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The Art of Photography: Seizing the Moment Flying Essay

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Making the Things Fall into Place

Being the art that disarms the time itself, depriving it of its destructive influence on people and things, photography rips things and people of their cover, presenting them in the way they are, with no disguise. In spite of all the attempts to camouflage the feelings of the people in the focus of the camera, a photographer will inevitably picture their real emotions and feelings.

Photography makes the gap between the opposites even wider, sharpening the problems and detecting the conflicts between the genders in a very Sherlock-Holmes way. Photography is a weapon of stereotyping of all kinds, the gender one as well. As Guimond marked, speaking of Allan Arbus, a prominent American photographer,

Later, in the mid-19060s when she was doing some free-lance commercial photography for Harper’s Bazaar, Arbus did a series of portraits of married couples (“Fashion Independence on Marriage”), which contained all the controversial gender stereotypes – the wives touch, cling and snuggle against the husbands; and the men stare boldly straight at the camera, whereas the women tilt their heads submissively.[1]

Of course, whether Arbus depicted the situation as it was or there was some air of personal experience in this work, the results spoke for themselves. In fact, the artist showed that photos can depict stereotypical ideas better than anything else.

It has been proved that a picture, which was in fact a frozen motion, could be more convincing and argumentative than a train-long debate. Being a revolution in the art of photography, this bold experiment initiated the series of others, where the social conflicts, among them the aspect of gender and gender stereotypes was paid a great deal of attention to.

Photography and the Concept of Gender

As it has been proved already, photographs make the art of creating the models of people’s social behavior, especially the one concerning the gender gap, and exposing the most common prejudice and social phenomena to the mankind. Yet the boldness which the photographs depicted the gender stereotypes with stirred not only indignation, but also meditations concerning various social roles of a man and a woman in the then society. The ideas began shifting, and the gap between the two genders started narrowing, since the most important problems have been viewed already. Thus, the only thing which people were left with was to discuss these sore spots.

There was no doubt that the photographers who made the first steps towards the gender problems foresaw the on-coming gender revolution. The firmness of social roles of a man and a woman was doubted, which could not but raise protests from the orthodox part of the society and get the encouragement from the people with more progressive viewpoints.

The vividness of the gender stereotypes which the art of photography disclosed was incredible, because of the new ideas of gender gap and the gender prejudices which the boldest photographers dared to take picture of. Touching upon the racial issue later on, the photographs were still about the relationship between the genders and the settled gender roles.

With both whites and blacks fostering the vogue for the primitive, the movement could not be stopped. Its popularity allowed for the marketability of black artists and their creative contributions to the American culture. Conversely, primitivism worked to reinforce and perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes and to foster belief in white superiority.[2]

Exposing the sharpest conflicts to the public without a slightest air of hesitation, photographers thus both implanted the gender stereotypes deeper into the people’s subconsciousness and at the same time made people shake the dust of prejudice off their minds. The pictures taken to view men’s superiority, women’s submissiveness, the negative features of both were of a therapy effect to the society. As a matter of fact, these caricatures made people laugh, and laughter was of somewhat medical effect to the people’s souls and minds.

One of the most impressive works in this field, the pictures by Sherman, a photographer who depicted the existing gender conflicts and gender stereotypes in a most explicit an open way, was a mixture of a postmodernist world and the problems of gender, with a little tint of anxiety all over them. As Sutton emphasized, the issue of the conflict was made even more topical as it was viewed through the prism of postmodernism:

Even when the photographs did not appear to reference particularly stable identity types, they still reflected the very same fluidity of identity as a postmodern anxiety. This is why, from the beginning, they have had an unrivaled position in discourses of identity and representation.[3]

It is doubtless that the art of photography makes the unsteady time freeze in an artistic pose which reflects the controversies of the human nature, the gender conflicts in particular. The crisis in the relationships between a man and a woman led to the crisis in the arts, which in its turn triggered the postmodern crisis itself, as the abovementioned Sutton noticed:

Mulvey rightly suggests that it is feminism’s investigation of the fluidity and interchangeability of gender stereotypes – encouraged by analysis of Sherman’s work – that partly led to the recognition of such fluidity in identity by postmodernism in general.[4]

This is a specific response to the ideas of fluidity in the art of photography which were introduced by Stephen Bull. Exploring the issue of fluidity in the art of photography, he suggested that the replicated roles of a man and a woman in the society are not the biological necessity but the result of the social influence.

