Celebrating ‘International Women’s Day’ in Photography
International Women’s Day is March 8th and we want to help promote this great day by looking into how famous female photographers portray women.
There are millions of women across the world who are still regarded as second class citizens, but progress is being made, slowly but surely. Even standing up and saying ‘this isn’t right!’ is a step in the right direction.
It’s great to see women taking their rights seriously, but it’s also empowering to see women are not afraid to bring a sprinkle of ironic humour to the table at the same time.
Before making any snap judgements on the imagery featured, please read through the full article; arm yourself with insiders’ knowledge, and then hopefully you’ll want to celebrate and appreciate National Women’s day along with iPhotography.
Women’s rights and protests have been in the forefront of the news over recent months; everywhere we look we see “girl power”.
International Women’s Day is a celebration of the economic, political, artistic and social achievements of women across the globe, and a pledge to fight gender inequality year on year.
Today, we want to focus on most arguably one of the greatest and most controversial female photographers of our time…
Ellen Von Unwerth
Ellen von Unwerth is a photographer and director, specializing in erotic femininity.
She was born in Germany in 1954, and after working as a fashion model for 10 years she decided to get her creative cap on and get behind the camera, putting the shoe on the other foot so to speak.
Ellen has been lucky enough to work with some of the biggest superstars including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, Claudia Schiffer and many many more.
Her work has been featured in magazines such as I-D, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, just to name a few.
Von Unwerth is best known for her sensual, feminine, daring and controversial themes throughout her work.
Although her images can be suggestive they never cross the line of objectifying women or make you as a viewer feel uncomfortable.
In an interview, she confessed “When somebody’s not moving I get bored. I take two pictures and I say: ‘Great, I have it now.’ But I love the body in movement. I like the nude body in movement.”
Unwerth has contributed so much to the photography industry; she has also really put female photographers on the map with her willingness to break boundaries and explore new ones.
Her images celebrate femininity instead of traditionally putting it out there purely for the pleasure of men.
“Women are not just there to be admired,
they are there to be enjoyed.”
– Ellen Von Unwerth
So, all this got us thinking, does the sex of the photographer change the overall feel of the image?
How does the gender of the photographer affect your perception of the image?
Do men photograph other men differently to women?
Do women photography other women better than a male photographer?
If this image was shot by a man, would you think the photographers message or intention was different?
So what does make Ellen’s images so different?
You might think the simple answer is that they are shot by a woman, but is there more to it than that? Of course there is!
Looking at her collections there is no doubt that it is the women in her shots that are taking charge and have the control, and not Unwerth.
They don’t stand round to pose like a lion in a cage. There is such a relaxed and playful element to her shots, which just screams fun!
Unwerth will give her model’s very little direction and let them act naturally with the environment around her, hoping that the images are more organic and unique.
It is important that she and her models enjoy themselves – to have fun, she believes, is to be in control:
“which is the most important thing: a woman should fight for that.” – Ellen Von Unwerth.
For this reason, Unwerth always tries to encourage movement in her shots.
The print quality of her photographs might not always be crystal clear, but it is very clear that this is her own unique style and that the movement helps to portray the storytelling element within her images, which is vital.
In this instance, Unwerth is more interested in content over quality.
Another reason her images and overall aesthetic and meaning of the shots may be different to the male perspective is that Unwerth has had 10 year previous experience of being a model, being told to “stand still and look pretty”, so she can offer that emotional connection and understanding to her models.
“Being in front of the lens
you are very Vulnerable”
– Ellen Von Unwerth
There is also a strangely unapologetic element to her work, which makes the shots much more enticing to the viewer. Models who have been lucky enough to work with Unwerth have mentioned that they feel comfortable opening up to Unwerth and, perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that their mothers always like the finished images.
When asked how her work was different to other male photographers in her field she stated,
“The difference is that I don’t stand behind the camera drooling. I think that women open up more to a female photographer. It’s like little girls playing around. You can be a bit naughty and do things you wouldn’t do in front of boys. It’s more relaxed somehow. I think it’s an empowering experience – and no, I don’t believe they are objectified.”
– Ellen Von Unwerth
The female body has always been at the forefront of art going back centuries. It isn’t always about ogling over the naked body, it’s about appreciating the beauty, the shape and the form… And let’s not forget, photography is first and foremost an art.
Another person of great interest, showing the opposite side to the story is…
British artist Jemima Stehli’s “Strip” series is a fascinating perspective on the male gaze, female bodies, and power in images.
The collection of images, feature artist Stehli in a studio with a collection of men she knew, each of whom watched her strip while controlling the camera.
As she took off her clothes, they chose the precise moment at which to take the shot. It’s an interesting assessment to see when each of the men took their photographs.
Stehli felt it was giving her an insight as to what they wanted to remember of her and what they saw as her beauty.
