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My internet wandering is over! Please find me at madeleinecorcoran.com where you can see my projects and most up to date blog.

Madeleine Corcoran, London College of Fashion backstage

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Ladies, you’re pretty artsy and creative, right? [Cross post]

Image

Ooh the ‘Lady Carefree Elite’ – wait, isn’t that a brand of tampon?

PIX is a photography lifestyle magazine for women. If you love to snap photos, chances are you’re pretty creative and artsy about the rest of your world too. It’s important to you that your business is modern and cool, you’ve always got an eye out for hip clothing and accessories, and looking professional and shooting well are top priorities.  If this sounds like you, PIX is here to help! In each issue you’ll find tips, ideas, products and trend reports for women in photography. PIX also includes features, beauty and fashion tips and much more!”

Whoa, PIX, let me stop you right there.

So, this little promotion landed in my friend’s inbox recently and not surprisingly she found it pretty laughable. I guess if you’re signed up to the same newsletters as her, you received it too. But here’s why I’m bothering with this little bit of inbox fluff: it’s stereotyping language and outlooks like the above that put female photographers into a limiting and uncomfortable little box, and also reinforce the divide between male and female photographers in ways that are limiting to us all.

Let’s break it down:

First off, this is a ‘lifesyle’ magazine so it has to be considered within the context of encouraging the reader to buy products in order to imitate advertised styles. Of course, these kind of publications exist for photographers already – churning out hundreds of glossy images of state of the art lenses, camera bags and lighting sets for the gadget-heads to fawn over.

Full disclosure here: I’m already pretty uncomfortable with this fetishisation of camera equipment. It strikes me as Capitalist society’s way of turning you into a consumer of what you enjoy rather than an author, artist or creator. Consumers are quiet, lazy and easily placated – all they need is a little expendable income for the next lens and they won’t trouble you by creating challenging images. Artists, authors and creators are troublesome – they question things, they make something new, by their very nature they don’t fully buy into the consumerist deal, indeed, they keep undermining it. Creators reserve the right to become outraged and make a noise about it, consumers have already signed on the dotted line. The lusting over equipment, beyond having a camera that does the job you want it to, is a distraction from the real issue: What are your images trying to say?

The female sex has always been bombarded with the idea of accessorisation. Strip away the jolly pictures of girls clutching handbags and women brandishing diamonds, and you tap into an undercurrent that says: “Without objects you are not a whole woman, accessorise yourself to be adequate.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I like beautiful things too, I even go to the shop and buy them sometimes. I’m not trying to claim I’ve totally edged myself out of this consumerist contract, but what I am saying is, I value my life, my actions and the things I create by a different standard than material accessorises.

So here is PIX –  an advertisers’ dream of an overlap on the Ven diagram of consumerism:

Photographers! You need the latest equipment to become professional! You will never create beautiful and successful images without the new ultra-hard-wearing-frost-proof-flood-proof-satchel-style-camera-bag-in-azure. You are literally a failure without it!

+

Women! You need the latest make-up/handbag/shoes/dress/hairstyle etc. etc. in order to be a REAL woman. How will the world recognise your wonderful womanhood if you do not wear the latest super-gloss-high-cream-age-defying-lipstick-in-plum? You are practically an ugly man/ ‘lesbian’ without it and no person (read ‘man’) will ever love you!

= PIX

They’ve walked a tough tightrope to anchor these two bastions of self-loathing inducing advertising together, but they’ve just about done it.

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Hence, PIX, reckons, my fellow photographing females, that you’re pretty ‘artsy’. Oh how CUTE. I love this use of the diminutive. Because we all know that women – or should I say ‘girls’? – are just so adorably artsy sometimes. You know, with those big cameras in their little hands. Girls aren’t artists after all, that would be far too grown-up and important, they’re ‘artsy’ and creative. To this end, Pix recommends you build a lamp shade out of cupcake papers…

Er, what? Dear professional photographers, is a cupcake paper lantern a priority for you? No, no it isn’t. You might enjoy crafts, there is nothing wrong with that at all, but I resent the implication that because I am a) female and b) a photographer I have everything in common with all the other female photographers and that we all like making paper lanterns – because photography and crafts are so totally the same thing. After all, in both cases all we are really doing is fiddling around with pretty things to make more pretty things.

On this note, PIX also has a feature on lens ‘skins’ for the professional female photographer who wants to look chic on a shoot. These lens covers seems to be mostly based around animal print – Omg! you could coordinate with your shoes! Look no further, they also have a spread on flat shoes for when you’re on the job. These shoes all look very nice but none of them look like they would be suitable for running whilst in a warzone, or even offer adequate arch support.

