Revised: La buena fama durmiendo (good reputation sleeping) – Manuel Alvarez Bravo 1939

 

Following discussions with my tutor I was advised to revisit this essay and address some of the issues which may arise form considering relationships between the image and the viewer.  It was also suggested that less ‘background’ was needed.  This is the revised version:

Introduction

This picture was made by Bravo at the request of Andre Breton, who was visiting Bravo’s home town of Mexico City. Breton needed a cover photograph for the catalogue of the Surrealist exhibition he was mounting there and considered Bravo to be a consummate ‘Surrealist Photographer’. Bravo understood that there was some urgency to the request so set about assembling the elements of the photograph right away. Alicia, one of the art school models agreed to pose for him, his friend Doctor Marin did the bandaging and the blanket and spiny fruits arrived courtesy of the school caretaker.

On the academy roof, the setting for the photograph, Bravo explains, “The doctor arrived. He bandaged the woman and I took a photograph. I worked very suddenly and very rapidly, obeying a sense of surrealistic automatism” (Valle, 1938)

Although the mechanics of the photography were hurried, Bravo brought his long-accrued inventiveness and originality to the work. It is a picture which invites close study and stimulates a lively exchange with the viewer; why is she naked? Why is she bandaged? What do the prickly fruits signify? Can we gain some insight (or inference) from the title, Good Reputation Sleeping?

The fruits may be employed as a visual contrast to the figure, being difficult and possibly painful to enjoy, whereas the woman appears vulnerable and defenceless. Her reputation might appear to be at serious risk. But at the same time she is sleeping… is she convinced of her security, to the extent that she feels safely asleep… do the fruits protect her in some way? This picture is ripe for multiple allegorical interpretations.

Irrespective of Bravo’s intent (what little is known of it) some consideration must be given to the nature of the relationship between the picture and various different viewers, along with an examination of the actual contents of the picture. The overall feel of buena fama is one of uncertainty and confusion. The elements are simple and familiar but their coexistence in a staged setting prompts the viewer to attempt a rationalisation or interpretation; the former quickly proves irresolvable, the latter a course with multiple possibilities. In Barthes terms the punctum will, for most observers, be the spiny fruits, the points within the frame, leaving as the studium the general impression of ambiguity surrounding the depiction of an essentially naked woman.

The relationship between a viewer and a representation of a naked person is multi-faceted. There are stringently observed conventions in most societies concerning the circumstances under which it is acceptable to be seen naked. Mainly, we keep our clothes on. Being naked attracts very little comment; it’s the exposure to gaze which exercises most cultures.

Where this relationship exists – between the naked and the observer – a transaction is established which revolves around the circumstances of the picture’s origin and those of the observer, the viewer, at the point of viewing. Mulvey makes reference to this in her Freudian psychoanalytical examination of the gaze:

“Freud isolated scopophilia as one of the component instincts of sexuality which exist as drives quite independently of the erotogenic zones. At this point he associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” [Mulvey 1975]

The conjunction of the terms ‘curious’ and ‘controlling’ makes for uncomfortable reading when it infers that they generally coexist; but in this case the control is total and unavoidable since the subject can exert no influence in the present over the nature of the transaction. This may be considered a voyeuristic gaze – although the meaning of the term as appropriated for use in the sphere of visual analysis is fundamentally different to that of its origins in psychology where several other aspects are considered intrinsic to the voyeuristic experience 1

The elements of the photograph – the partially naked figure, bandages and fruits – may elicit a viewer response which varies according to gender, age, ethnic origin, political alignment to mention just a few factors. For many though, the defining attribute of the photograph is that it shows a naked woman. This may be perceived as exploitative – perhaps the model is forced by her straightened circumstances to display her body in this way, thus demeaning her. One might respond that we know nothing of her circumstances, nor of the exchange which led to her agreement to pose, but this may be counter-argued, in that it is not necessary for a victim to feel victimised. If the interaction is fundamentally abusive she cannot consent.

An alternative view is that things are pretty much as they seem. An artist made a photograph of a model as an illustration for a catalogue. Bravo, the artist, was employed by his institution to teach and some of the instruction involved making images of a nude model. Viewers may dissect the subtext according to preference. However more issues arise when this work is considered in the wider context of the representation of the human body in art.

