This is a continuation of the exploration of male gaze in knitwear photography. For the working definition of male gaze as I’m using it, click here. For the second installment, about the spouse as photographer, click here. If you are interested in contributing to this series, either as a photographer, or as a writer, please contact me.
If gaze exists, and there is such a thing as a male gaze, then there are surely other types of gaze as well. Early in this exploration, it was suggested to me (by Alex Tinsley of Dull Roar) that there might be such a thing as a knitter’s gaze. I’m broadening the term to refer to crafters in general, because I think Alex is right, and I don’t think this gaze is limited to knitters. If we refer to the working definition of male gaze, then the crafter’s gaze would be media presented from the crafter’s point of view, looking at object or people as a crafter might, and idealizing or objectifying them accordingly.
I think, though, that the crafter’s gaze is actually derivative of male gaze. If we extend the word crafter to include cooks, then we can see a well documented trend in which a lot of food photography is actually based on heterosexual pornography. In other words, the visuals of desire are a language that is codified by the heterosexual male appetite and view, and by being presented to us over and over again from birth as the visual norm, we internalize it and learn to express desire in those terms, whether we are male, heterosexual, or otherwise part of the normative view ourselves. While the crafter’s gaze may, at first glance, appear sexless or feminine, it is in some ways an expression of male gaze internalized and used to express a different sort of lust and desire. Oftentimes, in photographs which express the crafter’s gaze, the human body is incidental or unimportant, which can make it seem as though this is a very different sort of view than we are usually exposed to. However, if we look at the photographs of examples of desire applied to objects rather than people, then I think the view shifts slightly, and some commonalities might be exposed. This is not to say that all photographs from the crafter’s gaze are explicitly a product of male gaze, or that there is only one visual language of desire, but rather that we should not assume that this is absent. I would add that I think this particular view is a bit of a two way street – the visuals of desire may be determined by nature to some extent, then used in combination with the male gaze, and manipulated by advertising.
Clothilde shawl, photographed by me.
This photograph of Clothilde is the one I use as the main pattern photo on Ravelry. As you can see, there is no human being present in the photograph, and no real detail in the photograph other than the shawl edge. It does, I hope, convey to the knitter some of the detail they would want to see and know about before knitting the shawl, but it’s also decidedly a beauty shot, despite just being a picture of a shawl tossed over the back of my couch. I chose the couch as a background because it gets really nice light and because I thought the red made a nice contrast to the silver shawl. I chose this photo for use because I liked the composition and the colors. Red as a color has a long association with danger, probably due to the fact that it’s the color of blood and also the color used in nature by animals to signify poison. In a safe setting, this danger becomes exciting, making red a slightly more daring and sexualized color than blue or green. It’s not to say that I think the above photograph invokes sex, but I do think it would have a very different effect were the background a different color.
None of these backgrounds is bad, but I don’t think any has the same pop as the red background. The fact that our brain is automatically sending danger signals when we see red makes something safe seem more exciting. A red dress on a woman has a similar effect, and there’s a reason why a red dress is considered more daring than a blue one, and more vampish than a white one.
I don’t think my photo is an explicit example of the male gaze as it translates to the crafter’s gaze, but I do think it borrows from some elements of a glamor photograph. It’s a portrait, but a portrait of a shawl rather than a person, and as a portrait, it’s easier to see the line, horizontal rather than upright, stretching back into the distance, and the color, and the softness of the light on the reflective yarn. In other words, if this is a portrait, it’s a bit of a sexy portrait.
There are photographs that demonstrate the crafter’s gaze that borrow less from this internal language. I encourage you to look at each of the following photographs as portraits of knitwear rather than simply a photo of a scarf or a hat. As portraits, they offer slightly different messages and meaning. I deliberately chose photos where any human bodies in the picture are somewhat incidental to the knitwear itself.
Vahl Hat, designed and modeled by Alex Tinsley. Photo by Vivian Aubrey.
