Archives for category: Critical theory

I was looking through some photography blogs last night when i found this project by Elliot Wilcox over on 1000 words

The project is almost identical to the project of a friend and fellow graduate Joe Faulkner….

The last time i looked around The Photographers’ Gallery in London there were two pieces of work by recent graduates based on exactly the same idea’s that i had joted in my scrapbook from almost a year before I saw them (namely road-side monuments and artificially built landscapes). Is this because these ideas were ‘bad’ or ‘obvious’ ideas? No, but perhaps by studying photographer so closely for so long, photography students are bound to have influences which clash and combine to create a general ‘photography consciousness’. When I had to sit through presentations by fellow photography students it always amazed me how often the same names would surface to the point where I would present the most obscure photographers i could find just to buck the trend and expose them to something other than what pops up on google image search. In fact the internet itself is testament to our massive saturation and exposure to imagery in modern life, almost everything has been photographed before.

This got me thinking if everything been photographed before and if so how can you be a truely ‘original’ photographer?

For me the simple answer is you can’t.

And its not a bad thing, being influenced by other imagery, other photographers, film, life, whatever and reacting to these influeneces is what inspires me to take photographs in the first place. I guess For the modern photographer its what generates ideas in the first place.

My point is don’t be surprised if someone else has thought of them as well.


This week I’ve been reading Roland Barthe’s book, Camera Lucida and would like to touch upon some of his ideas on what makes a photograph stand out. Barthes cites two main factors in a photographic image, studium and punctum.

Barthes calls Studium ‘a kind of education (civility, politeness) that allows discovery of the operator’. Basically studium is the element that creates interest in a photographic image. It shows the intention of the photographer but we experience this intention in reverse as spectators; the photographer thinks of the idea (or intention) then present it photographically, the spectator then has to act in the opposite way, they see the photograph then have to interpretate it to see the ideas and intentions behind it.

Culture is an important connotation within studium, as Barthes puts it ‘it is culturally that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions,’ Barthes says that culture ‘is a contact arrived at between creators and consumers.’ I think this cultural middle ground is extremely important in the way ideas are put across from photographer to spectator, two people from completely different cultures and got them to analyse the same photograph, chances are you will get two very different interpretations (obviously other factors affect it but I feel that culture is the one of the most significant).

Barthes cites journalistic photographs as good examples of studium, saying ‘I glance through them, I don’t recall them, no detail ever interrupts my reading; I am interested in them (as I am interested in the world) I do not love them.’

To summarise studium adds interest, but in the order of liking, not loving. I think it is punctum that is of real interest to photographers.

Punctum is the second element to an image that Barthe mentions in Camera Lucida.

Punctum is an object or image that jumps out at the viewer within a photograph- ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me.’ Punctum can exist alongside studium, but disturbs it, creating an ‘element which rises from the scene’ and unitentially fills the whole image. Punctum is the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presense changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value.’

Clearly this second element is much more powerful and compelling to the spectator, changing the ‘like’ of studium to the love of an image. As a photographer an understanding of punctum could potentially allow me to make stronger images, although I feel that punctum needs that accidental quality about it to be most effective because it is so personal and could be different for everyone. Basically it could be anything, something that reminds you of your childhood, a sense of deja vu, an object of sentimental value, punctum is very personal and often different for everyone.

Whereas studium is ultimately coded, the punctum is not which I feel relates to how the interest in studium is often in the deconstruction of the image, whereas for punctum it is that point of impact, which in itself may have meaning but was not originally hidden within the images meaning. Punctum retains an ‘aberrant’ quality. Barthes himself says ‘what i can name cannot really prick me’, the inability to name is a good sytom of disturbance and punctum.

Right, Ive talked about gender and art so I think its appropriate to look at feminism as it ties in with quite a few ideas i mentioned in my breakdown of gender.

A really good essay on the subject is by Julia Kristeva – Abjection & Melancholia, basically she says we are born into a blissful semiotic state where we are unaware and happy. As soon as we say our first word, particularly ‘Father’ which I feel has the most poignant meaning in regards to the feminine, we enter the symbolic world as we understand it as adults, where everything is subject to the hierarchy of language and words, and ultimately language is loaded with the masculine. As soon as we utter our first words we are crushed by society and bombarded by symbolism, this immediately sculpts us into a masculine mindset. Julia Kristeva beliefs that to resolve the core issues behind feminism, which I think its fair to say haven’t greatly changed since the days of the suffragettes, we need to address the language system that we use. I think the easiest way to think about this is to think about the rise computer technology over the last few decades, to talk about these new technologies and developments we had to make new words to describe them. In the same way Kristeva says we can’t resolve these issues without adapting our language into a more neutral gender state.

