Imagining the Modern World
Comparative Essay, Option 1
Word Count (699)
Somebody’s Watching: The Motif of Looking
It is common knowledge that in the presence of people, humans tend to manipulate themselves to appear acceptable. Through glass, a voyeur exposes the secrecy of a man’s gaze in image A while in image B, the onlooker is prompted by sex to buy a Nikon camera. While different artistically, both pictures exhibit the motif of the act of looking, highlighting how the presence of a voyeur manipulates human action.
Inside an art store, the photographer captures a couple through a window, dividing the image into inside and outside scenes. The inside scene holds something that both characters desire. The man is surreptitiously fixed on the painting of woman, seemingly a courtesan, while his wife is describing an artwork that the audience cannot see. The man is holding his wife’s arm so she does not notice that he is ignoring her. Outside the window, life is asexual. For example, the wife is conservatively dressed; she is wearing a thick woolen coat, complete with hat and gloves. The courtesan, however, is completely naked. The man’s gaze is a manifestation of a desired fantasy. Moreover, the vintage nature of the photograph, exemplified by its black and white filter, establishes the man’s gaze as inappropriate. The painting’s taboo nature is further exemplified by its flowery and intricately designed outer frame, which clashes with the static nature of the rest of the picture. Also, the frame of this artwork serves as another window of perspective. The man is a voyeur to an artificial sex scene. The audience thus sees the man living in a world of order and conservatism, but embarrassingly escaping to a world of sexual fantasy via the painting of the naked woman.
The Nikon advertisement (image B) engages its audience in voyeurism in order to sell its product. It contains three viewpoints of observation: a view from the outside looking through the window, a view from the camera’s viewfinder and the photographer’s view behind the camera. The first two viewpoints stand in contrast. Like image A, life outside the window appears uninteresting. Yet, while both pictures do this, the inside and outside realities in image B seem to interact more. The people on the outside, marked by square boxes around their faces, are willing voyeurs to the possible pornographic circumstance within the apartment. The women on the bed, who are highly sexualized, pose for the camera and the people beyond the window. The colors of the bed sheets and the women’s underwear both have reddish-orange tints. Redness, a sexual color, guides the audience’s eye around the picture. The advertisement does not cut off at the borders of the camera; one can see the fingers of the photographer as well as a blurred outline of the rest of the room. This tertiary medium of perception highlights the superficiality or staged nature of the picture.
Both pieces explore a voyeur’s perspective, yet because they are from different time periods, the two photographs have different consequences. In each picture there exists a different level of conservatism. In the candid black and white photo, the man should be paying attention to his wife but rather fixates on a painted naked woman. The Nikon advertisement, however, uses that which is inappropriate in image A to sell its camera. In the advertisement, the whole picture is engaged with itself, the voyeurs are fixed on the women and the women on the camera. Because the women are looking through the camera at the audience, one can see how sex has become a more open topic of discussion.
Through an exploration of voyeurism, one finds how each photograph depicts a unique level of acceptance of sex. Today’s vision of sex, as exemplified by image B, is not as rigid as it was, perhaps in the time period that image A was taken, yet both present a sense of discomfort. A difference between both shots is that image A depicts a man acting covertly without knowledge of a camera watching him while in image B, the action within the picture is constructed for the camera. Despite this difference, the two comment on the realities of humanity and how the idea of society watching manipulates human performance.