I, Object!

August 23rd, 2008

While working on my Women’s Studies degree at UC Berkeley in the 80s, sustained on a steady diet of pizza and Andrea Dworkin, I wrote a paper in which I argued that any so-called erotic art that depicted a woman was by its very nature pornographic. It was primarily an intellectual exercise; “radical” though I was, even I didn’t completely believe it.

Two decades after matriculating I find myself revisiting this line of thought. This was prompted by the work of a local photographer whose images consist primarily of women’s buttocks, often pictured alongside toys. The titles of these pieces suggest that the women’s bodies were used (and I think “used” is the accurate word here) to make jokes. For example, photos which included astronaut figurines were entitled, “Ass-tronomical” and “Moon Walk.” The astronauts even had a little flag, ready to stake their claim to the territory.

Some viewers found these photos “funny.” I’m no prude but, at the risk of playing into the feminist stereotype, I found these images offensive.

Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: That’s not funny.

– Popular antifeminist “humor”

During the time I was at UC Berkeley, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted their Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance. One scenario in which work would be defined as pornographic was “the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women… presented as sexual objects for domination, conquest, violation, exploitation, possession, or use, or through postures or positions of servility or submission or display.”1 Another source included instances in which “women’s body parts-including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks-are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts.”2 To me these images clearly meet the letter of the ordinance, and represent a violation of the women’s civil rights. Do they meet the “spirit” as well? Does it matter?

“What’s your definition of dirty baby?
What do you consider pornography?”

Edward Weston, Nude, 1936

– George Michaels

I have long looked forward to the challenge of working with models–specifically female models–to stretch myself creatively and personally. I have no particular desire to take portraits per se, but rather to focus on the beautiful lines, angles, and curves of the human body. I also have no particular desire to photograph nudes. What then would I photograph? A leg, an arm, a turned head?

According to one source, Dworkin and MacKinnon worded the “body parts” test as “Women are presented as sexual objects tied up or cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt, or as dismembered or truncated or fragmented or severed into body parts.”3 Although my photographs would not be sexual, and there is no gruesome dismemberment involved, would my “fragmenting” the model into body parts be–if not pornographic–then at least objectifying? Is this treating the woman who is modelling for me as an object, or at least presenting her as such?

As Betty Friedan said, “Feminism is about choices.” I’d like to think that any photo of a woman taken by a man is not inherently objectifying. That she and I both have choices. I’d like to think that intent has at least some part in this. If I treat the model with respect, in the “postures or positions” selected, and in the overall presentation of the work, doesn’t that make all the difference in the world? Would she then not be the object of my work, but the subject?

Michael Singman-Aste
Postdiluvian Photo

2 Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antipornography_Civil_Rights_Ordinance

One response to “I, Object!”

  1. Sue Bright says:

    I think photography is an objectifying art expression, but not necessarily a bad objectifying art expression. It is unrealistic to think the subject has any large control over the final image (even before photoshop), because it is the photographer who has the preview of the image and who desides when to snap the shutter to capture that image. The subject may have an idea of what the image looks like but hardly accurate in most cases – take Diane Arbus for instance, of whom I’m a great fan.
    If this is to be believed then we are already starting off on shakey legs.
    Women being photographed nude whole or in parts, beautiful or not, is going to be suspicious whether the photographer is a man or woman. It’s really the view of society
    at large that determines what is pornographic or not, and of course this changes over time. Some view that hasn’t changed too much over time is men and their relationship with sex. Unfortunately men do not come out so untarnished in this area. So now we have 2 strikes against the male photographer and the female nude.
    Then their is the audience for which the photograph should appeal – you can see how messy this is getting.
    Men and women’s sexual relationship to one and other does not have to be that one is objectified and when both take pleasure in this relationship it is quite beautiful.
    To get across the idea that the subject is enjoying the role of model and is giving freely
    her image might be a beginning of dealing with the questions posed by the femnist point of view.
    Eroticism and pornography are not related and to tell the difference is in the eye of the beholder. It becomes a personal affair between photographer and model and at some point we, the viewer, will need to deside if the model is there because she wants to be,
    not because she needs to be or must be.

    I realize we have been writing about the heterosexual relationship but the same issues would apply for any photograper/model relationship.
    And maybe that’s the bottom line – it’s the relationship that counts.

Leave a Reply