Pregnancy Series was a powerfully erotic study of women in the latter stages of their pregnancies. Dreyfus was fascinated by the explosiveness of the pregnant woman's body - the curves, the weight and the distortions, as well as being the site for deeply held fears regarding female power and sexuality. Pregnancy Series was exhibited at Stills Gallery, Sydney in 1992. The monograph, The Body Pregnant, was published by McPhee Gribble/Penguin in conjunction with the exhibition The Body Pregnant at Stills Gallery in 1993.
This exhibition was critically acclaimed and resulted in widespread community discussions about women and body image. "Dreyfus' work is a tour de force in that it brilliantly circulates around the terrain of the beautiful and the ugly"
(Diane Losche, Photofile 1992).
"And so it will profit us to begin the process of remembering, struggling to acquire an imagery which speaks against the limitations of our contemporary vision of a woman's body. We are in search of a vision that will help us live comfortably within our own bodies from a culture that has alienated them, along with so many other sources of our power and pleasure. Images of large women that can make us proud." Kim Chernin
Womansize: The Tyranny of Slenderness
Two feminist photographers exhibit on gallery walls in Sydney. At first the two shows have little in common. The one at Stills Gallery by Ella Dreyfus is composed entirely of large, black and white photographs of pregnant nudes. It draws hundreds of people to a small, newly founded gallery in Paddington and receives significant media attention. The other show, at Watters Gallery in East Sydney (one of the founding institutions of contemporary art in Australia), is by Sue Ford and at first sight is dissimilar to the Dreyfus work, although Ford is well known for her black and white portraits of women form the 1960s through to the 1980s. In Ford's case the photographer seems to have decided that clad subjects rather than nudes are the way to go.
Ford's current project, titled 'From Van Dieman's Land to Video Land', is a far cry form her portraits of women. Her subject matter is, broadly speaking, Australia's history, its landscape and their representation. In contrast to Dreyfus, Ford takes an extremely elliptical approach to the subject matter. her representational strategies highlight the fact that if Australian history and landscape form one part of her content, the technology and apparatus of the gaze which surveys that history and landscape are equally important. Eight large works depict haunting, poetic images alluding to such historical moments as the deportation of convicts, contemporary tourism, the nuclear bomb, missionisation and religious fundamentalism. All these images are composed of laser copied enlargements. Some of the works are overlaid in oils while other images come from Ford's own videos and have been photographed from the TV monitor. The ninth work, titled "'And God was happy to have a new country,' said the nun to the gathered children", is composed of 14 ink and watercolours on paper done in a "naive" style. These images also allude to historical moments, in this case to the missionisation and colonisation of Australian Aboriginies. Despite their differences in content both the Dreyfus and Ford shows engage troubling questions about the nature of representation and the gaze. A comparison of the two shows is of interest precisely ecause of their very different approaches to these issues.
In her catalogue essay Dreyfus clearly states the aim of her show:
"Prenancy Series seeks to challenge the genre of the classical nude, where female beauty is contructed by male artist...By presenting the nude as pregnant, questions arise that subvert the original meaning...My aim is to present women with images of themselves that they can be proud of...My photographs validate women's experiences at a time when pain and deprivation are the order of the day...The depths of feeling, empowerment and love we experience cannot be hidden away, not matter how entrenched the fear and denial mechanisms are."
The theory behind this set of photos assumes that a particular kind of representation of the female body, with all its marks, hairs, freckles and moles, as well as it's curvaceous volume, has been submerged or forbidden. Dreyfus proposes a representational strategy which will empower that form, and enable those who bear (or at least potentially bear) that form, to feel better about themselves. She seeks to render the form visible through a process of mimetic representation, in all its truth. This approach, of rendering the unspeakable, the suppressed, the ugly or the absent visible via representation is a well respected and well trodden path for the artistic avant-garde. The path crosses all genres, from Manet and Baudelaire, to Judy Chicago, Kathy Acker and Diane Arbus. This position, the claim that one is rendering the invisible, and thereby empowering not only the artist, but also that which is represented, is problematic - even though it may succeed in its intention of empowering the audience or confirming some aspect of the viewer's identity.
