The concept of a ‘gaze’ is not new to photography. In the 1970’s art critics and theorists like John Berger and Laura Mulvey made it their mission to retrace and analyse the history of the dominant gaze found cinema, art, photography. Ultimately, they decided that it was, and had been, a predominantly male one.
In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (vol 16, issue 3, 1975), Mulvey describes the concept of a controlling ‘male gaze’ where, to put it briefly, as most directors, cinematographers and photographers are male the ‘Voyeuristic Gaze’ of the camera can also be said to be male. She argues that this positions audiences to identify with a more male point of view while women are presented as spectacles and objects of desire. Similarly, In Ways of Seeing (1972:93), John Berger had already been formulating the notion of a male gaze when he wrote
“…men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
Certainly, this dominant ‘Male Gaze’ ran rampant through the 2000s while I was growing up, as fashion photography, editorials and advertisements continually featured images of hyper-sexual, white, thin, perfected and often, lifeless women.
Photographers like Mario Testino, Terry Richardson, Steven Klein and Mert & Marcus reigned supreme in the realm of fashion photography and during this time so did their provocative style of imagery (it need be said that both Testino and Richardson have also been accused of abusive, predatory and threatening behaviour).
Terry Richardson’s images, in particular, epitomise ultimate ‘Male Gaze’ fantasies as his pictures often feature harsh, explicit and controversial depictions of women (we all know that Tom Ford fragrance ad). Though his imagery can be characterised as a type of ‘ironic hipster sexism’, paired with the many allegations against him, a reflection back into his over decade long reign in fashion photography is unsettling.
Thankfully, in 2017 Condé Nast, which publishes the likes of Vanity Fair, GQ and Vogue Magazine, finally cut ties with the photographer.
With all this mind it’s unsurprising that a ‘Female Gaze’ or ‘Girl Gaze’ emerged in reaction to, and defiant of, the types of images that had been dominating popular culture and high fashion photography throughout the 2000s. However, the simultaneous and spontaneous re-emergence of a few key factors helped create it.
First was the rise of fourth-wave feminism, where through social media platforms like Tumblr and websites like Rookie Mag, young women reignited feminist debates and created spaces for alternate types of female representation that were often missing from mainstream visual culture.
Second, was the growth and power of social media itself with sites like Instagram and Tumblr allowing users (or young teenage girls) to upload and spread their photographic work and gain an audience like they’d never been able to before.
And finally, it was the resurgence of the popularity and use of film photography, which naturally lends itself to creating softer images, that proved the final piece of the puzzle to help make ‘Girl Gaze’ a reality.
While it’s difficult to set parameters around what does and does not constitute a ‘Girl Gaze’ overall it does embody a range of features that help bind the dreamy, hyper-feminine aesthetic style together. These include the like of glitter, mirrors, coloured lighting, make-up, selfies, flowers, and depictions of ‘teenagerdom‘.
Coming to form around 2012/3, ‘Girl Gaze’ of course borrows stylistic and conceptual elements from photographers past, and the use of an analog camera also makes images feel instantly nostalgic. Rather than just an act of seeing and an aesthetic style though, ‘Girl Gaze’ is a feeling. The images are emotionally warmer and feel softer, more unpolished and less distanced.
They feel like images of friends taken by friends and at their best, there is a closeness and openness to them. Though the picture may be of a high profile celebrity like Selena Gomez, she looks like she could be your sister or your best friend. Importantly, the photographs suggest a more equal relationship between the subject and artist.
Cinematographer Ashley Connor captured the notion of ‘Girl Gaze’ when she said:
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“The ‘male’ gaze seeks to devour and control, and the ‘female’ gaze is more a frame of mind, where the approach to subject and material is more emotional and respectful … I try to approach shooting with a particular sensitivity, an openness to experimentation and a penchant for failure. I want the image to come alive and I think perfection is boring.”
Predominantly, a defining feature of ‘Girl Gaze’ is the gaze itself and the way it almost feels like there isn’t one. Subjects often appear in a candid and comfortable manner where it seems like they are unaware they are being photographed at all. In these photographs, the subjects seem less concerned with their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ and performance for the camera. In this way, this type of ‘Girl Gaze’ imagery provides a rare peek behind the curtain of the endless masquerade that is emphasised femininity.
Photographers like Petra Collins, Olivia Bee, Sandy Kim, Lauren Tepfer and Kalindy Williams are, and have been, some of the most popular photographers championing a ‘Girl Gaze’ aesthetic. All have become popular around the same time and have made a name for themselves by gaining a following on sites like Tumblr and Instagram. Many now also shoot high-profile clients and commercial campaigns for some of the world’s biggest fashion brands.
Importantly though, a ‘Female Gaze’ or ‘Girl Gaze is not completely sexless. Instead, photographers like Collins have made it their mission to shine a spotlight on representing female sexuality. In 2013, Collins’ Instagram was deleted after she posted a self-portrait where a fraction of pubic hair was visible.
While the account was reinstated, its deletion in the first place highlighted a massive double-standard for what is deemed as an acceptable representation of the female form and women’s sexuality. Sandy Kim has also shot singer and actress Sky Ferreira for the historically ‘male gaze’ dominant Playboy Magazine with the condition that Ferreira be the first ‘bunny’ and cover star to creatively direct their own shoot.
‘Girl gaze’ as a genre, practice and aesthetic has not, however, been without its faults. As the ‘Girl Gaze’ concept grew people were quick to point out how much of the imagery still predominantly featured models who were thin, white and conventionally beautiful. Despite its faults the impact of a female gaze in subcultural, then mainstream spaces cannot be understated.
