Analytic Table of Contents

Chapter 4: Viewing Viewing

When Dirk Hine says he has come to think of art as a verb, not a noun, he is thinking first of his own art, which devotes itself to process or making rather than final, fixed images. Arting of course involves both making and viewing: Painters have from time to time represented themselves painting (Velázquez's Las Meninas and Courbet's The Painter in His Studio come to mind), and photographers have aimed their cameras at mirrors, where reflexivity begins with literal reflection. But it proceeds much beyond that. Such arting breaks the illusion of immediacy (as Bolter and Grusin call it) by reminding us of the acts of meaning-making involved. The notion of semiosis inherited from Saussure of coding and decoding messages using mutually known code-rules (the "communication model") is so abstract that it joins hands with canons of objective photography (as advanced, e.g., by the group f/46 [Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and others]) to elide or suppress our awareness of specific, human acts of arting.

These are hard times for notions of an objective, disinterested gaze, whether aesthetic, journalistic, or ethnographic. We love the story of the photojournalist who throws aside his camera to embrace the hopelessly trapped victim, the ethnographer who tells us of her feelings and "issues", the artist who makes us weep. But that makes this a transitional time, as we leave behind any firm sense of legitimate and illegitimate viewing, wholesome and prurient, benign and exploitative interests.

Thomas Struth

Figure 4.1
Thomas Struth

If arting is viewing, not all viewing is art; one might say that there are multiple ways of viewing something: as art (an object of aesthetic contemplation), as something to be avoided, dealt with, acquired, seduced. But as noted in the Introduction, Art/non-Art is a shaky binary, and particularly so on the Web, where nothing is set apart from anything else. In the picture on the left, Thomas Struth is representing the viewing part of arting in a museum setting, and the "contemplative attitude" is manifest in everything from light, space, to the posture of the viewers. In a Web-viewing setting, however, images fly by promiscuously mingled in the highest degree. Never before have the bare naked ladies of art been so intermixed with those of pornography. Viewers have to switch roles rapidly from on-line shopper to on-line researcher to on-line correspondent to on-line player of Solitaire or arcade game and so on with no supporting change of place or even direction of gaze.

Struth's picture of people viewing Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (a view of viewers viewing) has two layers and both convey what we may call the classic scene of viewers-viewing-art. The figures in the painting are absorbed in looking out on the water and are not looking back at the viewers. Similarly, the viewers are absorbed in viewing the painting and show no awareness of being in the view of a camera. This is the scene of "privileged" no-risk viewing—the objective gaze of observation in physical science (or a surveillance camera).

Kress and van Leeuwen maintain, however, that pictures in which a figure looks directly at the viewer have a special dimension of meaning, one representable as a vector drawn from the figure's eyes toward the viewer. We respond to this gaze as if the figure were appealing to "us" (the visual equivalent of verbal address: "I see you.")—provided, that is, that they are represented as fairly close to us (within 13 feet or so—"portrait space"). One might add further that a picture representing a figure at a distance of a foot or less gives rise to a strong sense of intimacy with the figure. At this point they are teetering on the brink of a large body of theory and art criticism which has accumulated over the last few decades around the words gaze and voyeur. That is another world, however, than the linguistically-based semiotics of Kress and van Leeuwen, and they do not engage in complex dialectics of gaze and pose, intersubjective recognition, power, shame, surveillance, and reflexivity.


Figure 4.2

But these concepts are necessary if we are to articulate the workings of Modernist images, by which is meant images in which the act of viewing, both by artist-maker and viewer, is not effaced but to various degrees made a theme. In Bolter and Grusin's terms, the classic scene of observation is one which offers immediacy of seeing—we are looking at the object, not a picture/representation of the object, and imagining that the person(s) represented in the picture are looking at me depends on this imagining of immediacy (or canceling awareness of mediation). With Modernist images, one may alternate between the immersion of immediacy and awareness of artifact. With the eyeball at the left, which on line is an animation that twitches with uncanny lifelikeness, we may first have a nearly overwhelming sense of being stared back at. On closer analysis, we see that the white tracings on the diaphragm of the eye cohere as a specular image of what the eye is looking at, or very nearly at, and that image is of a woman dressed in a v-necked black dress standing behind a table—in short, not me at all, and the power of the image is greatly mitigated. Or again you might realize that the eyes is so large that if you got close enough to it for it to appear that large you would not be able to focus on it. So it would have to be viewed with a magnifier, which is to say photographed with a macro lens, all of which takes the image into an analysis of how it was made and breaks its spell. And then it twitches, and the illusion that we are looking at a living eye which is looking at us is restored.