There is nothing wrong with colour coordination ladies and gentlemen, what I am trying to get at is that I find it insulting that a magazine that claims to be the first magazine for female photographers is suggesting that a professional photographer’s priority is pretty accessories simply because she identifies as a woman. This magazine does not serve womanhood and it does not serve the photographic profession. PIX says women ‘love to snap’ photos. Is that really what we are doing – just snapping away, frivolously, like a child cramming fairy cakes into her mouth at a Birthday party? (1) Is this the extent of women’s contribution to Photography: Some snaps and some well-coordinated lenses? No it’s not. We let this lazy stuff wash over us because there is just so much of it, but we shouldn’t and we certainly shouldn’t imbibe it.

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These stereotypes run deeper in more subtle ways: PIX also features a piece on photographing babies. There is nothing ignoble about photographing babies, and it strikes me as a skilful ability to possess. However, I question whether a male identifying photography magazine would run such a piece, and therefore I think it should make us question the ways in which we categorise male and female photographers and the qualities of male and female photography. I’ve often heard it casually banded around that women photographers have an advantage because they are able to become more intimate with their subjects and gain their trust, especially if those subjects are children. This may be true on some level but I think it should be recognised that this truth is born of a cultural set of values that, whilst they seem to flatter women, also limit them, and limit men. Why shouldn’t a man photograph children well? Why do we indulge in the belief that he will find it more awkward and be more easily suspect than a woman?

The implied other side of this coin is that women will find it harder to deal with other forms of photography – typically, the real ‘hard’ stuff of war photography – just by the fact of our gender. Once again, I want it to be clear that I am not making value judgements: I do not believe war photography to be somehow more real or more serious than images of families, but I do recognise that in many professional circles, such a value judgement is made and that female photographers frequently fall down on the wrong side of it. The implication is: Yes, you can probably do the nice, ‘intimate’ stuff a bit better, but you can’t really play with the Big Boys out on the battlefield or in the refugee zone. I think the primacy of the war photographer is well over blown, but I’ll be damned if I allow anyone’s gender to restrict them from access to that role and the respect they would receive for it.  Equally, it’s sad that it is repeatedly suggested that men somehow have a distance from children or from intimate stories and this massively undervalues the many intimate and tender stories male photographers have produced.

PIX is a sadly missed opportunity because I would love to see a magazine that discussed issues of gender in relation to photographic practice and highlighted the fact that women are still under-represented in many fields of photography, and looked for a way to even that score. Whilst they’re there, they could also deconstruct some of the prejudices surrounding the male photographer and the female photographer. They might highlight the way women have played a role in the media of our age and the prejudice these women still face – Arab Spring anyone? Perhaps they could even make sure to expand their focus beyond heteronormtivity – radical, I know. Perhaps they could have the scope to include both family focused pieces and a Global outlook.

With Pix magazine I guess what we see is the Yin to the Yang of Macho War Photographer: she’s the family minded, well accessorised, small business running, working mum. She’s good at making clients feel relaxed and matching her handbags to her shoes. Just as Mr. out-in-the-field-with-the-massive-lenses-and-the-Big-Guns is a sad stereotype for male photographers to follow, so too is PIX’s Female Photographer a limiting role. Surely there should be more to being a photographer then decorated lenses – whether that decoration consist of zebra stripes or camouflage print?

This post originally published on the Duckrabbit Blog 

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See Jezebel’s lowdown on PIX here.

(1)     Fairy cakes, or ‘cupcakes’ as they have become to be known, are a whole other crap-cluster of repressed sexualities and gendered consumerism and probably indicate some underlying social-psychic brain rot. Good thoughts on that here.

Abject Poverty / Object Poverty

Presenting poverty is difficult, as is presenting suffering in general. To expose someone to the lens, and then to the wider world, in a moment of struggle or pain or fear, must be justified by some purpose, some greater act of goodness. Otherwise it is simply a kind of voyeurism – a static piece of rubber-necking. I think this is a well-recognised problem that all photojournalist with any claim to integrity must struggle with – so I don’t expect to break any ground by bringing it up right here. No, this piece is simply to offer a neat little example – a coincidental chain of images – which made me think about the problems of showing poverty and which also throws up some other knotty little issues that turn out to be pretty big fat major issues that run within the practise and concept of documentary photography.

Don McCullin, Jean, Whitechapel, London, c 1980

Last week I went to see Don McCullin’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It’s a muted and interesting display occupying only one room (I’m told the McCullin exhibit at the Imperial War Museum is more impressive). I found myself struggling with McCullin’s images of homeless people and remarked to my friends that I believed these portraits had to be viewed with some nod towards historical context. By this I meant that I suspected these portraits were something more remarkable at the time of their production (60s – 80s) than in 2012. To be clear, I mean the fact of their existence was more remarkable, rather than the aesthetic of the image. The aesthetic is still incredible: eyes stare or defer, skin is rendered in smoky greys, coats and shadows are as heavy and black as charcoal on a canvas. But treating the dispossessed with a painter’s reverence must’ve been a bigger statement then than it might be now. I’m not saying it’s right that social issues should be reduced to fighting out whether or not their image has become cliché – but I am saying that it does, sadly, happen.  The fact that a pressing social issue can become ‘cliché’ is a disturbing problem and one which artists interested in social change must inevitably grapple with and seek out new strategies against.

