3D photographs of human vulvae are animated and interwoven with surfaces and textures in natural and human-made environments. The genital images were taken from a set of ViewMaster 3D reels that accompanied a textbook entitled The Clitoris, published in 1976 by two medical professionals.
In 1976, just three years after the landmark Our Bodies, Ourselves was first published, Thomas P. Lowry, M.D. and Thea Snyder Lowry, M.A., co-directors of the Marital Therapists Training Project for the California Department of Health, produced a textbook entitled The Clitoris, a collection of essays by gynecologists, pathologists, scholars and medical anthropologists, concerning the "primary organ of sexual functioning in human females." Included with the book was a set of four Viewmaster reels, containing 28 stereoscopic photographs depicting variations of human clitorides, all of which, according to the authors, were considered "within the range of normal." (The textbook is still available from various internet booksellers, including Amazon.com.) The images are intimate yet impersonal: full color three-dimensional close-ups of female genitals studiously disconnected from their owners, neatly boxed into tiny 4x3 frames; the occasional fingers pulling back the labial folds to afford better views of the clitoris are the only indications of the person beyond the vulva. In a medium usually reserved for travel photography, cartoons, science fiction and television stills, these Viewmaster reels become studies of the subtle and not-so-subtle variations on the dense topography of this usually-hidden and highly iconized part of the female body.
My previous work with 3D imagery (Angel Beach, Shape Shift, To Love or To Die), and my work with the human body and sexuality (Angel Beach again, Noema, Satrapy, Splitting You Splitting Me Still) - as well as my interest in exploring problematic, "politically incorrect" points of view from an inside perspective, often opposite my own, with an eye toward understanding and possibly neutralizing them (and possibly acknowledging them in myself) - made working with this material, when I found it, seem like a logical step for me.
Yet it soon became apparent that the material was problematic. Should I even be looking at these images with "artistic" eyes? Could I work with them in a way that transcended their clinical nature? And did I want to foist them on my viewers, some of whom would find the experience uncomfortable and might question my use of them as a heterosexual male? (Anne Severson, had, after all, at a time when feminists were questioning whether it was possible to photograph the female body without eroticizing it, successfully catalogued a series of desexualized vulvas in her 1971 film Near the Big Chakra; could I add anything to that discussion?) Still, something intrigued me about the idea and the provocative imagery, and perhaps wanting to raise those questions again, some 35 years later, from a non-female point of view, acknowledging who I am, and wanting, as I often do in my work, to put something out there to see how it takes its own shape, and push myself once again into uncomfortable, unfamiliar terrain, raising questions without having the answers, I decided to put the questions on hold, and threw myself into the project from a formal and very physical, sensual perspective, discovering and exploiting a rich array of intense perceptual phenomena. The film became, for me, a celebration of a raw, mysterious and sometimes fearful beauty, exploding with images of power and presence, of a part of the female body that is, one could argue, under-represented and seldom looked at, except when crudely sexualized in modern porn or subjected to the sterile scrutiny of the physician's gaze. Yet unlike Severson's de-sexualized Chakra, the images in Speechless also invite pleasure; animated, they might appear to be speaking, forming words and sentences using a vocabulary that, with our unversed eyes and ears, we're unable to parse, and hence assume the speakers' voices muted; but perhaps it is we who are left speechless.
These images remind me of Dan Savage's description of the vagina; "canned ham dropped from a great height" which set off a minor shit storm response Why do you identify Seversons catalog as "desexualized"? I suppose it is the same as asking; what would you regard as a 'sexualized' catalog. Don't say porn, cos not everyone would say this is "sexualized", and by 'not everyone' I mean,of course, me solo.
Hi Julie, I was referring to a well-discussed feminist argument that the female body cannot be photographed without it being "sexualized;" how would you characterize Severson's "catalog?" Perhaps "desexualized" is the wrong word, but I think she was attempting -- and succeeded -- in presenting women's bodies in a way that was different from the way they were/are normally photographed, that is, eroticized, or made for the pleasure of the "gaze." I can't think of many other works that have done that so successfully.
The female body cannot be photographed without it being 'eroticized', maybe, but 'sexualized'? I think that requires a bigger stretch on the part of the viewer. For example, this might be more subject to the limitless ideas of what is 'sexy'. I see 'sexualized' as distinctly detached, mechanical and clinical, something you can stand back from and take stock of in a cool calculating kind of way, whereas 'eroticized' engages more discreet aspects of the complicated business of 'looking', implicating the viewer more 'wholly', if you like. "Eroticism"I always think, includes the viewers visceral response in the equation without disabling a simultaneous intellectual consideration of the object, so that one can feel the excitement as both a physiological as well as cerebral element. The intellect as titillated as the body is. I experienced a similar kind of excitement when I saw Severson's film. I was thrilled to bits that it was so bold and amazed at the same time that the vaginas were so tender. after a while they registered distinctly as faces in my consciousness. All this accomplished through a catalog format. Perhaps it is through the spareness of such a format that conveys most effectively the warm sentiment and intention behind the project in the first place.
this is a magnificent happenstance, as i was just sitting down (moments before clicking on this link) pondering what to write about next and the words that i typed were: feminism, sex and the naked female. then i clicked.