The Gaze Maze

Informing Contexts

Week 5 Reflections, MA Falmouth University

The ethics of looking at and making images is complex and needs to be questioned and, when those questions are answered, clarity begins to form over the responsibility one has behind the camera and as the partaker of imagery.

The eye is recognised as the most important receptor for human existence.  We glimpse, we gaze continuously, we may feel objective but we are actually applying our sensibilities and sensitivities to imagery.  It is impossible to calibrate the viewer’s response to an image.  A norm may simply be just that because if has been repeatedly shown that way; it may be another’s taboo. 

We can apply the gaze to the body and land and challenge or reinforce centuries of formed anticipations of what is the commodification of both human and earth.


The brain seeks out what we desire, we thus default to the image world to draw out our executions.  The range arcs from deeper knowledge over to sexual gratification.  We search out and we have a cornucopia of opportunities to stream and become awash with what we want.  “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets”. Andy Warhol cited this dilemma – between what we see and what we actually have and touch –  in his 1975 memoir The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again).

Jacques Lacan specifically in the 1949 paper p.502, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ defined this stage in personal growth and development as the formation of identity – how do I see myself and how do others see me.  This I surmise is the ‘Adman’s’ dream – as it plays on our view of the world, the land, ourselves and others.  Berger (1972 Chapter 7, p129 Ways of Seeing) defines publicity  as playing constantly on the desire to be seen to be how we want ourselves to be perceived.  We gaze so that we can be gazed upon.  Society is now able to photograph itself for itself and for transmission to others privately and even broadcast globally.  The selfie stick has become a most private form of the mirror…  The ethics of sharing such private captures becomes a legally muddy field to wade through.

Training thoughts away from self reflection to that of the ‘idealised’ myths of perfection that are prevalent in the purveying of both female and male imagery in stills, television and movies.  The intriguing, provocative visual narrative created by Paul M Smith (series This is not Pornography, 2001) meshes his own body into those of female models to defy reality in some instances and call into question the acts of viewer, partaker and in fact photographer.  He invests his efforts in post-production to blend and often make androgynous the forms which look familiar, disturbing and confusing. There is present a form of self-questioning about one’s response as the viewer.  Work such as this serves to aid the use of flesh, nudity, portrayal and honesty in imagery.  Once again the image is a ‘farmed’ creation and not a reality.  Smith is forming and performing a ‘voyeur on voyeur’ series; inserting the longing male gaze within his images and inviting the gaze to ensue for the audience.

With some unease one reads about Merry Alpern’s ‘sheer compulsion’ in her time consuming and patient project ‘Dirty Windows’ 1995, capturing a Manhattan sex club. I challenge my unease in this case as perhaps I was revealing my own prejudice; had I heard it had been a male photographer I would have thought it more inevitable.  Unease aside, what photographers record is what they see and they see what can be seen and capture it.


Land could not escape the artist’s brush stroke and thus landscape became the romanticised view beyond cities for those who were not able to leave the industrial smoke to see the land beyond. Access to the wilds of the rural ‘idyll’ along with portable camera technology allowed the imagery to be portrayed with greater ease and images reproduced could be printed and conveyed into the household. 

Views of soft rounded forms, hard rugged cliff faces and often great scale, view, composition and frame conveyed something that could be accessed, conquered and grasped.  The gaze of the photographer provided a ‘real’ opportunity to drive or catch a train and breath the air that blew through these views.  The technology of the industrial revolution made roads to avoid the mud and awkwardness of rural navigation. John Barrell, John Taylor and others write about the anthropomorphising of landscape and the class system that is photographed.  Though many texts convey the heterosexual gaze upon feminine translation of landscape views, too often the homosexual gaze is neglected but can be recognised if the gaze through those eyes is captured. Malcolm Andrews recognises the dominance of the church and Biblical allegory that are often conveyed in art and photography; that subliminal, repetitive sunday-school imagination pumped into the young minds that thus impacts upon the taking and reading of rugged landscapes (Andrews M. 1999. Landscape and Western Art. Oxford).

Deborah Bright questions our reading and application of values and norms of traditional landscape photography “concern what ideologies landscape photographs perpetuate; in whose interests they were conceived; why we still desire to make and consume them; and why the art of landscape photography remains so singularly identified with a masculine eye?”  She questions why curatorial tradition is selective in the masculine mode. Bright states that the “repressed and unexpressed among the mythical landscapes that commercial photography and Hollywood cinema has served so well is a landscape that cannot be apprehended strictly in terms of geographical or aesthetic categories….a landscape whose organisation is in the interests of authoritative institutions is made explicit”. She is conscious of the curated hanging of large scale landscapes framed and hung in neutral spaces for the admiration of gallery owners.  She seeks a ‘cogent environmentalist consciousness” in image making of landscape. She cites John Pfahl’s work creating ‘beautiful’ pictures of nuclear plants. The “ironic dissonance” that Pfahl sets up is questioned as he includes hydroelectric plants in his oeuvre which carry less strength in the argument of destruction and risk and she suspects a “marketing strategy” between the photographer and gallery owner.  Bright goes on to avoid the counterpoint argument against misogyny, that is, we simply need more female artists expressing their visual views; instead she seeks out Denise Scott-Brown (with Robert Venturi. 1972 Learning from Las Vegas) and J.B Jackson who, along with Kevin Lynch (1960 Image of the City) gather up the city as a lexicon of coded signals which can be inclusive in the very broadest sense and create better places.  The argument being that the organisation and imagery of landscape both urban and rural can be more neutral, accessible and inclusive. Bright D. 1985. Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men.

In the twenty first century I suspect landscapes – both urban and rural will be mapped 3 dimensionally for robotic interaction, then the gender stereotyping will be less visually prevalent (though it may depend on the prejudice and sensibilities of the programmers). Drones surveying, enforcing, delivering and pleasure seeking will create a relief map of our world with its amalgam of imagery.  The gaze perhaps will become the eye of the flying bird and its rotors, seeing and following those human creatures crawling like ants across the terrain of territory, body and land. As an imaginary landscape it is worth seeking out Liam Young’s drone-based art installations.   and