Project 4-4: Gendering the Gaze

Read the chapter by Laura Mulvey called Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema on pps 381 – 389 of the course reader making notes.

Notes on the Gaze

Sturken and Cartwright (2009) define the in relation to visual arts as:

“the relationship of looking in which the subject is caught up in the dynamics of desire through trajectories of looking and being looked at among other people.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 442)

The gaze can be both motivated by the subjects desire for control over the object it sees, and the object can likewise capture and hold the look.

Pooke and Newall (2008) assert that in the field of art, gaze refers to the viewers engagement with the art object and is frequently suggestive of a power dynamic between the object and the spectator. The term Gaze is used prominently in film and gender studies.

Modern origins of the gaze are based on psychoanalytic theory and relates to visual and sexual attentions and the implications of gendered human perception that these contain. Gazing is considered central to sexual attraction and has both a positive and negative identification, for example, narcissistic (loving/productive) and nihilistic (hating/destructive.)  (Harris, 2006)

D’Alleva (2012) states:

“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)

A distinction is made between Gaze and gaze (lower case g): Gaze – the process of looking which constitutes a network of relationships, gaze – a specific instance of looking. Freud saw desire as crucial to the process of looking. Lacan saw the Gaze as one of the main manifestations of the four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis: the unconscious, repetition, transference and drive. For Lacan, the Gaze gives structure and stability to our fantasies of Self and Other. Looking at art is not a neutral process but one where the viewer is a desiring subject open to the captivation asserted by the work being viewed. The function of art is to trap the Gaze because the viewer is (falsely) put in the position of the eye.

Film theorists of the 1970s (such as Laura Mulvey and Christian Metz) used the theories of Freud and Lacan to posit that in cinema the Gaze of the spectator on the image was implicitly male and objectified women on screen. Lacan’s analysis of the Gaze (for example, the mirror-phase) form an important part of feminist discussions of how women are constructed as the object of a ‘male gaze’ in film and visual arts with a particular feminist interest being the relations between looking, imagery and power in society.

Notes on ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ by Laura Mulvey

In ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Laura Mulvey drew on psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan to challenge patriarchal models of viewing. Hollywood cinema of the 1930s-50s was used to illustrate how pleasure in looking is split between the active/male protagonist/hero who possesses the Gaze and moves the action forward, and, the passive/female who is the object of the desire and the object of the Gaze.

Arguing that Hollywood cinema is geared toward male viewing pleasure, and related directly to the construction of the male psyche. This both reinforced patriarchal society and Mulvey used the psychoanalytical paradigms of scopophillia, voyeurism and narcissism:

Scopophillia – the pleasure in looking and being looked at (exhibitionism.) Pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. Active scopophillia implies a separation of erotic identity of the subject from the object on the screen. Is a function of sexual instincts.

Voyeurism – the pleasure taken in looking while not being seen to be looking. This carries negative connotations of a powerful, even sadistic, position within the Gaze.

Narcissism – identification with the image seen – linked to construction of the ego. Demands identification of the ego with the object in screen through the spectators fascination and recognition of his like. Is a function of the ego libido.

Mulvey linked pleasure gained from the male gaze in three ways:

  1. Woman’s objectification in the gaze of the male characters and audience stimulates the pleasures of erotic fantasy.
  2. Identification with the male protagonist by male viewers links to the development of the ego – identified by Lacan as the mirror-phase: the stage which creates misrecognition in the child’s mind between the actual self and how he sees himself – the ego ideal.
  3. The male viewer, through the sadistic power of the male protagonist, is able to subdue the threat symbolised by the female’s lack of a penis – symbolic of castration. To avoid this anxiety the female figure is turned into a fetish/fetish object.

Each of these strategies places the female in a position in which she has no control or agency: women are there to be looked at and the watching men project their fantasies onto the females portrayed on screen. The on screen male is a man of action and command which mirrors the underlying assumptions of a phallocentric and patriarchal society. Patriarchal culture positions woman as image and man as bearer of the image.

Mulvey argued that the reason Hollywood cinema followed these conventions of gender roles (women as visual fetishes; spoken for, bearers of meaning, and, men as vigorous agents; speakers, makers of meaning) is because this is hard wired into the social psyche and thus unavoidable. When woman is referred to as the bearer of meaning this is a reference to the way a woman’s body is organised by Lacan’s concept of the signifier of difference – that is the penis she does not have marked by castration and the threat that she is. Her body, which is complete with beauty but damaged by phallic absence, is the fetish that makes the site of the lack – the difference that forms the possibility of meaning and on which language is built.