‘Language is a virus’

Looking at art, it reflects a kind of truth, where you can identify the issues and identity of an artist from the work they produce. Kristeva identifies a massive range of artworks, particularly genres like photography that is often seen as ‘beyond the pale’ when challenging set cultural ideas, where pulses of the original blissful spirit break through the symbolic state. We can never be fully crushed.

Another feminist writer called Helene Cisoux calls for a new language system in her book, ‘Ecriture Feminine’. She believes that we need a new language system to break through the spell of language, as it restricts how we express ourselves and even how we think.

I think its an interesting idea that language controls and corrupts us to such an extent, but ultimately I believe it would be impossible to completely change our current language structure, as it has been built through over three thousand years of history and culture. I think we can address the way our current cultural systems work through art and visual culture. Women are entitled to equal human rights by law, but are being suppressed and dominated in other ways. First we need to look at the wider picture.

Western democracy’s many interventions of philosophy, technology and war have contributed greatly to our condition today. The ideas of socialism have given us our welfare state and ideas of community, although I feel that commercialism has centered the West into a singular identity rather than a communal one, the I rather than the we. Without a doubt, the greatest advancements in technology are fuelled by war. Many would argue that some of the greatest changes to how we organise and make sense of our lives are due to feminism.

In the modern arena there are two main questions left in gender politics, is feminism still necessary, and if it is what does it still need to address. Most people would say the sex war has been won, but in ethnicity and sexuality many women are still treated, I feel, unfairly. Certainly from a photographers view point, if this weren’t true than why are many women artists still dealing with the same issues in their work as women were before women rights became standard. Yet even (particularly Western) educational and justice systems still favor the male. Let me give some examples…

A judge in Texas, USA, freed an accused rapist saying ‘a women cannot be raped if she is wearing jeans’. The rapist was later proved to be guilty.

‘If a women wear miniskirts, how can they expect not to be assaulted at night.’ Judge Robert Stein

A US paper printed as fact ‘successful women are less fertile than housewives.’

‘Women’s failure to achieve at higher academic level is because they have smaller heads’ a senior professor at an Irish University.

‘Summing up, if she doesn’t want it she only has to keep her legs shut’ Judge David Wilde addressing the jury before they make their final verdict on a rape case.

‘He clearly hates prostitutes, many people do, but now he’s killing innocent girls’ Senior detective working on the Yorkshire Ripper cases.

Law may claim equality and justice for all, but clearly there’s still a bigot mode.

Sexuality is a key area where women are still treated unfairly. For example in rape cases a women’s personal sexual history can be used by the defence to defend the actions of the accused rapist, but the accused sexual history cannot be used against him in court, even if he is a serial offender. Not exactly a fair system, and evidence of a ‘she asked for it’ mentality, in fact most domestic rapes are dismissed before they even make it into court. Rape is still used as a weapon of terror in wars across the world, most significantly in Bosnia, where girls as young as three have been sexually assaulted.

There is a convenient notion that in the relationship between men and women, men are naturally dominant. This ‘biological essentialism’ is often cited as the core of the imbalance of the sexes, where women are biologically figured to be inferior. Other narratives can be identified that help shape and control identity and how we behave in society, even religious narratives, significantly Adam and Eve, where the women Eve made a mistake, the consequences of which effected everyone.

Society sees it fit to reward masculine jobs, hence the sanctification of feminine professions such as nursing or primary education, ‘they are working out of kindness therefore don’t need to be paid as much’. A women doing an identical job as a man can be paid up to 35% less wages. Yet in education under 16 girls out-perform boys in all areas, so much so they are putting in new procedures into schools to allow boys to catch up. Education is another key socialising factor in the UK, sociology and cultural studies isn’t taught in our schools as it is in the rest of Europe, and feminism is usually only taught to women through night classes. If children understood controlling social factors from a younger age perhaps there would be greater equality. Overall democracy operates a policy that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that results in women behaving in a predetermined manner that ultimately makes them into second class citizens.

