The Stage Director

The camera’s objective – and implicitly masculine – look has
been a topic of discussion for some time, especially when that gaze is directed
at women. So, what happens when the person taking the photo is a woman? I
intend to discuss in this post the women photographers who re-imagined the gaze
from male to female and where we stand currently from the 19th century
and where my role as a practitioner sits in the current climate to that of one
when photography was conceived as an art form.

Having just returned from just under a week in London, it
has taken me a week for what I took in to settle in my head before I felt I could
write anything about what I saw. I had a full itinerary that aimed at gaining a
wide range of art and theatre in the short time I was there. Albeit not all tied
to the discussion at hand but still had a lasting effect on logicising the trip.
The main aim was to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) print and
drawing room the conduct archival research on Julia Margaret Cameron.

I did conduct a series of archival trips to see her work during
my masters and she has always influenced my practice hugely. Mainly because she
went against the status quo of men with the camera trying to perfect the
technical aspects of the workings of a camera theorising that technology makes
you the best photographer. I have always had confidence in my artistic practice,
I feel like therefore I have connected to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron as
she had the same confidence in her work. Yet also the way in which she presented
a girl in front of a lens when photography was becoming an art form is one that
will be paramount to influence the practice of my PhD thesis.

Female practitioners were initially bound by the gendered
social structures of the 19th century, which restricted public spaces for women.
However, despite these limitations, the camera still has a liberating
influence. The purity of these early photographs was remarkably subversive, as
female photographers used the medium to explore gender, sexuality, and social
roles from a visual perspective. Modernity and diversity were being told
through a lens for the first time.

Despite the social structures set for women behind closed
doors they took their cameras and presented us with a photographic practice
that is still respected today in relation to the photographic canon. The
V&A has a page specifically relating to Julia Margaret Cameron opening
with “One of the most important
and innovative photographers of the 19th century”.

The V&A holds over 900 images
of Cameron’s work in which she is best known for her stunning portraiture, she
portrays sitters (friends, family members, servants) as characters in biblical,
historical, or allegorical stories. She was a visionary who believed in the
“divine” power of the medium, courageous in her compositional
experiments, and tenacious in promoting her work. Her photographs broke the
rules: They were intentionally out of focus and often contained scratches, dirt,
and other traces of the process. Her retention of the perfect image mimics not
only the characters but the status quo which I spoke about earlier.

Carol Mavor (1996) discusses Cameron
extensively in her book ‘Pleasures Taken’ she ties the notions of what a
typical role Cameron played in relation to her role as a woman in Victorian England.
She was a mother, and she sent letters every month living up to her societal role
as a woman, yet she adopted and took up photography later in her life aged forty-eight.
Mavor (1996) converses the role in which Cameron takes upon the camera, that
she is not only a performer but a stage director, this model of the role of the
photographer is one that deeply interests me as a practice-based doctoral researcher.
Mavor (1996) later debates Cameron’s use of religious typology and how she
controls a woman’s or girl’s sexuality within ‘a space of holy motherhood’ (p.47).
Images that are often literally blurry metaphorically move between categories,
blurring the lines between sexual and non-sexual, male, and female, earth, and
heaven. They move like ghosts, leaving the viewer at a loss as to what they are
looking at.


It is important at this point to understand the role which is played when entering the work of Cameron and the traction of entering an archive also. There is almost a privilege to be able to access the images from her archive and study them so effectively in person, there you sit with these girls she has presented to us through her lens, and we actively have conversations with them. The conversations are open yet intensified by the fact it is just you and them, no frame, no formality of an exhibition format. We have seen religious women presented to us through art for centuries, hung on the walls of grand halls. This brings a familiarity that we feel as if we know these characters which she presents in front of her lens.

As I lifted each individual image holding each opposite corner to ensure the print stayed safe in its removal from the archival box. I am placed at the desk to which I have been assigned by the archivist; each girl made a play for my gaze, some struck me as stern, some passive, and some connect my gaze in other ways that are quite hard for me to explain. I interact with the form and the subjects better than I can ever do online or even in an exhibition. The handwritten notes on the back of the images, the handwritten signatures of Cameron and her titled images give them a deeper form than any internet search could give me. The conventionalism within the practice is something that, I aim, in time to connect with the viewer in the same way through my own practice. How does the role I play as the photographer/artist gain a better connection with the viewer? and how can I explore this further within the practice? I feel like the active intention when presenting the characters that Cameron has created will be mimicked within the role of myself behind the lens.