A common criticism of Mulvey’s paper is that the Gaze she discusses is strictly male (also white and heterosexual) and this view does more to fix identity than free it. However, this misses the point that the essay is a polemic in which the male Gaze is a strategic necessity in order for Mulvey to make the case that although Hollywood narrative cinema appeared to be innocent entertainment it is really an instrument of patriarchal ideology. Despite what they term the “intellectual problems” of some aspects of Mulvey’s work, Lapsley and Westlake (2006) believe that her theories made a difference beyond academia as she rendered visible what had been invisible: the violence within representation and the reproduction of patriarchy within mainstream cinema. She revealed and confronted the self interested and misogynist nature of representations of women by white, middle class heterosexual males and contributed to the transformation of gender based relations of domination.

Watch ‘Vertigo’ and make notes on how it stands up to Mulvey’s analysis.


Scottie, The main protagonist of Vertigo is obsessed: he falls in love with a woman who apparently dies and seeing another woman who resembles her cannot help himself but remake the second in the image of the first – with eventual tragic results. (Hitchcock, in typically sardonic fashion, described the film as a twist on the Hollywood staple ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again’ Sammader, 2012) Under scrutiny it is a preposterous story and a commercial flop on release, now however it is regarded as a classic, possibly Hitchcock’s best film and was voted greatest film ever made by the BFI in 2012. Whether intentional or not Scottie’s moulding of Judy into the vision of Madeline has parallels with Hitchcock’s sadistic treatment of actors and his own obsession with a certain type of leading lady, a fetishised cool blonde. It could also be read as an analogy of the Hollywood star system in which the stars (especially the women) are no more than property to the studios.

Themes of the film include desire and artificiality, subjectivity, female objectification and the male Gaze. Hitchcock was influenced by Freud and surrealism and draws on Freud’s theories of scopophillia. Stylistically the film is almost entirely shot from Scottie’s perspective with the audience becoming complicit in his voyeurism. Dreamy tracking shots are used in the sequences where he follows both Madeline and Judy, the camera moves with Scottie and reflect his snatched glimpses, wonderment and desire. The pastel colours of the films design give a overemphasised artificiality which add to the dreamlike quality. Occasionally our gaze is returned by Novak as Madeline/Judy – at these points we feel her accusing our voyeurism. Reflecting on Vertigo’s narrative, the entire film seems completely implausible, particularly why Madeline/Judy would allow herself to be first manipulated into Elster’s murderous scheme and then allow Scottie to change her appearance. The only logical explanation is that, as Mulvey argues, woman is presented as image and man as bearer of the look. This emphasises the inherent sexual imbalance in which the (active) determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure (passive) which is styled accordingly.

Mulvey has the following to say about Vertigo: the look is central to the plot – oscillating between voyeurism and fetishist fascination. This is typical of Hitchcock with the male hero (James Stewart/Scottie) seeing exactly what the audience sees, his role being to portray the contradictions and tensions experienced by the spectator. The subjective camera of Vertigo predominates with the narrative being almost entirely based around what Scottie sees or fails to see – his erotic obsession and subsequent despair is shown entirely from his point of view. Scottie’s voyeurism is as blatant as is his sadistic side – he follows, watches and falls in love with a perfect image of female beauty and mystery. In the second half of the film his obsessive involvement with image is demonstrated as he tries to reconstruct Judy as Madeline and force her to conform to every detail of his fetish: “Her exhibitionism, her masochism make her an ideal counterpart to Scottie’s active, sadistic voyeurism.” (Jones, 2010: 64) His erotic interest can only be sustained with her playing and replaying her part, through repetition he breaks her down and exposes her guilt – his curiosity wins through and she is punished.

“In Vertigo, erotic involvement with the look boomerangs: the spectator’s own fascination is revealed as illicit voyeurism as the narrative content enacts the processes and pleasures that he himself is exercising and enjoying.” (ibid)

While Scottie is caught within the symbolic order with all of the attributes of the patriarchal super ego, the spectator is lulled into false security and exposed as complicit, caught in the moral ambiguity of looking: “Vertigo focuses on the implications of the active/looking, passive/looked at split in terms of sexual difference and the power of the male symbolic encapsulated in the hero.”

