In Girl on Girl, Photographers Explore the Complicated Concept of the 'Female Gaze'

Lalla Essaydi, Harem Revisited #32, 2012-13. Images via Lalla Essaydi and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York.

In Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze, the London-based curator and critic Charlotte Jansen tackles a question that has plagued photography since the medium’s invention: “How should we look at women?” There’s a certain purposeful irony in Jansen’s question, particularly since photography is generally considered a more democratic medium; one, at least, more accessible than painting and sculpture. Historians of photography have long argued that the medium, with its relatively modern roots, has always been more friendly to women. Indeed, it’s not quite as challenging to find women revered as masters of photography. Despite its relative accessibility, the gaze, particularly the photographic gaze, is still assumed to be deeply gendered even as the concept of the female gaze begins to emerge as a discrete framework.

Jansen’s question of how we should look at women is deceptively simple: a facile response of “however we want” ignores both history and authorship. “There is a fundamental pleasure in looking at women that is undeniable and unavoidable and tends to complicate the central place women have in visual culture,” she writes in the Introduction. Viewers see a steady stream of photographed women throughout the day but, as Jansen argues, that “visibility” is a “fallacy,” since most of the images we encounter are mass produced for advertising and other media. Those images influence how we perceive photographic representations of women, how we interpret bodies and other visual clues, even when the photographer is a woman. But, as Jansen argues, such a comparative approach clouds nuance, particularly the notion of a female gaze.

Image via Laurence King Publishing.

Jansen’s answer to her question—how should we look at women?—is simply that there is no single answer. Rather, there is a series of possible answers proposed by the 40 women artists from 17 countries that Jansen chose and interviewed for Girl on Girl. The result is an attractive book that features the work of a diverse group of photographers who are bound by the facts that they identify as women, and their work interrogates the meaning of the gendered body.

The photographers in Girl on Girl aren’t necessarily “feminist” artists producing feminist work (Jansen notes that while her project is “pro-women [...] that of the artists featured in this book isn’t necessarily”) but all 40 photographers are undoubtedly interested in what it means to turn a woman’s body into a photograph. Questions of the body inevitably include in them issues of identity, including ethnicity, race, religion, and class, as well as the historic and economic systems that produce the image of the ideal body.

In Lalla Essaydi’s photography (above), history and ethnicity are confronted in richly textured images. The photographer depicts Arab women in domestic scenes, reappropriating the harem theme that was a regular feature of 19th-century painting and persisted well through the 20th. “I am using the female body to complicate assumptions and disrupt the Orientalist gaze,” Essaydi told Jansen. “I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists in other words, as a voyeuristic tradition which involves peering into—and distorting—private space.”

Ayana V. Jackson, The Existence of the Other as a Threat to My Life (from To Kill or Allow to Live), 2016. Image via Ayana V. Jackson and Gallery MOMO.

Like Essaydi, Ayana V. Jackson’s work also points directly to history, particularly as the past formed visual expectations of the non-white body. Jackson’s work confronts the “misrepresentation” of the black woman’s body within the history of photography and her photographs, with their sepia-like color and meticulous costuming, conjure up the past. “[Jackson’s] images reference historical depictions of black bodies from the 19th and 20th centuries, restating them in order to counter the narrative they impose in illustrating the trajectory of black identity,” Jansen writes. Her photographs are purposefully contradictory, resisting the orderly stereotypes of race—of taxonomies and classifications—that historically framed bodies of color. “I’m not interested in binaries,” Jackson told Jansen.

Nakeya Brown, from Hair Stories Untold, 2014. Image via Nakeya Brown.

The concept of binaries, of these neat categories that are often the facile language of visual culture, is a theme throughout Girl on Girl. In Nakeya Brown’s work, hair is the substance of resisting that narrative. Brown simultaneously makes the history of black women visible while deconstructing the racist discourse that surrounds hair; she is particularly interested in the concept of “good hair” and beauty, both who those ideas belong to and who they work to exclude. But Brown also visualizes hair within the “shared experience of black women.” “Through the grooming of hair we learn codes of conduct,” Brown tells Jansen, “we learn obedience.”


If breaking with histories of representation is a theme that emerges in Girl on Girl, then approaching photography of women with humor and irony is another theme that emerges. Take Iiu Susiraja, likely one of the best-known photographers included in the book. In her series of self-portraits, Susiraja confronts viewers with a blank expression and props that humorously and uncomfortable point directly to her body. In one photograph a broom rests tucked underneath breasts; in another, hamburgers sit on flexed biceps muscles pinned between muscle and forearm; and in a half-length self-portrait, Susiraja is adorned with a crown of sausage links. “The camera shows the body more directly: it is usually a different image from the state of mind we find ourselves in,” Susiraja says. “The camera does not forgive, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. I like the openness and honesty.”

Iiu Susiraja, from Tuhmaa pullaa/Naughty buns, 2011-12. Image via Iiu Susiraja.

Elizabeth Renstrom’s photographs also use humor as a tool to investigate mass imagery, shifting from the self-portrait to the performed selfie; from the visual realm of adulthood to girlhood. Renstrom is particularly interested in how “girls craft their identity,” as well as the symbols of girlhood—from the stickers and other preteen detritus of Lisa Frank to princess culture. The results are photographs that, without context, could easily appear on Tumblr or other social media, replete with the teen girl’s remixing of mass media and popular culture and the undertones of ritualistic devotion. Renstrom treats these visual artifacts of Western girlhood with a mixed tone of irony and seriousness since she sees the visual culture of girlhood as a “search for identity” The results are the kitsch appeal of girlhood mixed with the irony and inquisitiveness of adulthood.

Elizabeth Renstrom, from Lisa Frank Blues, 2012. Image via Elizabeth Renstrom.

Performance, too, is a theme that persists throughout the book; the line between authenticity and theatricality is particularity fraught in photography given the medium’s shaky claims of factual representation. Throw in gender—the performative aspects of womanhood and class—and it makes for a web of philosophical questions. Lilia Li-Mi-Yan’s work examines just those questions, using beauty as her point of departure. The ritual of applying makeup, of what Jansen calls “self-care” is near-universal. Li-Mi-Yan has no interest in judgment but rather of examining the “interconnected relationship women experience between image and reality, a mask and a face.” In Li-Mi-Yan’s photographs, the “mask”—that image of the self or of the body projected through makeup—is one of communication; an opportunity to “try to reflect... and find answers for myself.” She doesn’t look for those answers in traditional places, rather work follows “mature” women and women incarcerated in Armenia’s only all women’s prison.

Lilia Li-Mi-Yan, from Mature Beauty, 2013. Image via Lilla Li-Mi-Yan.

This is just a sampling of the photographers Jansen has included in Girl on Girl. There are other, more familiar ones like Petra Collins, June Calypso, and Molly Soda. Jansen has curated a compelling group of photographers, asked difficult questions, and produced a beautifully illustrated book. Her book manages to be of interest to photographers and historians of photography—a kind of contemporary extension of an age-old question in the medium—while staying accessible to readers who are interested in learning about contemporary photography. It’s definitely worth a read.

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