Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Photography - In Trouble?

A woman meets relatives in a busy inner city shopping strip. There is banter, hugs, and before they say their goodbyes, a moment to take a couple of photographs. Later, she relaxes over a coffee in a nearby cafe, peeking at the photos on her camera’s liquid crystal display.

The woman, a friend, a respected artist/photographer, writer and academic, had her camera out again several days later when she was approached by the cafe's owner, who said he'd had complaints from four other patrons that she was 'photographing children'  Being a mother herself and a woman of standing, she was naturally upset and confused by what sounded to her as an accusation and was prompted to write this account:

...I was thoroughly shocked, insulted and offended yesterday when a Manager/Owner of a coffee shop in Camberwell said when he saw me with my camera, that if I brought out my camera again then they would not serve me. Apparently (according to him) he'd had four complaints from people saying that they didn't want their children photographed...

We often speak of transformative technology breathlessly, as if it were a desired, rather than lived, experience. Perversely, the lived experience of transformative technologies is often a negative one.

Anxieties about cameras are as old as the manufacture of film. The tools of photography are notionally extensions of natural, embodied phenomena - the camera a prosthetic eye and the photograph an augmentation of memory - that provided the basis for modern visual communication and began to globalize human experience long before the internet.

The incident itself bears the postmodern imprint of internet-speed culture. Something is remarked upon, there are likes, a critical number is reached, a moderator implements a ban - fixed!  In a spasm of autonomic reflex an artifact with no place in the social body is ejected, and the symbolic order of things restored.

The internet changed photography. Analyses of contemporary photographic practice give next to no account of the wirelessly interconnected lenses embedded in and peeking from everyday artifacts. Everywhere you look, they look back. From doors, walls, cars (both inside and outside), telephones, tablets, television screens and more, existing predominantly not to augment human bodies, but to make and store and categorize recordings of them.

Anxieties about surveillance are as ancient as writing itself. We live in times where old fears are magnified at every turn by experiences of photography as command and control. Those experiences are not novel in Western culture. Whole categories of people, for example those with disabilities, suffer forms of surveillance for the whole of life. The experiences are not novel but have become much more common, and have brought the invisible aspects of photography, the composing eye and controlling hand, to prominence in discussions about photography.

Where the photographer was previously almost invisible, a tabula-rasa upon which events imprinted themselves through an indifferent mechanism, now the question of what is not in a photograph is as salient as the question of what is. The composing eye is inexorably linked in culture on the one hand with expressions of power, and on the other with perversions of it. Chris Munroe writes, in Tracker, of Norman Tinsdale famous 1930s photographs of Aboriginal peoples:

Critics suggest the forlorn expressions staring back at the camera tell a tale of a sorrowful people treated like museum exhibits, firstly measured, weighed then forced to pose awkwardly for photos whilst clutching serial numbers. Many have compared the exploitative look of the images to those of police mug shots. A closer examination of the Tindale genealogical photographic collection reveals almost none of his subjects are smiling at the camera or seemingly engaging at all in the compulsory process either. They look resigned and defeated – an enduring reminder of the dark days of mission life and the Protection Board era.

There is a photograph by Bettina Rheims of style icon Kate Moss, bare-breasted, part of Rheims's Modern  Lovers series. In 1989, when the photograph was taken, Moss was 15. News columnist Andrew Bolt poses a problem with Rheims's photograph better than most:

Hear how Moss herself has described the pain that is the reason for laws to protect children from being forced to expose themselves for the sexual pleasure of others.


...This is art, we are told, not pornography. Perfectly fine to stare in a state gallery at a picture not too different from those for which a Melbourne stalker now faces jail. So ogle away, dear art lovers...

 (Herald-Sun, Melbourne, Thursday February 14 2013 pp15)

Despite previous controversies over the works of Bill Henson and Ella Dreyfus, the Art Gallery of NSW said it had ''no issue'' displaying Rheims's photograph of Moss. "We exhibit art, not pornography" the gallery told anyone who asked.

Controversies over photography often inhabit a kind of cultural underbelly and are often conducted at megaphone volume between contesting ivory towers. We have all seen politicians, for example, falling over each other on the way to denounce the latest photographic outrage. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, for instance, denouncing a photographic exhibition he hadn’t seen by an artist he’d previously never heard of discussed in a newspaper column he hadn’t read. While many claim outrage, few talk sense, and I think Chris Munroe and Andrew Bolt succinctly express cultural anxieties about who is  watching and why.

Here then are a couple of peaks, or ivory towers, landmarks in the cratered landscape contemporary photography finds itself labouring over. Cultural tensions over history, power, privacy, nudity, art versus porn - a battle some cast as ultimately between good and evil extremes.

Professor of Aesthetics Elaine Scarry provides a substantial contribution to the controversy, from an academic ivory tower, in On Beauty and Being Just

The political critique of beauty is composed of two parts. The first urges that beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements.


The second argument holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object.