How does the portrayal of some contemporary black music in video match up to Mulvey’s insights?

Snoop Dogg feat Pharrell Drop It Like It’s Hot HD

Contemporary black music – particularly rap music – has a reputation for being a macho domain where image is paramount and for treating women as little more the objects. I do not profess to be an expert on this style of music and spent sometime looking through various music videos on YouTube before coming across this video: ‘Drop it like it’s hot’ by Snoop Dogg feat. Pharrell from 2009. Snoop Dogg is an artist who has been around for years and fulfils many of the stereotypes of what makes a rapper – glamourous surroundings, expensive consumer goods and a sexualised view of women. The women in this video are literally featured to be no more the glamourous window dressing, fawning and fussing over the stars in the video Snoop Dogg and Pharrell. They are shown dancing with the two male musicians, twerking next to a Rolls Royce, stripping, pouring drinks for Snoop Dogg and dancing together in a scene that could represent a club setting. They represent a juvenile wish fulfilment and are entirely there for the scopophillic pleasure of the (supposed) male viewer. The video is so outlandish and offensive that I would be inclined to think it is a parody, however, there is no sense of irony contained in it. As a final aside – I note that most versions of this video have the lyrics edited to remove potentially offensive words. An interesting choice to keep the visual content intact while censoring the lyrics of the song which shows the perceived power of words over images.

Annotate  Manet’s  ‘Olympia’  in  terms  of  the  gaze  and  the  various  characters, within and without the image.


Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863) was considered scandalous and vulgar when first displayed, interestingly this has nothing to do with the model being nude but rather the unconventional subject depicted and her seemingly oppositional returned gaze. Rather than depicting an idealised subject based on history or myth as was the convention of nineteenth century painting, the model is a prostitute, and, most significantly, rather than complying with codes of humility and compliance her returned gaze is ambiguous and unsettling. Manet based the composition of the painting on Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and comparing the two paintings emphasise the differences and why ‘Olympia’ caused such controversy. Firstly the subject matter – Titian is depicting Venus, an ideal representation of the female form and sexuality while Manet has painted a courtesan, someone not normally presented in paintings. We can deduce ‘Olympia’ is a prostitute as this name was one often used for courtesans – the black cat shown at the bottom of the bed is a  symbol of prostitution. (As opposed to the dog shown in Titian’s painting which represents fidelity.) Both of the women in the picture are similarly undressed, reclining and holding one hand over their waist. Titian’s Venus is coy with her head cocked to one side. She has a look that could appear to be adoration or love, there is no sexual connotation to her pose and although she appears relaxed in her nakedness, the hand she holds over her genital area is appears to rest naturally rather than being held for any reasons of modesty. In ‘Olympia’ the model’s hand seems to be placed deliberately, again modesty is not the motivation here rather she is demonstrating control over her body. The position suggests that while her nakedness can be looked at for free, anything further will require payment.

The most striking aspect of Manet’s painting, as previously mentioned, is the way the model in ‘Olympia’ returns our gaze. Unlike Titian’s model her head is held high and points directly out of the painting – there can be no doubt that the subject of her gaze is the viewer. This is further emphasised by the way the black servant in the painting is ignored despite appearing to bring a gift of flowers – her stare seems to challenge the viewer. Given the typical audience at the time would have been white, middle/upper class, western male this surely would have made them feel uncomfortable when confronted by the reality of a depiction of a ‘type’ they would not have been used to seeing represented in panting. The viewer is forced to confront their scopophillia along with the attendant feelings of shame that are linked to this.


Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Cousins, M. (2011) The story of film. London: Pavilion Books

D’Alleva, A (2012) Methods and Theories of Art History (2nd Ed.) London: Laurence King Publishing

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Harris, J. (2006) Art History: The Key Concepts. New York: Taylor & Francis

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed Cambridge: Polity Press

Lapsley, R. and Westlake, M. (2006) Film theory: An introduction. (2nd ed.) Manchester: Palgrave.

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Mulvey, L (1975) Visual pleasure and narrative cinema

pps. 381-390 Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

pps. 58-65  Jones, A. (ed) (2010) The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2nd edition). London: Routledge

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Samadder, R. (2012) ‘My favourite Hitchcock: Vertigo’ The Guardian, 10th August 2012. Available At: [Accessed 10th October 2016]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock. Dir. USA: Paramount Pictures

Williams, L. (ed.). (1994) Viewing positions: Ways of seeing film. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

Project 1-7: Leisure time and Consumerism – The Flâneur

For this project we are required to search the web for articles on the flâneur making notes on the phenomenon and what thinkers like Walter Benjamin have to say on the subject.

