Pictures of women have always held a special place in the world of gender politics. A photographer’s portrayal of a young model is always wrought with analysis regarding the possession, appropriation, and limitations of the female form, and this analysis invariably leads to debate. Is this girl being exploited? Is she being empowered? Is she offering herself up for degradation by posing nude (or, if you’re going to get really outraged, you can say “naked” instead)? An online community (Flickr.com) of photographers has emerged, destabilizing the once-patriarchal world of art, and complicating what it means to photograph the female form. Now everyone can showcase their photography publicly online, bringing up all new questions surrounding the politics of gender roles, the meaning of photographing a woman, and the mere presence of women photographers. The work of Lara Alegre explores the representation of her subjects through variations on traditional artistic themes. Her photos are aesthetically pleasing, sure — but what’s more is Alegre’s portrayal of the self, the female subject, and the relationship between the two. This keeps the viewer wondering and observing a negotiation of sorts between what is shown to, and what is hidden from, the viewer.
This young artist lives in Barcelona, Spain, and her work is readily accessible via her website, but most notably her art is available on the photo-sharing website Flickr.com. An online community that enables photographers to upload their work, Filckr is a force of artistic communication that allows users to comment, rank, and curate the work of others. Alegre’s work is found on her photostream as she uploads her photos with descriptions, and is able to showcase the photographs of her choosing whenever she desires. Forgoing the traditional process of funding and publishing in fashion magazines or other such forces of the industry, Alegre’s fashion photography (as well as her other work) is made public at the click of a button. With such a system invading the dynamics of the photographic world, artists of all backgrounds are able to gain notoriety and support themselves independently.
When looking Alegre’s photos, a theoretical framework could be helpful to theorize the power dynamics involved. Gender politics and film theory have been revolutionized by the theoretical work of critic and scholar Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey’s appropriation of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis to cinema has provided a framework of determining the patriarchal structure of viewership (the male gaze), and the representation of the female form on the screen. The term “scopophilia,” meaning “the pleasure in looking,” is a ubiquitous term within the field . Many photography critics have adopted Mulvey’s theories as well, analyzing the placement and portrayal of women in photos within the context of gender power relations. These critics argue that the pleasure of possessing a female form through an image is a strong driving force for the viewer, and subsequently has a huge influence on the production of said images. On the other hand, I would like to argue Alegre’s work is captivating in its empowerment of the female form, and the intimate representation of the self as a gendered body free from being possessed by those who view it.
The last thing I would want to do with Alegre’s work is reduce it to the point of being a simple example of gender politics, though there is always the possibility of that approach with this sort of analysis. It is temptingly easy to place any female’s artistic work in simple contrast to the photographs of male artists in order to illuminate their differences, but such projects are, at best, a reduction of complex work in order to furnish a particular agenda. Furthermore, the presence of a female model in an image can be (and often is) analyzed to the point of her dehumanization. A woman in a picture is more than a gendered form; she is a person with agency, talent, and strength, all in varying amounts depending upon the individual. A female subject (nude, naked, or otherwise) is too often reduced by critics to a mere pawn in their political debate. Does gender matter? Of course. But gender should not essentialize the individual to the point of becoming dehumanized. The woman you see in a fashion photograph is there because she has caused herself to be so, and has consciously and skillfully modeled herself in that manner. This should not forgotten.
I want to discuss Alegre’s work as pieces of her own creation, not as gendered specimens. I want to approach her photographs from my own individual perspective knowing that these images were made by another individual, one whose artistry triumphs not because of, or in spite of, its being taken by a female (or being taken of a female), but because of its ability to reach the viewer. I want to talk about Alegre’s work in the way that I personally observe it to be, not how I’m assuming she has intended it to be.
In the above photograph, Alegre’s mastery of light is stunning; the subject is framed perfectly by sunlight, and the blue sky is as stark as it is inviting. The model is beautiful, of course, but unlike in Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze’s power over the female subject, this photograph’s female form is far from being in the viewer’s possession. Indeed, it is this distance, almost removal by aloofness, from the viewer that is so compelling. Alegre has photographed her subject from below, placing the model in the center of the frame, looming above the viewer. There is nothing that rivals her height and, consequently, her authority. The model, twisted in a manner that is echoed by her wardrobe, is independent and powerful, and this, I believe, is the image’s draw.
A classic image of the nude female form in natural surroundings, this portrait is a variation on a traditional artistic theme featured in works by artists from Sandro Botticelli to Paul Gauguin to Helmut Newton. The model’s nudity, however, is far from the focus of the image; with her arms covering her breast, she withholds a full view of her body from the viewer in what might be interpreted as a modest gesture. Modesty is far from my first impression of the photo, however. Once again, Alegre’s photographic positioning places the model above the viewer, putting the subject in the position of power. Her facial expression is one of defiance; she is poised and self-possessed, eliminating the possibility of modesty for the purpose of avoiding the viewer’s judgment. Instead, withholding her body from the viewer is an act of ownership and empowerment. Though this interpretation may make the model appear aggressive, I should note that the image retains an elegance and grace that is undeniably beautiful.
Alegre’s self portraiture (examples of which are above) capture the artist’s own image in a negotiation between revealing herself to the viewer and obscuring her appearance from that same gaze. The first self portrait is an example of this negotiation, Alegre’s body is seemingly fragmented into limbs and nondescript parts; she is no one and everyone at the same time, and it is the viewer’s task to penetrate this mystery. Similarly, Alegre’s second self portrait is a disorienting image, this time of the photographer’s reflection. With her camera in hand, she looks toward the viewer, inviting observation, though the mirror’s multiplication and fragmentation of her form serves to divert this disclosure. Graceful and captivating, this self portrait communicates a quiet beauty that is as elusive as it is commanding. The viewer is not given the chance to fully possess Alegre; each photograph is a quiet claim on her own world, and the observer is allowed information about it at her choosing.
Perhaps this is what is most compelling about Alegre’s work: the feeling of being allowed into her line of vision, and being given the opportunity to observe powerful subjects at the level of their own choosing, not the viewer’s. The women in her photographs are not possessed by a gaze, but are inviting the gaze on their own, and Alegre’s, terms. The images are, in a way, a permission for the viewer to experience a world of Alegre’s creation, one that celebrates the beauty of strength, and the negotiations of an individual with the public world. — Megan McCormick
 Manlove, Clifford T. “‘Visual Drive’ and Cinematic Narrative: Reading Gaze Theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey.” Cinema Journal 46.3 (2007): 88-108. JSTOR. Web.
All images included by permission of the artist and are not intended for copying or reproduction. For information on re-use of these images, please contact Lara Alegre directly at info[at]laraalegre.com.