The Gaze

Montefino - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Montefino – Steve Middlehurst 2016

John Berger argues that “the reciprocal nature of vision is more fundamental than that of spoken language” (1 p.9) . Small children ask whether people on the television can see them but have to learn that covering their eyes fails to make them invisible when playing hide and seek; do we know or do we learn at an early age that the gaze is reciprocal? Regardless, it is powerful piece of knowledge that, as primitives would have determined our survival: if we can see a predator, maybe it can see us. We use this learnt or genetically inherited knowledge every day, we assume the driver has seen us on the zebra crossing, if we catch someone’s eye we can engage in conversation or exchange a gesture. Berger also points out that “we never look at one thing, we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” (1 p.9) Subconsciously we take this understanding of reciprocal vision and our relativity to a subject with us when we look at a photograph.

Whilst our intellectual mind knows that we are looking at the past when we view a portrait, because we know that even an instantly available digital image is a record of history, our instincts whisper to our subconscious that we should react to a photograph as if the subject was in the room. As a result the gaze captured by the photographer has a significant bearing on how we react to the image.

The course notes (2 – p. 67) and Daniel Chandler’s Notes on the Gaze (3) categorise the types of gaze we can encounter and point out that the fundamental premise is that the subject is unaware of the current viewer even of they are aware of being photographed.

  • The spectator’s gaze – the gaze of the viewer at the subject;
  • The internal or intra-diegetic gaze – a gaze of one depicted person at another within the photograph;
  • The direct or extra diegetic gaze or address – the the gaze of a depicted person out of the frame at the viewer;
  • The look of the camera or the gaze of the photographer– the way that the camera appears to look at the subject;
  • The gaze of the bystander – the viewer being observed in the act of looking;
  • The averted gaze – the subject deliberately avoiding looking at the camera;
  • The audience gaze – the depiction of the audience watching the subject within the photograph;
  • The editorial gaze – the way in which the photographers gaze is chosen and used by institutions.

These ideas, which Chandler tells us, came out of film theory in the seventies have been subcategorised and developed by various writers and critics so we also come across:

  • The male gaze – first introduced by Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (4) where she argued that classic Hollywood cinema invariably places the viewer into a “masculine subject position”. This concept, which was quickly appropriated by feminists, is used to describe the self evident truth that most pictures of women are taken by men for the audience of men. The full implications of this idea are beyond the scope of this essay but it is continually surprising that even when an advertisement is clearly aimed at a female audience, that is that the potential buyer of the product is likely to be a woman, the advertisement will adopt the male gaze. Does this suggest that women use the male gaze as a reference point for the way they should look or that the male gaze has become the standard for product advertising or that the male gaze is a institutionalised viewpoint. A research project for another day I think.
  • The female gaze – as a reaction to the male gaze some contemporary female photographers have started to consider the role of women in photographs; Anastasiia Fedorova describes this process as ‘shifting the role of a woman from an object of desire to a character in a  visual narrative” (5). In essence the photographer not only deals with subjects from the perspective of a woman but tends to focus on subjects that are important to women or quite commonly teenage girls.
  • The furtive gaze – in Camera Lucida Roland Barthes suggested that “the essential gesture of the operator is to surprise something or someone and that this gesture is therefore perfect when performed unbeknownst to the subject.” (6)  Like many of Barthes’ truths it is only sometimes true but since the invention of portable and discrete cameras practitioners have engaged in furtive photography. Paul Strand’s subway photographs taken with a camera hidden by his coat are an early and much discussed example and Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads is another example that I have discussed previously (here) If the dark side of the male gaze is the implied possession and or domination of females in pornography, the dark side of the furtive gaze is sexually motivated voyeurism.

Chandler offers a subtle variation on the furtive gaze with:

  • The Indirect address – where the viewer is an invisible onlooker and the subject is unaware that they are being photographed. Chandler suggests surveillance  photographs as an example.

This seems to be far from a comprehensive list as it excludes the subject gazing at themselves and excludes discussion of reflections and self portraits.



(1) Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

(2) Boothroyd, Sharon and Roberts, Keith (2016) Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of he Arts

(6) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books


(3) Chandler, Daniel (2014) Notes on The Gaze (accessed at Visual Memory 2.5.16) –

(4) Mulvey, Laura (1973) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Summary (a précis) (accessed at Art and Popular Culture 2.5.16) –

(5) Fedorova, Anastasiia The Female Gaze (accessed at The Calvert Journal 2.5.16) –

This entry was posted in 2 - Windows: Memory and the Gaze, Research & Reflection and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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