Male voyeuristic gaze in film still fashion photography

So this is essay for the course that I am doing. Fashion photography on London College of Fashion. I hope you find it interesting and I really would not mind some comments since I see lost of people reads this essay every day… Good? Shit? Interesting?

Male voyeuristic gaze in film still fashion photography

Postmodern society is also called the visual, cinematic age. Television, cinema, billboards, magazines, computers and mobile telephones are bombarding us with different images and messages on every step we make. In this essay I will explore the correlation between film and the male voyeuristic gaze and continue to discuss how photographers adopted the cinematic image in their photographs – film stills. Later I will focus on the male voyeuristic gaze that is strongly linked with film and photography. My main argument is that fashion photographers use film still photography to emphasise the male voyeuristic gaze and intensify the viewer’s interest in the photograph. At the end of the essay we are going to deconstruct the key studies photos of Philip Lorca diCorcia, Glen Luchford and Stephen Klein. Main text used to argue in this essay is an essay from Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This essay is important from several aspects. It deals with the topic of importance of the cinema in our society, of voyeurism in cinema, and also with the male sexual gaze. All these topics are also discussed in my essay. She discovers that the fascination of film is based on our existing social patterns. It is also suggested that in the interweaving of the erotic pleasure in film, a woman has a central role. In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in viewing has been split between the active/male and the passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (Mulvey). This quote confirms my initial thesis about the male gaze but we are also going to look at some theories that oppose this one. Mulvey’s essay was written in 1975 and is too narrow for to assess with presence and many statements have been proven to be wrong since. The essay is based on a limited conception of looking and voyeurism. We are going to take a closer look at her essays as well as the counter arguments to this essay later on. Another important text, dealing with my topic is from the book `Voyeuristic Nation´. In the book Clavert describes different types of voyeurism. Clavert claims that the feeling of superiority or being better off that develops in the process of watching others, who we deem worse than ourselves, may be one of the reasons behind one of the most basic forms of voyeurism today. This is only one of the quotes that explain that women can also be voyeurs and not only men as suggested in Mulley’s essay. To make the whole correlation between these topics about male gaze, voyeurism, film stills and fashion photography, we need to write about how cinematic image started to become part of a photographer´s practice. Therefore, I looked at topics of postmodernism, influence of cinema on our society and the foundations of film still photography. The key texts to research the correlation between cinema and photography as well as film stills are from the book `Photography and Cinema` by Campany as well as `Stillness and Time´ by Green and Lowry. Texts from these two books give the foundation and the background regarding the previous mentioned topics. There is a lack of literature that deal with fashion photography in a more academic manner. Therefore it is a long way around to be able to discus relatively basic topics. The only literature that helped me to link cinematic image, voyeurism and fashion photography is `Fashioning Fiction´ in photography since 1990 by Kismaric and Respini. This book very briefly discusses contemporary fashion photographers that use film stills and snap-shot photography as a part of their photographic practice.

