I must write something personal, which perhaps includes the experience of being photographed. I am to compose “a narrative”. But I’m unclear where the narrative should begin.
Let it begin twenty-five years ago. How would I then have greeted the thought that a photograph of my naked body might appear in a public exhibition?
Twenty five years ago, I had learned from feminism. And two particular things that I had learned would have conspired to ensure that no such representation of myself would ever have been on public display.
I had learnt, firstly, that the appraisal of self-worth of women who subscribe to traditional norms of femininity is determined by appearance, and particularly by appearance as revealed in the (female) body or its parts. I would surely have recoiled from the very idea of being photographed nude. But more than that. “Finding feminism” for me—as I think for many other women of my generation—consisted in coming to experience consciously discontents that related to being female. Thus in endorsing feminism, any dissatisfaction that I felt with my own naked appearance could be transmuted into altered sources and senses of self-worth. The arguments I would have advanced against allowing my body to be available to others’ gaze would then have failed to acknowledge a deep–seated reluctance to being photographed. The arguments indeed would have seemed to represent the achievement of a properly positive conception of my identity not rooted in my appearance—a triumph of feminist consciousness!
Something else I had learnt ensured that my anonymity would have been no compensation. In feminist writings about pornography, I’d read that hiding or severing a person’s features enables the observer’s attitude to shift towards objectification. This is particularly true when what are hidden are facial features, which are especially apt to disclose a person as the unique being she is. If photographed without a face, would not I, the subject, be treated as an object divested of human needs and feelings?
So what’s changed twenty five years on—aside, of course, from its now being patently naïve to speak of feminism as if it were a monolithic body of doctrine? I shall mention four relevant differences between then and now, or between me then and me now. (Forgive a list.)
First, I am not buying into any norms by being present in these photographs: I am buying into the problematization of norms. (I doubt that an exhibition mounted in 1977 could have had the reception intended of this one. Certainly I would not then have been alone in failing to appreciate the possibilities of subversion.)
Secondly, I know now that there are more dimensions to the processes of photography than accounts of the relation between subject/object and viewer admit. I know first-hand that there can be more gratification from being photographed than is got from becoming an image for spectators. There is, for instance, the approval of the photographer, and the pleasure she takes in her products.
Thirdly, I have discovered that sometimes a person loves a human body because they love the person whose body it is. Given the right sort of lover, the beloved is then not appraised by reference to an ideal promoted by culturally given conceptions of beauty, but by an ideal of herself that she hopes to sustain. Being on the receiving end of love from the right sort of lover has transformed my feelings towards my naked appearance. (Getting older helps as well: it is easier to believe that one’s looks can be met with rapture when the pointlessness of trying to conform to an ideal which puts a premium on youthfulness has become very obvious.)
Fourthly, I’ve come to see that rejection of the old way does not require affirmation of some new mode of being that is correct, stable and authentic. And this I take to be true not only for one’s own identity but for styles of representation as well.
I must write something personal, which perhaps includes the experience of being photographed. I am to compose “a narrative”. But I’m unclear where the narrative should begin.
A friend has asked me to pose nude for some photographs, with my son. Half scared, half flattered — wanting to be looked at (remembering the time someone told me I looked like a Goya painting. I’ve always clung to that), but frightened that the camera might not like what it sees, and afraid to acknowledge my own narcissism. Fear and excitement also about venturing into unknown territory and losing control. More than anything, I want to see someone else’s images of this relationship between me and my son who is so ill and looks so beautiful and still. Usually camera shy (I’d rather not see that double chin, and my slouching posture, constant reminders that my fate is sealed: I’m going to end up looking like my mother. In fact I already look like my mother), this reminds me of other times when I’ve wanted to be photographed… aged five, dressed in a home-made butterfly costume “A perfect profile of a paunch,” said my uncle. “What’s a paunch?” – I loved to perform — puppet shows, school plays, children’s opera group, Gilbert and Sullivan…. and loved to be photographed in costume and makeup. I felt disappointed when the head of department embargoed my topless scene in the university Russian department play. But when I wasn’t performing, I would swathe myself in huge men’s sweaters. I remember posing in a tree, aged 13, convinced I looked winsome and elusive, like a wood-nymph.
…waking up in hospital, blurred with anaesthetic, I asked “Where’s the baby?” “There is no baby.”
