Oliver Chanarin’s Male Gaze

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It’s always a sorry sight when a well known artist jumps the shark (to borrow that expression from popular culture). It’s particularly disheartening to see someone do it who based on her or his earlier work you would have thought should know a lot better. Yet here we are, being presented with Oliver Chanarin’s photographs of his partner, Fiona Jane Burgess, the mother of their two children (various of the pictures can also be found on Instagram).

(If you want to see the photographs in question, please view them using the links provided above. My not showing them here will become clear in light of the following.)

I have long been an admirer of most of the work Chanarin has produced with his artistic partner Adam Broomberg (see their joint site here). A lot of their work is very political and informed by deep convictions. For example, regardless of the criticism leveled at The Day That Nobody Died, the piece is a searing indictment of the UK’s government and its muzzling of the press during the war in Afghanistan. It is offensive, and through it being offensive, it asks of the viewers to consider why they’re not considering the much larger offense, the one committed by the government.  Holy Bible also is pretty spectacular.

Consequently, I approached Chanarin’s new work with some expectations. The pictures can be described in a basic, straightforward manner: they show a young woman’s body being inspected, being scrutinized photographically from a large variety of angles. The end goal, we are told, consists of 640 such pictures (I’m not making this up), the reason being that famed German photographer August Sander (one of whose photographs served as inspiration for the endeavour) took that many pictures for his portrait of the German people between 1920 and 1930. This then is supposed to be “an “extended portrait”, “a daily and obsessive interrogation of the self” (quoted from the piece).

I’ll have to admit that one of the two major problems I have is the amount of verbiage that Chanarin is pouring onto the pictures. That verbiage isn’t entirely out of character for this particular artist, but here it does absolutely nothing to shed any further light on the pictures in question.

If we take the verbiage at face value (and why wouldn’t we, at least initially), we run into the problem that to connect Sander’s ambitions and Chanarin’s results in a colossal mismatch. Sander did take the one picture that is being used as inspiration, a portrait of Helene Abelen, whose actual title, however, is Painter’s Wife.

The title identifies Abelen not as the person she was but rather as the appendage of the man she was married to, painter (and architect) Peter Abelen (eight years younger than the photographer, he was also photographed by Sander). Given the time the picture was made and given Sander’s idea — Abelen is made to stand in for a specific human archetype, this can be understood. But in light of the achievements of feminism in the latter half of the 20th Century, identifying a woman through her husband is rather problematic.

And the reality is that you can admire Sander’s incredible skill at producing great portraits while still rejecting various parts of their premise. There is no need to have only one of the other.

Originally, Chanarin had been wanting to do a “photographic survey of Britain,” but the pandemic got in the way. Now how or why replicating Sander’s idea, which relies on categorizing people in ways that have more than just a little bit in common with what the Nazis would later employ, is a good idea today is not that clear to me. It’s well known that Sander was not a Nazi. Still, the idea of categorizing people into types or groups or classes is something we might want to stay away from today — unless you’re a sociologist or anthropologist, in which case there exists a large set of criteria for how this can be done, given the problems created by doing so uncritically in the past.

But there wasn’t going to be such a portrait of Britain by Chanarin, given the lock down; and we might as well not talk about pictures that (maybe thankfully) don’t exist. Instead, we have the ones that do, the ones in question here. If what are being told is true (we have no reason to doubt it), the couple decided that Burgess would serve as the model for Chanarin in those moments of the day when their two sons were asleep.

I find that idea very endearing. To me it speaks of the love and respect for each other between the partners. I’m talking about the idea, though, not the pictures. Even if there are love and respect between the two, this is not coming through in the photographs. They look mostly made, set up in a studio-like setting, with the camera — and by extension we viewers — ogling the young woman’s body that more often than not is engaged in all kinds of contortions.

I suppose one could say that there is a sense of a survey going on. But where Sander sampled various members of the archetypes he had identified, to have them stand for all the other ones not photographed, Chanarin’s lens surveys the surface of Burgess’ body, which cannot stand in for anything other than itself. In essence, Sander’s approach is anthropological or maybe sociological (scientifically speaking in a very loose sense), whereas Chanarin’s is… well, what?

The only comparisons I have been able to come up with where a single woman’s body is this mercilessly exposed are either the medical field or pornography. This is not to say that these photographs are pornographic. They are not. However, they are relentless in their exposure of a woman’s body.

It is this very relentlessness — it’s almost a scanning of Burgess’ body — that I find extremely problematic (to imagine that there would be 640 such pictures…). Her body is being ogled at by the high-tech camera employed, which unforgivingly presents each and every aspect, every pore, ever dimple, every hair, everything. This very descriptiveness makes the project very male, very macho. I just cannot imagine someone other than a heterosexual male taking these photographs. By definition this is the male gaze: all viewers are made to look at this woman’s body through the eyes of a relentless male.

The following might not matter. But I will have to add that I am certain that I personally would not be able to do this. I could not use my camera to scan another person’s body, to expose them this mercilessly to the world. And for sure I couldn’t use my camera to do it to a woman’s body, knowing full well about the terrible baggage that doing so would carry from the rather shameful history of photography.

This is what has me aghast: for someone seemingly as aware of the politics of photography, I just don’t understand how this very aspect of the pictures appears to have escaped Chanarin. It’s one thing for a married couple to make pictures together in lock down while their kids are asleep. That’s for them to navigate. That’s their private pleasure. But once the pictures are being made public, are supposed to be shown at one of the most respected museums in the US (SFMOMA), they cannot but be seen against the problematic history of the male gaze, which here appears to have gone haywire.

Some of the photographs are good, even very good as individual pictures. But given they’re being brought together, they speak of something very different than the love and respect that exist between photographer and wife. They speak of the power the man with the camera has, a power the model appears to be willing to submit to. The submitting to it isn’t the problem (that’s not for me to judge anyway). The problem is the reinforcing of the idea that the female body is little more than a photographic playground for photographers who operate in the tradition of the male heterosexual gaze.

Apparently, there is some fancy display technique planned (for the exhibition at SFMOMA), which somehow is modeled on Amazon distribution centers or whatever. If I sound flippant about that aspect of the work it’s because that’s what I am. I mean, if you wanted to find out which pictures people spent most time with, just put them all up on Instagram, and count the likes! Or if you’re worried IG’s censorship will ruin your project, have someone program a dedicated website for the project.

The idea of somehow finding out which of the picture viewers will spent most time with only serves to reinforce the already massive problems of the work discussed above. After all, what exactly are we to learn from all of this? What are we to learn from knowing that, let’s say, picture number 327 is the one that ends up being looked at the most?

Somehow viewers finding their favourite (as in: most ogled at) picture of all of these photographs of a very attractive mostly naked young woman in a set of 640 photographs is going to give us some  insight into “surveillance capitalism”? Give me a break!

With the above, I don’t mean to say that certain pictures are out of bounds. To decree as much would be an attempt at censorship. That can’t be the idea. Every artist has the right to take whatever pictures they want. But before any such pictures are being made public, I very strongly believe that it’s a photographer’s responsibility to check them against what already exists in the history of photography.

For some types of photography, you’re not going to find any problems. But there are many types of photography where you have to navigate possible problems. Photojournalists and news photographers (plus their editors) are increasingly being taken to task of their portrayal of, say, Africa. In much the same fashion, a male photographer photographing a woman will have to navigate the huge problems created by the male gaze.

Chanarin’s failure to do so in his new work is most disappointing.