The transparency of photography and female iconography: «Picture for women» by Jeff Wall | EVI PAPADOPOULOU

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The transparency of photography was first pointed out in an article by Clement Greenberg published in an Edward Weston’s exhibition catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To the American critic and fervent of abstract expressionism, transparency defines itself in two levels: the photographic medium acts as a mirror, which captures reality, in the most reliable way, without flaws and distortions and the mechanical procedure leaves no traces on the final result[1]. According to Greenberg, the self-referential character of photography constitutes a common ground to the modernism of post war American painting.

However, does the idol reflected in the mirror reveal always its real self? This is what concerns contemporary photographers who deal with appropriations of famous paintings. To them, the supposed transparency of the photographic registration can act as a medium of revelation of the conventions of the paintings of the past as well as of the contemporary visual culture. Giving a material dimension to photography, thus exposing to the public the technical procedure and the terms of its production, they reveal in an indirect way the social aspect of the (art)works forming our pictorial imagery.

Contemporary photographers working on remakes of famous artworks are interested in the structure of the compositional space, the role of the perspective, the place of the human body in the composition and its correct anatomic representation. The fact that the representation of the human figure is not innocent, but consists of a sequence of social structures has already preoccupied art historians and theoreticians. Erwin Panofsky in 1927 pointed out the symbolic dimension of perspective in his essay «Perspective as a symbolic form». According to the German art historian, the perspective in Renaissance apart from being a scientific medium, which contributes to the objective representation of space, it also has a symbolic dimension, as it arranges the structure of a painting and expresses the intellectual values at that time[2]. Moreover, the perspective of the Renaissance art determined the European pictorial tradition and set the basis for the visual conventions regarding the viewing of an artwork and of the whole world[3].

In the 1970s this approach was very popular among theoreticians belonging to the feminist movement. John Berger’s essay «Ways of seeing» (1972) and Laura Mulvey’s essay «Visual pleasure and narrative cinema» (1975), which drew on writings of Freud and Lacan[4], became a point of reference for a re-examination of the way we look and form the visual production diachronically. What mainly preoccupied the aforementioned theoreticians was the gendered way of seeing and representing, primarily the female body. The representation of the female body became the main pictorial source for contemporary artists, who wanted to reveal the politics of power in a pictorial and social level. Thus, photography’s transparency was not as clear as Greenberg supposed in 1946, but involved a nexus of social relations, similar to those found in the paintings of past.

Jeff Wall points out in various ways photography’s transparency in his «Picture for Women» (1979), which clearly echoes Édouard Manet’s «Un bar aux Folies Bergère» (1881-2). The main characters of the photographic composition were the artist and his wife, standing in a contemporary remake of Manet’s bar. Wall is captured ready to activate the button in order to record the photography for which poses his wife. The point where the photographic camera is placed coincides with the center of a perspectively arranged scene. Or better to say, with its reflection, as it becomes clear that photography represents the scene’s reflection in a mirror[5].

The transparency of the mirror reveals three moments associated with photography[6]: the moment of capturing the scene, when activating the camera’s button, the moment of structuring the image, when choosing the appropriate décor and the persons incarnating each time the characters of the pictorial plot and finally the moment of the “reading”, virtually of the critic, that photography exercises to the famous painting. In such a way, Jeff Wall makes his comment regarding the imposition of the male gaze to the formation of the female iconography in the painting of the past and in the posterior visual culture[7].

Thus, the title of the photography «Picture for women» could be explained, as an allusion to the way the female image was constructed in relation to the control exercised by the media, the reproduction assured by photography and the commercial dimension of contemporary images. In addition, the way the photography is exhibited contributes to this impression. It is placed in a transparent light box, a reference to Greenberg’s concept and to the advertising placards dominating the streets of contemporary city landscapes.

The female body in modern and contemporary visual culture acted as the transparent surface, which mirrored the social tissue and the relations of power contributing to its representation and reception. Photography, being an integral part of the mass media, promotes the conventions tied with female iconography. Contemporary artists like Jeff Wall, aimed to distance his work from the visual products of the mass culture and he tried to unveil the mechanisms of formation of an image, provoking at the same time the critical disposition of the viewer toward similar stimuli inundating his/hers everyday vision.

[1] David Campany (Εd.), Art and photography, Phaidon Press Limited, London 2003, p.222.
[2] Marina Lambraki Plaka, Treatises on painting Alberti and Leonardo, Vikelaia Public Library, Irakleio 1988, p.87.
[3] Marina Lambraki Plaka, p.89.
[4] David Campany, p.37.
[5] Τhierry De Duve, Jeff Wall, Phaidon, New Haven&London 2002,p.30-1 and Marie-Laure Bernadac, Histoires de l’œil, « Fémininmasculin: le sexe de l’art », Gallimard- Electa : Éditions du centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1995,p.165.
[6] Yiorgos Katsagelos, Gesture in photography: related subject matters of space and action, Moresopoulos Editions, Athens 1993, p.58
[7] Tony Godfrey, Conceptual art, Phaidon Press Limited, London 1998, p.335.