Archive for the ‘Practices of Looking’ tag
In the early 1970′s, while walking with a friend through a park in Tokyo, photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki noticed that young couples used the park as a space for intimate encounters in the belief that they are protected by the darkness of the night. Equipped with a small camera and Kodak’s infrared flashbulb, Yoshiyuki produced a series of photographs that captures the nightly performance in Tokyo’s parks. In this haunting series of photographs produced between 1971 and 1979 and simply called The Park, the couples, both straight and gay, become the unwitting actors in Yoshiyuki’s play. While The Park has attracted much controversy in 1979 when it was first exhibited and published as a book in Tokyo, it was nearly thirty years later, in 2007, that Yoshiyuki’s project received global acclaim resulting in exhibitions throughout the US and Europe.
Photographing the couples kissing, fondling and maybe doing more, Yoshiyuki, as it appears in the photographs, was not alone in observing the nocturnal encounters. So rather than only depicting the couples themselves, Yoshiyuki would literally take a step back and incorporate the bizarre dynamic between voyeurs and the subject of their gaze in his photographs. The voyeuristic act is completed by the viewer of the photograph observing the subject of the photograph. Yoshiyuki thus sets out a complex dynamic of looking and being-looked-at which can be deduced into this formula: a couple kisses in the park, the couple is watched by voyeurs, the photographer photographs the couples being watched by voyeurs, and finally, the viewer looks at a photograph depicting voyeurs looking at a couple kissing in the park. In other words, not only the photographer but also the viewer of the photograph become incidental voyeurs in the act of looking.
There are a number of historical and cultural explanations for Yoshiyuki’s set of photographs. Most images for The Park were taken in Tokyo’s Chuo Koen, or central park, adjacent to the bustling Shinjuku district. Throughout the late 1960s, Shinjuku was both, the hotbed for political activism and the New Left movement, and also, the emerging center for the sexual liberation in Japan. Shinjuku thus became, quite naturally, also a major center for photographers keen to capture the Zeitgeist of their generation. Shōmei Tōmatsu (b. 1930), Daidō Moriyama (b. 1938), even the illustrious Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940) all produced photographic work, often with hidden or overt sexual references, in around Shinjuku.
Apart from any political and ideological affinities Kohei Yoshiyuki (b. 1946) might have had with his contemporaries, there is also a geographical reason why young couples would be inclined to make out in the park and subsequently attract voyeurs and photographers alike. Shinjuku is a major transportation hub with several overland and underground train lines converging at Shinjuku station. For those couples that don’t live together and especially for those who are separated by a long commute, Shinjuku represents a logical common ground in which intimacies might be exchanged. Even today, despite the cultural taboo of kissing openly in public, young couples can be frequently seen making out at Shinjuku station. It is precisely this cultural predicament, that making out in public is frowned upon, combined by the logistics of living in a megapolis in which couples are separated by extreme distances, that brings the lovers to Tokyo’s parks. Yoshiyuki’s photographic also precedes the widespread popularity of the ‘Love Hotels’, or establishments charging for a short ‘stay’, which became increasingly popular in the 1980s seeking to cover an obvious gap in the market.
In addition to the geographical specificities of dense urban living, Yoshiyuki’s The Park also evokes comparisons with cinematic trends in Japan at the time. Released in 1966, Shōhei Imamura’s iconoclastic film The Pornographers similarly deals with voyeurism and sexuality in Japanese culture. As film within a film, The Pornographers also seeks to reveal the very power (and limitations) of the cinematic apparatus itself. Like Yoshiyuki sneaking up to the voyeurs in Tokyo’s central park, Imamura depicts his subjects ostensibly in moments of looking. The central focus on the gaze in The Pornographers results in an extremely experimental and provocative form of visual communication. In one scene, the camera focuses on the main protagonist as he is watching a woman getting changed in her bedroom. In order to emulate the protagonist’s gaze sideways through the gap of a sliding door, the camera too is flipped on its side by 90 degrees. Like in Yoshiyuki’s nocturnal visits to the park, the viewer of the film becomes an unwitting accomplice while looking through the allegorical keyhole of the camera’s lens.
Because of its inventive camera techniques and angles, Shōhei Imamura’s The Pornographers would arguably also have an impact on American cinema. The classic scene in The Graduate (1967) in which Dustin Hoffman is depicted looking at Mrs. Robinson’s legs appears to be a close approximation of a similar scene in The Pornographers (1966). Yoshiyuki’s The Park too had a distinct effect on visual culture: in 2008, just a year after it was ‘re-discovered’, fashion photographer Steven Meisel’s series ‘Dogging’ unapologetically copies from Yoshiyuki’s acclaimed photographs.