According to Sutton, society imposes certain model of behavior on a man and a woman, while photography is just another means to reveal the hypocritical standards and shift to a more civilized way of tackling the gender conflict:

It is in this culture that male and female roles are replicated. The important point here for Butler is that although seen as connected to biological differences, gender roles are not ‘natural’ and fixed, but ‘cultural’ and fluid. In other words, gender roles can be changed.[5]

Thus, Bull considers art in its every single manifestation a support for the ideas which differentiate the man’s role in society from the one’s of a woman. Bull makes it clear that the art of photography is a specific means of cultural repetition of gender roles.

According to Bull, photographers with their traditional approach to the idea of gender are merely another means of gender stereotyping and consolidation of the typical image of a man and a woman in people’s subconsciousness. However, Bull also marks that with help of photography the idea of gender roles can be changed if a specific approach is taken:

Butler argues that these changes are usually prevented be the cultural repetition of traditional gender stereotypes ‘performed’ through images and texts, but that it is also possible to transgress these by ‘acting against the grain’.[6]

There was another problem which concerned the issue of morality. People could not orient themselves in the labyrinth of the new art; they needed some landmarks which could draw the line between the moral and the immoral in the art of photography. Since there were more than a hundred ways to depict gender conflicts, gender gap and gender stereotyping, people were wondering how far photography and photographers can go to show the boiling social conflict.

In spite of the fact that photography did rip the mankind of its illusions about the gender conflict being settled, photographers themselves did not suggest any solutions, not helping to tackle the problematic issues, but even making them ever deeper. Like any art, the art of photography could only observe and create, while people demanded some actions.

Perpetuation Which Takes a Moment

The mocking manner in which photography can enter one’s life and leave a mark on someone’s face is incredible. However, this was the problem which people did not realize. Being a mere mark on people’s lives, a photograph could not act, but only depict the objects and people around.

Proving to be a means to perpetuate gender conflict and the differences between the world pictures of both genders, a picture has long been a screen behind which stereotypical ideas were hiding from the progressive viewpoints. Like any other means for people to cling to their old prejudice to, this barricade was finally demolished as well.

Following the pace of the history, one can find out that the art of photography, ossifying people, events and ideas, was pushing the mankind to the technical progress yet making people regressive in terms of the gender relationships.

According to the historical evidence, the gender stereotypes in the art of photography were soon intertwined with other ideas which kept the former in the background. As Marien noted, speaking about the famous photographer and image-maker of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman, after the photographer taking the self-image out of her pictures:

Despite these changes, Sherman’s interest remained constant through the last decades of the twentieth century, as she continued to expose not only the shallowness of gender stereotyping but also the titillating pleasure of looking.[7]

Because of the fact that photograph can hardly express the one and only idea and there are always two or more implications even in a picture of an apple, ideas have to merge in a photo.

Thus, gender stereotypes would mix with the racial problems, and the racial issues will be replaced by political issues. Nevertheless, the authors of the gender stereotyping perpetuation manage to keep the main conflict in the focus of the camera and create a surreal image of men and women playing the part prescribed for them by the centuries of traditions and customs.

Twisting the focus of the camera, photographers can make it reveal hidden conflicts and suggest people some ideas concerning the situation. Yet people have to remember that a picture is merely a piece of paper, and that it is the pivot of our consciousness which makes people create stereotypes and break them.

Reference List

Bull, S, Photography, Taylor&Francis, New York, NY, 2009.

Guimond, J, American Photography and the American Dream, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1991.

Marien, M W, Photography: a Cultural History, Laurence King Publishing, London, 2006.

Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2006.

Sutton, D, Photography, Cinema, Memory: the Crystal Image of Time, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009.

Footnotes

  1. Guimond, J, American Photography and the American Dream, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1991, 223
  2. Smalls, The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts. Temple university Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2006, 61
  3. Sutton, D, Photography, Cinema, Memory: the Crystal Image of Time, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009, 140
  4. Sutton, D, Photography, Cinema, Memory: the Crystal Image of Time, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2009, 140
  5. Bull, S, Photography, Taylor&Francis, New York, NY, 2009, 155
  6. Bull, S, Photography, Taylor&Francis, New York, NY, 2009, 155
  7. Marien, M W, Photography: a Cultural History, Laurence King Publishing, London, 2006, p. 436
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