One of my favorite parts about our Visual Culture class is when we compare Victorian imagery with contemporary imagery. Our generation has most certainly been exposed, at a very early age, to various visual mediums such as movies, tv shows, photography, cartoons, magazines, etc. We live in a culture overwhelmed by visuality. Visuality often determines how we are perceived. We judge one another with every profile picture and every Instagram filter choice.
What has not changed since the Victorian period is the exploitation of women’s bodies in painting and photography. It is hard not to come across a line of junky magazines at the drugstore counter with women’s breasts and pouty lips calling forth the gaze of the viewer. A magazine could be doing a bio on a pulitzer prize-winning author and still focus our attention on the sexy body represented on the cover. Women writers, actresses, musicians and tv personalities at one time or another have had their bodies put on display. Sex unfortunately does sell.
Rolling Stone Magazine recently came out with an issue that sets itself a part from the endless images of scantily clad artists. Rolling Stone is not off the hook for their stark differences in portrayal of male and female artists. But we must give them credit where credit is due. In light of Adele’s recent breakout hit “Hello” followed by her full-length album, “25,” Rolling Stone came out with an in depth bio on the British singer.
On the front cover, we see the 27-year old talent for the first time in four years. There is is something strikingly different about this photograph. It’s intriguing. But not sexually intriguing. In fact it is an incredibly raw and personal depiction of Adele.
I recently read a fantastic article from Vice’s online music journal, Noisey. The article argued that this photograph of Adele “destroys the male gaze.” Writer Kat George notes:
“Adele’s expression wears none of the self-consciousnesses that comes with being watched. She’s defiant, if a little perturbed. It’s as though we’re door-to-door-marketers who’ve caught her just as she was about to recline with her morning coffee and paper, her one moment of solitude before she starts her busy, important day. There’s nothing lustful in the way she stares out of the image at us. She’s not asking for anything, either. With one look, she’s telling us more about herself, and her expectations of us, than a woman on the cover of a magazine usually does.”
This observation completely blew my mind when I read it. Adele chooses how her body is to be perceived. We get a zoomed in snapshot of her expression which is not happy nor somber. With her intense gaze towards the lends she shatters the sexualizing gaze of the viewer. It’s as if she has caught you looking at her in this private moment of contemplation. She is not there to sell her body. She is not there to impress anyone. She is there simply as the artist.
Her body alone is natural in presentation. Although it appears she has just gotten out of the shower, the wetness of her hair is still not inherently erotic. It reveals imperfection. We also see a lack of makeup, where we are free to observe the freckles and creases in her skin. We are meant to look at her as we would look at the body of a male artist on the cover. Adele looks at us, revealing her bodily imperfections, as if saying, “look at me as the artist and not as your visual pleasure.”
Laura Mulvey would most certainly approve of this. Julia Margaret Cameron would have also approved of this approach to photography. When we first started observing Cameron’s work I was reminded of the photograph of Adele. The staging and depiction of the female body is incredibly similar.
Perfect in Peace, 1865 Goodness, c. 1864
The above Madonna portraits are tied to the close-reading of Adele’s photograph. In both portraits the woman looks straight into the lense. Her expression is also indifferent if not somewhat annoyed. In “Goodness,” both mother and child look at us as if we have intruded on a private moment. We are looking at them and they are looking at us. The mother’s body is neither a symbol of purity nor sexuality. Although she is depicted as the virgin mother, we know as the viewer, that she is an everyday woman, whose purity remains ambiguous. The purity is set against the humanness of the portrait. Adele’s portrait works in the same way. She hints at her sexuality with her showered body but rejects this with her intense gaze. She is to be looked at as merely the artist.
Lastly, I was thinking of how Julia Margaret Cameron would photograph Adele. I copped and filtered the Rolling Stone image to give off the essence of Cameron’s style. In fact, the way Adele is posed is reminiscent of the famous Cameron portrait of Henry Taylor with his face leaning on his hand.
How do you think Cameron would have staged Adele? What techniques would she implement on her image?