Bodies on Display

Last year I made a series of photographs of naked or half naked men, posing in front of my camera. I’m used to being a model myself, posing unfavourably dressed in fashion photo shootings, acting as a nude model in drawing class or akwardly in front of a lover’s camera. So, as a practiced poser I’m familiar with the unsettling feeling of being looked at. I take the somehow dialectical tension between my practice as a photographer and as a model to address the topic of looking at bodies.

Being on display

Why do I work as a nude model in drawing class? Well, basically I pose because I’m very good at standing or sitting in the same position for up to 2 hours, like a statue. Or rather, I don’t care doing it. Ironically, I receive much more appreciation for this work than I would get in any other of my jobs. „Thank you, that was beautiful!“, „Thanks for your patience!“, „Well posed!“, „Must have been exhausting for you, standing for such a long time?“ etc. None of my graphic design costumers asks me such questions: „ Must have been exhausting for you, sitting in front of the computer for such a long time?“, though it is actually much more exhausting and pain causing…

While sitting or standing before a drawing class, I would find the time to concentrate and think, or daydream. If I had the choice to work either as a shop assistant, an office worker, or anything else that’s not interesting to me but keeps me occupied for 2 hours – or – sit naked in front of a group of people for the same time, I would always prefer the latter. I wouldn’t so much regret providing 2 hours of my life just for the maintenance of a capitalist labour system.

How can I bear standing in front of a crowd of people staring at my naked body? Am I an exhibitionist? Well, obviously I am, writing this text which reveals so much of my private life…
The simple explanation is that, being part of a generation of decent people aged 30 upward, I don’t completely shave my body hair to the point that I resemble a plucked goose, so, as a matter of fact, I don’t feel completely naked without my clothes. People aren’t able to look inside me. With their eyes they just scan my skin surface. I myself feel detached from my body then, like in meditation. The graphic artists watch my body as inanimate. Like a corpse. And my mind is floating above the scene. This out-of-body-meditation is the most precious thing I enjoy while posing as a model. It gives me time to think. And I must say it’s quite comfortable to get money for sitting and thinking. A few popular contemporary philosophers might earn money that way, only they will not sit naked in front of a crowd of people, but well dressed on Talkshows (which I wouldn’t like doing).

Social Hierarchies

One reason why I find gay male pornography fascinating is that it is a visual field where gender imbalance is of secondary importance. That’s what makes it quite relaxing for me to watch.
Gay porn violates the rules of  how men are supposed to behave according to their gender. It’s visually  inspiring. Maybe as a consequence of the missing gender trouble, race and class biases are more evident in gay pornography. Upper-class consumers fetishize chavs, whites exoticize blacks, Western Europeans orientalize Eastern Europeans.

John Berger once famously stated „Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.“. But Ways of Seeing are not only gender-biased, but also dependent on race and class.
It’s certainly no coincidence that my only male model colleague in drawing class is black.
People who can afford to attend drawing class in their leisure time, are almost exclusively upper class women, who take for granted their status as a subject of seeing, studying the other woman as object. Once, as a model, I was asked to imagine sitting on a beach at some beautiful place, and I said, ok, I imagined being on the beach of the Maledives, to complete the cheesy picture. „Well, in order to travel to the Maledives“, a woman in the group sneered at me, „you will have to pose nude a lot more years from now“.

The instabilities of the male pin-up.

In his 1982 essay „Don’t Look Now“ Richard Dyer reflects upon the strategies of posing and looking through which men may become covert erotic objects. Depictions of men as sexual objects violate the codes of who is looking at whom and how. Dyer asserts that the instabilities of the male Pin-Up results from the antagonism of  being looked at and the model’s effort to deny this.

Some of my photographs of nude models, of which I will only show a few in this context (as I feel they are too precarious to show in the world wide web), illustrate my struggle with these instabilities. The models give view at their bodies, at the same time they hide them, or distract the observer. One man is pointing to a hole in the ceiling, a gesture that adressess penetration. The man hiding behind the tree is also alluding to the phallus. The branch is erectile, but at the same time delicate, removable.

My photographic models stated they liked the setting of the shooting; themselves being naked and not in charge of the situation, exposed to me, the dressed photographer. They experienced  it as liberating.

Disembodiment

Once in a session, a teacher asked the participants if they really think the model necessarily has to pose naked. She argued, well, you are dressed, so why should the model be undressed? And I thought to myself she’s so right, and yes, let’s all undress. This will be less awkward for the students!

