In my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh, I discovered the world of avant-garde filmmaking. In the 1970s Pittsburgh was considered the third coast of avant-garde film, and many noted filmmakers visited and made movies there. Stan Brakhage was one of these film artists; since his death in 2003 he has been acclaimed one of the great visual artists of the 20th century.8 Through a series of circumstances, I volunteered to participate in making a film with Brakhage, thinking I would be involved in something technical, but instead I was asked to be the nude female form for his film Sexual Meditation: Room with View and later Sexual Meditation: Office Suite. After making this film, I became a ‘nude model’ for both painters and photographers as a way to support myself as a student and aspiring film artist. This was occasioned by necessity: my father, trapped in the normative discourse on appropriate vocations for women, did not believe in supporting a girl’s college education (though he had supported my older brother). Modelling was more flexible and provided greater income than most other jobs open to a teenage girl trying to support herself.
8Fred Camper, http://www.fredcamper.com/Film/Brakhage4.html. Fred Camper is an art critic and has taught film history extensively at the School of Art, Institute of Chicago.
Being a model for figure artists in a drawing class was an odd experience. I had anticipated experiencing terrible shame, but I quickly adapted to my body being an object for the artists’ gaze as I stood at a distance from them on a stage and remained still as they sketched or painted me. Perhaps I adapted quickly because, even as a young woman, I had experienced a lifetime of living as ‘a-being-to-be-looked-at’ and thus it was a familiar experience (Young 2005; Mulvey 2009, p. 19). However, being photographed was very different; I experienced an embodied disturbance that I could not put into words. For example, one of the male artists made an extensive series of photographs where the mounds and contours of my nude body seemed to me to suggest a sensuous natural landscape – woman and ‘the feminine’ having long been conflated with ‘nature’ and ‘spatiality’ in the Western metaphysical tradition (Grosz 1995; Young 2005). The photographer posed me in various settings and positions in order to obtain the particular composition he wanted. This usually involved being very close to my nude body. I often could feel his arousal and I experienced his passion for his work as possibly disguised passion for my body, but since generally only his camera ‘touched’ me, I did not know how to think about this and somehow tolerated the disturbance generated in me. Perhaps this disturbance emerged because I did not expect to be the object of the other’s fantasy (Broucek 1991), which may have resulted in a feeling of personal boundary violation (Horne 2008). However, if under the patriarchal gaze my body is not my own (Grosz 1994, 1995), then I could not articulate this as a violation, but only as a shameful disturbance. Despite these feelings, I allowed the photographer to ‘capture’ me on film and to transform his gaze upon my body into something to be displayed and looked upon by the spectator gaze of others. In appreciation for my work, he gave me copies of the photos and proof sheets for my gaze.
During this time, while I was supporting myself as a model, I was struggling to ‘be’ an artist—one who actively gazes—and not ‘just’ a model—one that is passively gazed at. So, in addition to my involvement in the art and filmmaking communities, I took a university course in film production. For this class, we were required to make a short film as our final assignment in lieu of a written final examination. My identity as a ‘good student’ was much stronger than my identity as a ‘questioning artist’, and so as my deadline approached, the anxiety of a graded examination (though in the form of a film) sent me to the brink of madness; I had internalized the policing gaze of the examiner that demanded compliance.9 I remember that just days before the film assignment was due, I was pacing in my studio apartment simply frantic believing that I had no ideas and no vision of my own to draw upon as an artist. The passive female, the compliant student, and the radical artist identities were generating a maddening conflict in ‘me’ (Austin 2009).
9According to Foucault (1975, p. 187), ‘the examination’ is actually a form of power, which holds subjects in a ‘mechanism of objectification’. It is a disciplinary technique that transforms the individual into a ‘case’ that can be described, judged, measured, compared with others and therefore who can be corrected, classified, normalized, and excluded (ibid, p. 191). The examination emerged in the schools of the Enlightenment as one method of creating the ‘docile body’ that serves the interests of power in the modern industrial age (ibid, pp. 135–69).