We are now a long way down the track from Manet's famious claim for the truth of painting and it is almost a universal and somewhat irritating claim by those who put objects into galleries that they are making some truth visible. The more vexing issue for contemporary representation lies in the relam of strategy. Dreyfus's images are in the genre of the beautiful photograph. Indeed, they conjure an ullustrious heritage, evoking Edward Weston, Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus. The 'Pregnancy Series' attracts and holds the viewer with its evocation of classic, formal beauty while at the same time rendering the truth of the bodies' size and 'blemishes'. The formal element of these bodyes is facilitatied by a series of framing devices common to the history of photography which Dreyfus uses knowledgeabley, and deliberately, in her attempt to subvert the sign of the nude. These bodies are often headless. They are all placed in dark, shadowy and anonymous spaces which eradicate any traces of a particluar place or time. While hightlihgting the form of the nudes such devies also decontextualise them.
In her desire to render beautiful and seductive that which she feels the dominant culture renders invisible or ugly, Dreyfus leaves unexplored some important questions about the context, and the framing devices which surround these prengnant forms. In an era when Sally Jesse Raphael, Oprah Winfrey and 'People' magazine, as well as the medical and religious establishment - in an uncanny echo of the artistic avan-garde - urge us to reveal all for the sake of truth, these absences in the Dreyfus works are troubling indeed.
It is precisely these questions concerning the technology and apparatus of the gaze, the frame of vision, which Sue Ford attempts to address and highlight in her show. While Ford also tries to make representations which intrigue or hold the viewer, which may be as close as anyone can get these days to beauty, her strategy is to constantly remind the audience of the apparatus of their gaze, of the way in which their view of a situation is constructed. In these works one is constantly aware ot the technologies, of camera, photocopiers, television and video which intervene and construct the relationship between the subject and object of the gaze. This strategy of making the audience highly self-conscious of their vision, and of the technologies which construct their gaze, is entirely differernt to that adopted by Dreyfus, whch submerges the self-consciousness of the audience and the apparatus, in order to highlight the object of vision. The strategy adopted by Ford serves to remind one that our framing devices, the object which they frame, and our own identities are not easily separated from one another.
Dreyfus's work is a tour de force in that it brilliantly circulates around the terrain of the beautiful and the ugly. It is, after all, no mean feat for someone to recall both Diane Arbus and Rob ert Mapplethorpe at the same time. Sue Ford's work on the other hand is a tour de force of deconstruction, in that her images manage to make one extremely self-conscuous while still seducing the viewer into engagment with the works. The effect of Ford's exhibition extends beyond rendering visible the apparatus of contemporary technology, for, through the inclusion of the ink and watercolour drawings, we also become conscious that all the apparatus of representation, oil painting or realism for example, as well as the notion of history and technology itself, are constructions or framing devices. In this way Ford's work avoids the nostalgia which the 'Pregancy Series'risks. By rendering visible the technology of reresentation itself, any notion of the 'truth' of representation is constantly subverted.
The different representational strategies adopted by these two photographers also effect the distance created between the audience and the work. The Dreyfus show seems to assume that women are a homgeneous group. Both the author's statment and the framing devices which decontextualise the froms assume universalities of the feminine which ignore differences in the audience of women. To a woman who wanted but could not have children to take only the simplest of examples, these images might not be confirming and empoering but instead, depressing and excluding. If this assumption of identity with the audience of women is problematic in the 'Pregnancy Series', the Ford work runs the risk of making the viewer so self-conscious of the apparatus of vision that too great a sense of distance is created between the viewer and the work. As in most deconstructive tasks, the result is to make the readers turn in upon themselves, creating a sense of isolation and disengagment.
When one compares two shows in one reiew there is always the risk of the either/or problem: one is seduced into thinking there is always a winner and a loser. In a period, however, when I have been assaulted by a show called The Phallus and It's Function, hosted by a contemporary art space, harassed by football hoooligans on Oxford Street, and open my TV guide to find that the topic of the day for a talk show is somehting like 'My Mother is a Slut' I am very happy that the work of both Ella Dreyfus and Sue Ford gets an airing at all. Does our rescue lie in dreams or awareness? Once I was sure of my answer, but now, as I reel in Future Shock, I'm just not sure - but I know it's not and either/or.