We are also asked to consider what effect we think this phenomenon had on the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Flâneur is a French term with no direct English translation popularised by Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and linked to the emergence of consumer culture in the late nineteenth century. Baudelaire describes the elegant flâneur, strolling through the streets and arcades of Paris, simultaneously taking pleasure from the act of looking at items of commodity culture and remaining detached from the cityscape around him. He neither belongs to the richest or poorest class and existed on the margins of the city, he takes in the sights – especially the new phenomenon of consumerism found in the displays of the shop windows of the arcades. For the flâneur the act of looking becomes a pleasure in itself.

Sturken and Cartwright offer one of the most concise and interesting definitions of the flâneur that I came across:

“A flâneur is a kind of urban dandy who strolls through a modern city (such as Paris), a space that is newly organised in modernity to encourage a mobile and specular (looking) relationship to urban space and the new consumer goods that are displayed there.”

The phenomenon of the flâneur is tied to the quickly changing landscape of the late nineteenth century: the modern city and its changing architecture, dramatic changes population densities, emergence of factories, industrial manufacturing and production, the growth of the bourgeoisie, advances in technology and communication as well as developments in capitalism. Interestingly, the flâneur of the nineteenth century was always male because society at the time did not allow females the freedoms that men enjoyed.

Walter Benjamin, who was much influenced by Baudelaire, took the notion of the flâneur and turned it into a kind of mythological figure, using it to explore the development of consumer society, that is a society where the practices of consumption rather than production are predominant. For Benjamin the flâneur is a sociological icon of the nineteenth century and emblematic of modernity and his use of the term in his unfinished and posthumously published major work ‘The Arcades Project’ is seen as being responsible for the term entering critical theory.

The ‘Painter of Modern Life’ Baudelaire describes in his essay is the artist he also describes as the archetypal flâneur: Constantin Guys. Baudelaire admires his ability to capture the ephemeral but irreversible changes brought about by fashion and the new commodities of the arcades. Guys paintings employed a new realism both in terms of subject matter and style that marked a radical departure from traditional academic history paintings. This theme was further developed by Manet and then the impressionists before continuing into other avant-gardes such as futurism and surrealism. For me, the idea of the flâneur as artist is perhaps best encapsulated by the street photographer. Researching this project, my mind kept returning to photographers who I have grown to love as masters of street photography such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Martin Parr and Garry Winogrand. Indeed, the mental image I have of Winogrand prowling the streets, camera in hand, trying to create order and meaning out of the chaos of modern city life is one that stays with me. The image of William Eggleston also springs to mind because although he does not photograph city life his detached style and privileged background (meaning he could concentrate on taking photographs as an interest rather than by any need to make money from it) seem to fit the notion of the flâneur well. I often have the sense when looking at Eggleston’s work that although the subjects portrayed are on the main the banal and every day we are somehow sharing his way of seeing. Personally, being a flâneur is also something I enjoy doing myself. I love nothing more than picking up my camera and exploring the streets with no other preconception than to make images of what I see.


The subject of the flâneur is an interesting one, but I am not sure that studying this is the real purpose of the project which I suspect is more concerned with study techniques, time management and introducing Walter Benjamin. It is interesting that the course notes offer no direct article or work as reference but direct us to conduct study on the internet. A google search for flâneur invariably makes Wikipedia the top hit before branching into many varied sources. I quickly decided to conduct my research in the way I have all other projects using the text books I am beginning to become more familiar with and learning to trust, making notes and also jotting down  further keywords and concepts to research further. Having done this first I felt much more equipped to tackle internet search results and identify articles potential value as well as being able to directly search for essays and books that I had found referenced. I quickly amassed a large amount of reading material and was left with the difficult choice of how much further research to do – by this point I had probably gained enough knowledge to complete my write up and I must admit being torn between wanting to gain as much understanding by reading as widely as possible and progressing. Up until now I have continued reading until all of the sources I have identified are completed, I decided to moderate this approach here by putting a timescale of a week on my further research. This meant rather than trying to read each source in detail and take notes I needed to skim moist of them and prioritize those which appear of most value. For example, looking at Benjamin’s ‘The Arcades Project’ meant merely skim reading and concentrating on passages that caught my eye. At 1000 pages and extremely complex, trying to assimilate the work would have been a major distraction, but, gaining a sense of the tone of the piece by allowing it to wash over me did help inform the project.