While in this state of anxiety, my recent lived experiences unexpectedly emerged as the idea that I could film myself, my naked fleshy body, and contrast that perspective with all the still photographs I had been given. Thus, without consciously realizing what I was doing, I would move from being a static gazed- upon object to an active desiring subject (I wanted to be a cinematographer – a subject – and not just a model – an object). I captured this in the film’s title: Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer.
The film was created in one feverish night of activity; as I was gazing at my own body, I was able to edit the film in the camera as I was shooting it. For the opening, I created a montage of the still photographs taken of me by the male photographer. The opening shot establishes the setting as a photographic session between a photographer and model: Naked, I casually sit with my arms folded over my legs in a photographic studio with a camera tripod placed in front of me while gazing directly into the camera. Next follows a series of still photos filmed in a staccato rhythm in order to emphasize their passive, object- like nature. This is in contrast to the eroticized quality of the photos themselves; they are sensually signified by conforming to the lighting and composition codes of photography that create the patriarchal ideal of an attractive young female (Mulvey 2009, p. 19). When I saw these photos through my own ‘male’ gaze,10 I experienced them as very ‘flattering’, but also as disturbingly ‘not me’.11
10In Throwing Like a Girl, Iris Marion Young (2005) explicates the dilemma for women living the female body as both involvement-in-the-world and as an object like any other object in the world. When a woman lives her body as an object in the patriarchal world she is casting the ‘male’ gaze upon herself, which inhibits involved living and a fluid subjectivity.
11After writing this description of my confused disturbance at the images being both ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, I read Sue Austin’s description of how living with the enigmatic alien messages of the unconscious alien other within feels ‘both profoundly “me” and “not-me” at the same time’ (2009, p. 586).
I inter-cut these sensual photographs with shots of photographic proof pages – these are the photographic sheets developed directly from the strips of negative film, which show every picture the photographer has taken on an entire roll of film including the sprocket holes of the film itself. At the time I made the film, I thought of the proof sheets with their sprocket holes as a device12 where I revealed that there was a person (the male photographer) who had made these pictures of a nude model. Then, the last still photograph is a close-up ‘head shot’ of me looking over my shoulder and staring directly and penetratingly into the camera; the shot is held for a longer time than the others and then fades to black, creating an uncanny feeling. In this gaze of direct address,13 I would like to think that I was challenging the viewer of this film to see me as a subject. I think of the use of these two devices – the proof sheets and close-up gazing into the camera – as a postmodern act of reminding the viewer that the image is a photograph of a woman that was shot by a man who is being filmed by a woman but the image is not actually the woman – think of Magritte painting the image of a pipe with the caption he has written on the painting saying ‘This is not a pipe’ (Foucault 1982; Foster et al 2004).
12A ‘device’ in art is a term that refers to any way in which the work of art breaks down or defamiliarizes our automatic ways of perceiving or reveals to our perception something that was there all along but unseen. The use of devices results in a feeling of ‘strangeness’ or ‘estrangement’ in the viewer (Foster et al 2004, p. 35).
13In Notes on ‘The Gaze’, Daniel Chandler identifies the key forms of gaze in photographic and film texts. One form of the gaze is called the ‘direct address’; this entails the gaze of a person looking ‘out of the frame’ at the viewer and is a demand upon the viewer (as the object of the look) to enter into a relationship with the one directly gazing out of the frame (1998).
Following this fade to black, there are no more still photographs or static images – everything moves. The second part of the film begins with the camera panning over a hand-written poster of the film’s title – Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer. This is followed by a moving image of a mirror in which is reflected the head and the frontal torso of the naked cinematographer holding the camera to her eye and filming herself in the mirror. This shot heralds my transition from object to subject; I am announcing that I am the active agent as the cinematographer controlling the film viewer’s gaze and revealing that there is someone – an active subject – behind the movie camera. However, as Lacan has written, the mirror both creates and reveals the illusion of a unified and coherent subject (Grosz 1990; Melchior-Bonnet 2002; Mulvey 2009). Thus, ‘I’ both reveal myself and conceal myself in this mirror shot. I reveal the illusion of myself as a coherent subject, but I am also concealing the fragmented nature of self – the multiple identities I live – with this illusion of coherence.
