Blindly Navigating Feminism

I wanted to write about something that has been niggling me for a while; a niggle given greater weight by the events of 2017 and the reactions that continue in 2018. What’s more, because this is a personal cause for rumination I run the risk of becoming self-indulgent. Bear with me if that’s the case, but be at liberty to share your thoughts and feedback.  This ordinary middle aged man is not alone in being vexed by this; the open letter signed by French women this week, and the reaction to them in the media is a case in point.

I might have been tempted to begin with “As the father of daughters…” but I’m aware that this is seen by some in the feminist movement as indicative of a man claiming understanding of something he can never have experienced. I’m not. I share the fact as context for the fact that it’s of great importance to me that women should be able to make their way in the world without fear of sexual harassment, inequality of treatment or worse.

So I have a personal interest in feminism, and yet I suspect that for many I’m part of the problem because I love photographing women, and by its very nature photography objectifies. What’s more I enjoy the intimate process of retouching that reveals every “blemish” or “imperfection”, but straight away I’m in trouble because the language we use implies that women have to be perfect. And yet how is the retoning of a patch of blotchy skin any different from applying make up, which she might choose to do herself?

There are those who would say that that “choice” is driven by a pressure to conform with the expectations of a patriarchal society; and perhaps in that respect the glamorous visage has parallels with the niquab, though the outcomes are poles apart.

So am I objectifying women? Certainly not as sex objects. Titillation isn’t my goal. This blog is called a photogenic world because it features subjects which I consider beautiful, so in that respect I am objectifying women, by including them amongst posts about other objects; lighthouses, gargoyles, lancet arches and men. Yes I photograph men too; recently winning both categories in a ViewBug challenge about senility with two different images of men. I don’t photograph so many but there are many reasons for this.

For a start there are fewer male models operating in my patch; and some of those that are seem more driven by a desire to show their genitalia than because they have anything particularly aesthetic to share. That brings me to a second reason for their being fewer men, and here I am guilty as charged. I’m a straight guy, and therefore find it easier to detect facets of beauty in a woman than a man, and so would struggle to create a great image of a man when I don’t really know what I’m looking for. That said Michel Roux Jr is still top of my portraits wish list! (Ok, jointly with Kristin Scott Thomas).

Which brings me to nude photography; surely an exploitative pursuit where paying photographers push the boundaries of powerless models who perpetuate male fantasies? There are those who think so; remember the fuss over Emma Watson choosing to show a little flesh in Vanity Fair? It’s a contentious issue and one that has divided feminists for some time as this Guardian article demonstrates.

At the heart of this debate is imbalance of power. Tina Brown recently wrote that in all the years she knew Weinstein he never once made advances. As the editor of Vanity Fair she was free of any authority he may have held over his victims.

So let me tell you the story of a photo shoot that attended recently. The studio owner who arranged it and provided tuition on the day made all the decisions about sets, outfits, lighting and time allowed to each photographer. Strict contractual terms were signed for the benefit of photographers and host. They also decided that the model should be topless or naked for most of the looks and how she should pose. So who wielded the power? The studio owner for certain. They just happened to be called Natasha and be the model too.

This self-assured and intelligent woman, who has successfully modelled internationally for many years chose to collaborate in the production of beautiful images. Now if only I could find a male model with the same resources.

And now I’m in danger of becoming flippant.  Again I’m not.  I take the subject seriously, which is why this ordinary man thought it worthwhile in sharing his perspective however insignificant.  It’s all part of the debate.


16 thoughts on “Blindly Navigating Feminism”

  1. welp… you’re kinda lying to yourself in this post about what you’re doing… and the photos aren’t that great otherwise they would be titillating without effort or apology. She’s a beautiful woman, but the facial expressions are dead as well as mostly the same. She doesn’t look comfortable being looked at…
    (Maybe next time play music during the shoot or sumpin’)
    But don’t worry fella, I don’t appreciate Annie Leibovitz’s work either or consider her much of a feminist. so perhaps you’re in good company. She’s a very “objectifying” and manipulative photographer, responsible for controlling women’s images for faaaaar too long. She has a thing with laying all her dames across couches. Even Michelle Obama did it for her. It’s so irritating.
    What you sound like tho, is guilty. And you just need to allow the critique of your work to be what it is. Let the girls, women and feminists of all ilk tell you how you really make them feel. And then you can keep calling it “beauty” without objectification on very shallow terms and without much reflection, if you wanna.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Katherine. You’re right about much of Leibovitz’ work (though she does it to men too to a degree) but isn’t that back to the nature of photography where objectification is inevitable? Whose work would you rate?

      1. Hi Paul, so what’s that mean? Are you saying the “nature of photography…” is inherently anti-feminist then? Here’s a link that has a discussion by cinematographer Arthur Jafa and feminist bell hooks… talking about the “gaze” and who is looking as well as about feminism, sexism, and racism… it’s a long lecture, but well worth the time… if you are interested.

