ideal.
It is then also problematic that the women sold to us in magazines as icons for admiration and emulation are products of male fantasy. In an industry in which the photographic gaze has been almost exclusively male for more than a century, our frames of reference – even when female or non-binary imagemakers are given their turn behind the lens – are still based on a system in which femininity has been constructed by straight men. Imagined ideas about women by men have been given life through the camera, and these incarnations have become the foundations of how the world now sees women.
Fashion’s long-time association with fantasy has become problematic because it has allowed us to indulge in decades of distorted images of women under the pretence of ‘aspiration’ and ‘reverie.’ In her 2008 book, Domestic Violence: A Reference Handbook, Margi Laird McHue describes how:
“In the late 1980s, for instance, many fashion ads featured women who were abused, bound and gagged, or in body bags. These images appeared in department store windows that also featured battered women and women stuffed into trash cans as the conquests of leather-clad men […] One Epsrit ad depicted a woman on an ironing board with a man about to iron her crotch; a Foxy Lady ad showed a woman who had been knocked to the floor with her shirt ripped open.”
Likewise, the portfolio of famed fashion photographer Helmut Newton would not be complete without a beauty editorial in which Jerry Hall holds a frozen steak against her face (implying a black eye), and then there’s Guy Bourdin’s almost ubiquitous penchant for depicting dead women in decadent clothes. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the trouble with classifying images of violence against women as glamorous or beautiful, or better yet, using them to sell women expensive goods.
When the women we see only exist in the mind’s eye of the men who ‘capture’ them (again, the widespread use of this word seems particularly interesting), we negate the reality that they are in fact, real individuals, standing in for a population of real female consumers and readers who are not objects play-acting in a man’s imagination. While it is certainly not fair to assume that all men (or even most of them) harbour violent or perverse fantasies about women (or even about women at all), the inherent gender privilege that they are afforded allows male photographers to reify any of their constructions of women, and more often than not, these repeat images of dominance rather than challenge them. It has been argued that the idealization of ultra-skinny, ‘size 0’ models represents a desire for women to occupy less space, erase ‘femininity,’ or even to mimic the figure of a child, and therefore appease an underlying pedophilic tendency. Likewise, women of colour suffer from misrepresentation to the nth degree; think of Jean-Paul Goude’s 1982 photos of Grace Jones, naked in a cage, and featured on the cover of his book titled Jungle Fever. The exoticization that women of colour have been subjected to is a classic example of white male fantasy (and blatant racism) going unbridled.
The consequences of this are far-reaching, especially when photographers use their authority to overstep the line between fiction and reality. Cara Delevingne once said that she expected that most of the heterosexual male fashion photographers had only entered the business “so that they could sleep with young models.” Her contention brings to mind the years of sexual misconduct allegations levelled against photographer Terry Richardson, who has reportedly used photoshoots to pass off sexually aggressive or even violent behaviour towards models as acceptable, or ‘just part of the job.’
On a set, models play a role similar to an actor, where their own personal identity is replaced with an anonymous one, and they must assume the persona that the photographer or client has projected onto them. As such, their individual personhood can become obscured by the character or role that they are fulfilling, and this makes it much easier to dehumanize them and treat them improperly. When the industry allows the pursuit of beauty and fantasy to go unchecked, it also leaves the door open for us to not see some women, like models, as real people either. It is worth asking – if the women that we see in magazines, advertisements, billboards, and movies are treated as objects, how does this attitude seep into how we treat women in our day-to-day lives?
The predictable response here is often to position female photographers as the solution – and antithesis – to the existing canon of imagemaking. The problem with this viewpoint is that it implies that female photographers have inherently different points of view than men, and instead of being an argument against sexism, this contention doubles down on it. (If I had a dollar for every time the female gaze was described as ‘sensitive’ or ‘authentic.’) It also often negates the possibility that female fashion photographers may very well chose to depict female models in contexts that invoke sexuality or sensuality as well. The difference here however, is that there is not likely the same imbalance of power between the photographer and the subject, as there might be when a man is taking photos of a young woman. Likewise, in these circumstances, female sexuality is hopefully depicted more realistically, as it is derived from the experiences of a fellow woman, rather than the augmented imaginings of a man. The presence of the female fashion photographer on set can level the playing field between the photographer and the model, which has so often been plagued by inequality.
The intention of this article is not to suggest that there is no place for male creatives in the realm of fashion photography. Rather, it is to begin a dialogue about the power dynamics that we often take for granted in the art and images that we consume. It is also worth considering how these power dynamics come into play in situations that are unethical – such as the well-documented instances of harassment that take place on fashion photo shoots. To me, it also underscores why conversations about gender and equity are so important in the fashion industry, so that we can create a better understanding of experiences of others, especially those to whom we may not always be able to relate. This is all in the hopes that we can prevent future abuses of power, reward those who use their authority for good, and foster images that represent subjects holistically instead of dehumanizing them. It is also potentially an opportunity to review our conduct, including the language that we use to describe women as girls, or photographers as their captors.
In our pursuit of fantasy and creativity, we may often forget that our actions have real consequences and that nothing is created in a vacuum. As such, understanding the way that the various actors in the fashion industry– especially those who wield significant power– relate is critical if we want to build a more inclusive and empowering business.
Main image: Claudia Schiffer by Bruno Bisang