Being looked at, even from a picture, triggers a certain self-consciousness, but it does not direct our attention to viewing as such. There are at least four ways to bring viewing itself to the foreground of consciousness, three of which we will examine here.

  • One is to depict people viewing art, as in this first example. Struth and Karen Knorr have explored aesthetic viewing in many photographs, and one frequently finds photographs of people viewing works in books on particular artists. We will look at a few of these for what they show us about viewing, especially about the issue of viewing and voyeurism, of posing, and of documentary viewing.

  • The second way is to include the shooter/artist in the picture, chiefly using mirrors and other reflections to thematize reflexive viewing. We usually view from the artist's viewpoint; in the classic "painters painting" scene (Los Meninas, Coubert in his Studio) we see the painter in the scene painting it, but we see it from another point of view that that of the painter. The more reflexive ones we will look at are usually made with mirrors, so that our position as viewers is as it were behind the mirror, as if it were a one-way mirror. But then who is taking the picture that we see? We become acutely aware of viewing as we struggle to resolve these visual conundrums. Pictures may appeal to a "you" (the viewer) but never include the "I", Kress and van Leeuwen say. These reflexive pictures provide a class of possible exceptions to that claim.

  • Third, video art installations in galleries and museums often include cameras trained on the viewers and displaying on monitors, so that the viewers become part of the scene they are viewing. I know of no art of this nature on the Web, though Webcams and video-conferencing software could be turned to such ends. So we will pass over this option to consider a fourth one,

  • which is to engage the viewer actively in seeking, or in some sense making, the image that she views. This kind of interactivity is central to the experience the Web offers as a medium. Specifically, we will consider sites that deal with a viewer's pursuit of forbidden or problematic views of the body.

David Seymour (Chim): Bernard Berenson, 
 renowned art critic and author of classic works 
 such as Venetian Painters of the Renaissance(1894), 
 The Study and Criticism of Italian Art (1901, 1902, 1915,) 
 and Essays in Medieval Art, 
 at the age of 90 in the Borghese Gallery, Rome (1955).

Figure 4.3
David Seymour (Chim): Bernard Berenson, renowned art critic and author of classic works such as Venetian Painters of the Renaissance(1894), The Study and Criticism of Italian Art (1901, 1902, 1915,) and Essays in Medieval Art, at the age of 90 in the Borghese Gallery, Rome (1955).

Figure 4.3a
[What he saw]

4.1: Viewing viewers

The Scale of Guilty Viewing

The first image depicts looking as the classic scene of "art appreciation" which authorizes among other things the refined and learned connoisseur Mr. Berenson to gaze upon the statue of a largely unclad woman. Berenson has been quoted:

The nude is the most absorbing problem of classic art at all times. Not only is it the best vehicle for all that in art is directly life-confirming and life-enhancing, but it is itself the most significant object in the human world. (Berenson, 122; cited by Richard Lorenz as epigraph for his collection of Imogen Cunningham's work On the Body)

We are standing behind her, as it were, looking down on the little old man with the neat white beard and Panama hat, watching Mr. Berenson gaze (with "yearning" the Chim memorial web site has it) at the figure that does not meet his gaze (this is Antonio Canova's Paola Borghese as Venus and she is staring off down the length of her couch). We do not see what he sees in this picture, and what he yearns for is equally a matter of surmise. If there is such a thing as pure esthetic appreciation, free of any desire to master or possess, are we not witnessing it here?