(Elaine Scarry (2006) On Beauty And Being Just, Duckworth, London, pp58)

I'm interested in the first axis of argument because it directly states (but does not solve) a problem often raised. It seems to me that wrong social arrangements are at the heart of Andrew Bolt’s critique of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Beauty has the capacity to wound, not only others but also is itself at risk from the attentions it draws. This line of inquiry goes directly to the heart of anxieties over photographs of children. To paraphrase, innocence is at risk of destruction from the attentions of photography.

Around the same time the Art Gallery of NSW was organising school tours of its new photographic exhibition, Chi Magazine published photographs of a bikini-clad, pregnant, Duchess of Cambridge.

The controversy over those photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge turned upon ideas about public and private moments, privacy versus surveillance. In the photographs themselves the subjects are unaware and unposed, the (anonymous) photographer concealed from their view. The British Royals were reportedly “outraged”, inside their  white-walled palace.

"They are images of such unexceptional normality that there is only limited mention of them on the cover of the magazine," Chi's editor, Alfonso Signorini, told the BBC.

There was, however, many lengthy mentions of the photographs on the covers of other publications. I don't know how many covers above normal circulation a bikini clad aristocrat is good for, but you can bet that every editor who published those photographs worked it out beforehand. Style sells, celebrity sells, and I want to place by example in this geography of mind a market, not in any particular point,  but one which can displace the landscape anywhere, inconveniently, like a blemish upon an already cratered and pockmarked cultural underbelly.

Australian Woman's Day editor Fiona Connolly told News Limited she had no qualms about running the photographs of the Duchess, claiming they were taken by a fellow holiday maker on the Caribbean island of Mustique rather than a paparazzo. "It wasn’t a hard decision to run these photos," she said, and  "we are sensitive to photos that shouldn’t be published, for instance I haven’t laid eyes on the nude photos of Kate."

Nude photographs of the Duchess, also covertly obtained, were published in Grazia Magazine earlier this year. Designer Bella Freud, speaking to Vanity Fair last December about her time as a stylist with a large fashion retailer, describes walls and mood boards pinned with pages torn out of Grazia Magazine of daily sightings of (Kate) Moss. “Whole clothes lines have been made out of one look she put on one morning.” Grazia is typical of many such style, scandal and surveillance pictorial magazines sourcing photographs from long-lensed paparazzi and advertising from the fashion industry. Nudity sells, and what it sells is, paradoxically, apparel.

It seems to me that objections to these photographs are along the lines suggested in Elaine Scarry's second axis of argument, that when we stare at the beautiful Duchess, make her an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the Duchess. The immediately visible destruction is of her privacy, but that is only the beginning. Publication of private moments pose a danger to her moral integrity as well, and none more serious than to the childlike Kate Moss.

Fashion ivory towers Vogue Magazine and Cosmopolitan have traded blows over what Connolly described as sensitivity to photographs of Moss that shouldn't be published.

Corinne Day’s photographs, styled by Cathy Kasterine, of Moss for British Vogue “showing how we all wear our underwear when we’re hanging around the bedroom” as Kasterine put it, were described by competitor Cosmopolitan’s outraged editor as “Hideous and tragic. I believe they can only appeal to the pedophile market. If I had a daughter who looked like that, I would take her to see a doctor”. Moss herself shoots back “Ridiculous. I must have been 19. I’m standing in my underwear. Really controversial.” But Moss has described herself as depressed, and pressured to bear her breasts for the cameras as a sixteen year old in the famous Calvin Klein heroin chic advertisements. New York is a beating heart of uber capitalism, and Moss’s work experience there frames one of the best arguments I know for unionism and the formation of industry associations dedicated to protecting members from moral exploitation.

Photography polarizes opinion at every turn. Worse, dialogue about moral issues are from a distance between the vested interests in ivory towers that sense some worth in their being conducted at megaphone strength. Photography is in trouble. Part of the problem is discourse. At the very moment the camera became ubiquitous, leaders of public opinion, who might be expected to step up and fulfil their self-proclaimed roles as authorities of specification and delineation, are divided and defensive behind the walls of their ivory towers.

Photography is in trouble. At any moment a photographer’s work might be seized, even photographs that previously hung with pride in public spaces, as happened to Bill Henson’s works in recent times. Or a child might be declared a sex offender for life, for posting a naked picture of someone somewhere from their phone, or downloading one to it in an email.

At any moment a woman with a camera in her handbag might become the object of scurrilous whispers and unwelcome attentions. Since one way or another we all carry cameras with us now, the problem can only get worse.

Beginning with this and continuing in the next few few posts on the topic, I'm going to attempt to sketch what I see as marking the boundaries of the problem, and the pathways to them, a geography of mind pursuing the tangled landscape of Civilization itself.  And I'm hoping against hope that it does not follow a trajectory of the photograph from treasured memory to the scene of a crime.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, I placed Robert Rooney's photographs above because I think they can demonstrate how benign these photographs would have appeared in the 1950s and yet may be considered something else entirely in contemporary culture because of their emphasis on young boys.