A nurse handed me my first son — perfectly beautiful, pale and dead. I sat cradling him, enchanted at how perfectly he fitted in my arms, and how I knew just the right way to bend my neck to gaze down at him. I wanted everyone to see this image ~- a perfect madonna and child. The nurse took some polaroids but they got lost in the chaos. They gave me tablets to dry up the milk (but I went on squeezing my nipples for weeks, to see drops appear, and remind myself what a good mother I was.) The caesarian scar and a sagging belly were all that remained of my child. I didn’t really want to win back my pre-pregnancy figure. When I went back to work I’d had my hair cut radically short. It gave people a ready-made change of subject after two sentences of embarrassed condolence.
How to finish off? A haiku would have been better, or a hundred pages — anything in between seems like an embarassing precis, but this will have to do.
I am interested in how memory is located and experienced in the body, with particular emphasis on the ways in which systems of representation contribute to these experiences. Our bodies are shaped and produced through the intersubjective influences and processes we encounter, from birth to old age; through the public and private interstices of (variously) family, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, medicine, law, literature, film and the media.
Systems of representation contribute to our experience in the body, and experience, suggests Henri Bergson, is “a matter of tradition in collective existence as well as private life. It is less the product of facts firmly anchored in memory than of a convergence in memory of accumulated and frequently unconscious data.”
My interest in the nude came about with the recognition that the representation of the female body did not in any way relate to myself as a woman. I felt that something was missing. As my own body became more used, in terms of childbirth, operations, scars, breaks, change of size, texture and age I became aware that I was not, in the main, represented, neither historically, politically or artistically (neither past nor present), nor in the media, or on the corporate ladder.
I wanted to construct my own view of the body, but was concerned that this would indeed be continuing with the prevalent and established forms of representation already in abundance. I was encouraged by Lynda Nead who suggests that “Denying visibility to ‘the female body’ as a universal category perpetuates the invisibility of women whose bodies do not conform to the ideals of the dominant culture and who may be struggling for the right to physical and public visibility.” In other words, the imperfect body, whether old, fat or disabled, is deemed undesirable in that it lacks current perceptions of ‘beauty’, which are measured mainly in terms of youth, health and vitality.
Sir Kenneth Clark , states that “The nude remains the most complete example of the transformation of matter into form”.
The ‘nude’ according to Clark, is the body redefined and transformed into something “balanced, prosperous and confident”. It is almost as if the humanness of nakedness is of itself unpalatable to him. Indeed, he often makes the equation of the ‘epicurean’ with the nude – the connoisseur of fine taste.
What interested me in particular about previous constructions of the female nude was what was not seen. This may sound like a contradiction, since the nude is of itself deemed completely bare. But it is the nude’s very bareness which gives rise to the viewer’s ability to construe his/her own meaning, and impose fantasies and fetishes onto the corpus vile.
Perhaps, because photographs and paintings are of themselves a single dimension it allows for this imaginative process, but it denies the reality of the person, the history of that body – a life experience of emotional, physical and intellectual capacity; in other words, the invisibility of the woman ‘as such’ on view, (or man).
Taking into consideration the work of Cindy Sherman and her use of her body and clothing to change the identity of the persona, it becomes obvious that we can develop a narrative depending upon what she is wearing, her environment and how she is made up. Therefore, we construct a meaning for ourselves, posited in time and space, a perception of a history.
This sense of history is often lacking when we look at the nude, unless of course there are artefacts or background to identify. There is nothing to guide us as to what her (or his) story may be. My intention was to attempt the opposite to Clark’s response – to return form into matter – at least conceptually – to regain some perception of the ‘human’ in the form.
In his studies on hysteria, Freud referred to the “blindness of the seeing eye”. This was in relation to his work with Charcot at the Salpetriere Clinic for women in Paris in the late 1890’s. Charcot used photography as a way of ‘proving’ that the hysterical symptoms of his patients were of a physiological, therefore visible and hereditary nature. Freud went further and concluded that hysterical symptoms were related to unconscious processes, which, because they were repressed, were manifested somatically; if they could be made conscious and expressed verbally, these symptoms would frequently diminish or disappear. In other words Charcot had only been seeing what was on the surface.
What I want to suggest here is that, in the way in which the nude has come to be portrayed and constructed in modernity, it has become imbued with the purely sexual connotations of desire and possession. The nude, in the guise of the naked female/surrogate for sex, has become so familiar – images which we can take or leave – it does not have the ability to move or (even) to shock anymore.
I wanted to look at the limitations of the voyeuristic – to offer a possibility for re-investing the body with the human/humane and to re-instate the person in the image; to jolt the unconscious to conscious processes of the voyeur – both male and female. In other words, to attempt to bring the inside outside, to allow for the nude to be viewed other than as a prescriptive format.
