Archive for the ‘American Visual Culture’ tag
Advertising for perfumes, particularly perfumes by female celebrities, is produced with amazing visual consistency. A brief glance at a variety of ads shows that there appears to be a formula for celebrity perfume ads in American popular culture: the celebrity is photographically represented alongside the perfume she advertises which is usually shown on the bottom, or more specifically, on the bottom right hand corner of the page. There might be a practical reason for this phenomenon in visual culture since, when flipping through a magazine, the right hand side of the page is, from an advertising perspective, more desirable. By showing the perfume bottle on the right hand corner, the reader encounters the product in the last instance as he or she turns the page. The first visual encounter in the ad is usually with the celebrity herself. In above example its Jennifer Aniston draped in a knitted blanket, sitting on a rock, with the sun setting on a beach. The ocean in the background, Aniston’s implied nudity and her windswept hair are strongly reminiscent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The reference to water, a theme running through many perfume ads, also underlines the liquidity of the perfume itself.
Another theme explored in the perfume ad formula is the celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over her left shoulder. The pose is strongly suggestive of photographs taken on the red carpet in which the celebrities twist and turn to present their dresses to the assembled photographers. While Kylie Minogue is simply referred to as ‘Sexy Darling’, this emphasis on exhibitionism and a visual encounter with the celebrity is further stressed in Britney Spears’ ad for Curious. A man can be seen in the background to the photograph looking at Spears, while Spears herself is suggestively looking at the spectator. The slogan ‘Do you dare?’ further underlines a sexual element to the representation of gender, as if the spectator is invited to join the subjects into a hypothetical ménage à trois via the gaze.
Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria also submit to the perfume ad formula of celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over the left shoulder. In both cases, the name of the perfume is the first name of the celebrity herself, whereas the name is written in such a way that it looks like the celebrities’ signature. This is an important element in the ad since, as it appears, the perfume is not only endorsed by the celebrity, but rather, it’s created by the celebrity herself. Like the artist signing his artwork, the celebrity signs her creation. I am using the word sign in the semiotic sense – the sign as a signifier. Her the signature signifies the celebrity’s assumed personal affiliation, even creation, of the perfume.
The perfume ad formula, because it is so consistently reproduced, appears to foster a culture in which ads are also copying other ads. Apart from Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria, this can also be observed in Deseo by Jennifer Lopez and M by Mariah Carey. Both Deseo and M make references to a tropical wilderness in which the female subject appears carefree, ‘swinging’ with the rhythm of nature. The celebrity is represented as Tarzan’s Jane: scantily clad, wild, sexually available. A more historic reference to Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing also suggests that here the swinging also evokes connotations of voyeurism. The alternative use of the word ‘swinging’ clearly situates the ads in a context of promiscuity.
With these many references to sexuality, it is not surprising that another major theme in the perfume ad formula is the bedroom. Jessica Simpson’s head is resting on a pillow while Mariah Carey is reclining on a bed. The skin coloured silk is, in both cases, alluding to the subjects’ nudity in the confines of her bedroom. Here, the perfume ad evokes connotations of the boudoir, or, in other words, an intrinsically private and intimate space. The spectator is invited to join the celebrity to a space that is exclusive, suggesting that the consumption of the perfume also manifests an exclusive relationship with the celebrity.
Despite the many references to an intimate and apparently heterosexual relationship with the celebrity in mass media and culture, it is important to stress that the ads are mostly reproduced in women’s magazines. In other words, the representation of gender in the perfume ad formula ads is designed for a female spectator. The typology of the perfume ad formula thus brings up a visual paradox in feminist visual culture. While the ads are designed for a female spectator, they apparently subscribe to the iconography of voyeurism, the commodification of women, even the visual codes of pornography. Beyonce’s Heat is one such example. What advertisers seeks to tap in here is the female consumer’s assumed desire to obtain a glimpse of the celebrities’ lifestyle in American popular culture. Here it is specifically her scent that might be desired. And having obtained her scent, it is suggested that the consumer becomes equally as desirable as the celebrity herself. However, desirability in the perfume ad formula always hinges on being visually desirable from the cliched perspective of a man. The perfume ad formula, rather than opening up new avenues for independent and successful celebrities, is actually further reproducing a hegemonic image economy that connects the fetishism of the commodity with the commodification and colonization of the female body.
In the new TV show ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’, the former vice-presidential candidate is shown shooting a Caribou. The footage has caused a major backlash, lead by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the TV show West Wing, arguing that Palin shot an animal ‘for political gain’. As Palin is expected to run for president in 2012, the counter question would be, how can it be anything other than for political gain?
The footage shows Palin and two men hiding in the Alaskan wilderness. After they spotted the Caribou, the men instruct Palin on how and when to shoot the animal. For a brief instance, the camera depicts a cloudy sky as the music intensifies. Clearly, the viewer is made to understand that this is a potentially threatening encounter with woman and nature. Palin misses the first shot. The volume of the music increases as the Caribou now appears to look straight at Palin. The intensity grows exponentially as there is a brief confusion of how to shoot the beast. And then, almost in the last possible instance, Palin lands the shot that would bring down the Caribou. One of the men congratulates either Palin, the Caribou, or both, with the jubilant words: ‘There you guy baby, there you go.’ Palin meanwhile, far more in control of her emotions then the men, whispers as if the potential threat is still lingering. After approaching the beast, one of the men asks ‘Is it dead?’, while Palin, after a brief assessment declares in a matter of fact voice ‘It’s dead!’. The music dramatically changes from Armageddon to a fun day out for the family.
