Fleshing out a theory

Public Bodies, Private States - A Dream of England - The Body
July 21, 1995

Judging by recent evidence, the photography book industry is in a far from parlous state, despite publishers' protestations of penury. There is a market for books about photography and photographers which is quite distinct from the myriad how-to books and equipment manuals for enthusiasts. More challenging and critical work - with a limited audience - often relies on the subsidised arts sector for funding, which is no guarantee that quality is any better than in the commercial sector, as the books reviewed here show.

A Dream of England is the first title in a new Arts Council-supported series, Photography: Critical Views, edited by John Taylor of Manchester Metropolitan University's history of art and design department. The series aims to explore "the historical and contemporary uses of photography in sustaining particular social, class-located, institutionalised and gendered positions. Whereas modernist photographic history confined its study to the celebration of unique works of art produced by creative artists, this series shows how photographic meanings are produced in the social formation of knowledge . . . . (It) aims to develop the subject area of photographic history, theory and criticism as an individual discipline. At the same time it crosses disciplinary boundaries . . . to situate photography in its intellectual context."

So the construction of "other" forms of photographic history is conceived polemically and somewhat misleadingly - for the term modernist is left completely unexplicated. Yet there are many recent historical works which deal with modernist photography, in which photographs are located within wider social, cultural and political contexts. Nonetheless Taylor's aim is laudable, for if a discipline of photographic history, theory and criticism is to emerge, it will need to establish its own distinct subject matter, methodologies and forms of publication.

Taylor's book is surprisingly good. He examines photography and landscape during three distinct periods, 1885-95, 1925-42 and 1982-1993. He covers a lot of ground, in both senses of the word, for he deals with some significant moments in "modernist" photographic history - the work of P. H. Emerson in the 1880s, of Bill Brandt and Humphrey Spender in the 1930s, and of Martin Parr, Paul Reas and Fay Godwin in the 1980s - so as to make a series of wider linkages to social, economic, political and cultural contexts. He has carefully researched each period in relation to how photography was used to construct specific discourses about national identity, such as "Shakespeare's England".

The book is less satisfactory when it becomes subservient to recent feminist theories about the male gaze, which seem to be grafted on to the analysis, and in particular when notions of a symbolic rape of a "female" landscape intrude into the argument at points where their theoretical utility is highly limited.

Fay Godwin's work, much of which documents exclusion of people from the British landscape by the state and by class interests, is implicitly devalued because she "never made much of the male contribution to her exclusion"-as if that were the more important exclusion. Godwin is problematic for feminist theorists of photography because she is probably the outstanding landscape photographer of the time, a female exponent of a dominantly male pursuit.

Picture reproduction poses another problem. Though extensively illustrated by images which are linked to the text, a number of images have no relation to the issues or period being discussed. The reason may be commercial; if so, this is indefensible in a book of this nature, especially given the aims of the series. Why place colour images from the 1980s alongside those from the 1890s, without explanation? Despite my reservations, I hope this book will become an important work in the new movement of writing on photographic history.

In the same series, Public Bodies, Private States, edited by Jane Brettle and Sally Rice, is a disappointment. This is an avowedly feminist text about (at least nominally) photography. I tried very hard to keep an open mind about it, conscious that I was a male and a photographer, and hence afflicted with the patriarchal gaze and a voyeurism towards representations of the female form.

Let me try to describe its contents, which are advertised as "new views on photography, representation and gender". They consist of six essays, of which one is in the form of an introduction by the editors, interspersed with four groups of images. All are by recognised academics and artists (which is how some photographers prefer to be known). There is an introduction by Ludmilla Jordanova, professor of history at York, wheeled in, it would seem, to provide a bit of academic weight to the enterprise - though what she writes suggests her acquaintance with photography may be limited to the odd visit to Boots.

The essays have little to do with the rather uninteresting images. They also have almost nothing to do with photography, apart from having been published in a series which purports to offer "critical views" about photography. Perhaps that is the point: subtly, or otherwise, the critical view elaborated here is that photography is too gendered, male and patriarchal to be worthy of engagement in a work of this nature. Certainly the legions of the anoraked who march into their newsagents once a week for a copy of Amateur Photographer are overwhelmingly male, but their predilection for tits, bums and lens tests hardly exhaust the medium's cultural or intellectual possibilities, gendered or not.

Most seriously of all, in a work whose title suggests it will deal with some aspects of the body, I struggled to find any coherent discussion of the subject. But the editors (no doubt sensing a bandwagon passing their way) think they are right on the mark, for they declare that "within this publication the boundaries of Public and Private and their convergence in the site of the 'body' are at once suggested, located and problematised". "Suggested" I could agree to, but "located" and "problematised"? - not on your nellie. Even William A. Ewing's The Body (the final book under review) offers more credible feminist insight than this lot.

It is not all bad news, however. A couple of the articles do contain some interesting material. Elizabeth Wilson's reflections on public and private domains offer some insights, as does Christine Battersby's piece on the (hardly new) idea that representations of landscape are inherently gendered. Yve Lomax's piece contains one good idea about time and space agonisingly prolonged over 16 tiresome pages. But most of the stuff is tired old dross, served up in less-than-enticing feminist art-speak. I finished the book amazed that it had found a publisher, and hoping that John Taylor, as editor of this new series, will eventually find someone to write the book that this could have been - a coherent, well-informed feminist polemic about the gendering of photographic representations of the body.

But perhaps it already exists. While the construction and form of Ewing's The Body: Photoworks of the Human Form is far more "popular" (and dare we add commercial?) than Brettle and Rice's book, it would have made a far better contribution to Taylor's new series. A compilation of photographs (or photographically-inspired representations) of the human body, it takes us from the origins of the medium to the present day. Crossing every boundary within the genre, from art to zoophilia, it manages in its compact format and 365-plus images to offer as complete an overview as is possible of the answers to the question Ewing proposes at the beginning of the book: "Why is it today that the human body is at the centre of so much attention?" I am not sure that I agree with his answer. According to Ewing, the body is "being rethought and reconsidered by artists and writers because it is being restructured and reconstituted by scientists and engineers." His book, however, demonstrates what we always knew: that the representation of the body has always been a central issue, the body always an object of artistic regard. The controversies generated by the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Andres Serrano, and most recently Helen Chadwick, are renewals of old controversies.

Where Ewing's compilation scores heavily is that it provides a source-book for every conceivable idiom in which the body has formed a subject for photography; and sensibly, I believe, he does not shrink from showing examples of the more exploitative forms of photography in which the camera has played its part. This means that some pictures are truly repulsive, while others are profoundly moving. Inevitably the nude forms a significant part, but Ewing's division of the book into coherent (and well-introduced) sections serves to provide a more taxonomic presentation than would be typical in the average mass-market compilation, and it also reminds us (if we needed reminding) that the vast range of human behaviour and representation is extremely resistant to universal theories or meta-narratives.

Peter Hamilton is lecturer in sociology, the Open University.

Public Bodies, Private States: New Views on Photography Representation and Gender

Editor - Jane Brettle and Sally Rice
ISBN - 0 7190 4120 1 and 4121 X
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 184

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments


Featured jobs

Planning Analyst

St Marys University, Twickenham

PhD Candidate in Political Behaviour

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology - Ntnu