In this second part of the film, I wanted to film ‘me’ as I, through my gaze, experienced my embodiment. I held the camera closely to my eye and filmed my body only as I would actually be able to see it if my eye were ‘naked’. The result of this technique is that my body never appears as a static or unified entity, but only as active and moving and always only as disconnected parts. When one shot cuts to the next the impact of the change creates fragments, jarring movements, and flashes of uncertain imagery that evoke a feeling of disturbance. In contrast to the mirrored self, I reveal my dismembered body and by implication the fragmented self.
Through use of the imagination, I will try to evoke for the reader some of the moving film images: With the eye of the camera, the cinematographer ‘I’ looks down at my breast and nipple and then from outside the frame my hand enters the picture and covers my breast. In the next shot, I see only a roll of flesh with a navel. Looking down from a seated position, I see my hair-covered pubic mound and my thighs held tightly together and then as I open my thighs and my knees separate, a triangle of space is created and my calves and my feet-with-their-soles touching come into view and I wiggle my toes. I turn the camera and the room around my body spins until the camera/eye settles on one buttock and part of my back and shoulder; then spinning the other direction, I see the side of my body and part of the other buttock appears. I see my hand reaching into an undefined space as my fingers open and close. Then I see a hand touching my forearm; later a hand strokes the calf of my leg.
For the last shot, I break the subjective point of view with an extreme close-up of one eye staring directly into the camera; in order to film my eye, I had to set the camera on a surface and point it at myself. The eye stares intently, closes, and then opens slowly and deliberately – it is not a seductive ‘wink’. (Briefly jumping ahead let me share that I was later criticized by a fellow student that the shot ‘should’ have been a wink.) The cinematographer’s eye is now seen by the mechanical eye and ‘I’ am intently gazing at ‘You’. This shot is a reprise of the direct gaze at the end of part one, but now distilled down from a young woman’s face to only her eye – the eye no longer an organ of perception but a signifier of the gaze – a powerful demand for a response from the viewer.
In the next few days, the film was ready to be shown in my class. I clearly remember the light mood of the classroom as students showed brief comedies and dramas and action narrative films. Each film was met with ‘appropriate’ laughter or applause and an approving comment by the professor. Then I showed my film. When the film ended, there was a ‘thunderous’ silence. No applause. No comments. Just silence. The shock and shame that I experienced in the wake of this silence was immense. I felt as if the gaze of all the viewers had turned on me with horror. The only way at the time I could make sense of the silence was that my film was ‘bad’, and, therefore, not worthy of a response. Or, alternatively, that my body – my self – was ‘bad’. Sadly, my 19-year-old self did not have any way to signify and thus reflect at all upon the traumatic impact of the silence that created the shame that overcame me.14 It has only been through the re-telling of this story that I have come to realize that my feelings of being ‘bad’ were linked to my radically challenging the objectifying male gaze and transgressing normative discourse.15 Although I went on to have a first career as a documentary filmmaker, I never again attempted to make ‘art’. I was a woman who gave support to Jung’s statement: ‘and this unexpected shock may injure her, perhaps fatally’. The artist, depicted as both gazing and gazed at, had been dealt a fatal blow.
14As in much conceptual art, the intensely uncanny feeling generated in the spectators by this film might also be related to the ways in which conceptual art challenges the very subject/object dichotomy itself by denying the existence of an ‘image within a frame’ and generating instead a sense of presence that transcends both subject and object (Darling 2009, p. 22).
15Mulvey (1975) explains that it is only through the challenge of the radical filmmakers that the cinematic codes that create woman as spectacle will be broken down, freeing the gaze of the camera and spectator (p. 27).