The appropriation and re-appropriation of images that deal with the desire of (secretly) looking is perhaps less an indication of the social conditions in which they were produced in than it is an indication for how easily and universally such looking can have sexual connotations. Those who knowingly look at those who are unknowingly being looked at also exert a form of dominance over their subject. In this complex power dynamic, the photograph (or the film) acts as an active conduit which lays bare the deep desires and fears of controlling and being controlled. Located in the middle of Tokyo yet surrounded by nature, photographed in complete darkness yet fully visible, as the voyeurs in Yoshiyuki’s photographs sneak up to, watch, and sometimes even grab towards those couples they are looking at, The Park represents the topographical equivalent of a split personality disorder in which these desires and fears appear to be magnified through the lens of the camera.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
“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.
Guillaume Bertrand/Reuters, official caption in the New York Times reads “scuffles were reported between rock-throwing students and riot police firing tear-gas in the outlying neighborhoods of Nanterre and Mantes-la-Jolie.” 19th of Coctober, 2010.
It’s October 2010 and the protests against the pension reforms in France are turning violent. The visual representation of these manifestations, or manif in short, makes for rich material. In above photograph, the viewer (the person looking at the photograph) is situated behind the police cordon. This perspective is greatly affecting the reading of the image. The ideological implication here is that the police, or what Louis Althusser has called the Repressive State Apparatus, is protecting you, the viewer, from the ‘rock-throwing students’. The telephoto lens chosen by the news agency photographer is further signifying that the trouble makers should be kept at a distance and that the only buffer between you and them is the state apparatus. The focus, quite literally, is on the youths who are the source of violence and rioting. The rock one of the students is throwing can actually be seen flying through the air. It is a photograph that makes a clear distinction between two sides: the rioting youths on one side, the viewer on the other side, and the police in between.
Another aspect is quite striking in this photograph: all the subjects in the distance are masked. An immediate association might be with the masked faced of a guerrilla fighter, such as in Susan Meiselas’ iconic photographic series ‘Nicaragua’. The masked face of the students in the distance has important implications: as the identity of the students is unknown, their struggle too, is further disassociated from the viewer him or herself. The face mask, bandanna or the hoodie also further exoticises the students’ struggle. The viewer does not know who these people are and what they protest against. Is it really the pension reform? Particularly the hoodie evokes strong connotations of the banlieue and the ‘ethnic riots’ in France in 2008. The caption specifically refers to the Parisian suburbs Nanterre and Mantes-la-Jolie – suburbs that have large ethnic minorities and not coincidentally on the very periphery of the city. Again, the subject matter is located at a distance in relation to the viewer.
But the ‘hoodie’ is not a phenomenon specific to the Parisian suburbs or France in general. In the United Kingdom, the hoodie emerged in parallel to an unprecedented rise in surveillance technologies after the murder or James Bulger in 1993. The CCTV camera has become an omnipresent part of public (and sometimes private) life in Britain. The ‘hoodie’ simply preempts his surveillance by covering his face. The ‘hoodie’ is quite simply the logical consequence of a Big Brother society. As France is following Britain’s lead in terms of surveillance capabilities, the emergence of the ‘hoodie’ in the French suburbs came as a natural progression. Rather than signifying the violent struggle associated with guerrilla warfare, the face masks of the ‘rock-throwing students’ signifies the evolution of surveillance technologies in France.
As French students go on the barricades in October 2010, the inevitable comparison to the May 1968 protests will be made. There are a great number of similarities in how these events are photographically represented: the stone throwing student, the overturned and burning cars, the graffiti and banners contextualizing the desires of a generation. But the above photograph also greatly differs from the representation of students in 2010. Most importantly with regards to the emergence of a surveillance society, none of the students seek to cover their identity. Also, the vantage point of the camera is far more empathetic to the students hurling projectiles at the police, who are not even part of the photograph itself. I am of course using this comparison in order to exemplify a point here: that the representation of protest does give clues as to what type of a society this protest is occurring in. The black and white photograph taken in May 1968 is one of the most iconic representations of that event. I hesitate to guess that if a single iconic image will emerge from the ongoing protests in France, it will depict a masked man shot with a telephoto lens.
For more on this topic, please read Susie Linfield’s book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.