Although my photographic work may seem to repeat themes of representation of the woman (in particular) as nude, I felt that I did not want to be compelled by self-censorship, which has constrained so many women artists. Lynda Nead speaks of the risk of “creating feminist alternatives that are as repressive to certain groups of women as their patriarchal precedents”. (p76 ibid)
I was concerned that I would also be accused of exploiting the female form and of colluding with the objectification of women (and possibly men), in that images of women create the impression that women themselves are commodities. As a commodity, women are denied equal status, individuality and basic humanity.
Objectification also derives from Freud’s concept of sexual fetishism where particular parts of the female anatomy, such as breasts, feet, legs, mouth, etc. function as symbols and replacements (for desire) for the complete woman.
Fragmentation can be used in many ways – often to denigrate – in relation to the female body. Used as a condensing mechanism it became a formula to define sexual availability, particularly within the sphere of advertising.
I have constructed large-scale, close-ups of the female body as landscape. With the use of ‘fragmentation’ and ‘condensation’ I have created a more abstract form so that, if the viewer has to codify which part of the body this may be – which way around – rather like a jigsaw, she might be able to devise a whole, to reformulate the figure. A somewhat androgynous treatment of the body of the male nude has created a sense of morphing from female to male. And similarly, the use of masks on both male and female bodies produces a morphing from human to animal.
Through the use of narrative – written anonymously by the subjects in the photographs – and accompanying text, my intention has been to disrupt the assumptions of the audience and to subvert conventional perceptions of the nude and to re-present a socio-historical identity in the body and, thus, to re-instate the individual. My aim was to address the invisibility of the used and aged body through the pleasures and sensuality of the ‘non-ideal’ and, hopefully, re-investing and re-creating a history in the body. By working through our own personal processes, it is only through perseverance and repetition that we may recognise and formulate a possibility for change.
The gallery space is an important part of the viewing and receiving of artistic productions and this space can be seen as a form of ‘containment’ for audience, artist and art work. Winnicott says:
“This gives us our indication for therapeutic procedure – to afford opportunity for formless experience, and for creative impulses, motor and sensory, which are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence. No longer are we either introvert or extrovert. We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.” (Winnicott 1981: 75)
It may be seen that there are similarities to the way in which the dynamics of gallery, audience, artist and artwork can interact. I am concerned to engage the audience in an interactive approach to this work and to provide a playful, creative and imaginative dynamic between the audience, the photographic images and text.
The work in this book represents a selection from a series of Izzi Ramsay’s photographic projects. It is a complex and provocative body of work, comprising both male and female nudes, produced over a number of years.
An androgynous figure from the ‘Morphe’ collection, such as Gravidus, is at first glance a pregnant belly with hand resting upon it – though it is in fact a man, which is incongruous and disturbs our perceptions. Large scale close-ups of fragments of the body from the ‘Topographies’ collection are constructed in the formation of a landscape offering a view of the body which is both gargantuan in proportion and delicate in its sensitivity of treatment, with its gentle play of light and shadow on the female form.
The ‘Horseman’ is a naked male with a horse’s head – the opposite of the centaur – and is portrayed with a mixture of wit and fetishism.
Recent work plays with the idea of animal/human and whilst it is a response to, it is by no means a comment upon, recent controversial developments by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to allow the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos.
Izzi Ramsay’s work uses text to disrupt and reconceptualise perceptions of the nude. Through the use of narrative – written anonymously by subjects in the photographs – her intention has been to create an interaction between the audience, image and text – to challenge assumptions and to reconfigure and subvert conventional perceptions of the nude.
Large scale photographs 2m x 1.5m on Fuji archival paper.
Hand printed lith and toned photographs 16” x 20” (A2).
Digital prints on Hahnemugle Fine Art Photo Rag Satin
With accompanying text
I’ve been thinking about my experience being photographed nude – The worst bit was beforehand – once it was actually organized I think I just went into a “zone” – “oh well just get on with it! – “ The most memorable sensation was of warmth! Your room was so warm + it felt more like being on holiday – with treats to eat + time….. It is lovely to be naked and warm and feel safe – I’ve no idea quite what you were aiming to get in the way of a picture – + I will probably re-process the experience when I see the results – ! but at the time it did feel remarkably consequence-free! I think I remember saying that I didn’t think I knew what I looked like anymore – one hardly bothers to look at one’s body especially in winter – perhaps also to know the ageing business has really got a grip – so it is as a curious experiment in some ways + possibly a useful one – self knowledge in various forms is not nothing one hopes! Acceptance was also something I felt at the time – although quite of what – I’m not entirely sure – of being human & animal & a body & alive I think – something like that – oops no more room – hope all’s well.
lots of love, S xx