Don McCullin, Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1969

I think the cliché is probably born of three sets of circumstance: that of the socially concerned photographer, that of the homeless person, and the bitter fact that homelessness is a problem that is ongoing and needs ever renewed address. The photographer’s desire to deal with the issues of poverty in his/her vicinity coupled with the accessibility of people who have nowhere else to go and who therefore continually offer their image, seems to make it quite likely that ‘the homeless’ will become a subject for the concerned photographer. Throw in the draw of some loose change being handed over in return for a snap and the potential for the image to be made is even greater. It is the economic imbalance, the fact that one person has private space and can protect his/her visibility and that the other has very limited access to private space and protection of his/her visibility, that worries me and makes me think that deeper problems might sometimes underlie the small social event of photographer photographing homeless person.

The other thing that made me uncomfortable was that these photos made feel useless. I did not understand why I was being asked to consume them as objects on a gallery wall. Were these art objects or a campaign? Both? Or maybe, evidence of a past campaign that now takes on the form of art? Or perhaps, evidence of McCullin himself, of his actions within the world, of his type of photography? The narrative these pictures propose are troubling to me – am I learning about McCullin (who afterall, is the subject of the exhibition), am I learning about these homeless people (who may be long dead, or totally altered from the image on the wall), am I learning about homelessness in general?  In any case, what can I hope to achieve as witness to their suffering? Suffering which is at least thirty years out of date. It’s a funny bind because the fact that these images figure a past makes me think that this suffering is ancient and unchangeable. This encourages one to turn the images into an art object, a piece of imagery. But that suffering is still there, however old, and to dislocate the art of the image from the suffering of the person shown seems usurious and inhumane.  Indeed it comes down to this: Am I witnessing a social problem or am I consuming an image? And how reconcilable are these two cases?

All these questions and feelings resurfaced again a few days later when I saw this spread in The Guardian’s Weekend Magazine (of the 21st of January):

A number of things struck me – first of all the attractiveness of the grid layout and the density of portraits across the two pages. I find this layout intriguing, it makes me want to study each image and draw comparisons between them.  The highly detailed and dense quality of each image is interesting as well, if a bit over-glossed – creases, eyelashes and scratches are all rendered with a metallic precision.  Then, I noticed that there were no captions, no stories for any or each of these faces. At first this intrigued me even more – I began to ask questions of the faces, I began to worry about their histories, I began to notice the difference between them. But then I also began to wonder where the stories were and whether it was fair to present these faces, especially in such an aesthetically pleasing way, if the complex issues that lay behind each person’s predicament were excluded.

On one hand, I welcomed this as a new strategy: it got me interested; it got me asking myself questions. On the other hand that line of questioning ended in me wondering what the purpose or intended effect of putting these images in a weekend magazine without their stories was. There is a hint of idealisation about it, of romantic storytelling: “…they are also beautiful. A woman with exquisite cheekbones; an elderly man who resembles a medieval sage…”. I find too much romanticism unhelpful to social causes.  Once we enter a romantic narrative we also broach the reasons and feelings that motivate us to continue writing the narrative.  It was this sentence especially that I found most excluding and difficult: “…their weathered skin and intense gazes tell of the hardship of life on the streets perhaps better than the subjects could themselves.”. The face becomes a visual object to tell a tale, rather than the first presentation of a whole and complex human being with a whole and complex story. I think these faces do tell us a lot, but is it enough for a project that seeks to develop an intimacy with homeless people and to break down the everyday barriers that allow us to walk on by, to then reduce that story only to the face? I might be closer to the face of another than I have been before, but I’m also being asked to take that image, and that person, at ‘face-value’ and this erects a new kind of barrier.

Coda

My thoughts here were very much developed in response to The Guardian’s presentation of the images. It is interesting to see Time’s presentation of the same images on their LightBox site: http://lightbox.time.com/2012/01/26/portraits-of-the-homeless-by-lee-jeffries/#1

In fact, on LightBox, some of my worries and questions were answered. The explanation of Jeffries’ practice and the fact that he has used his work to raise funds for the homeless helps to make the status of these images a bit more clear. Also, the photographs on LightBox have captions – only location and date – but it makes a big difference to the meaning of the image. It makes this person locatable and historical thereby giving them a context which illustrates their situation in social terms. Jeffries says: “I’m stepping into their world. Everyone else walks by like the homeless are invisible. I’m stepping through the fear, in the hope that people will realize these people are just like me and you.” Of course, art cannot always be measured by what the artist claims it to be, however this does reaffirm my initial feeling towards the images – that they attempt a kind of intimacy that subverts the non-homeless person’s average interaction with the homeless person.

Well, this goes to show how much an editorial can construct, construe and influence meaning.

This piece now on the Duckrabbit blog here.