MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
Abridged remarks by Laurie Toby Edison, Kyoto, 1998
|I am examining the question of seeing and being seen in our respective cultures:
Who is seen and who is invisible? Who has the right to see, and who has the right
to be seen?
My role as a photographer is to make the invisible visible, and to reveal to people some of the things which the culture denies them - the right to see. Photography is an especially powerful tool for social change because it carries with it a profound sense of reality. And because we see photographs every day in the media and the newspapers, they become a central part of our social and psychological reality.
For centuries if not forever, the male gaze, men's view of the world, has constrained both my culture and yours. Historically, we see this, among other places, in the traditional gaze of the male artists whose works dominate the art world, and whose images of women have defined how women were seen. In the present time, this has been substantially replaced by the male gaze of popular culture and the media, which places different (and perhaps even more substantial) limitations on how women are allowed to be seen. Women internalize these strictures, self-censoring how we see both ourselves and other women.
The male gaze changes its image of beauty over the decades, over the centuries, and from culture to culture, but it seems to be inherently committed to the concept that there can be only one kind of beauty at a time. When women with large breasts are fashionably beautiful, women with small breasts cannot be. When short black hair is the ideal, there is no place for beautiful women with long blonde hair.
My entire portrait oeuvre is in opposition to this conceptualization: I believe that the most interesting ways to examine beauty are by looking at beauty in difference, at the vast range of body types, body shapes, and body varieties that can constitute beauty. Another way to say this is that I refuse to give up my right to see what I see; I refuse to be told by the male authorities what there is for me to see and what there is that I should not be allowed to see. And, once I see something, I claim the right to show others how I see it.
As a thin woman photographing fat women, I certainly have the gaze of the "other," but my work is still one of a very few examples of bringing an empathetic and inclusionary gaze to bear on a subject that the conventional gaze has ignored almost completely. Thus, in Women En Large I took on the task of making the invisible visible and, to the best of my ability, demonstrating the beauty in a group that had been cast aside as not worth looking at.
"Beauty" in the male-dominated culture is considered "feminine." In Familiar Men, I am engaged in (among other things) disconnecting beauty from gender and applying the word/concept to ordinary men. Not surprisingly, this causes the great discomfort and confusion which can help begin a redefinition of masculinity. Once again, I am exploring beauty in difference.
At least in the United States, male beauty is even more narrowly defined than female beauty. Once again, when I look at men I see a far wider range of beauty than the male gaze has ever acknowledged. On the other hand, when I photograph men, I can only photograph them as "other," as the female gaze encroaching on the territory of the bodies of the privileged, viewing them in a way that most male-identified artists choose not to see, depicting them in a way that the culture does not wish them to be seen. Part of my goal with this project is to capture a redefined masculine aesthetic, to offer a cross-section of how a wide variety of men look as individuals, when photographed in the same way that I photograph women.
When we see male nudes at all in the United States, they are primarily thin, buffed, white, and young . We have no visual access to the bodies of men we are familiar with, the skin colors and textures and shapes and postures of the real men we see every day.
Because of the different sexual roles of men and women in the culture, "nudity" itself is a variable rather than a constant. In images of women, any body revelation (the curve of a shoulder, the hint of an upper thigh) is perceived as nudity. Men, on the other hand, are not nude until the penis is revealed. The male bodies we see, nude or otherwise, are "armored" by the limited cliches of culturally approved presentation.
Many of my nudes (male and female) lack cues of armor or submission, of role, of status, of class. Some people immediately appreciate that level of reality. Others are simply disoriented, and unsure how to react. Some people find the men feminine and the women challenging. Men who are comfortable seem vulnerable, and some people identify all vulnerability with the feminine. Similarly, women who do not seem vulnerable, especially when nude, make others uncomfortable.
Underlying the concepts of the female gaze and beauty in difference is my initial question: Who has the right to define visibility, let alone beauty? It is only because we have been so overwhelmed by the dominance of the popular culture gaze that we have accepted the primacy of any gaze other than our own. A definition of beauty that is entirely interior and personal is radical. "I am beautiful because I choose to see and present myself as beautiful; your opinion is not at issue." In this context of the individual gaze, body image becomes more intricate and powerful. It can be based on how we look to ourselves, or on how we feel to ourselves. Body image can (and perhaps appropriately should) be at least partly defined by how we feel rather than how we look: sensation, tactility, health and well-being, all play a significant part in a healthy body image. Shifting the central concept of "body image" from who has the right to see and be seen, to who feels good and presents herself as looking as good as she feels, is as radical an act as can be conceived of at the end of the century.
If we can imagine a body image that is individual and not determined by anyone's distant gaze, that relies on difference rather than sameness, and that is sensual as well as visual, the entire universe of discourse shifts. In the new universe, everyone has the right to determine her or his own level of visibility and only his or her own, no one else's. My work allows both the people I photograph and the people who look at the photographs I take to define their own visibility, and hopefully expand their vision of beauty.