After finding aspects of Stuart Hall’s text difficult to grasp in parts I turned to a chapter from Photography: A Critical Introduction (edited by Liz Wells) to try and get a better handle on the relevance of psyschoanalytic theory to photography criticism. It explains Freud’s take on voyeurism and fetishism clearly and concisely.
Representations of the human body have become a central part of photographic practice and consequent critical discussion since the 1980s. Numerous issues have driven this – body politics, feminist challenges to the representation of the female body, the AIDS crisis, censorship struggles and the foregrounding of issues around gender and sexuality. Henning’s piece discusses how the human body is represented photographically, both in a historical and a contemporary context.
She commences with a description of some historical attemps to use photography to read the human body. Physiognomy and phrenology were employed from the mid 19th century onwards as a means of classifying people according to social and racial types, with photography acting as the key enabler of this. While these ideas have long been discredited, both John Tagg and Allan Sekula have pointed out that they continue to be used as a form of social control by way of photographic police archives. The implicit racism of these 19th Century ideas were later made explicit via Nazism, with its insistence on the moral superiority of certain races and classes.
Henning then turns to the central theme of the piece, which is how gender and sexuality are represented photographically. Erotica typically works by employing a set of signifiers designed to indicate sexual availability of the female to the heterosexual male viewer. A process of objectification reduces the female to an object for the male gaze and this is not confined to erotica but evident across a wide range of photographic practices – Advertising being a prime example. As John Berger and others have pointed out though, this objectification exists in everyday life already, with women colluding in a culture that encourages them to put themselves on display for male appraisal. Since photography by nature objectifies anything it photographs, the result is a form of double objectification that has important consequences for everyday life and social relations.
Psychoanalytic theory can be employed as a means of investigating these issues, in particular Freud’s elucidation of the concepts of voyeurism and fetishism. Freud would maintain that visual pleasure is rooted in childhood experiences, and he refers to this as scopophilia, which means to take pleasure in looking. This has an erotic dimension and becomes voyeurism when the object of the gaze is unaware of what is happening. Freud saw this as originating in childhood curiosity and maintained that it is always a form of objectification. Photography, and in particular the objectified female portraits discussed earlier, is clearly voyeuristic in nature.
Another central Freudian idea is that of fetishism. Traditionally, fetishism occurs when an inanimate object is imbued with special powers for warding off danger. In Freud’s analysis the male child is terrified when he sees his mother has no penis and turns to fetishism to ward off an unconscious fear of castration. An object associated with the female, for example a shoe, becomes a fetish object, and takes on erotic significance from which the male later derives visual and/or tactile pleasure.
What’s this got to do with photographs? Well, on the one hand, it can be used as a way of explaining why we take visual pleasure in looking at pictures of certain things. We have many unconscious fetishes that we use to ward off various fears and anxieties. On the other hand, as Christian Metz argues, the photograph itself can be a fetish object. It freezes a moment in time and can be employed as a means of warding off our fear of change, and of death. People carry photographs in their wallets of their loved ones – perhaps as a means of warding off their fear of being separated from them. We can also turn to fetishism as a means of explaining the preponderence of objectified images of women. The male fears female sexuality (because unconsciously it reminds him of the terrifying moment when he first recognised sexual difference) and prefers to deal with a fetishized version of the female where she is reduced to body parts.