Mavor’s (1996) discussion of Cameron as a stage director really gave me an imperative mechanism to focus on when attending the archive. I have always used performers instead of models in my work because there has always been an interlinking brief to the characterisation that sits up front in my images so it felt relatable to be classed as a director rather than a photographer. Yet, if I was to put myself into this role now (which I intend on doing) how would the images of girls come out? The characters which Cameron presented through her lens we could say were that of ‘popular culture’ of the 19th century. So incidental, am I not reappropriating the exact same approach to my artistic practice as Cameron did? I feel like the answer is yes. She is presenting characters she knew and were in the social construct of her era to recreate in a singular form, frozen in time and for her to be able to be moulded and guided by the viewer. The intention is for me to take the characters which I will create from millennial popular culture, taking the role of the stage director and presenting them via moving images. 


Reference:

Mavor, C. (1996) Pleasures taken. LONDON: TAURIS.

Rexer, R. (2016) The history of photography through Women’s Eyes, Apollo Magazine. Available at: https://www.apollo-magazine.com/the-history-of-photography-through-womens-eyes/ (Accessed: November 17, 2022).

Smith, L. (1998) The Politics of Focus: Women, children, and nineteenth-century photography. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

V&A · Julia Margaret Cameron (no date) Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/julia-margaret-cameron (Accessed: November 17, 2022). 


The sweetest honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness

Twenty-Five years after its release Romeo and Juliet directed by
Baz Luhrmann still leaves a lasting impact on pop culture today (Conway, 2021).
Discussing the conception of the renaissance ideology of the female adolescent
seems crucial to my thesis even if it leaves me down a path that I turn back
on.

Baz Luhrmann’s take on Shakespeare’s classic is embedded into my
own concept of ‘adolescence’ as this is one of the very first introductions to girl-gone
pop culture. The clothing, the music, the dreamy boys she was stuck between, every
party I wanted to attend, every person I wanted to be friends with everything
about this film to me as a young millennial was picture-perfect, even if the
tragedy of the story was not.


Celebrations surrounding the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary concluded
in 2021, Baz Luhrmann himself shared an epic catalogue of past footage and
archival material of the film on Instagram. I will admit that I am an avid Luhrmann
fan, as a lover of all things fashion and music his films give me a completely satisfactory
experience as a viewer, and I aim in this post, to conceptualise the experience
I speak of in relation to critical theory.


Understanding the working process of Luhrmann, he states in an
interview ‘if Shakespeare was around today, how would he tell his stories?’
(Luhrmann, 1996). Kym Barrett, costume designer of the film told NYLON magazine
in a phone interview in 2022; that they (her and Luhrmann) wanted them (the
audience) to be immediately drawn to this version of Romeo and Juliet, in our
time with these young characters that people can associate with, even in the
culture of the religion causing their division. The use of religious iconography
throughout the film, coming from an atheist has never crossed my mind as being
something that sat at the forefront of what I recognise about this film. The
fashion, the contemporary feel, and the Americanization of such a fundamental historic
literary text from British culture (albeit set in Italy) but performed as a
play at the globe theatre in London. These are the books we learn in school the
ones we involuntary read within our educational system. Yet what Luhrmann did
with his 1996 remake was make Shakespeare accessible by engraining it into the
popular culture canon of the millennial era.


Elsie Walker (2000) notes the criticism of Luhrmann’s remake (mainly
from magazine and film reviews) that they tended to dismiss the film as “MTV
Shakespeare” describing it as mindless visual candy we usually see in pop and
rock videos. The MTV aesthetic that is engrained in nineties culture is one
that will have allowed Luhrmann to connect to a viewer that he never would have
had he made a traditional retelling of the film. Like MTV videos, the film contains a hail of imagery and
music; it’s a postmodern assault on the senses, one I can confirm gives me a
complete and satisfactory experience as a millennial. The film demands further
than an unresistant response. In the viewing process, the followership may
shape the ‘raw material of the film’, as Lorne Buchman (1991) writes in her
book ‘Shakespeare on Screen’, this material is offered to us as an open
structure to be classified in the viewing process.