Viewing the Estree Sisters

Figure 4.4

The composure of the scene with Mr. Berenson is one thing. The picture at the left, owned by the Corbis Corporation, depicts a scene somewhat less serene. In the framed picture of Gabrielle d'Estree, Duchess of Beaufort and one of her sisters, both seem to be looking more or less at the gentlemen viewers, and they in turn are staring or trying not to stare. Even though the picture is hung a little high for the sisters' gazes to meet the viewers', there is a suggested, imagined interaction here between viewers and the women, as if they are the Elders viewing Susannah at her bath: guilty, complicated looking, with an air of voyeurism.

Voyeurism is sometimes defined as the concealed observation of other people, so that they are unaware of being observed by the voyeur. As we use the term, however, it most commonly refers to observing partially or fully unclothed bodies, especially when they are engaged in sexual acts that she (or they) would not wish or allow the voyeur to observe. The voyeur invades the other's privacy. The term applies not just to bodies and acts but to representations of naked bodies and sexual acts as well (even though the figures depicted cannot literally look back at the viewer), and we may feel some of the dubious or guilty pleasure of viewing acts just from viewing representations. This gallery scene does not give us voyeurism in this simple sense, since the women seem quite aware of being depicted, and hence some element of exhibitionism is mixed in. However, one also experiences uneasiness at looking, or shame at being caught looking, at things not to be seen by strangers. In that case, one is violating a social norm, not the right to personal privacy. In this picture, one viewer is not viewing but reading an identifying plaque (as if that will explain what is depicted!); the other is only half staring with furrowed brow and pursed lips of doubt verging on disapproval. And he appears not unaware of the camera pointed in his direction.

Natalie Bookchin and Lev Manovich: Porno_Pictorialism (1995) from Digital Snapshots

Figure 4.5
Natalie Bookchin and Lev Manovich: Porno-Pictorialism, 1995

Porno-Pictorialism, the digitally manipulated image at the left by Lev Manovich and Natalie Bookchin, has us once again viewing a scene of viewing, though this time we don't see the viewer's gaze but infer it from her legs and feet. The oval framing the scene suggests either a peephole or a classic oval frame, the latter associated with time remembered. The spherical distortion of the end of the bed suggests a lens, perhaps wide-angle. In any case, the oval masking and optical distortion place us in the position of stealing a peek into a girl's bedroom unbeknownst to her. We do not see her expression to tell us what she makes of her collection of art images of naked women and we do not see her hands. The title suggests the erotic reverie of a youngish teenager. The picture reminds us that art has been sanctioning looking at naked bodies for time out of mind, and that one could do worse than these books of images when musing upon one's nascent sexuality. The train bearing down on the bedroom would seem an obvious paste-in and portentous sign of the force and power of that sexuality. It contrasts very strongly (heavily?) with the delicacy and obliqueness of the rest of the picture. (There may be an allusion to Alfred Stieglitz's The Hand of Man. [1902])The hyphenated title points out that this is an extremely equivocal scene of viewing (or post-viewing) art: is she appreciating art, or nudie pics? We will explore this point further in the third section.

Victor Burgin: Graffitication, 1977

Figure 4.6
Victor Burgin, Grattification, 1977

With this last image in the series, we complete our descent from the classical scene of viewing to an almost pure case of voyeurism. This is another of Victor Burgin's Between images, and the purity of the voyeuristic scene is dispelled by the text, which is a few textbook sentences on fetishism:

In fetishism, an object serves in place of the penis with which the shocked male infant would 'complete' the woman. Thus the paradoxical function of the fetishised object is to deny the very perception it commemorates: 'the horror of castration has set up a memorial for itself in the creation of this substitute'.
The photograph also affirms a fact it denies; and particularly when it pictures a disturbing event it serves, like the fetish, as a reassuring and pleasurable substitute: 'such things exist', it admits,'but not here, where all there is is the beauty of the print'.

It is unmistakably the scene of guilty viewing, unauthorized by anything. The text, however, breaks in on imagining that one is looking into a neighbor's illuminated kitchen late at night and seeing something surprising; it reminds us "you are not looking into your neighbor's kitchen; you are looking at a photograph, a representation of such a scene of viewing."