After the time of modernism where each art form was strictly detached from the other art form and we had complete format purity followed the era of postmodernism that emphasizes ideas of pluralism and multicity. Postmodern artist takes inspiration from all kind of medias, blend them together to make a new art work. Appropriation, parody, nostalgic play, and reconfiguration of historical forms and images are just some approaches used by artists whose works are associated with the term postmodernism (Sturken, Cartwright). In postmodern society photography is closely related to film they are both taking references one from another as we are going to see in the continuation of the essay. With the birth and development of the cinema we got also its counterpart, the cinematic society. The films entered into our culture under immediate cloud of suspicion. They had introduced a brand new form of entertainment for the masses an art form for some, a source of profit for a few, a challenge to Christian morality for others, a threat for human eye for some, an educational vehicle for others, this new apparatus fundamentally transformed western society for ever (Denzin). After this transformation once all these images and stories were brought to people they started to be more aware of the surrounding world, the culture and themselves. Once cinema and film were introduced to the people, it became one of the most common ways of entertainment in the western society and had influenced people’s perception of all media. Cinema introduced several complex topics. Some of them are the cinema´s reality, manipulation, truth telling, spectators gaze and voyeurism. For my discussion voyeurism and spectators gaze are the most relevant because they are the most important elements that attract the viewer when they look at fashion imagery. We should take a closer look at these topics and link them with the cinematic imagery and later on also photography. We live in a voyeuristic society where everyone wants to know everything about everybody. The Big Brother Show, Facebook, gossip newspapers, ˝trash˝talk television shows and movies are offering us a chance to take a closer, intimate look at the other people’s life. What is voyeurism? What is so attractive about it? Why does it engage so many people? Voyeurism in psychoanalytic terms is the erotic pleasure in watching without being seen. It is often seen in tandem with exhibitionism, or erotic pleasure of being looked at, and has been historically associated with a masculine spectator. Voyeurism is also used to describe the experience of the cinematic spectators, who in the traditional viewing context of the movie theater can view the images on screen while being hidden themselves (Sturten, Cartwright). If you are sitting by the window and you notice someone in the building nearby undressing, or spot a car on the road that just had a crash, you are going to look without turning away feeling guilty. It is in our nature that we are attracted by things we may not see every day. It is the exact the same situation as watching a film in the cinema. You are observing an unknown and unwilling person in its private world. The next quote from the essay `Visual pleasure and narrative cinema´ confirms my main thesis and shows that there is a direct connection between cinematic image and voyeurism. The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portrays a hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy. Moreover, the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation. For the voyeuristic gaze it is important that we are separated from the observed person psychically, because only in this way we can be a part of absolutely natural behavior. The quote continuous: Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world. Among other things, the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer (Mulvey). Following quotes are important as they prove that voyeurism is not strictly in the male domain, so they offer the opposing view to the one expressed by Mulley’s and mentioned earlier. The power that we glean from watching, in turn, leads to the exposure of their practices and gives us power over their future (Calvert).This can be seen in the situation of police observing the criminals for couple of days and attacking them at the moment they expect it the least and are absolutely unprepared and helpless. While watching other people’s lives we may simply learn about other lifestyles or the decisions that other people make. This kind of knowledge may give us the power and confidence to adopt that lifestyles by ourselves or reject them (Calvert). This example can be connected with Big Brother show that aims at male and female viewers. These two quotes illustrate that Mulley’s essay ignores models of spectatorship and gazing. The main thesis of this essay deals with the question of the voyeurism and gaze in contemporary fashion photography. As we know, women contain the greater part of the viewers of the fashion photographs, especially in magazines, and we know that women place can be equal on both sides of the camera as we are going to see from the example of Cindy Sherman’s photography work later on. That disproves next thesis from the work `Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema´, because photographs of Cindy Sherman deal with more complex issues rather than with a simple pleasure of looking. Women spectators can only have the basic pleasure of scopophilia (pleasure of looking); a pleasure that takes other people as objects of a controlling and curious gaze. Women are cast in the classic role of exhibitionist; they are looked at and displayed as sexual objects (Mulvey). In the last part of my work we are going to focus on film stills that are our main interest. From the time when the moving image was invented there was a clear link between film and photography. With the abandonment of portrait as the main focus of photographic expression, almost all photographs can be thought of as frames of a film, a time – stopped element of a story (Kismaric and Respini). Film language with its complexity, melodrama and glamour is also a popular language in photography. The first film stills could be traced back to the 1950 and were used as a part of a film industry. They were produced for the short photo stories and printed as cheap magazines to accompany a release of a new film. As an example we could use film stills made for film “The White Sheikh” produced by Federico Fellini. He used second class actors to reenact certain parts of the film, who froze on his command, and the photographer took a single photo (Campany). More contemporary film stills were initially used as an art form. Two photographers that were engaged with the idea of performance for the image and performance as an image were Cindy Sherman and Jeff Wall. They were attracted by cinema complexity, its makeup, framing, lighting, costume, location, the gestures and act in film. Cindy Sherman’s self portraits in her Untitled Film Stills series are not meant as neither self portrait nor imitation of some existing film, but they were an answer to Mulvey’s feministic essay. Sherman’s photography indirectly, but powerfully engages these theories of looking and sexual difference by giving us visual text that comment reflectivity on woman’s place on both sides of the camera, as a bearer of the look and as an image. Her compositions reflexively pose questions about spectatorship, identification, the female body image, and the appropriation of the gaze by the woman photographer as self-portrait object (Champany). The cinematic tendency in fashion photography represents what might be called the public aspect of modern photography – the aspect that is in lay on our representation of others. Film still photography is nowadays relatively popular in fashion photography and inspires many well know photographers such as Glen Luchford, Stephen Klein, Philip Lorca diCorcia, Steven Meisel, Eugenio Recuenco, Elen Von Untwerth, Cedric Buchet, David La Chapelle, Annie Liebowitz and others. Of all the cinema genres it is the film noir and its derivates that have proved the most attractive to photographers whether in fashion, advertising or art. Certainly it is easy to think of noir as a set of visual motifs – high key lighting, deep focus, dark shadows, silhouettes, disorienting mes-en-scene, vertiginous angels, and extreme close-ups (Campany). All three photos that I chose to examine have the same feeling, although they were shot by different photographers for different magazines. We can see a clear reference to films of Lynch, Hitchocock, Antonini and Wong Kar Wai. The main feelings on these photos are boredom, passiveness, melancholy and listlessness. Campany states that these are the states that seem appealing to contemporary tableau photographers, not least because the actors or models need not do much. As long as they do little and the photography does a lot, in the form of staging, then a good result can be achieved. We could also say that photos themselves play on overlaps between absorption and theatricality, and between depicted movement and stillness (Kismaric and Respini).