Walker (2000) later discusses the
roles in which we are introduced to the characters in Luhrmann’s adaptation of nostalgia
where we are introduced to each character like that of a soap opera. This
really interests me as a viewer and as an artist that intends on using moving images
as well as stills in the works that I aim to create over the period of my PhD.
The dramatised characterisation is one that I think is something I have always
done in my photographic practice in the past, yet the role in which she has
stayed stagnant in a photograph or photo frame (in exhibition format) how can I
use the soap opera concept to bring her to life? Further, into Walker’s discussion,
she discusses the use of ‘high’ culture being the work of Shakespeare and ‘low’
culture the use of pop culture two very contradictory concepts that have been
met within one film. The use of high and low culture seems to embed the
systematic work of those females working in the arts, particularly in the photographic
canon of women representing women to us for example Cindy Sherman, Juno Calypso,
et al. It is the re-presentation of the characters we already know, using
popular culture the dialogue between what we already know and what we do not. I
do not feel like right now is the time to discuss this further, I do intend to
discuss this in its own blog post after some considered research, so I will
return to the discussion of the ‘girl’ in Shakespeare.


Driscoll (2002) notes that Shakespeare changed the age of Juliet
from eighteen or sixteen to only the age of thirteen. Driscoll discusses Ann
Cook who describes the transition from age twelve to age fourteen as a ‘ripe
age’, a contemporary term for denoting physical maturity. It is very important
to understand the current legislation that we as girls live under and the historical
complexities to understanding the Renaissance era is a lot harder than looking
at a Regency and Victorian context as their laws are not as widely available as
contemporary laws. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
expressed concern about the sexual exploitation of young girls in London in the
1800s. A press campaign on the subject in 1885 persuaded Congress to pass the
Criminal Law Amendment Act. The point is, that it seems there has been an urban
myth in relation to the understanding of Juliet’s age in relation to sexual
maturity. Lawrence Stone (1977) notes in his historic book The Family, Sex
and Marriage
that it is but the sheer fantasy that adolescence only became
a social problem in the nineteenth century.


This leads me to the beginning of the archival photographic
understanding of ‘the girl’ and where this research will aim to shift now is to
look at the performance in which she was presented to us within the nineteenth-century
photographic canon. Looking at how the girl has presented to us since the
conception of ‘media’ as a premise is going to give me a substantial argument to
support my PhD, evidence is not going to be easily found, but I guess that’s
why I have three years to get to the bottom of the problem at hand. Although I have
particularly kept the time frame of my PhD to the nineteenth and twentieth century
there will be elements of paths that need to be explored much to this post, I have
gained a better understanding of the historical context of when a girl was ‘available’
and when she was not.



Reference:


Buchman, L.M. (1991) Still in
movement: Shakespeare on Screen
. New York: Oxford University Press.

Conway, J. (2021) Director Baz
Luhrmann reflects on the 25th anniversary of his beloved ‘romeo + juliet’
storytelling
, Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Available at:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffconway/2021/11/11/director-baz-luhrmann-reflects-on-the-25th-anniversary-of-his-beloved-romeo–juliet-storytelling/?sh=457e1a176488
(Accessed: October 28, 2022).

Driscoll, C. (2002) Girls:
Feminine adolescence in popular culture & cultural theory
. New York:
Columbia University Press.

History of child protection in the
UK
(no date) NSPCC Learning. Available at:
https://learning.nspcc.org.uk/child-protection-system/history-of-child-protection-in-the-uk
(Accessed: October 28, 2022).

Lodi, M. (2021) 14 fashion
facts from the 1996 film ‘romeo + juliet’
, Nylon. Nylon. Available
at: https://www.nylon.com/fashion/romeo-and-juliet-costumes-1996-fashion
(Accessed: October 29, 2022).

Stone, L.(H. (1977) The family,
sex and marriage in England: 1500-1800
. New York: Harper & Row.

