Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Won't somebody help that poor boy?"

Photo courtesy of Briullov. You saw my version of the same scene earlier. Bridezilla vs. Hawk Nose of DOOM!™

Heh heh. It leads me, however, to ask a question. Why do I have such a problem with the way Russian women take pictures?

I ask myself this constantly. Why is this? What is it – not necessarily how they stand behind the camera and take the picture, but how they pose for a picture – that gives me the creeps? How do I differentiate what I see them doing from what I know to be true in America?

You can all picture what’s done by American men and women both, I’m sure – the cheerleader hands-on-hip pose a group of girls will do, or most men’s utter refusal to smile.
I immediately think of Dwight from The Office. “All I see is a scared chimpanzee…”
I have a couple portraits of my father, but for all I know they could be copies of the same photograph, as he has the same barely-distinguishable closed smile in every single picture.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a picture of Wer in which he hasn’t tried to show himself of a general IQ at least 50 points lower than his norm. Hopefully Wif is working on this before the wedding.

And I know I, myself, very rarely like a photograph of…myself. Too many reflexive pronouns in that sentence. Anyway. If I had my way, all pictures of me would be replaced by pictures of James Dean. And the world would be a much prettier place.

All that by way of saying – this is not a Russia-specific quandary. It just seems to be that in this country the process of posing for pictures has been perfected and refined to an extent I’ve never seen before. They’ve bred for a sixth sense that reacts to a camera anywhere within fifty meters. Quick, body – sprint to the nearest flowers and bury your face within! Or put one hand on your hip and point to the monument nearby with the other!
Hands on your hips
Stick out your tush
You’re doing the French mistake
And then Briullov loaned me Giorgio Agamben’s Profanations.

In one of the essays, he riffs on an idea Walter Benjamin first developed in Capitalism as Religion. What I want is to riff on just one idea of that one essay. If it intrigues you, you should read the whole thing. The end. Anyway. Benjamin introduced a new value of commodity to Marx’s previous definition (the latter had only explained use-value and exchange-value): exhibition-value.
It is a common experience that the face of a woman who feels she is being looked at becomes inexpressive. That is, the awareness of being exposed to the gaze creates a vacuum in consciousness and powerfully disrupts the expressive processes that usually animate the face. It is this brazen-faced indifference that fashion models, porn stars, and others whose profession it is to show themselves must learn to acquire: they show nothing but the showing itself (that is, one’s own absolute mediality).
Gah! With luck that quote translates without having to rehash the whole argument of the book. The "brazen-faced indifference" refers to their exhibition-value as people/objects. In the context he presents it, Agamben is arguing that capitalism strives to make the unprofanable. I don't feel like rehashing his whole thesis. Read the book. I mean only to describe what is so disturbing about Russian women and their perfection of posing for photography.

They’ve perfected the philosophy my great-something-grandmother believed, in her scowl for the camera – that the daguerreotype and all of its relatives were satanic and soul-stealing. Except instead of refusing to be part of the picture, or trying to give The Man Who Makes the Totentanz Go ‘Round the evil eye, they hide their souls.

I see no soul in the person with her face buried in the flowers, in the one with her arms splayed out against the wall. I didn’t know Briullov was taking a picture of me, but how similar is that picture to a pose many could have and have, indeed, already struck. We hide the soul, emphasize the physical, and make ourselves into commodities. No thank you.

I mentioned this post to Briullov himself a while ago, before I decided to put up his picture without permission. (pretty please?) He said: “Oh, I know what you’re talking about. I just walked past a guy taking this girl’s picture. He sets the camera down for a moment and says, ‘Show me the bag! Show me!’ She flips her purse around so the Coco Chanel label will be visible. He picks the camera back up.”

That kind of exhibition-value. That kind of commodity. That kind of soullessness.


Pokazhi mne sumku! - Show me the bag!


Sasha said...

pokazhi mne dushu? show me the soul?

NEVER!! (is it even possible in a picture?)
I wish that 'exhibition-value' had only affected Russian amateur photography. Think about American college/highschool girls making kissy faces at the camera they are holding themselves.

Some think that the fact these girls are holding the camera themselves (i.e. no boyfriend yelling at them how to pose) means feminism has triumphed. WRONG. Objectifying and exhibiting your own body is probably more twisted. Russia will probably be at that point soon...

oh, world.

p.s. best part about "show me the bag" story= the girl was posing in front of a still-operational, medieval CONVENT.


Patrick said...

When speaking of typical American photographs you can't forget the stupid puckered lips thing that the majority of American women do. On top of that you have the Charlie's Angels pose which has been ruined, as well as guys flexing or giving peace signs. That pretty much covers it.

Patrick said...

Man, I look like quite a fool, I posted, then read Sasha's post, and realized that the majority of my concerns were already voiced. Touche Sasha, touche.

Stacey said...

I know I read this post when you first put it up, but I can't remember why I didn't comment then. We had a shout-out, after all!

Thanks to our engagement photos and the fact that my friends and family seem to take photographs CONSTANTLY, Wer has indeed gotten better at not looking like the camera is going to murder him. Hopefully, he'll keep that up for the wedding shots! ;)