I note that after assignment one, the first project of part two concerns Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, a work I expect to be extremely challenging given what other students have noted. That said, as I have now been introduced to Benjamin as a writer I feel I can tackle the project without becoming side-tracked by studying his biography. The experience of his writing I have gained here also means I have some understanding of what to expect.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Consumer society, phantasmagoria, modernity, situationism, dérive.

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy Debord, Constantin Guys.


Baudelaire, C (1863) The Painter of Modern Life. (translated and edited by Johnathon Mayne) Phaidon Press

Benjamin, W. (1999) On Some Motifs in Baudelaire                                                                                                   in Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Benjamin W. (1999) The Arcades Project. (Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin from the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann) Cambridge:Harvard University Press

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York:Oxford University Press inc.

Friedberg, A The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flaneur/Flaneuse                                           in Mirzoeff, N. (ed). (2002) The Visual Culture Reader Second edition. Oxford:                       Routledge

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Seal, B. (2013) Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur. Available at [accessed February 2015]

Sontag, S. (2008) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Project 1-6: Photography: The New Reality

This project requires reading the essay ‘Photography Versus Painting’ by Osip Brik in ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’ (Ed. Harrison and Wood) before considering the following questions:

 Do you think that Brik’s article points to a practice that was taken up by photographers or other artists to any great extent?

 Although Brik’s article was written in 1926, nearly 100 years since the earliest surviving photograph by Nicéphore Niépce, he makes a passionate argument as to why photography is an important art form while acknowledging it is still in its infancy. As a Russian Constructivist Brik would have been concerned with art that serves a political and social purpose as well as art’s relationship with the industrial. As a Leninist living in post-revolutionary Russia the ties between art and the ruling classes would have informed his thinking; he recognises how the cost of photography is accessible to everyone, unlike painting, “The cheapest painting is more expensive than the most expensive photograph.” For me, there is a real sense of purpose and urgency to his words along with a belief that photography can form part of social betterment.

For Brik, there is no contest in the battle between art and photography, “Photography pushes painting aside. Painting resists and is determined not to capitulate.” The advantages of photography over painting, “precision, speed [and] cheapness”, mean that painters cannot compete with the “faithful reproduction” that photography can produce. Despite this, the counter attack by painters was centred on photography’s inferior realism to painting because it was black and white. For Brik this argument is flawed in that painters can only approximate the colours of nature: “However much the painter tries s/he cannot go beyond the narrow limits of the palette.” He hints that accurate colour photography is yet to come while dismissing the lack of realism argument with the aside that at least photography does not falsify like painting by giving an object the wrong colours.

For Brik, photography’s difference to painting should be total. Photographers should concern themselves with how a subject looks while “The painter not only has the right to change reality, it is virtually his duty to do so.” he cites artistic movements that have emerged from the mid nineteenth century as proof of this, impressionism, cubism, suprematism, each of which makes a decisive divide between photography and painting. Although he cannot resist disparaging painting again, “The photographer captures life and the painter makes pictures.”

Despite all of his assertions that photography is superior to painting, Brik admits that photography is not yet fully mature as an art form. This is due to photographers not realising their social importance and regarding themselves as humble artisans practicing an “insignificant craft.” The reason for this is that artists are free to make work of anything that they please rather than to commission. (Although I think he is presenting an idealised version of what it is to be an artist here.) The importance of their work is compounded by important exhibitions which are regarded as cultural events. He explains that this is why some photographers try to mimic this style by employing painterly effects, a reference to the pictorialist school of photography. Brik believes however that photographers will attain the social recognition enjoyed by painters by creating their own aesthetic: “The photographer must show that it is not just life ordered according to aesthetic laws which is impressive, but also vivid, everyday life itself as it is transfixed in a technically perfect photograph.” He acknowledges that a new theory of the art of photography is in its infancy but cites photographers like Alexander Rodchenko who understand it’s “mission, aims and development.”