In photographing the pregnant nude, Ella Dreyfus claims to address what she believes is the taboo area of how women see themselves. "Embedded deeply within all women is the knowledge that they are judged by their looks" argues Dreyfus, "with the pressure to conform to today's painfully thin ideal of female beauty causing intense suffering amongst women."
Fom this fragile assumption of surface beauty defining a woman's appeal, Dreyfus has chosen to photograph the extreme of "the explosiveness of the pregnant form - the curves, the heaviness, the body so deeply distorted," partially motivated, she recalls, "from a miscarriage suffered silently in 1986...and (eventually) the birth of my daughter Felix in 1987".
The resulting 24 images on exhibition at Sydney's Stills Gallery until May 30 reveal a vigorous, passionate approach to her subject. Dreyfus clearly revels in the voluptuous, sculptural extremes of the female form observed from mid- to full-term.
But by presenting her images on such a large scale (some photographs are a metre square), Dreyfus may have overstaed her case. Fine photographs do not necessarily require sheer size in order to achieve maximum impact, especially in a gallery of such modest proportions as Stills.
Compositionally, Dreyfus chooses to truncate the majority of her subjects, leaving us to view, in many cases, the torso from chest to shin. This device at once renders her subjects de-personalised and universal with simple lighting completing her agenda of craft. The resulting black-and-white photographs suggest the feeling these women exist within a melancholy half-light. Only when we venture to the upstairs section of the gallery do we see a selection of images of women after the birth of their children. Curiously, joy appears conspicuously absent, and where a mother does look directly to camera, it is vacancy we observe as her industrious baby squirms in her arms.
Almost hidden away in a small upstairs room in the western end of the gallery are two pictures showing Dreyfus's involvement with her subjects can result in a more emotional response. In these photograhs, a woman of apparently Oceanian origin looks directly into the camera's lens, eloquently expressing the patience and strength required in bearing children. In lighting and print tonality, these pictures also achieve a subtle luminosity surpassing the larger prints displayed elsewhere.
By reducing most of her subjects to abstraction, Dreyfus may have ultimately done her prenant women some small disservice; being generally depicted in strong compositions, her women apperar to have little interaction with their bodies. There is minimal evidence ot the joy of constant, tactile monitoring that accompanies pregnancy and no evidence of the fathers. From earlier work exhibited, Dreyfus has clearly addressed the role of the co-creator and while their presence is by no means obligatory, it further adds to the singular nature of these images. Ultimately, we are left to see these women mostly as pure form, little touched by the emotional spectrum that accompanies pregnancy.
If this project were to escalate into book form, as indeed it should, it would require a generally more sonorous black-and-white approach in both lighting and print quality and the addressing of the complete behavioural agenda that accompanies such a fundamental component of human existence.
There is, in the subject of the pregnant nude, a photograph waiting to be taken that will instantly achieve the iconic status of, for example, Imogen Cunningham's "Two Callas" or Edward Weston's "Pepper Number 30". No-one appears better motivated or qualified than Ella Dreyfus to complete the search for this image.
Ella Dreyfus's powerful and authentic photographs are in many ways the visual embodiment of my own quest for a positive, evocative imagery of the female body. Through these works she moves toward the body as if from a child's pint of view, observing its largeness, its mass, the awe it inspires, the sense that one cannot full grasp it - there is always so much more there. She has also captured what the maternal body means, what it has meant to the child and continues to mean to the adult. These portraits awaken archaic memories, making them first visceral, then virtually visible, as if the viewer were looking into a deep soul-mirror of the self. The female body, through Dreyfus's eyes, immediately reminds one of a nurturing goddess, an archaic, original woman with power over life and death, that supreme first being who took our life between her hands - quite literally, as shown in some of these photographs. And of course we have scarred her in passing from her, just as we too have been marked by an original separation. In the photograph of a boy-child nestled in his mother's lap, we glimpse a buried truth - the male was once inseparable from the female. The mother's hands on the boy's body might as well be the mother's hands resting on her own flesh, which of course, in every sense, this boy still is.