So what has this got to do with photography? Feminism, and artwork informed by feminism explores and explodes this core material at the root of patriarchy. It aims to expose the methodology of gender bigotry. Key strategies for feminist work are to explore the ideas of biological essentialism, and to reconceptualise the language we use. Our thoughts are predetermined by the linguistic system and our belief system is dominated by advertising and consumption. This in turn is connected to ideas of the other (a concept that basically everything different is scary or sinister), where we are punished for being transgressional and rewarded for being ‘normal’. The feminist project seeks to explode the idea of the women as an inferior, and recognises and combats the ideas where these myths are grounded and try to educate this imbalance. Their representation of women in images and writings is critical to how people view women particularly in mass media and popular art. Through visual culture we adopt mannerisms and behaviour patterns, we use what we see to make sense of what is around us. If the media we are exposed to is imbalanced or bigoted then the masses will adopt this system ofvsemiotic failure.

As a photographer I think it’s useful to understand the motives and ideas behind feminists work, so that I can identify it others work and use some of its ideas within my own work. I don’t think feminism is strictly for women. I don’t see why I can’t use feminist themes and address feminist issues in my own work, I find the quotes cited as particularly disturbing and think that injustice should be addressed. I find ideas of the influence of the mass media and general image consumption particularly interesting also and is another key theme I would like to address in my own work. I will be posting up some key photographers influenced by feminism in my coming posts.

Gender is one of the most important areas of art study because so much is marked by it, whether it is for better or for worse. Due to is wide berth the ideas of feminists, gender and cultural studies have seen some of the brightest minds in the last thirty years producing work on them. Everything from the material of the everyday to fine art and academia is affected by gender roles.

It is a fact that we live in a culture and society of difference. I refer to difference here as a concept, a group of related ideas. We make sense of and value things around us by what they are not, as much as what they are. Ideas of difference in terms of gender places it in a cultural based hierarchy; this means the generalisation of masculine being everything different to feminine (masculine-hard, feminine-soft etc.) This stark opposition leaves an either/ or attitude, rather than concentrating on what’s in between. These simple crude separations create binary opposites, leading to one gender establishing itself higher up the hierarchy, historically the male.

Gender positioning is clear in the role of images, how and why do they work upon us, and asartists we ourselves will be placed within these hierarchical systems. It is my personal choice as to what my role within that system will be, and what images will I make. Image making and reception has always had the scrutiny of the feminist academic eye, separating the natural from the constructed. Language itself is also gender orientated (in favour of the masculine) this leaves feminists in a locking system; there’s no way to change our whole language but using it favours the masculine. By blurring together these sexual opposites we can create new language, words and image formations, basically we create a new way of viewing the world.

In our current culture of sexual excess any image is questionable in terms of equality or freedom for anyone. Popular culture is just a construction of stereotypes, where women are just pretty additions in the ‘real’ world of the masculine. I think a good example of this is in advertising, particularly for perfumes, the women is presented as a ‘pretty’ role model for women, and presented as available or sexually charged towards men. I think our current exposure to mass media also helps keep women (and men to a lesser extent) in the role of the consumer.

‘Discourse can be usefully understood as socially constructed knowledge in a hierarchical system’. Discourse is defined as a body of writing/ images that is unified in its purpose or outcomes however intentional they may be. Looking at the discourses of the hierarchical system allows us to examine the structures of representation through which the masculine/ feminine identity is established; out of this collective semiotic we choose our identity. At the top of the hierarchy is still the white, heterosexual male, but if this is the ideal what does everything else become? If you’re not this you’re less than/ other to the ideal. I think this is core behind most branches of discrimination. Many artists have used these ideas as a starting point, looking how identities are mapped out for us by this system and in turn challenging our ideas of our own identity, exploring beyond the mass media stereotyping gaze.
‘Photos do not simply offer commodities for consumption, they also offer identities to inhabit, and they construct and circulate a systematic regime of images through which we are constantly invited to think the probabilities and possibilities of our lives’
Photo Politics vol. 2

I think in conclusion our exposure to mass media, films, adverts; whatever it might shapes and controls us into gender-based stereotypes. As an artist I can challenge and confront these stereotypes and address the hierarchical system that they’re built upon. Most photo practice can be roughly looked at in terms of gender, where women and men view the world differently and produce different images to reflect this. By studying and blurring these differences in my own work, I can make new visual decisions to create interesting new images.