There is much in Brik’s article that I agree with – that photography is a an art form and is separate from painting, that it has the ability to recreate reality more closely than traditional art and that photography can be important politically and socially. He rightly asserts that photography will move away from pictorialism into more realistic modes although today there are many different photographic styles. Because the article is a polemic which does not give any room for multiple view points only the assertion of Brik’s argument, I also have a number of concerns: Brik suggests that there can be only painting or photography when clearly they can coexist side by side. It is quite common today for artists to work in many different media so clearly this is untrue and many exhibitions feature both photography and painting. Brik also completely accepts the view that photography is a faithful representation of reality, a position that although it has some truth has been widely discounted today, or at least approached with caution.

 Do you find any resonances with Brik’s ideas in contemporary discussions of photography and painting?

Until recently I would have said no, that the argument about whether photography could be art was over and had broadly been won. A recent pair of articles in ‘The Guardian’ however show this not to be the case. In response to a photograph (‘Phantom’ by Peter Lik) setting a new world record for the most expensive ever (it sold for $6.5m), the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones set out an argument against photography being an art form. His main thrust is against ‘Phantom’ which he sees as “derivative, sentimental in its studied romanticism, and consequently in very poor taste.” And “Lik’s photography is beauty in a slick way, but beauty is cheap if you point a camera at a grand phenomenon of nature.” Not only does he find the subject matter derivative of 100 year old painting styles he also has issue with the use of black and white which he sees as a special effect employed solely to elevate the status of the work. Indeed, Jones’ main issue is that anyone could have taken ‘Phantom’ as long as they stand in the right place, at the right time with the right piece of technology: “this hollow and overblown creation exposes the illusion that lures us all, when we’re having a good day with a good camera – the fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.”

In response photography critic Sean O’Hagan argues that he could as easily dismiss all painting by using a narrow example such as the BP National Portrait Award, an “uninspiring show, a hotchpotch”, which is “mostly comprised of rather old fashioned paintings.” He chooses not to because “the ‘photography is not art’ debate is so old it’s hardly worth revisiting.” He agrees with Jones on one point however, that ‘Phantom’ is not very good, “a rather boring photograph.” However, he argues that the huge selling price shows the problems inherent in global capitalism rather than photography, “obscenely rich people with more money than sense.” He could similarly attack all contemporary art because of Hirst’s “obscene” diamond skull or Jack Vettriano but rather chooses to celebrate the great artists that take photographs and the great photographers that are artists, whose work, “sings on the gallery wall. Their work makes you look at the world in a different way.” On the subject of technology, O’Hagan asserts that digital photography has merely made it easier for people to take and disseminate photographs, “A great photographer can make a great photograph whatever the camera. A bad one will still make a bad photograph on a two grand digital camera that does everything for you. It’s about a way of seeing, not technology.”

So who wins the argument? Although I am biased towards photography myself I would still have to say O’Hagan – a lot of the success of his piece comes down to his difference in tone compared with Jones. While he appears measured in his responses and passionate about his love of photography as an art form, Jones appears spiteful and irrational. It is unclear whether his piece is a knee jerk reaction or simply provocative. It seems that it could be the latter as many commentators on the piece point out he has been an advocate for photography as an art form in the past. Still, the difficulties raised about the mechanical nature of photography, whether it is the machine or the operator that makes a great image and the fact that anyone can take a photograph are probably more commonly shared than I first thought. My suspicion is that many people who are not invested with an interest in contemporary art would prefer ‘Phantom’ over the previous most expensive photograph ever ‘Rhine II’ by Andreas Gursky. The problem though is that we equate cost with quality, and as O’Hagan observes, in this modern capitalist age of inflated prices, this is a dangerous parallel to draw.

Find and annotate two examples of images that demonstrate the impact of photography on painting. How do these images acknowledge the shift in visual culture that came about with the advent of photography?

From my research I found little concrete evidence of photography’s impact on painting, by that I mean that a lot of what I read came down the authors opinion or considered hypothesis of how artists reacted to the emergence of photography. Through my research of different art movements during photography’s initial development I came across a number of thoughts of my own which I will detail. I may be off the mark and my opinion is sure to change as my knowledge of art history improves and I become familiar with more artists, also, my ideas are contradictory in that photography both encouraged a new type of realism (rather than the presentation of an ideal) as well as provoking artists began to experiment with more abstract representations which differentiated painting from photographs.

It is difficult to say for certain whether these changes in painting are a direct result of photography or driven more by the rapid changes in society brought about by the industrial revolution. This notion of photography’s impact is also compounded by the fact that as an emerging art form it would be at least one hundred years after the first photograph before photography started to find its way as an art form.