Photographs, even manipulated ones, give us very strongly the impression that we are seeing some part of the world and sharing the view of it with the photographer who saw it in his viewfinder. 1 We can very easily be drawn in to imagined scenes of picture making, and a good bit of the meaning these pictures hold for us has to do with how we play out the roles they cast us in. These enterings into the scene are by no means confined to photographs; the art critic Michael Fried has developed extensive and detailed theories about it in relation to nineteenth century French painting (and hence in relation to modernism generally); but camera's automatic vanishing point perspective offers us a familiar world in which our own viewing point is always readily apparent.

Photography offers us two stories about the making of photographs. One, call it the "frozen moment of life," is associated with photojournalism, street photography, candids, and snapshots. It capitalizes on modern photography's ability to capture some part of the way the world looks in a given place and instant ("modern" because you need decently fast emulsions and sometimes good flash). The photographer may take many exposures from numerous angles and lens settings, but she will look for and try to seize "the decisive moment" in which the fullest significance of the scene is manifest. There can thus be only limited planning; graininess, high contrast, cropping which breaks objects, and blur give authenticating testimony to the unplanned "catching" of the unstaged life of the moment.

The alternate story of the scene of taking photos contrasts on most of these points, bringing it closer to studio-composed oil painting. Here nothing is left to chance--nothing occurs by chance--and the viewer may ponder as long as he wishes why this or that detail is exactly as it is. It is a tableau vivant. There is still the difference from painting that all objects are seen in the camera's eye in one exposure, none in the artist's imagination only, so that the "actual moment of time" assumption is still maintained. This is perhaps why photography is so effective as a medium of pornography: the photographer must have been just a few feet away from the subjects who were doing exactly what you see to each other (or to themselves). (It is sometimes suggested that as people begin to realize what digital manipulation of photos can do—that the participants may never have been together in one place, exchanged looks, or bodily fluids—they will lose their appeal as a focus for fantasizing.)

On either version of the basic story, then, there was a moment when the photographer looked into the viewfinder and saw the scene that ultimately appeared in a print or transparency. The photographer is thus the first viewer of the scene, and we as viewers imagine ourselves with our eyes at the place of the taking lens--where, that is, we infer the lens to be. This positioning in the scene is not just physical, however, but moral as well: that is, we can easily put on what we think to be the artistic (or salacious, or reportorial ...) attitude of the photographer—his or her gaze. This line of thought seems to be heading toward suggesting that there is something dubious, at least in plenty of cases, about looking and freezing the appearance of someone or ones for public distribution. Didn't your mother teach you not to stare? Above all, not to stare at cripples, wounds, beggars, deformities, private parts, rotting food, tubes protruding from the body, and people talking with no listener in sight—as if looking (so "Grattification" reminds us) for what is wrong, what is missing, or for reassurance that it isn't really missing ("the fetish").

Figure 4.7
Eduoard Manet: Olympia,


But, so the argument goes, are we not being too hard on ourselves? Art is not a quarter-a-minute peep show, and anyway, aren't people supposed to know to pull down the blinds (and put some up!)? If they don't do it, and wander around at night naked with the lights on, are they not exhibiting their nakedness? Are they not perhaps even posing for us? Thus we come to Fried's rich and celebrated discussions of absorption: the idea gained some currency in France from the time of Diderot that the viewer's pleasure in a painting with human figures, its ability to wholely engross the viewer, depends on the assumption that the subjects are not posing for us; rather, they are absorbed in whatever they are about, and this absorption is a condition for our absorption in viewing them. Since painters have always used models, this absorption effect is essentially an illusion, the conjuring of which posed a continuing problem for painters which they dealt with in various ways.

Among the most inventive were Gustave Courbet, Fried argues, and Édouard Manet, whose most famous paintings are radical and modern precisely because they overturn the whole absorption game; Olympia and his famous females picnickers are naked and do not merely vaguely look toward the viewer (is this "demand" or "offer"?); rather, they stare back in a fashion usually felt to be challenging or socially amused. The model Manet uses in both of these famous works was the 18 year old Victorine Meurent. Manet also made a portrait of her and posed her as an Espada: in all of these she is looking at the viewer and faces away from the rest of the scene. In the bullfight setting, we might say she is seriously under absorbed. He evidently liked the way she broke the frame of studio posing. Quite suddenly, it seems, the old, stable arrangement of viewer and object came up for renegotiation, and has never been settled since. Indeed, a great deal of art photography and commentary in the last thirty years has worked over and upon this theme.