Kenneth Clarke in his book “The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form” claims that:

“no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.” [Clarke 1956]

Here Clarke addresses the mechanics of the gaze from the perspective of a Western European male in his fifties, writing in 1955. His views differ from those of his predecessors just as they appear rather patriarchal in a contemporary context.

Conclusion

To summarise, it seems reasonable to accept that there are a range of opinions on the relationships which may exist between the viewer and the viewed. The fundamental premise of each of these opinions will vary according to the viewer.

Footnote:

  1. The voyeuristic act requires an element of risk for the voyeur. The possibility of discovery and exposure is a vital component of the activity. The individual wishes to steal something from the object of their attention which would not usually be freely given. The theft is that of pleasure derived from observation. Although pleasure can clearly be derived from a picture there is no risk (unless your mum walks in) and no theft, since the gaze-object has already been relinquished.

Bibliography:

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series 35.2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

Mulvey, Laura: Screen, vol. 16, (Autumn 1975), pp 6-18 from Luxonline.org.uk. (2018). Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema – Laura Mulvey – Print version – Luxonline. [online] Available at: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema%28printversion%29.html [Accessed 2 Jan. 2018].

Reflection on Part Four–reading, meaning and intention

No pictures to take for this section, just research and writing. Approached in the sense of the ‘reading’ of photographs, this topic has generous scope for investigation.

To read a picture – photograph, painting, drawing – requires an exchange, between the viewer and the image.  Although the image remains immutable, the viewer is infinitely varied.  That’s a complicated way of saying that different pictures mean different things to different people.  At different times.  Under different circumstances.  That’s a lot of difference, which accounts for what I have come to understand as the polysemous nature of pictures.

The artists intent (I’ll refer to the originator as artist) may be known by the viewer, it may not.  Intentionalism  has its problems.  But for a significant segment of imagery in circulation today there is a fundamental intent.  I’m thinking of advertising and social media.  Ads have a singular purpose despite the fact that fifty per cent of all advertising is a complete waste of money (ah, but which fifty per cent?)…  buy me, use me I’ll change your life.  In the social media setting, photographs mainly serve as witness;  we were here, we did this, we ate that, along with the unavoidable corollary – you weren’t, and you didn’t.

I have been thinking about the impression I get from reading about other student’s work, online tutor comments and observations – which is that the more malleable  the photographs are the better they are received.  A picture which appears to be able to sustain the weight of multiple interpretations, however fanciful, seems to be deemed in some way more meretricious (I’ll desist from using the g**d word and its tawdry cousin be**er having been warned off them).  But I tend toward the opinion that the more meanings garlanded round a picture the less meaningful it becomes. Multiple interpretation diffuses a picture, I think.

That’s not to say that a photograph can’t be intriguing by virtue of its contents (contents? Content? still not sure).  My choice for the essay, Bravo’s “Good Reputation” invites speculation but defies certainty because the elements are so obscure.  Also its a very fine picture (I think I can say that out loud, without substantiating it, in this section!)

So back to intention and meaning:  Bravo intended to make a compelling picture and he made it from ideas he had already absorbed, almost by osmosis,  from his earlier life experience and photographic endeavours.  The photograph has no meaning.  It is pretty much impossible to see the picture and not wonder what the meaning is, but that’s the wonder of the work.

Here’s an ironic twist.  “On Photography” isn’t actually about photography.  That’s what Sontag said, rumbled as she was,  in 1978.  That wasn’t her intention in writing the book.  Okay, she called it On Photography, wrote about and argued around photography and was happy to have the book cited as a photographic reference innumerable times, without ‘fessing up. But it was really about something else:

“[On Photography] is not about photography! [Emphasis in the original.] … Now you’ve got me. I said it, and I didn’t mean to say it. It’s not about photography, it’s about the consumer society, it’s about advanced industrial society … [and] about photography as the exemplary activity of this society. I don’t want to say it’s not about photography, but it’s true, and I guess this is the interview where that will finally come out. … It’s not, as some people have already said, against photography, it’s not an attack on photography. … It’s about what the implications of photography are. I don’t want to be a photography critic. I’m not a photography critic. I don’t know how to be one.”

These statements appear in Victor Bockris’s interview, “Susan Sontag: The Dark Lady of Pop Philosophy,” High Times, March 1978, p. 36.

But here the intentionalist fallacy emerges.  Despite her assertions the work is a de facto photography text by virtue of its near universal approbation.