        I like Renee Cox and Lorna Simpson as photographers dealing with the images of black women and men, self portraits, objectification, empowerment and mythos etc.
        btw: I think Catherine Denuvre’s letter is going to get her some name recognition at best, when she’s no longer valued in the industry and that it’s not really dividing women. Millions of women are in support of the #metoo movement. The few 100 french women afraid men will stop flirting are deeply confused.
        Thanks for your reply. U took my crit rather well.

      2. Not per se, I meant that it can’t help but objectify, so I’ll be interested to look at some of the work you’ve recommended; I’m already familiar with Lorna Simpson having been fascinated by her videos in a UK exhibition a few years back. I think Deneuve was bound to attract criticism but not having read the open letter I can’t comment. I did however hear part of an interview with one of the signatories this week who put her case very well; unfortunately I was driving at the time so couldn’t give her my full attention.

        Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts and recommendations. I really appreciate that you’ve done so.

      3. Deneuve’s “case” doesn’t matter Paul. What she needs to do, is simply support the voices of other women whether she participates or not. Her “case” is ridiculous.
        And If you’re going to reference her and the letter in an introduction to your work that uses the body of a black woman to get attention while claiming to “navigate” feminism while merely wanting to express beauty, at best you’re not truly interested in women as human beings and so YES objectification is what photography means to you.
        So that makes your work typical and not extraordinary. Your best intentions don’t reach.
        You are welcome for my feedback. I do hope you try harder in the future to read and learn about feminism. Your daughter will benefit if you actually try.

      4. I should introduce myself properly Paul, my apologies… I painted for Jeff Koons. Maybe you are familiar with his self portrait(s)-with porn star wife-erotica/technicolor fantasies? They are photos. But I painted for him after his divorce… and during a tragedy custody battle…
        I always and still like his work. He is funny. He was at first he was successful in advertising. So He understands the “object” completely.
        And how he meets the “fine art” world and manages to be the highest paid living artist even tho the french poo poo him is funny, and triumphant according to the art-biz. A true Loki among snobs.
        Anyhow… Jeff “gets” or “got” away with it because he’s got a good eye and hires the right artists to manifest his visions in a world that buys it… (who doesn’t love Michael and bubbles in that porcelain rococo?) which means “return on investment”
        Jeff Koons is not “feminist” at all nor does he “navigate” such streams. He’s the art world according to men after Andy Warhol and Picasso gave it the finger and pretended like they didn’t care about it anymore.
        I promise I won’t bother U again.
        Just read Catherine’s letter if U are going to use it to garner attention in a feminist stream… so you can mean what you say in the first place, defend it, and say it in love… then the chips may fall where they do.
        that’s important.

  2. Hi Kate,

    No need for introductions as I discovered much of your bio after your first response; and so your authority and credibility are cast iron. That is why I am both grateful for you time and input. If I can make a small point in my defence… I didn’t mention Catherine’s letter at all in my blog post. I shall nevertheless seek it out, and her more recent apology.

  3. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and questions. It’s important for all of us to be taking part in this conversation so we can learn and move forward. I disagree with the comment above that “merely wanting to express beauty, at best you’re not truly interested in women as human beings.” In my opinion that’s a harsh and unfair judgement. I find it ironic that it comes from someone who commented so thoroughly and negatively on your post and photography while introducing herself through the identity of a famous male painter. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    1. Compass and Camera, I don’t introduce my identity thru males… I spoke about Jeff’s work because I painted for him and while most feminists hate his work and consider him sexist, and the idea of objectifying women (his porn star wife; now ex wife) in some of his work is unmistakable… I liked his work and found him humorous and understand his career in advertising before he shifted to fine art and so how he actually elevates the mundane…
      You can speak to me directly by the way. There’s no reason to be snarky behind my back.
      Paul doesn’t seem to need anyone to defend him either. He didn’t take anything personal. He’s okay with his work. He was considerate of my comments regardless.

      1. you appreciate my thoughts? gosh thanks, but I wasn’t seeking your validation. Your compass is broken and you use a digital camera which means it does all the work for you. best of luck honey.

      2. No Katherine, it means it CAN do all the work for you, just as when we give feedback it can be worthwhile, and it can say as much about the giver as the receiver.

      3. I haven’t found a digital camera I ever liked using. Not to say that I don’t like other people’s work that utilize them or the different ways they can be used.
        Certainly a purity has been lost in the craft.
        Old school cameras were just better is all. The process in the dark room is far more satisfying and sensuous than plugging the camera into a computer and printing them out.
        Giving and receiving feedback is a collision at best and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to work with those whatever they are, however they feel, and however we decide to learn and let go. It’s all worthwhile.
        Thanks for your comment and forum.

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