Throughout the pages of this book we see curves; smaller and larger curves, breast curves, belly curves, buttock curves, knee curves; the same curves that one might see in a distant mountain range, and beyond this, the sudden valleys, the nameless ravines of our beginning. Here, Dreyfus's vision of the mother's body opens upon essential identification of woman with earth, first world, nether world, unspeakable world of being before speech.
I remember myself when I gaze at these portraits of mothers and children; I see myself immediately in that small child grounded in that large, massive world out of which one simply cannot fall, held so firmly by those veined, capable, enormous hands; the little one now even now even dares to peek around the shoulder of the universe, as if curious to know what other worlds lie beyond.
There is a subtle, powerful lesson here, a true subject for meditation, a sacred vision of a culturally denied sacredness. These photographs of pregnant women reveal realms of experience we usually only imagine. They bring together those elements that are considered opposites: flesh and divinity, soul and body, spirit and matter. This bringing together of opposites produces a luminosity that makes it easy to guess just what those graven images so often mentioned in the Old Testament must have been and why the father god and his worshippers might have been so opposed to the inscribed forms of the pregnant female. Gods, on occasion, have been known to give birth. Zeus gave birth to Dionysus from his thigh. But for gods such doings are strictly by exception, while for us, as women, such birthing is simply the normal order of things. Women are the creator. How obvious, but how hidden.
The Body Pregnant offers itself as a bible of images for contemporary women, who will certainly find in its pages a message of long-forgotten sacred truths about female being and the mystery of the female body. These resonant images of mother-women lure me, as if to the forbidden. But why forbidden? This mothering body, once so feely given, later shut away behind locked doors, returns to us through these pages, in celebration of its own being. Its nudity is an act of self-assertion, in pride of being, endowed with the immediate, brooding subjectivity of the nearness of birth.
Conception, gestation, trimester, birthing and babies were on my mind on 1986. Earlier that year I had silently suffered a miscarriage, and when my sister announced that tow friends were about to give birth I knew that I had to photograph them. I discovered a theme that would dominate my artwork for the next seven years.
I was fascinated by the explosiveness of the pregnant form- the curves, the heaviness, the profound transformation of the body's proportions, was it beautiful or grotesque? I began to seek out pregnant women to photograph and my collection of images began. Before long my own belly began to protrude and in October 1987 I gave birth to my daughter, Felix.
My experience of pregnancy led me to examine the position of pregnant women in our society. In the following years I explore the feelings of dis-ease that my pregnant body had caused me. I compared notes with other pregnant women and realised that, once pregnant, we were required to modify our behaviour to satisfy social expectations. The women I met were always painfully aware of their largeness and had very mixed feelings about their appearance. Often they felt quite unacceptable to themselves and to the rest of society. Our bodies had become the site for deeply held fears regarding female power and sexuality.
The pressure to conform to today's painfully thin ideal of female beauty causes intense suffering for many women. We are used to being looked at and to altering our appearance to suit ever-changing notions of ideal body types. In our culture of control women exercise their self-will by transforming their bodies through starving, binging, purging and rigorous exercise regimes in order to reap the rewards that possession of a taut, trim body promises.
The body changes, expands and appears to be out of control during pregnancy, regardless of any efforts to stop this happening. The many years spent striving to reduce one's size become irrelevant, and as the body grow, so does a woman's discomfort and displeasure. Embedded deeply within al women is the knowledge that they are judged upon their looks. A fat body, albeit pregnant, is seen as unacceptable. By today's rigid standards, fat signifies failure, an inability to take control of one's life. We fear fat as if it was a disease, and ownership of a fat body can cause intense feelings of shame and guilt. Conversely, a lean, pared-down body, devoid of excess flesh, is perceived as a triumph of order and discipline over nature's raw energy.
How do women reconcile personal rejection plus hatred of their own flesh with the joy and excitement of the forthcoming birth of their child? The messages society sends out are so confusing. The traditional exaltation of motherhood is in start contrast to society's lack of acceptance of the mature female body.
