Focusing on the privilege of the snapping eye

When it was first discovered, photography was highly contested as a medium deserving the status of art, and for some such as Baudelaire, it was equated with mass taste and the destruction of the imagination. Still, photography offered a rare privilege, that of seeing the world in the most direct, accurate and relatively unmediated way that had been available until then. It was also a visual privilege that was suited to the modern world and gradually changed the way people looked at things. But with a century that has produced some of the world’s most striking images already behind and in the midst of a contemporary culture saturated with images and visual information, what we had come to consider a visual privilege (for photography as a medium, the photographer and the viewer) has become a far more intricate question. Part of the answer can perhaps be found in The Privileged Eye, an exhibit that presents snapshot photographs by four well-known contemporary artists and is currently on view at The Apartment gallery in Athens. That most of these photographs provide an entry into areas hard to access – people’s private lives, glamorous, high-society events or sexually suggestive scenes – suggests the most obvious explanation of the title, associating the privileged eye with voyeuristic pleasure. But voyeurism is not where privilege derives from. In what could be a possible attempt to avoid such connotations, Vassilis Doupas, the owner of the gallery with experience of curatorial work, has chosen the more value-free title of The Privileged Eye as opposed to the privileged gaze, the latter being loaded with feminist art theory and psychoanalysis, both of which link perception (the gaze) to notions of power and gender difference. If there is a privilege enjoyed by the photographer and conferred upon the observer, it is to be found in the visual nuances of the images, their double-edged meanings and the ambiguities of life (and art) that they help reveal. In Jessica Craig-Martin’s snapshots for example, close-ups taken during New York high-society events – benefits, fund-raisers, tributes and openings – focus on aged hands wearing expensive jewelry, sagging skins revealed under a chiffon dress or beaming smiles that reveal cosmetic surgery. As a photographer working for American Vogue, Craig-Martin has access to all the New York glitter, but rather than depict the seamless side of glamour (at least when not working on magazine projects), she searches for those telling details that speak of human fragility and human foibles. Craig-Martin casts her images in a mood of gentle poignancy but rescues them from cliche by also tinging them with irony. Although one can occasionally spot a celebrity – Ivana Trump is one of them – most of the pictures hide the identity of their subjects by focusing on their apparel (ostrich feathers, heavy jewelry and Manolo Blahniks abound) and body language and freezing them into something like high-gloss still lifes. By depersonalizing her images, Craig-Martin takes a distance from her subject, a voyeuristic and dispassionate distance that is yet strangely involved, which allows her the maximum play on ambiguity and shades of meaning. Jeff Burton (one of the participating artists in the current show on American New Art at the London Barbican Gallery) uses a similar kind of distance. His photos, which are taken during the intervals of the filming of pornographic movies in Hollywood, neutralize the content of overt sexuality and confer upon images that we usually perceive as vulgar a completely different reading by, for example, turning naked bodies into aesthetic objects through a careful manipulation of light, texture and blurring techniques. Burton reveals all the humor, artificiality, ersatz glamour and melancholy that is part of the porn movie industry but also reflects on the fine lines between art and subculture. Another distinction, that between staged and impromptu photography, is one of the issues that pervades the work of French photographer Florence Paradis. Although her photographs appear like snapshots taken from real life, they are all staged and carefully manipulated settings. Like the rest of the artists in the exhibition, Paradis also suggests that the readily obvious is only part of an image’s whole meaning and often adds visual details that subvert conventional interpretations. A trace of blood on the tip of a girl’s finger extended opposite her tongue, for example, transforms the picture from one of a vulgar gesture to an image depicting physical pain. Presented as frozen moments taken out of everyday life, Paradis’s images have a strong element of paradox about them, an almost disturbing and unsettling quality that challenges the viewer to want to know more about what he is presented with. As is the case with the other pictures, Paradis’s images do not impose a received meaning upon the viewer but allow him only a glimpse of a wider puzzle, leaving the rest to his imagination. This kind of leeway, with the emphasis on subjectivity, is possibly another aspect of what it means to have a privileged eye. It also permeates the pictures of Caroline May, whose photographs show snapshots of her domestic space, mostly close-ups and strangely angled pictures of the artist’s friends working, reading or engaged in some unknown activity. What is also important to note is that the exhibit cuts across class, from the high-class environments of Jessica Craig-Martin and the middle-class interiors of Caroline May to the working-class subjects of Paradis and the subculture of Burton. This broad scope places the meaning of images outside their specific subject matter. In this light, The Privileged Eye is not only about gaining a glimpse of spaces to which access is difficult but about recognizing visual innuendoes and learning to read beneath the surface. In a world that has become so inundated with images to the point where images themselves have lost their impact, learning to focus on detail could indeed turn out to be a privilege. The port’s master plan through 2015 includes the construction of four new terminals – one for containers, a roll-on/roll-off terminal, a two-part bulk cargo terminal and a fuel terminal.

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