Some went for the fully-clothed portion, others for the part where she was completely naked.
But it’s still an astonishing reflection on viewing when it comes to the female body in the world.
This is not only a really interesting experiment, Stehli makes the point of showing how women are self-conscious and don’t like “stripping” off.
The main point to pick up from this is to focus on the male expression in this series, some of them look uncomfortable, even though they are the ones fully clothed and in control of the camera.
It was interesting in the experiment, to see how one man, in particular, felt uncomfortable and this was reflected in the stills he captured.
He took the photograph when Stehli was looking awkward, or standing on one leg.
As much as the men believe they are taking a photograph of Stehli, they themselves, actually become the main focus of the shot, it is an inadvertent self-portrait.
It was seen as a groundbreaking approach to photography at the time, where the photographer was the prop and the subject became the photographer at the same time.
The simple neutral colours of the background kept the attention on the action and the same camera settings were used throughout to make sure the results were consistent for the series.
As Stehli puts it:
“It’s the men’s self-consciousness that is uncomfortable
when you really look at those pictures.”
However, we also face a powerful and ironic contradiction:
there is no doubt that “sex-sells”, you would only need to turn on your TV and look at the spectrum of beautiful people used in advertising.
This then brings us onto another controversial subject: Boudoir Photography (which we touch upon in the iPhotographyCourse, Module 3).
Boudoir photography is becoming widely popular (and more acceptable), especially in advertising. It isn’t explicit, but is often provocative; it usually leaves a lot to the imagination, but holds a strong sense of suggestion.
These kind of shots have originated from fashion photography; Ellen herself would class herself as a Fashion Photographer, and this is nothing to be shunned.
The phrase “less is more” should be overlooked here. These kinds of shots work most effectively by introducing the art of suggestion or seduction.
Lead the viewer into the image without exposing too much – this allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions; they cast their own opinion and judgement.
It is always important to remember that regardless of whether you are a male or female photographer, if you want to specialise in this area of work, your subject should not be objectified; the images should be seductive, sensual or empowering – in no way should they appear sleazy, demeaning or pornographic.
The big downfall of many photographers in this area is the models expression – there is nothing worse than seeing a model posed unpleasantly and awkwardly.
If the model feels uncomfortable, it will clearly be reflected in their face and eyes. This awkwardness mirrors the expression of the audience and then leaves them feeling cold and uncomfortable too.
It’s important to make the model feel as comfortable as possible, the shots should look carefree and really empower women!
Whilst this style of photography may not suit every individual’s taste, there are also many women out there that are not averse to celebrating the female form.
Within photography, we notice lines and shapes in a way that others may not. Our training gives us valuable information that helps us to understand why something is flattering or unflattering, and that is where attention should be focused.
1. Put some music on: get the energy (and heaters) flowing; this will aid breaking up any initial awkwardness between you and your model.
2. Throughout the process you have to build trust with your model, and make them feel comfortable to be themselves in front of you (and of course the lens).
3. Understanding human emotion is a big part, so put yourself in the models shoes. How would you want to be photographed and made to feel? Shoot from her perspective not yours.
4. Every woman on this earth has insecurities about their bodies (even Beyoncé). As a photographer it is important that you make anything your model is self-conscious of fade away into the background. Always highlight the positives!
5. If you are also being the creative director, make sure you are constantly offering guidance. Empower your model “yes that looks great, try that again” and always give them plenty of ideas, direction and instruction. If necessary, demonstrate yourself.
6. Say things that will evoke emotion you wish to capture. Is she playful? Shy? Classy? Edgy? Sexy?
7. The setting, location and furnishings have a massive impact on the perception and tone of your shots. If you pick a bedroom or hotel room with soft fabrics and warm lighting this will compliment a subtle and sensual mood. A dark, empty room with a singular chair, provides a more erotic and seductive scene.
8. It’s all in the eyes! We can’t stress this enough; as with any photography, the emotion comes from the eyes. Overhead light creates ugly shadows beneath the eyes, while light coming from directly below creates a ghastly haunted look. So take caution.
9. Light is so important in these cases. Fluorescent light is just about as unflattering as you can get, while soft diffused window light flatters skin like nothing else can.
10. SHAPE. You’ll want to pay attention, not only to the shapes of the body but to the all-important triangle rule. Study the positions of the arms and legs and try to create triangle shapes, these are proven to be the most flattering.
The point is quite simple…
women want to look beautiful
and be portrayed as beautiful
(both inside and out).
So now that we have provided you with some serious food for thought, we would love to hear your views, ideas and opinions.
Photography is an art form, a bit like marmite! You could love one type of genre and hate another, but as photographers we can all appreciate the work and efforts that have gone into the work (whether that is by a male or female!).
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