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