The realism movement in art of the mid-late 19th century aimed at breaking artistic and social conventions through choice of subject matter and by attempting to show the world as they saw it. Realism was interested in challenging the accepted bourgeois notions of what art should be: the pursuit of the beautiful, moral and improving. In ‘A Bar at the Foile-Bergere’ (1882) Edouard Manet paints a young woman standing behind a bar with the customers reflected in the background. The image was controversial at the time because of the subject matter; many think the girl portrayed is a prostitute – not an accepted subject for a painting. Also the paintings style which rather than using perspective focusses the viewers attention with the distortions and omissions in the reflections of the background achieve a kind of depth of field effect – which has now become part of the language and way we understand a photograph. I think it is doubtful that this would have entered the visual language at the time Manet was painting but the comparison is interesting none the less. It also seems somewhat coincidental that a movement that aims to portray life as seen by the artist emerges at the same time that photography is invented.

The impressionist movement, originating from around 1860, could be seen as a rejection of attempting to compete with photography on the grounds of realism. Impressionists explored ways to capture light, movement and colour through their work and thus provoke a sensory reaction from the viewer. It is only since the 1970s that colour photography has overtaken black and white as the accepted norm (certainly in reference to ‘serious’ photography) so it understandable that the impressionist’s use of colour was one of the central aspects of their work and a key differentiator with photography, see Claude Monet ‘Impressions, Sunrise’ (1872). On a separate note, the early pictorialist movements in photography can be read as an attempt to follow what was happening in the art world (and an attempt to have photography accepted as an art) and appears to me to be heavily influenced by Impressionism. Edward Steichen, ‘The Pond-Moonlight’, 1904.)

As art moved into modernism, painting became less concerned with realism and more abstract,  which again can be read as a further distancing between painting and photography. Certainly a work like Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, 1907) is unrecognisable as what was understood at the time as a painting through Picasso’s use of flattened perspective and jagged shapes.

A final example of how by the beginning of the twentieth century painting and photography are now beginning to inform each other can be seen in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2’,1912 which clearly is influenced by cubism but also references the photographic studies of motion by Eadweard Muybridge (‘Woman Walking Downstairs’, 1887.)


As my main artistic interest and area of knowledge lies with photography and because of this I thought this would be an easy project to complete, the reality has been somewhat more slippery however. The difficulty has mainly come from trying to establish the relationship between painting, photography and reality as it applies to the mid-late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. It quickly became apparent to me that it is impossible to look at only painting and photography in isolation as the development of both was probably influenced far greater by the fast changing world driven by advances in science and technology and also massive shifts in society. It seems probable that any serious artist would be aware of photography as an emerging medium and that seems to be demonstrated by the examples I have given, how much so is difficult if not impossible to assess. It is not unreasonable to assume that artists may have been subconsciously influenced by photography’s development rather than actively seeking it as an influence. That photography was influenced by art seems similarly likely because of the early photographic movement of pictorialism.

Realism in photography is a tricky subject. It is probably only very recently that we have stopped believing the cliché ‘the camera never lies’ and this is only because we are now sophisticated readers of visual culture. In the early days of photography this distinction would probably not have been made, conversely however it certainly took a number of years before photography developed its own visual language (the development of the technology played a part in this)  so it would certainly have been even longer for acceptance of photography as a visual language to be made.

In short, as with all the other exercises so far, what has seemed straightforward at the beginning has become less so as my study has progressed. I feel a little less certain about the relationship between painting and photography now despite my increased knowledge, maybe this is because I recognise that I have only scratched the surface and that the relationship is an extremely complex one with many other outside influences.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Constructivism, Factography, Reportage, Realism, Impressionism, Cubism, Suprematism, Social Realiam, Futurism, Bauhaus movement, Neo-Classical.

Key figures for further research:

Osip Brik, Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzy, Vladimir Mayalowsky, Vladimir Tatlin, Dziga Vertov, Varvara Stepanova, Van Doesburg, Naum Gabo, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Charles Vantongerro, Pablo Picasso, Eduoard Manet, Marcel Duchamp, Eadward Muybridge.


Brik, O. Photography versus Painting in Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jones, J. The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel in The Guardian 10th December 2014

Available at [accessed January 2015]

Macey, D. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000) London: Penguin books

Murray, P and L. The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists 7th Ed (1997) London: Penguin Books

O’Hagan, S. Photography is art and always will be in The Guardian 11th Decemeber 2014

Available at: [accessed January 2015]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.