GOOD MORNING MIDNIGHT

Female Photographers and Shouldering Responsibility

In this month’s Interview magazine, after answering a bunch of the usual asinine questions about being a size-4-fatty, Lara Stone came out with this little gem:

"Personally, I don’t like working with female photographers because they seem to never be able to make up their minds about what they want to do…. so many times it’s like, ‘Oh let’s try this’ and ‘Let’s try that’ and ‘Let’s do this’ and ‘Let’s do that.’ It’s like, ‘For fuck’s sake, woman!!’"

Which hit pretty hard.  I’d like to think that Stone is likely commenting on personal experience here and not intending to make some generalizations about women at large or whatever.  This is Lara Stone we’re talking about, and presumably the girl has worked with almost every top photographer out there at this point, both male and female — and I’d venture to guess that, tactless as it may have seemed, there’s some validity in her observation that many, but not all, female photogaphers aren’t as aggressive, decisive, or good at directing models as their male counterparts.

And the thing here also — and perhaps another reason why it upset me so much outside of feminist-gut-reaction — is that, as a photographer, I sympathized with this to a huge extent.  Studio photography and constructed sets still intimidate me, precisely because I’m (as of yet!) not entirely confident with directing people to fit my ideas.  Nan Goldin (who has also shot with Stone) comes to mind too, with her hatred of editorial and advertising photos (and the almost consistently lackluster results there), as well as innumerable statistics about the lack of successful female photographers (and film directors, which is a similar role) out there.  

So is there something valid in Stone’s observations?  Are female photographers, on average, more timid? Especially as compared to say, Terry Richardson and the like, wherein “jerk me off so I can take photos of you with jizz on your face and call it art in the name of fashion, or else” is the norm — and does this, in some way, impede our professional success?  Is our general tendency — which we’re all going to agree here is socially constructed and encouraged and if you have a different opinion on that, hurry along, wrong blog for you here — to use our cameras more as filters/fences and less as phalluses/weapons (blah, blah, blah Sontag blah blah blah) somehow making us less desirable or successful as creative professionals?

Which also had me thinking about these things in other ways — obvious things, but still complicated — about the way that social expectations of women play into how we approach our own careers, creatively and otherwise. A few months ago the feminist blogosphere’s big meme was that Clay Shirky essay on why and how women need to be self-aggrandizing jerks more often; that it’s expected of boys so they grow up doing it and so they ask for raises more, and ask for promotions more, and go after stupid vain ideas more, and therefore succeed there more often since they are less likely to be criticized for trying.  Society is uncomfortable with that sort of aggressive assertiveness in women, and in turn many of us fail to develop it.

So how much of that is “our responsibility”? To what extent is it my responsibility to be a self-aggrandizing jerk and be more aggressive, forceful, directive, “masculine?” And how does all that relate to fashion, writing, and photography?

In another recent article in S Magazine — which by the way is full of a lot of raunchy nonsense but also a lot of really beautiful photographs and smart writing — Caroline Weber, in a touching personal analysis of her own recent divorce, broke down the concept of shoulders and their relation to gender roles and power, both visually and metaphorically.  She cites historical examples of fashion and costume in which women are costumed with stronger shoulders as an indication (or even a totem?) of power — Joan Crawford, female monarchs whose womanly form is distorted by dress to indicate characteristics of a “king” (strong, ruling, weight of the nation on his shoulders, in control, aggressive) as well as the “queen” (soft power, sweet, gracious, motherly, intelligent, calm.)  Weber also questions the “complex and contradictory demands of modern femininity,” referencing the difficulty of balancing family and career (society demands that we wear power suits with shoulderpads, but also carry babies on our hips) and addressing the fact that while gender-bending fashion can be progressive or empowering, it’s also complicated and challenging to women, especially when strength is always still, as Weber puts it, “coded masculine” — whether that’s wearing the pants in a relationship, or shouldering a difficult problem. 

Weber concludes ultimately that women shouldn’t ever have to “take their shoulders off,”  but this also I think raises and echoes that extremely uncomfortable question —  to what extent is it our responsibility to put those shoulders on to begin with? What about slight shoulders, per se, is so bad? Why doesn’t Lara Stone like working with more polite or timid photographers?  And to what extent does putting those shoulders on guarantee (or not guarantee) another level of success?

Which of course in turn relates to concepts about fashion (as an industry, art, and concept), style (as the personal application of fashion), and costume (which presumably lets us “become someone else” and has some sort of magic performativity, if you will), and when and how the two interact.  And so as a woman who has — after a few years of floundering and thinking I’d feel okay ignoring the fact that I wanted to work more as a writer and photographer — more or less reasonably firmly decided to pursue (oh, GOD NO, don’t make me admit it!) a “creative” career, what does this mean?  Are “shoulders” are necessary for our success, and is there is a strong element of personal responsibility in deciding to “wear” them?  Literally and metaphorically, professionally and personally, socially and sartorially, what can I (and other female photographers, filmmakers, writers and the like) do to keep those shoulders on, and how will we balance that with the rest of our lives?

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