The voyeuristic lens: Francis Meadow Sutcliffe’s ‘Fisher People’.

I thought he would be a good person to hear interesting things from, so I asked him if he would mind telling me something about whale fishing in the old days. He was just settling himself to begin when the clock struck six, whereupon he laboured to get up.1

Mina Harker’s Journal,Bram Stoker, Dracula

Today, if you were to walk through the streets of Whitby, you might observe that little has changed since the turn of the twentieth century. You recall seeing the small alleyway to your left on a previous occasion, or strolling along you turn your head skywards and there is the chance you may catch a glimpse of the famous abbey. This is the Whitby that you have brushed against in Stoker’s famous novel. Literature such as this offers a way of viewing cultural perceptions of the time and in this case, it is Whitby’s inhabitants that take centre stage. To Mina, the old man she is referring to represents the narrative of the past, his individuality is pushed into the background.Christopher Hirst, in a 2012 article for The Independent similarly imagines the town:

Today, you encounter the quietly resonant images of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) throughout the town. His immaculate prints of old salts, sailing vessels, placid country scenes and gambolling urchins are displayed in the town museum in Pannett Park and sold in the Sutcliffe Gallery on precipitous Flowergate.2

It is this juxtaposition between memory and space that Hirst draws upon in the photography of Francis Meadow Sutcliffe. Much like De Certeau’s ‘Walking in the City’, in which the spectator’s vision of the urban environment becomes an ‘immense texturology’3– a composite of a variety of narratives. In the case of Whitby, Hirst considers that there is a synonymous relationship between the ‘types’ of people that inhabit Sutcliffe’s photographs and the town’s present day inhabitants:’My wife’s nephew Tom would be a spit for his ancestor Anna Mary Middlemas, one of Sutcliffe’s favourite subjects, should he ever feel the urge to don head-scarf and fish-spattered apron.’ 4Like Mina Harker’s encounter with the old man in Dracula, Hirst presents a reductionist view of the town’s inhabitants, whom are seen through a voyeuristic lens of narrative.

 In consideration of Sutcliffe’s work as ‘immaculate prints’, Hirst further reveals this sentiment and asserts the longevity of the narrative created by the photograph. Such uses of language reveal a sense of the impeach-ability of the photograph and photograph as narrative. The work of Walter Benjamin in ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ helps us understand why such voyeuristic narratives have continued to proliferate. Benjamin considers that the responsibility of searching for an image’s ‘aura’ and its function in producing ‘the desire of the contemporary masses to spatially bring things ‘closer’5 is implicit of a need to romanticise the past. In this, Benjamin links this closely with the proliferation of objects under the means of mass production, and provides an explanation for the proliferation of photographic prints. Benjamin’s emphasis on the ‘aura’ is suggestive of a collective impulse to maintain a connection to the past. Therefore, the work of Francis Meadows Sutcliffe demonstrates a kind of voyeuristic looking, in which photographs do not challenge overarching narratives. Using examples from Sutcliffe’s collection, ‘Fisher People’, we see how a voyeuristic imposition of narrative operates in relation to gender hierarchy.

http://www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk/photo_3197904.html (Fig.1)

In this photograph, we see a picture-portrait of a young girl. We assume that she is a fisherman’s daughter or perhaps a wife- a woman who spends her days working happily by the briny sea. Her pose is one of contentment, she looks half distractedly to the side, net proudly in hand…

Bunnell considers that attempts at Pictorialism as an art form, intend to make ‘poetic, expressive photographs related to…the traditional arts’.6 Here, we can see Sutcliffe’s pictorial expression at work. The pose of the subject is looser than those of traditional portraits. The head is tilted away, alluding to charismatic nature of the subject. The tightly clasped fishing net, suggests that Sutcliffe intended to draw a feeling of the happy ‘masses’ at work. However, as Benjamin highlights, a photograph might act as a more than a simple truth, it is an object of consumption. By crafting a ‘pictorial’ portrait, Sutcliffe lessens any social significance that a photograph may have previously has. This is problematic, for Benjamin suggests it changes the public’s perception of art. Instead of being subject to criticism, such photographs are ‘uncritically enjoyed’.7

 The lack of social criticism of such portraits, poses further problems when considered alongside contemporary gender criticism. Images such as this, reminiscent of the Cartes de Visit, which like Sutcliffe’s images of images of Whitby, were a commercial success.Further problematising Sutcliffe’s ‘Fisher People’, the romanticised nature of these images render both women’s bodies and portrayal of work as a purely commercial product not unlike those in Benjamin’s analysis of the ‘masses.’8

 These images are inherently voyeuristic, not just for the photographer but also in society, at the time, due to the unequal legal status of the woman and the proliferation of these images as provoking the past. To consult Benjamin again, there is a lack of socio-critical engagement with the photographs themselves, merely an interest in their ‘aura’, and in contemporary accounts like Hirst’s, the ‘unique phenomenon of distance’.9