For instance, the work of Collins directly inspired much of my early photography and I felt connected to other young female photographers who went out and bought their own film camera and taught themselves how to use it. I look back fondly now of those images I took at that time and love seeing my teenage girlhood memorialised in them.
Today though, much of the overt characteristics of early ‘Girl Gaze’ photography has fallen out of fashion or has become a kind of parody of itself. Through over-use and the inevitable passing of time, you are less likely now to find someone’s pubic hair pictured against a glitter backdrop like what occurred in 2013 (though you still might!).
Indeed, ‘Girl Gaze’ itself has seemed to both proliferate and disintegrate at the same time as a tonal shift seems to be occurring in mainstream visual culture. Through the popularity and co-option of ‘Girl Gaze’ and film photography, in general, there appears to be an overall softening of aesthetics and warming of the dominant gaze in all kinds of fashion photography, editorials and advertisements. As we as a society continue to crave nostalgia and the use of analog photographic equipment continues to rise, it’s difficult to imagine that this aesthetic trend will slow down any time soon. Instead, it appears that as the world around us becomes incredibly harsher our lens and outlook on it seems only to be getting softer and softer.
Whether we will see another resurgence of another distinctive form of a ‘Girl Gaze’, and what that would look like, is difficult to say. Looking at the history of feminist waves, it does seem inevitable. Though, the ways in which elements of fourth-wave feminism have become commoditised, subsumed and in turn, diluted into the mainstream makes it vastly different to other periods in the past. Like the fourth wave, elements of ‘Girl Gaze’ have too become swallowed and regurgitated in everyday visual culture, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it has inevitably contributed to its end as a specific genre and style of image-making.
Importantly, I don’t like to think of the distinctive ‘Girl Gaze’ imagery of 2012-2014 as merely an aesthetic fad or trend, but rather an exciting opening of a space in photography for young women by young women. For me and countless others, it came at such a crucial time and provided alternate (and much needed) forms of representations.
Crucially, ‘Girl Gaze’ images showed me kinds of photographs of women that I did not see while I was growing up. Pictures of women and girls who were more dishevelled, less glossy and ultimately, more real than the perfected women I was surrounded with as a kid. Not only could I finally see versions of myself in ‘Girl Gaze’ images, but also it showed me that I too could participate, and have a place in, the often male-dominated world of photography.
For that, I’m forever grateful.
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I hope that realizing how oppressive and exploitative the male gaze is was the same rude awakening for many men as it had been for me.
I think that it is also time for re-examining female nude photography. Could there be an artistically valid form for it? Why is it considered naturally aesthetic by both sexes while its male counterpart is confined to gay culture even if most women are straight? How much freedom has there been in this choice of aesthetics for women? How free are female nude photographers in their choices today, both consciously and subconsciously?
A well-written and thought-provoking article. Thank you.
Thanks for the kind words Chris !
This. Is. So. Good! Heise nailed a really complex structure with some great examples, a clear thesis, and really did some good work in this article. Please thank her for me! Also, love seeing theoretical framework articles – perfect for a nerd like me!
Thank you Jonathon !
Thank you Jonathan !
For another take on this concept this recent all analog exhibit may be of interest to you. Paul Black: Carol
Excellent article, deeply interesting. Thank you Lydia.
Thanks Matt 🙂
Many thanks to Lydia for writing this, and to EM for publishing it. Not being plugged into IG, or fas… https://t.co/5D108IMwkS
Great article!!!! Tbh I’m so happy to read an article about female photos andcarsthetic that doesnt put down users as being too tumblr or unskilled.
Hey Vivian thank you ! As a child of tumblr i would never…
Very well written on a subject that is incredibly interesting. Love it!
Thank you Braydon ! 🙂
Lovely essay Lydia! I have heard of the girl or female gaze but had never really given it too much thought or attention – I rarely photograph people so often these topics are not discussed where I find myself reading or exploring online. What strikes me is how we call this the girl / female gaze but I somehow feel like this is more how we would like the male gaze to see us? When I opened this article from my email I had a preconceived idea that I would see images that explored the female “voyeurism” aesthetic, putting our male counterparts in the roll of sexual exploitation. As a female photographer, I have become ever more aware of how male dominated photography is, I know that there are plenty of female photographers out there working, creating and being just as amazing as our male counterparts but for whatever reason when tip toeing through boards or reaching out within my own community my fellow females seem far and few between! Thank you for taking the time to put this article together and to share something that has helped you find your place as a photographer!
Thank you for your thoughts xx
I guess Harley Weir was part of the wave, as well as part of commercializing it. But she’s still a big one, too. Today, though, there are so many women photographers getting their work out there, I don’t think we’ll see another distinct wave; it’s bigger than that now, and instead we’ll continue to see new work unique to individuals, without a common aesthetic. I’d say Yuo Yang and her book, “Girls,” falls into that category. As does the work of Sofi Mdivnsishvili on Instagram (just to name two whose posts I just saw. There are SO many more). But however you define and interpret it, all the new work by young female photographers is one of the best things going today in photography. It IS different, and it is fantastic work. But along the way, let’s not forget photographers from the past, like Sarah Moon and Lillian Bassman, whose groundbreaking work still resonates today.
I agree Timothy! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I loved this essay, Lydia! I sort of missed the whole “girl gaze” moment, it seems to have happened while I was busy with kids at home, and when I started to pay attention again, the shift had happened and I didn’t quite know why or how., though I appreciated it. Thanks for providing context and understanding.
Raising kids would keep you pretty busy Susan ! So happy I could clue you in 🙂