The first photo is by Philip Lorca diCorcia, and is one of the best known contemporary examples of the fusion of self-conscious cinematic technique with photography. His photographs have always been carefully planned images that combine the seductive powers of cinematic and commercial photography with a deeply felt perception of the possibilities of meaning in the prosaic: how the ordinary can become exceptional when framed with the right amount of intelligence and imagination. The fashion photographs of diCorcia are cryptic moments from a narrative that has no beginnings or end. His voyeuristic views often describe people (most often alienated woman) who live in existential despair (Kismaric and Respini). The fact that photograph is taken through the window already adds to the voyeuristic feeling. It gives us a clear reference to the famous voyeuristic film “The Rear Window” by Alfred Hitchcock. The window gives us a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer. It is clearly shown that observed people are not aware of our presence. The scene is interesting because we cannot be sure of what is going on. What is the relation between the people? Who are they looking at? Also the sexual gaze is clearly present since the highest focus is on the half naked woman that is framed by the window.


Sexual gaze is also present on the photograph by Steven Klein. This gaze is two folded. Female model in sexualized pose and sexy outfit is being looked at by the male model as well as the audience. The photograph again does not reveal a clear story of what is happening, so the curiosity makes us try to decode the story behind it. The dynamic (happening) of the films tells us that also when we are looking at the film still photography, there should be some happening before this frame one and also afterwards, revealing the continuation of the story. Are they on the bed terms? Are they about to make love? Is he leaving?


This photograph by Glen Luchford is cinematically lit; the ambient light, sets, props, and the careful framing create a claustrophobic environment that fills the photograph with the mystery of film noir. His photographs propose a way to address concerns beyond synthetic surface of fashion by utilizing the cinematic strategies to heighten complex psychological and emotional state (Kismaric and Respini). On this photo a woman is pictured as a voyeur. The pose, framing and the lighting that create this claustrophobic environment assures us that she is not merely checking who knocked on the door, but that she is observing what is happening on the other side. Even if she takes up the traditional, masculine investigative project, the female look is never benign. It is always coded in obsessive neurotic terms, and this look is inevitably anchored back in sexuality and sexual desire (Denzin).