These are feelings evoked in Hirst’s contemporary assessment of Sutcliffe’s work and Whitby itself. The town takes on a romantic significance that perhaps has little to do with reality. The image above is partially meant to represent everyday life and is somewhat alluring. The woman’s blouse lies half open, her corsetry visible underneath her outer garments. These kind of sexual representations of everyday life are touched upon by Foucault in ‘The History of Sexuality’, whereupon he asserts in relation to nineteenth century discourse:

 ‘There was permissiveness, if one bears in mind that the severity of the codes relating to sexual offences diminished considerably in the nineteenth century…but… one thinks of all the agencies in control and all the mechanisms of surveillance that were put into operation’.10

 The camera’s gaze, multiplied by the ever-growing ease and speed of transportation as a facet of emerging modernity and can be identified as such of a mechanism of surveillance. If, as Brik asserts, the task of the camera is to ‘record what the human eye normally does not see’11, then ‘Fisher People’ as a collection can be said to function as an example of the proliferation of discourses on female sexuality. The number of images in ‘Fisher People’ that feature or centralise the female body stand out. Therefore, binary narratives of heterogeneous male and female sexuality are reasserted, Sutcliffe’s images presenting no example of derridean différance between the two.

http://www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk/photo_3200256.html (Fig.2)

 Comparing two photographs side by side, one portrays the solitude of a chimney sweep. The photograph’s composition is only partially centred on the sweep, the street behind also takes a certain prevalence. The face is obscured and his identity becomes only significant through the portrayal of his socio-economic status (his baskets lie parallel to him); in essence, his work becomes him. The photograph presents a lack of overt sexuality and instead places emphasis on the male role in economic modes of production. Price in Photography: a critical introduction discusses the role of Sutcliffe in documenting the worker, critiquing that many ‘workers passed without great notice.’ However, Price also asserts the lack of a working female presence in Sutcliffe’s and others collections.12

 Contrarily, when comparing Sutcliffe’s group photographs , it seems clear that women are centralised or even privileged by the cameras gaze. There a number of photographs were women appear to be resting from work, arranged in provocative poses, reminiscent of those seen in traditional painted artwork.

http://www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk/photo_3197797.html(Fig.3)

  The voyeuristic gaze of the camera is then exemplified in Sutcliffe’s ‘Fisher People’. Portraits of women appear to correspond to traditional codes of sexual practice, such as those of restraint but alluring female as in indicated by Foucault. In comparison, men appear often with their faces in half shadow, the passive workers of the community. However, as aforementioned, they are not exempt from the camera’s voyeuristic gaze. In the photograph below for example, group of male figures relax by the harbour-side. Although apparently at work, their baskets appear to be empty, a number of the men appear to be turned away. Therefore, their work becomes a visual object reduced to commodity of a saleable photograph. There appears to be little attempt to signify individual identity, it being bound up in the collective rendition of an economic scene.

http://www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk/photo_3197642.html

To conclude, Sutcliffe’s ‘Fisher People’ present the failings of photography to accurately represent the individual. Instead, the camera’s gaze presents overarching and far reaching narratives that are at work in both historical and contemporary reviews of Sutcliffe’s work. These narratives appear to be most significantly at play in considerations of gender. Although attempting to demonstrate the realities of everyday work, particularly that of the woman, the subjects of the photographs become commercialised objects, whose image supports a romanticised view of the past. In doing so, the photographs present a lack of critical engagement with the conditions of fishing life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In ‘Fisher People’, the subjects of the image become no more than ‘aura’,13the victims of voyeuristic looking.

1 Bram Stoker, ‘Dracula’, ‘Pdf Planet’ <http://www.planetpdf.com/planetpdf/pdfs/free_ebooks/Dracula_T.pdf>[accessed 23rd January,2014]

2Christopher Hirst, ‘On the Waterfront: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s Whitby’, <http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/uk/on-the-waterfront-frank-meadow-sutcliffes-whitby-6297902.html> [accessed 23rd January,2014]

3Michel de Certeau, ‘Walking in the City’ <http://soundenvironments.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/decerteau_walking.pdf>[accessed 23rd January, 2014]

4 Hirst, On the Waterfront

5 Walter Benjamin, from ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in L. Wells (ed.) the Photography Reader (2003),p.45

6 Peter C. Bunnell, A Photographic Vision: pictorial photography, 1889-1923 (P.Smith, 1980)

7Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p.49

8Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,p.45

9Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,p.45

10 Michel Foucault, ‘The History of Sexuality’ <http://www.greatissuesforum.org/pdfs/foucault%20sexuality.pdf> [accessed 24/01/2014]

11 Ossip Brik, ‘What the Eye Does Not See‘ in L. Wells (ed.) the Photography Reader (2003),p.91

12 Derrick price, ‘Surveyors and Surveyed’ in L Wells (ed.) Photography: a critical introduction (London: Routeledge,1992),p.84

13Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, p.45

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