That Sexualising Experiment

This week I asked Lois to guest on my blog and tell you all about why she chose to make these images with me and how is felt to see herself that way. Her response is fascinating!

“Allie’s work is so soulful and focuses on authenticity, the “real” person behind the image - I was so impressed by her emotive portraiture and diverse representations of beauty. When she asked me what I would like to shoot as part of my Miss Violet Loves Vintage contest prize I thought it would be interesting to explore something I had always wanted to understand in my academic work, which in some ways is a real contrast to Allie’s usual work as it involves playing with imagery generally focused towards the male gaze. I really wanted to understand what it felt like to be photographed within the visual codes of sexuality pressed upon the women of old Hollywood, from its infancy onwards. One of the most striking and fascinating images is that of the film noir femme fatale, a woman who is both enabled and trapped onscreen by her unbridled sexuality. I was so delighted when Allie showed such enthusiastic interest in this probably quite bizarre idea, and I think together we created some fascinating images. One of the key focuses of my academic work is the relationship between clothing and the coding of the bodily form itself, so in styling this shoot I really thought about how the body itself was shaped to a filmic ideal using methods such as corsetry and cosmetics. I think it’s interesting to see a body here within these visual codes that is not only my own but which is a statistical average in the UK - this image isn’t just of “me” but could be countless women across the country. The question I really wanted to ask is could any girl be an Old Hollywood femme fatale, and would she want to be? 

The session itself was an absolute joy - Allie is so comfortable to work with and was great at directing me, both in playing up to this image and trying to find my own position within it. We experimented with both conventional male-focused imagery, which involved passive engagement with the camera and sexualised poses, as well as more confrontational and even relaxed posturing, looking head-on into the lens.  What really struck me during this session is the manner in which actions and poses which can feel incredibly unnatural (and at times even silly - Allie and I had a lot of laughs during this shoot!) look so “normal” in the finished image - I think we are so used to seeing these kind of sexualised angles and poses that they somehow appear to be more normal to the viewer than a fully relaxed, head-on shot. In a similar vein, I somehow felt more vulnerable when asked to entirely relax in front of the camera than when I was actively posing - the exaggerated pose felt so key to the femme fatale look. I absolutely adore the photographs Allie produced because they aren’t simply a recreation of the film noir femme fatale imagery that I was initially inspired by - instead, they are a representation of women in the 21st Century, in front of and behind the camera, playing with these images to generate something new and question this existing visual trope. The whole time that I was enjoying being photographed by Allie I had to remember that this process probably wasn’t the same for the women who had come before me in the largely patriarchal early 20th Century film industry - I could walk away at any time with no repercussions, had chosen to present myself in this way with full control of my own image and how it would be used and was being photographed and directed by a woman who actively encouraged me to play with and question these norms. 

Seeing myself presented in this way was a little jarring, but ultimately very pleasing - I really did look like a film noir femme fatale, despite how contorted or odd some of these poses and expressions may have felt! This demonstrated to me that despite my body being somewhat different to that of the conventional Old Hollywood actress, it was the actual codes - of dress, of pose, of lighting and technique - that produced this effect, rather than the body’s shape or size itself, and I think this is a finding that could also translate to high fashion imagery (perhaps this is a hypothesis to test another time!). In short, I think that every woman could present herself as an Old Hollywood femme fatale, and that this experience can certainly be enjoyable and allow you to see your own body and your understanding of the production of these images themselves in a whole new light. But one might also wish to think about the history and significations of this quite loaded imagery first, and seek to gain more agency over it - Allie is a truly excellent photographer to help you find your own way to do this. For this reason, I think my favourite image from the session is one in which I am applying lipstick with a long brush while using a compact mirror. At first glance, this is a very conventional sexualised image, which felt incredibly unnatural and artificial during shooting - I couldn’t even see my own face in the mirror. Yet I look almost aggressively towards the camera, with a gaze of challenge rather than aloof allure. Unlike the film noir femme fatale, I doubt the woman in that image could ever be trapped.” 

By Lois Barnett

Every Body Has a Story to Tell.

“Every Body Has a Story to Tell“ If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, why are we fed so much imagery about what we are supposed to look like?” A series by R.A. Tinoko that challenges traditional notions of beauty and revels in the supple forms of the human body, (link below). 

I have just written an email to a charity I am working for. I wanted to introduce myself to the models. About 20 women would love to be photographed to raise awareness for Sam’s Diamonds - a charity in the North West who support women surviving cancer. They help them to build a new life and future. It made me think about how I am drawn to stories of transition. When life falls apart, how do we pick ourselves up and build a new one? I have been there. When I was about 27 my life fell apart, it was built on sand anyway. Denying my childhood abuse until it nearly killed me. I decided if I fell apart it was an opportunity to start over. You may have been there too, left one life to form another? Brutal and horrific isn’t it? Cross your fingers it doesn’t destroy you. 

My scars are on the inside. These women have surgical scars. They have been or are very ill.  “Everybody Has a Story to Tell” can you show scars and still show beauty? I believe so. I do it as a photographer often. Jude asked how I had made her look so beautiful and I replied that I hadn’t re- touched at all. That was the real Jude. Through my eyes. It does not have to be conventional beauty. Repeat.

I Need a Story

It would be fair to say that being driven is natural to me, how about you? I like to work and get consumed by a project. I find “down” time unnerving! Can you just hang out and chill? Me neither. I have finished a series of portraits and they took a year. The picture in this blog was the beginning.  Now I am lost for something to say. I know I will have a new project with a new story - but can you imagine how to keep me riveted for a whole year? 

I have a few ideas, people I wish to meet, two new charities, and maybe I will want to tell their story, but it has to be personal too because  portrait photographers tell their own story and their subjects story. We mix it together. You know when I post an image and you think it is terrific, those photos contain more than one person, they get complex. I need a rest and to spend hours looking at photographers work that I admire, but I kind of miss the energy and passion I feel when I am “inside” a piece of work. 

My yoga teacher Amanda told me that how we cope on the mat is connected to how we cope off the mat. So on the mat I am trying to learn. Why push myself through pain (mental or physical) when I could step back and learn to just flow. Or drift a while - even writing that alarms me!

So if you know of a story share it with me. I am all ears!

Here is a link to a beautiful story in an imagined world about the people who faced the Nazis in the 1930s. He shot it recently, because he was connected to the story of the human emotions. He tell it in pictures.

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