As a photographer I realized how odd it is, to take pictures of naked photo models, being dressed oneself. I remember the scene from Antonionis „Blow-up“, but also various scenes of painters in their studios with naked women posing in front of them. Being the one who was looking at a naked body, strange enough, I felt disembodied. I was a camera, just a gaze. The one who could penetrate but not be penetrated myself. A stone butch.

Once I watched pottery course participants form my body out of clay, and noticed they were actually forming their own bodies. A person with a big head would form a figure with a big head, an aged participant’s clay body would get wrinkly etc. I realized I might have done the same when I shot the photographs of my male friends: they are as well self-portraits, non-coherent, transgender self-portraits. During the shooting my mind melted into their bodies. Maybe I shot the pictures to compensate my own fear of being captured.

Some reflections on reversing the gendered gaze

„You don’t want me to believe that this guy got an erection just like that.“, the photography teacher asked suspiciously, when I showed him the photos of my nude models. Of course he, a 50 years old macho art school teacher was doubting my performance as a female pornographer. But as a matter of fact, I was giving my models directives how to pose: „Now could you please try to get a hard on?“ This is a professional assignment, which after all works on porn film sets. Of course it was challenging for both the model and me. But the teacher’s reaction is symptomatic of the maintenance of the code of who is looking at whom, and how. Men are to be represented as stable, impenetrable, in control. An erection is out of control and unsettling – hence a violation of this code.

In western culture there is a deep-rooted cultural taboo of depicting the (heterosexual) male subject as fractured, so that the female body takes his place. In her book „Male Subjectivity at the Margins“, Kaja Silverman focuses on masochism in cinema’s erotic viewing, and assumes a secret identification of males in the audience with the (suffering) female object.

The gender divide within visual culture has not only been challenged through cinema with its possibilities of double identification, but also by a large number of feminist interventions since the 1970ies. Stephanie Rothmann for instance, a 1970’s feminist film director, expanded the limits of „Sexploitation“ cinema. „Sexploitation“ was a subgenre of 1960’s-70’s „Exploitation“ cinema. The B-movies served largely as a vehicle for the exhibition of violence and nudity. Most popular topics were women in prison (WIP), nurses, student communities. As Sexploitation movies were independently produced with a low budget, they offered access to mainstream cinema for a whole generation of young directors. Rothmann chose this sexist, misogynist film genre to visualise feminist theory and practice, and to challenge prevalent norms of representation. She put the everyday life of female characters in the centre of attention, made crucial women’s issues, such as abortion, labour and self-determination, a visible part of the story. As a matter of fact her movies had to display naked women, but she challenged this rule by showing the same amount of naked male bodies as female ones.

Visibility as progress?

Currently the symbolic order of „who is looking at whom and how“ might be dissolving. Advertisments with naked male models, adressed to women, pornfilms by women for (heterosexual) women, girl porn zines with heterosexual indie boy models in trendy bookshops.

Showing my first nude male pictures in class, my photography teacher remarked: „I thought women had an own approach to nudity and eroticism. Now you shoot photos the same way men do. Where’s the progress?“ My first reaction was: „Why do you expect me to take different photos only because I’m a woman? Am I not allowed to once be subject of the gaze, not object?“

Returning to the body on display: Only a decade ago there used to be a difference between male and female bodies in terms of visibility and evidence. The male body displays evidence. One can actually see if a man is turned on. His genital „tells“. That’s what makes it more delicate for men to pose as nude model, and, my assumption, it’s a key to the male obsession with visibility, the urge to see what’s going on, in order to enjoy it. Women’s jouissance used to be less visible. „Hidden“ behind pubic hair, inside the body. That’s what makes it so tough, maybe impossible to show female pleasure in porn (and has instead led to the emphasis on female groaning).

The erasure of pubic hair in visual culture changed this general divide. Shaved men’s bodies are as explicit as usual, but women’s bodies changed enormously. Now they are terribly revealing. They can’t hide anything. Women these days appear to be more naked and unprotected than ever.

Stephanie Rothmann provided a gender-balanced gaze in her movies and made feminist topics visible. But she had to make concessions in order to have her films produced by „Sexploitation“ studios. Maybe we should ask about the concessions woman make today, in everyday life, in order to become gazers.

Pam Cook: 
“Stephanie Rothman, Feminismus und die Kunst des Exploitation-Films“. in: Despineux, Carla / Verena Mund (Hrsg.):
Girls, Gangs, Guns. 
Zwischen Exploitation-Kino und Underground.(Feminale Edition)
Richard Dyer, “Don’t look now”, in: Screen Nr.3-4, Sept/Okt 1982

 

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