The sight of the pregnant female body challenges our attitudes towards sexuality. Double standards of sexual morality that require a woman to conform to the stereotypical roles of virgin, wife and whore are strangely subverted by the presence of a pregnant body. A pregnant woman, when appearing in public, is openly stating that she is an active sexual being. But this sight is not tolerated because women are still forced to hide their bodies under great folds of fabric that deny their sexuality. Women are not encouraged to creatively express the forces that govern them during pregnancy and childbirth. They are driven into a position of mental, physical and spiritual repression. Pregnant women are offered a romantic fantasy of motherhood that denies the reality of this important phase of their lives and results in further feelings of isolation and paranoia.
The themes of birth and death have occupied unequal positions in western art. Death has been thoroughly explored by artists who understood their theme well, for the artists have been men and war their creation. There are many artworks that depict sacrifices, massacres, corpses and crucifixions. But birth as a theme is art has been noticeably absent. If great art is supposed to express universal themes, then, in failing to include major experiences in women's lives men's definition of the universal has been incomplete. The explosion in the number of women artists since the 1970s has meant that many of these themes have been expressed for the first time, providing powerful new insights into the wide range of female responses to life.
In the art of ancient cultures there is evidence of unrepressed artistic expression of women's role as life-giver. A great many small sculptures of broad-hipped, full-breasted and full-bellied female figures have been found, the earliest being the famous "Venus of Willendorf" from around 21 000 BC. These sacred figurines were religious symbols celebrating fertility and the cycles of nature.
With the advent of Christianity came a procession of pale Madonnas and a change in focus from the fecundity of the female body to the miracle of the virgin birth. The earthy sexuality of the fertility goddess gave way to the lifeless portrayals of women as represented by the Madonna. In the many paintings and sculptures of the Madonna there is little evidence of Mary's experience as a real mother. She has a flat belly, diminished breasts that are not longer fit for feeding, and a face full of melancholy that is stamped with the eternal patience of motherhood. Her role has been reduced to that of a passive vessel bearing Christ the Saviour. Such images reflect the decline of women's power and emphasise the dominance of the masculine god. The myth of the virgin mother has entered our consciousness on a deeply symbolic level and expresses the attitude of Christian culture towards pregnancy and motherhood. It enables men to suppress their fear of women's dominant role in childbearing and to put women safely out of reach, on a pedestal. This has led to the cult of the mother, where passivity and self-denial are worshipped.
The Body Pregnant offers a view of nudity rarely seen in art, the nudity of the pregnant woman. The manner in which I photograph these women alludes to the symbolic importance of the female nude in the western tradition of high art. The female nude is controlled by a strict set of aesthetic standards that uses classical ideals of beauty to restrict women and contain their behaviour. Male artists from the Renaissance through to the present day have determined our way of viewing the female nude by depicting passive, obedient women as sexually available objects for masculine pleasure and ownership. Given this bias, it is clearly problematic for female artist who work within this area of representation.
The traditional viewer of the female nude is male, and the position of women as viewers of this form is usually one of extreme discomfort. Women find that what they are looking at is the male image of perfection and desirable female beauty. The marked difference between their own bodies and those depicted leaves many women feeling deeply inadequate. The insidious expectation that women should resemble these models of femininity is reprehensible.
Women crave images that will provide them with positive messages rather than humiliating ones. We need to see images of women who are taking action rather than being acted upon. We need images that we can identify with, and that do not leave us feeling ashamed of our bodies. As writer Rosemary Betterton points out, "it is a political project to search for and construct more positive images for women, as well as to denounce and deconstruct those which are limiting and oppressive."
My aim is to present women with images of themselves they can be proud of. Here are dignified bodies. There is no shame in these voluptuous female forms. Their huge breasts and bellies retain a sensuous quality that proclaims sexuality and reclaims the source of women's true power and pleasure. There is a shift of consciousness as the gender of the viewer is reversed and the audience becomes empowered. My photographs validate women's experiences at a time when pain and deprivation are the order of the day. The richness of sensual pleasures and the intensity of emotion and love we feel need not be hidden away, regardless of how entrenched the fear and denial mechanisms have been.