On Film’s Obsession with Lesbian Photographers

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A running theme in lesbian films involves a more shy character who is learning the art of lady love, who happens to be a photographer (Carol, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, High Art, etc.) There are a few different film constructs as to why this might be the case, and it’s not just because everybody is obsessed with Annie Leibovitz.

Annie LiebowitzPhoto by Judith Burrows/Getty Images

There’s this thing in feminist film theory you’ve probably heard of before called “the gaze” or “the male gaze.” This term was developed to discuss the ways that women’s bodies are fragmented visually in film as a way to reduce women to their body parts, and intentionally or not, visually dehumanizes them. The camera giving a woman the old “up and down” look has been described as “the classic male gaze shot.”

Now we know that a great deal of objectification takes place by men gazing at women. However, there is a whole world of gazing that happens, and in later film theory, a lot more writing was done about race, about women directors creating a “female gaze,” queer filmmakers developing a “queer gaze,” etc. This is part of what is so compelling about finding filmmakers that are women, people of color, and queer folks—they tell stories that would otherwise remain invisible or tucked firmly in the background of this highly visual medium.

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But to circle back to photography, there’s a particular narrative construct about characters that are filmmakers and photographers in particular. They create a disembodied gaze that they utilize an implement to capture their interests, and it becomes a fractured retelling of where their eye wanders. In the case of queer women, this particular narrative device can speak to the myriad ways that queer women are disconnected from the means of power and agency. In a lot of the stories that are told about queer women through film, there are often concrete barriers to them living the life that they want and pursuing their romantic and sexual interests with other women.

The thread of photography as a tool for the ingenue’s sexual awakening is a way that they can track the object of their gaze—specifically, women—in a way that creates a map for the trajectory of their desire.

In High Art in particular, the use of photography to explicitly document the photographer’s erotic relationship with another woman is one way photography can close the gap in the disembodied gaze. The photographer always directs and animates the photography with their gaze and interest, but it is a tool of self-direction in this case rather than a stand-in for what she meant to say.

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There are many tropes in queer film that tie lesbians to creative expression—writing is another strong contender. Many lesbians can attest to the ways in which creative expression gives opportunities for a loosening of structures that otherwise limit their imaginative possibilities for the things they create of an aesthetic nature as well as life itself. Creative outlets in film become the gateway to self-discovery that begins with taking pictures of women leaning out of windows and ends in some kind of revelatory sexual awakening.

The concept of photography in film is an interesting tie-in, however, because while we are a culture deeply committed to visual expression, we can generally internalize verbal statements more directly, and interpreting the visual language of film and photography offers greater ambiguity in interpretation. The act of taking pictures as a hobby is typically a solitary one, and the narrative of a woman engaged in private documentation speaks to an interiority that film can’t explore explicitly but desperately wants to clue us in to.

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There is a lot of talk about the importance of visibility, which plays out very explicitly in media and narrative about our stories. There is a specific fascination we have with how women depict themselves and document their internal lives and emotional states through visual mediums. We are literally unaccustomed to having visual media reflect our own experience, and most people are not conditioned to see the world through the eyes of queer women. We continue to value these particular narrative quirks because we see ourselves grappling with our own gaze directed outward, and the careful marks we make  in film, in writing, to document our internal state—to say, I was here, I exist.

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