I met with Eugénie Shinkle, Reader in Photography in the School of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster in London, to ask her about her current research on fashion photography, focusing on what she has coined, ‘the feminine awkward.’
How would you define your concept of the ‘the feminine awkward’?
It’s a way of thinking through changing representations of the female body and femininity as these are linked to shifts and developments in the creation and sharing of images.
Does it relate to specific fashion imagery?
Yes, certainly. It relates to contemporary fashion imagery, work of roughly the last ten years where you’ll see a shift from images that specifically try to deal with grace and beauty, to images that try to deal with discomfort, awkward angles, a fragmentation of the body, what you might call gracelessness. It is different from the sort of alternative photography that was going on in the 1990s: Corinne Day’s images for example, images of real people in sometimes quite down-market surroundings. That was about a certain type of lifestyle. The newer work that I am thinking about is very much focused on individual bodies. So I am thinking of Synchrodogs, Hart+Leshkina, Ren Hang to a certain extent. And certainly someone like Viviane Sassen.
How do these images affect the relationship between the viewer’s body and the model’s body?
This is where it’s really interesting to start looking at models from the point of view of neuroscience, in which the basic idea is that what we experience visually is not just about vision, but that vision has various tactile stimuli incorporated into it. It’s about something called ‘sensory crossover’ and the fact that none of our sensory inputs are experienced in isolation. The one area that interests me a lot is ‘mirror neuron theory,’ which is the idea that when you look at an image of pain, the same neurons in your brain are firing as if you were actually experiencing pain. It’s the foundation of human empathetic response.
Sensory crossover is a fact of all image perception, but it’s particularly pronounced in fashion imagery, which incorporates sensations of touch, movement, and pose. Images that are ‘awkward’ are those that grab you, that give rise to a certain visceral response quite quickly. It’s a different way of catching and holding a viewer’s attention than, say, ‘shocking’ imagery.
Can they be seen as reaction to the idealized beauty of traditional fashion photography?
I don’t like to see them simply as a reaction to conventional fashion photography because a lot of it has to do with technology as well. It has to do with the speed at which images of the body are disseminated, the rapidity with which they are received, the relationship that we have with images of our own bodies and other bodies. Part of this idea of awkwardness is not just a rejection of beauty it is an acknowledgement of the relationship between bodies, observers and images. That relationship is changing quite profoundly. I certainly see it as something that belongs to more than the limited contexts of fashion.
How do they affect notions of femininity? In Viviane Sassen’s work for example, there is something very liberating in the fact that the bodies do not bear the conventional attributes of femininity; the body is made into a prop and becomes part of a broader formal experimentation.
There is a kind of subversion of feminine identity through purposeful awkwardness, through the making of the body into featureless blobs. I agree with the idea that you can look at them as liberating because all the signifiers of femininity that fashion photography has traditionally exaggerated and made the essence of the feminine are made into something else in quite a humorous way. You can also see how this could be problematic, however. Erasing it, making it invisible is not necessarily a constructive way of challenging notions of femininity.