So why would this TV footage be derided for being used ‘for political gain’. It depicts Sarah Palin as a strong woman, who, with the right men around her, can succeed in a male-dominated world. In a sense, the footage foreshadows Palin’s ambitions to run for President, while her running mate(s) were signified by the two men to her side. Palin often refers to looking a threat straight into the eye. Here, the visual encounter with the enemy is important (e.g. in the same way Palin can see Russia from her front porch, she can see a Caribou in the far distance). Although the mildly dangerous animal is about 100 meters away, the visual encounter with a potential threat marks an important aspect of the footage. The point is that, akin to a shifting signifier, the Caribou, in the mind of the viewer, can be replaced with any other threat to America’s national security.
Any number of presidential candidates made use of such an ideologically loaded image in American popular culture. Even the democrat John Kerry, while running for President in 2004, was eager to have himself photographed goose hunting in Ohio. The following day, on October 22nd 2004, Dick Cheney launched an impassioned attack on Kerry, deriding him for wearing a camouflaged jacket that looked brand new. ‘Which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting,’ Dick Cheney said then. After Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter in February 2006, such criticism would never be uttered again.
Sarah Palin shoots a Caribou for political gain. But the shooting itself is politically insignificant. It is only once a visual representation of the shooting is disseminated in mass media and culture, that this representation reaches it’s full effectiveness. As the storm clouds are gathering over the Alaskan wilderness again, Sarah Palin sets her eyes on the next target.
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“The Gold Painted Stripper”. It’s the kind of caption that is descriptive, pragmatic and to the point. We see a woman, dressed in a bikini, drinking a glass of water in, what appears to be, the backstage area of a strip club. She is photographed in profile thus accentuating her gesture and the shape of her body. She appears relaxed and undisturbed by the American photographer Weegee, a dimunitive, excentric and well-known visitor to New York’s nightclubs. Judging by the woman’s demeanour, Weegee might have asked for her permission to be photographed. He might have even payed her to pose for him. Weegee’s gaze is thus comparable to the gaze of the paying clientele in the strip club. A gaze that desires the complete uncovering of the body, yet at the same time, a desire that is never entirely fulfilled. As Giorgio Agamben has remarked in his book ‘Nudities’:
‘Strip-tease, that is to say, the impossibility of nakedness, is … the paradigm for our relationship with nudity. As an event that never reaches its completed form, as a form that does not allow itself to be entirely seized as it occurs, nudity is, literally, infinite: it never stops occuring.’
The stripper is part of this cycle of ‘teasing’, infinitely, the gaze of the clientele, but also, Weegee’s gaze, and by extension, our gaze. This cycle is signified by the water that she is drinking, suggesting that she is refreshing herself in preparation for the next show. And so, the cycle continues, show after show. And while the performances might vary (here she has covered her body in glittery gold paint), the premise will always remain the same. Although the photograph appears to be taken in the backstage area, the stripper, as a professional performer, did not seize to act towards the camera. She remains graceful, despite the rugged surroundings, holding her head up high, her body glowing in an otherwise murky world of vice. Compared to Susan Meiselas photographic series ‘Carnival Strippers’ from the 1970s, Weegee’s impression is far more sympathetic towards his subject. By photographing the woman from a lower vantage point, he makes her look strong and assertive. The sympathy is expressed, again, in the glass of water signifying that the stripper, despite being caught in an endless cycle of representing her body, has also real bodily needs.
Like in many of Weegee’s photographs however, the descriptive caption is not telling the whole story. Here, the caption simply confirms something that we can already see in the photograph. Much harder to identify are the men entering to room in the background. Their presence elevates the photograph to a complex narrative. Why are they entering the room? Who are they? Why is one man hiding his face? And, in particular, what is the content of the paper bags he is carrying? The hiding of the face deeply affects our reading of the potential content of the paper bags. While the face hides behind the stretched out hand, the content of the bag, too, is kept ‘undisclosed’. This hiding and veiling stands in complete contrast to the woman, who is almost completely bare. This was Weegee’s preferred working environment: a world of extremes, of paradoxes, of tensions and secrects.
The immidiate understanding of the man’s actions might be explained by Weegee’s very own presence. Here is a man who simply does not want to be photographed by Weegee. The pervasive flash picking up every little detail and the ‘shooting’ of his subjects earned Weegee a reputation for relentless and sometimes shocking revelations. His photographs of car crashes are bordering on the pornographic, and, earily foreshadow the scandalous Paparazzi photographs of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash.
Several Hollywood films have, in one form or another, made a reference to Weegee’s infamous persona: ‘The Untouchables’ featuring Kevin Costner and Sean Connery includes a scene in which a short built and over-eager photographer joins the police squad on their raids against New York’s crime syndicates during the prohibition era. In ‘The Road to Perdition’, a character played by Jude Law depicts a photographer obsessed with criminality and the underworld. This obsession is carried so far that the photographer himself turns into the criminal. Not only his photographs, but actually, Weegee himself has become and integral part of American visual culture.
This delight in the underworld is also apparent in ‘The Gold Painted Stripper’. The men entering the room, one can assume in the larger context of Weegee’s work, are part of this underground world. They are, as it appears in the photograph, literally, stepping down into Weegee’s trap. Stunned by his presence, the man raises his hand because has has something to hide. The mug that didn’t want to be shot. The distinct and troubled relationship between surveillance, voyeurism, identification and crime, all present in the man’s hand seeking to avoid, not the gold paint glowing from the woman’s body, but the flash of Weegee’s penetrating camera.
For more on this topic, please read Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.