In the essay we first discussed, the cinema influences photography and the voyeuristic gaze that is closely related to them. We came to a conclusion that voyeurism in cinema and photography attracts the viewers of both sexes and not merely males as it is suggested in `Cinematic Pleasure and Narrative Cinema` as well as in my thesis. Despite the importance of Mulvey’s essay, when it comes to discussions related to cinematic gaze and voyeurism, we disproved a couple of quotes from that essay with the texts from more contemporary authors and also with a help of photographs of Cindy Sherman. My thesis raised in the introduction was also proven wrong after having deconstructed key study photography and linked them with the existing literature. If we can link the first photograph with male sexual voyeurism, then in the instance of the second photograph by Steven Klein that is set in a domestic environment curiosity of the people’s everyday lives, as discussed in Calvert’s thesis, is the spectator’s primary experience. The same thing can be said about the third photograph, where the image of the woman gazing through the peep hole is more important than just an attempt to attract a male spectator with an image that would be interesting merely from a sexual voyeuristic aspect. Nowadays sex and voyeurism are the two things that always attract a lot of attention. Both topics are evergreen and people just cannot get enough of it regardless of sex nor age. Film still photography offers both, and that is the experience that appeals to so many viewers. Hence, film still photography represents not only a superficial attention seeking type of photography, but indulges complex psychological relations between the male and the female, the object and the subject.

Bibliography: Clavert, C. 2004. Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture, Oxford: Westview Press Campany, D. 2008, Photography and Cinema, London: Reaktion Books Ltd Denzim, N. 1995. The Cinematic Society: The Voyeurs Gaze, London: Sage Publications Green, D, Lowry,J, 2006, Stillness and Time: Photography and the Moving Image, Brighton: Photoforum Kismaric, S., Respini, E., Fashioning Fiction in photography since 1990, New York: The Museum of Modern Art Mulvey, N.,1975, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Availabe on internet on 14.3. – Sturken, M., 2001 Cartwright, L., Practices of Looking: An introduction to visual culture, Oxford: University Press

~ by matjazz on March 28, 2009.

6 Responses to “Male voyeuristic gaze in film still fashion photography”

  1. Ej mudel, že itak pišeš ful dolge objave zdej pa še v Angleščini pa kdo bo to bral jebote.

  2. Ja jaaaa.vem, da je ta esejčič kar zalogaj…Ampak računam, da je vsaj kak, ki ga zanima se bolj akademska plat fotografije med nami… Če je kdo prebral bi bil vesel komentarja…

  3. aplavdiram, matjazz. en voajer je pa vseeno prebral, zaradi mene lahko imaš samo takšne objave 🙂 tematika je zelo atraktivna, všeč so mi analize fotk, tudi uvod je konkretno nastavljen, sam bi imel več glavne debate, še kakšen primer 😉 od lorce imam doma dve njegovi knjigi. vsakič, ko sem bil v ldn, sem ga gledal v knjigarni, pa mi ni blo nič jasn… sem rabu mal več časa 🙂 potem sem si ga pa od doma naročal, hehe. imam tudi enga crewdsona, ta je šele nor filmar, ni pa fashion in najbrž ne spada sem. ti kar vztrajaj, če ne se morem jst bolj trudit, da slišim iz tega močvirja kej pametnega 🙂 hvala za vire. zdej grem gledat pa kakšnega WKWja, pa luč bom ugasnu 😉

    “the female look is never benign”

  4. Ja hvaaaalaaaa booogu! 🙂 Že če je en prebral in mu je kej pomagalo, je bil moj cilj dosežen! Me happy! Ja sem tud sam Crewdsonov fan… On ma pa dejansko cele filmske ekipe po 50 folka, ki naredijo vse tip top…Jaaa jaaa….ti bi še več sredinskega dela… Že tuki sem kri scal, da sem spravil skupaj 3000 besed! 😀

  5. […] essays that I posted last year… Abouth Fetishism in photography of Helmut Newton and about Male voyeuristic gaze in film still fashion photography. Even when I was doing a research for the dissertation these 2 essays are often 1st hit on […]

  6. […] essays that I posted last year… Abouth Fetishism in photography of Helmut Newton and about Male voyeuristic gaze in film still fashion photography. Even when I was doing a research for the dissertation these 2 essays are often 1st hit on […]

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