Gallery View of Jeff Wall's Stereo

Figure 4.8
Gallery View of Jeff Wall's Stereo

Jeff Wall: Stereo

Figure 4.9
Jeff Wall: Stereo, 1982

One way for a photographer to work these themes is to revisit the key paintings, especially those of Manet, and remake them. Here I will look a some photographs by Jeff Wall, who seems to have set himself the goal of becoming the portrayer of modern life in late twentieth century Vancouver that Manet was in mid-nineteenth century Paris.

Jeff Wall has been working mainly in large transparencies (which indicate a strong liking for the translumination that we are now used to in Net display of graphics). Stereo (here shown as installed/exhibited and also closer up) alludes doubtless to many of the nude ladies of the great oil tradition, and strikingly by way of contrast to Manet's Olympia, who as noted breaks out of the tradition to engage the viewer. Here we have the new absorption of the Walkman which disengages the young man from any sense of being viewed. The couch too contrasts with Olympia's—it is a $50 Salvation Army special with hair oil stains, tattered piping and a nice, prominent stain. He doesn't need anybody or anything as long as he has his head space.

In the scene of viewing, the man and older lad keep their distance from the very large, illuminated transparencies, as if they have not yet decided whether anything on this wall merits further, full attention. The younger lad is the only one to move in close enough to satisfy his anatomical curiosity.

Velázquez: The Toilet of Venus (the Rokeby Venus)

Figure 4.10
Velázquez's The Toilet of Venus

Walkman-induced neoabsorption also caught the eye of Jan Saudek, who gave Velázquez's Rokeby Venus a similar make over. The Velázquez original fits nicely into this theme of absorption and gaze. In it, Venus turns her back toward us and appears to be entirely absorbed in her own image in the mirror held by Cupid. But wait, if we can see her image, then she cannot: she sees our image, and so, more indirectly and discreetly than Olympia, she gazes back.

Jan Saudek: Walkman

Figure 4.11
Jan Saudek's Walkman

Clearly Saudek's take on the irruption of Walkmans into modern life is similar to Wall's: once again, a gaze that existed in the original is absorbed by the black hole of the "personal listening device." (We might substitute a digital phone these days.) (The idea of these images spoke so much to Saudek that he did a second "Walkman" version with a classical Narcissus image.) Note here the very close attention to replicating the inner and outer fabrics and the position of the feet, which is just different enough to make it clear the whole assembly was photographed anew.

viewing deformity in the age of "human subjects"

Thus far the scene of viewing has been largely that of studio art: the subjects in most cases are models and the images are framed as art, which is to say to be contemplated for their beauty. It is easy enough to imagine why someone would pose for a picture that would reveal their beauty, or a portrait. It is harder to understand why someone would agree to display their deformity, unless they were being paid or appealing for pity—except perhaps for scientific study, where they would willingly submit to the objectifying gaze of science and presumably would not offer/attempt to engage the viewer as a subject. In any case, it is not so easy for the viewer to pull off the little grammatical trick: "See a person with a deformity, not a deformed person."

Photographing the less fortunate and delivering the images for viewing by the more fortunate in the comfort of their lives has occasionally disturbed conscientious folks over the years. James Agee's uneasiness about his role in gathering such images of sharecroppers in the 1930s is well-known. It is touched on in Mitchell's Picture Theory and discussed at greater length in Carol Schloss's In Visible Light. Martha Rosler decided the subjectivity of Bowery bums was more adequately represented by the terms they used to describe themselves than by any photographs of them. The documentarist's gaze becomes problematic when, along with the ethnographer's gaze, we see it objectifying the less fortunate as an other in whom we have an interest just because they are less fortunate. We have developed an awareness of "the human subject" of the inquiring, scietific gaze, not just a regulatory apparatus but an alertness to the ways viewing and studying may diminish the dignity of the people studied and of us as viewers. Part of that alertness is a sense of complicity with the photographer/ethnographer, who is after all producing something for us as viewers to consume.