Alex Tinsley’s Vahl Hat is shown here as a hat, the human head necessary only for showing the shape when worn. This is a pretty and also utilitarian photo – the star is the hat, and we’re shown what makes it special and different from other hats by focusing on the crown and back where there is interesting shaping and adornment. As a portrait of an object, I’d say there is little subtext – we are being asked to look at a hat as knitters and see what would be fun about it in terms of making it. The two parts of the picture that stand out to me are the feather tassel and the sequins. These are equivalent to jewelry. If I were to make this hat, my own might not have them, but they’re both so pretty that I can’t really take them out of the equation when I look at this picture. In other words, although I intellectually know I don’t have sequined yarn or feathers in my stash, it’s next to impossible for me to discard the information of feathers! sequins! from my brain when I imagine this hat as mine. In terms of the hat’s character, this extra adornment on something otherwise simple, if clever and pretty, adds a certain interest and richness. I see nothing in this photo to suggest that the person looking at it is male, and more than that, the objectification of the object depends on the visual interest of the tunnel like shape formed by the stripes, creating an optical attraction that is not based on anything cultural. All culture is kept to the pretty little extras.
Fast Forward, designed by Natalie Servant.
I really like this picture of Natalie Servant’s elegant unisex scarf, Fast Forward. We are treated to seeing how it would look in three strongly contrasting colors, focusing on the detail that makes the scarf special, and we’re given a picture of how it would look when worn without a single human being in the picture. In this photo the trees can be seen as stand ins for human models, and I think they do an admirable job of being composed as a group of people without clearly indicating male or female. Both the number and the grouping are familiar and pleasing.
The Acheson Sisters, by John Singer Sargent
Portrait of Charles Roeber, Tom Reece, and Jim Mikulenka.
By eliminating the human figure but keeping the humanity, Natalie has found a way to let crafters ogle her scarf as crafters without giving them an imposed idea of whether the scarf is for men or women. These trees could be the elegant women in the Sargent portrait, or they could be the tough cowboy types in the image from Texas history. They could be another group altogether. Because the “figures” of the trees are upright and confident in their demeanor, there is no real imposition of view here, just a template into which we can drop our own images. I think Natalie’s picture is a good example of gaze that lacks a specific viewpoint.
Morningtide, designed by Becky Herrick.
I chose Becky Herrick’s Morningtide mitts for an example of hands as they appear in knitwear photography. Hands are much easier to model if they’re holding something, and it’s not uncommon to see pictures of hands holding mugs or garden implements or flowers in photos depicting gloves, mittens, or mitts. The point of the hands in this picture is to give you as much of a view of the different angles of the mitts as possible. Becky’s added some setting to give the picture a narrative and a composition. As part of her collection of handwear themed around time, these mitts need the setting to keep the storyline intact. As a portrait of mitts, this one is pretty formal, depicting both the mitts and their accoutrements that depict their overarching theme. The colors and picot edging are enough, with our cultural context, to establish them as female, despite a lack of any other clear indicator in the photo. They are angled to create a composition that pulls the eye diagonally across and up the scene. Hands can certainly be depicted as sensual, but here they are more relaxed and casual, lounging, but not preening. As a portrait, I see these mitts as feminine and depicted as feminine under the societal mores we live with. The view here is a crafter’s view, but perhaps guided by a broader societal picture of gaze that allows us to clearly understand that a pair of mitts are female without clear cause.
Xochiquetzl, designed by Melissa Lemmons. Photo by Emerald Lemmons 2012.
I chose Melissa Lemmons’ Xochiquetzl for the last analysis, because I think her photo is a great demonstration of object portraiture and also of the sexiness that can exist in photographs of what should in theory be sexless objects. The foot pose in this photo is lovely, emphasizing the arch and curvature of the foot and creating a number of beautiful lines to follow. It’s also not a naturally comfortable position. (Try it. Arch your foot at this angle for a moment, and notice the ways in which your body tenses.) It’s a beautiful photo for showing off a beautiful sock, but it’s not just a picture of a foot. Again we have the lounging angle, this time somewhat more sensual because of the curves. It is ideal for showing off the elegant shaping in the sock, but also ideal for using the curves to create a feminine ideal. Once again, we have the sense of femininity without an explicitly female presence in the picture.
I realize I’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole in this post, and these interpretations are mine alone. I may be reading into these pictures only because I’m looking for signs of gaze as often as possible these days. I am also coming to this as someone with a background in visual art and analysis, so I’m used to examining images with the intention of looking for more than is explicitly portrayed. If I lost some of you on this foray, I hope you’ll come back for the next round or send me your thoughts for another view.