Walker, E. (2000) Pop goes the
Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo …
, Pop
goes the Shakespeare: Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet
.
Literature/Film Quarterly; Salisbury Vol. 28, Iss. 2. Available at:
https://www.proquest.com/openview/5d5da9d739e4b213/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=5939
(Accessed: October 29, 2022).


Hello..I guess..

It has been a while since I embarked upon something that has
got me excited in a while. The past few years post MA and not shortly followed by
a global pandemic meant that photographic practice and even the engagement in
research or the industry took a huge back seat in my life. I must admit guilt
was an overpowering factor…How could I spend all this time working so hard to
train as a lecturer to have the pleasure of inspiring others (just like my
lecturers did with me) to just go back to working a normal job? Well guess what?
it was the best thing I ever did. I have got to be thankful I was able to financially
support myself easily in taking some time at home. My mental health ended in a sorry
situation last year and although the intention to embark the PhD was last year,
I am ever thankful for my family and friends for keeping me supported in a time
I shut down.

Here we are it is the end of October 2022 and I have just
returned to Manchester Metropolitan University to embark on my practice-based PhD.
What this blog will intend to do is give me the space and fraction to discuss
the matters that arise in a controlled space, basically a space to argue with
myself. I intend to use this space to discuss the associations surrounding the
sexualisation of female adolescence that will contribute towards my PhD thesis
and creating a practice with this research as its praxis.

Now to put the PhD into context; the intention of this PhD will be to
compare common tropes that connect the ‘girl’ in the Victorian photographic
archive to the millennial girl in popular media. Questions surrounding this are
to include - What are the consequences for the forms of partialities placed on girls
through these discourses? How have these discourses been contested before? How
do they interpolate and in what way? How are girls sexualised differently
through them? And how are they implicated in the process by which modern
notions of personhood and individuality began to be understood as forms of
identification culturally available to and socially desirable? The aim is that
these discourses participate in the forging of a new relationship between the
Victorian girl and the Millennial girl.

While new forms of gender and its meanings are created through the
forces of this convergence throughout millennial culture, femininity is
concurrently being recoded and reworked along familiar tensions,
contradictions, and ambivalences seen in the Victorian archive (Gonick, 2006).
St. Pierre (2000) outlines, as a method of analysis, analysis is not about
pointing out an error but about looking at how a structure has been
constructed, what holds it together, and what it produces. Thus, I seek to
investigate the contemporary conditions of Girlhood (the Victorian girl) and
Girl Power (the millennial girl)—two seemingly contradictory discourses—to
circulate as powerful postmodern truths about the sexualisation of girls and
girlhood.

This study draws on some adolescent characters from photography,
literature, and film to suggest ways of examining the cultural resonance of
contemporary depictions of adolescence. The mid-19th century was central to the
establishment of psychoanalytic concepts of sexuality and identity that
intertwined the narratives of photography and portraiture (Grant, 2006). The
conversation surrounding the construction of the girl we see in the Victorian
archive in comparison to the commercialisation of her within popular culture
will expose further fields of enquiry that will grant supplementary avenues to
explore throughout a practice. The importance of the use of photographic
practice in the methodology is to use the exact tool that has been used to
present girls to us. By using a camera, we can re-present the findings creating
new avenues of discourses that will be focal to the methodologies used within
this thesis. Ultimately the intention is to rigorously select common findings
such as poses, styling, and composition (as a rough guide) used in photography
and associated media to present the girl to us and take these findings to then
use within the practice elements that can then be explored via new avenues of
display and presentation.

I am hoping that with sharing this journey specifically together
with my photographic and artistic practice you will gain a better and more rounded
understanding of not only the research behind it but the person behind the work.
I have a lived experience of millennial culture and the fabrications of all things
girl from Clueless to the Spice Girls, whom to this day I love more than ever.
Yet the fabrication of my youth has had a detrimental effect on me, and my expectations
of life and I aim to create a practice that embodies the role in which the girl/woman
plays in front and behind the camera.

The next blog posts will be particularly discussions around the
construction of the girl in social and historical constructs with links to
female artists/photographers and archival research. 

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