Some photographers will nonetheless try to focus on a deformity while engaging the subject as a subject. I am not thinking here of the very difficult, problematic art photography of Joel Peter Witkin or Diane Arbus, but of the working practice of photojournalists and documentarists dealing with such topics as pollution, malnutrition, and war, where the deformity is the result of known or probable causes and not treated as a thing in itself. In such cases, the documentarist may be able to convince the subjects that others ("the public") may learn of their suffering and perhaps intervene, if that is possible, or else learn from their example—and this also conveniently explains why we the viewers are viewing the suffering of the subject. Such is the basic story of the documentarists' truth-disclosing gaze—why they must photograph and we must view.

Gerd Ludwig: Soviet Pollution, no. 10

Figure 4.12
Gerd Ludwig: Soviet Pollution, no. 10

Consider in this regard some images of victims of Soviet pollution exhibited twice on the Web and included in a book-length photo essay called The Broken Empire. Figure 4.12 can be found in Zonezero, an on-line ezine edited by Pedro Meyer. The essay and photos are by Gerd Ludwig, a German photographer working for National Geographic. The entire exhibit has 20 images of representative horrors left by the Soviet regime in 1992. The caption stays on the factual objective level:

Several clusters of children with missing forearms, like the eight shown here, were born in Moscow between 1985 and 1990. All of the families lived in two city neighborhoods. Although no certain links have been drawn between these birth defects and Moscow's bewildering mix of pollutants, most research points to environmental contamination as a cause.

This photograph, and caption, appear in a similar set of ten images in the online ezine Digital Journalist. In addition, this and several images have RealAudio clips in which Ludwig discusses them. Here, he describes at considerable length the difficulty of getting this shot, the only one, he says, that was pre-visualized in the collection. "Previsualized" means planned. He describes how he got them into a group and got their clothes off so that the malformation would be fully visible (with a few children becoming uncomfortable and leaving). In all of this, he remains in the factual mode and does not comment on the strong appeal of the children which does seem to leave victimhood behind.

Figure 4.13
Gerd Ludwig Broken Empire, Soviet Pollution no. 10

Figure 4.13 is not included in the Zonezero display. It comes with a substantial caption raising the question of the subject's feelings:

Kiev, Ukraine. 1993
Cases of baldness amongst children leave Ukraine's medical profession baffled. This girl in Kiev felt so ashamed of her condition that she asked all other patients to leave the hospital room before she took off her wig to be photographed.

It also comes with an audio clip which assures us that none of his pictures are "set up"; rather, they are collaborative efforts between photographer and subject based on trust and honesty, and he is aware that when he points the camera and shoots, he is increasing their pain and suffering. Nonetheless, he gladly and thankfully reports, they all wanted this to be a reminder of what pollution can do to all of us and to our planet. Ludwig sounds sincere about his ethics of collaboration and consent, though they only apply marginally to the children with the hemi-melia malformation. He has an answer too to the question of why he photographs so many children (a barbed question, to be sure, implying manipulation of the subjects and the viewer), and generally gives a pretty good account of himself, even acknowledging a couple of times that he wept upon seeing certain sights and situations. I do not mean to quarrel with any of this—I too would like to look at these images without guilt—but simply to point out how an ethics of viewing has grown up around pointing the camera at somebody.

There are then a number of circumstances besides the figure's direct gaze at the viewer that may foreground the viewer as a subject— very close viewing, or limited and imperfect viewing, we have seen, draw the viewer into imagining being in the position just behind the lens just as much as the sense of being looked at by the depicted figure(s). In both cases, the viewer is placed in a defined physical relation to the figure. But it is also true that being looked at triggers awareness of oneself as a viewing subject. In that way, the direct gaze of the figure can be as much challenge as "appeal" —even though of course the eyes are not seeing us at all.

In general, then, images representing humans have an extra dimension of meaning not present in images of moon rises or flowers, or bridges or landscapes. In these latter cases, we do not encounter ourselves as in a mirror, nor are we moved to formulate accounts of our viewing. But even when human figures are depicted, the image may downplay its own mediacy and allow us to remain in unreflective "objective viewing." When we become aware of viewing, however, this "innocent" viewing gives way to a more complex double awareness of being involved in making meaning, not just receiving it.