the image of tears in photography© Kanaplev-Leydik, from the series «Communion», 2008.

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Topic | The Right to Cry, or the Image of Tears in Photography

Olga Bubich studies a number of projects made both by classics and contemporary photographers and attempts to outline functions and specific features crying has in each of them. 

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Showing emotions through photography is a question that is worth studying in quite a variety of ways: from ethical to cultural ones. The analysis of representation of such a diverse emotional manifestation as tears seems to be particularly intriguing. Art critic Olga Bubich studies a number of projects made both by classics and contemporary photographers and attempts to outline functions and specific features crying has in each of them.

In the long course of their development, fine art and photography have been characterized by different attitudes to presenting people experiencing intense emotions. As the Swedish anthropologist and researcher of everyday life culture Karin Johannisson notes, each culture – time, norms, social environment – creates its own feelings, and this can be seen at the examples of the vulnerability of the XVIII century, the rigid self-control of the XIX century and the modern cult of passions. Each era dictates a sensitive code it considers to be “natural“.

Feelings are signs capable of labeling and integrating communities as well as isolating and fragmenting them. A set of emotional codes and a conditionally acceptable degree of their manifestation assigns a subject to certain qualities, but also to more power and authority. French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu saw feelings as symbolic and cultural capital, arguing that tastes and style of their manifestation are indicators by which individuals enhance or gain a desired social status and make themselves what they want to be. Anthropologist William Reddy speaks about emotional modes and navigation as about strategies necessary for the conscious subject.

Leaving aside that forever popular aspect of showing emotions in paintings inspired by Biblical scenes, let us give a look at, perhaps, one of the most visually expressive form of emotional reaction, namely tears. It seems to be especially interesting to analyze tears as a plot presented by means of photography as the most common tool of self-expression nowadays.

the image of tears in photographyAt the left: Zhenya, A portait with the dead bird. At the right: Zhenya. From the series “Letter from the quiet town”. Vitebsk, Belarus, 2010. © Katya Smuraga.

In the first decade of photography existence one could hardly think about depicting subjects who would openly express their emotions. Expositions were long, prints were expensive, and the topics of photographic interests often reduced to urban and rural locations. Personal or family portraits were considered to be valuable relics, and thus treated very seriously: subjects often approached not only clothes, but also background selection with a special attention and care, since everything was supposed to communicate the sitters’ statuses. The first pictures of crying people can be found closer to the middle of the XX century and their appearance definitely marks major changes in the technical side of the photographic medium and, which is even more relevant, in the society and its norms.

One of the most expressive early images of a crying person is the epochal photograph that belongs to the surrealist photographer Man Ray.Glass Tears” was made in the emotionally difficult period of the artist’s life – soon after his breaking up with Lee Miller, his assistant and model, who then became known as a successful photojournalist. As foreign critics note, Man Ray himself believed this image to be one of his iconic works and often incorporated it into other photographic compositions made later.

Among the surrealists, starting with the famed eye damaged in Luis BuñuelUn Chien andalou“, the eye was always seen as a symbol which understanding as the sole organ, indispensable for the artist’s work in transferring reality to the canvas, badly needed rethinking. The appearance in the surrealist circles of such art techniques as automatic drawing, rayogramms and frottage was nothing but the best proof of the eye’s uselessness for creative artists. Man Ray’s photograph “Glass Tears” logically fits the surrealistic paradigm of playing with real and unreal: despite the obvious reference to hyperdramatic silent black and white films, “real” photographed tears are artificial, and the girl herself is a mannequin. Questions Man Ray’s photograph may ask go far beyond speculations about possible causes of tears. Where is the distinction between staged emotions and something you actually feel? To what extent can we trust photography? Or is any picture, in fact, just an elegant myth we are allowed to see?

In her work “A Child Crying” (1967) American photographer Diane Arbus puts to the spotlight another aspect of the visual representation of tears. French scholar André Rouillé describes Arbus’ photographic heritage as anticipating the appearance of dialogic reportage at the end of the 1990s. Known for her photographs of people (transvestites, nudists, the sick or the injured, as well as other marginalized groups representatives), who usually remain out of camera sight, and thus out of society, Diane Arbus makes that “excluded community” visible. Through her shots taken at intimately close distance she brings to the fore her subjects’ personalities and makes the audience notice the Other and start the empathic dialogue.

Diane Arbus took the photograph «A Child Crying» on the occasion of the 30th Annual Diaper Derby contest at the «Palisades» Amusement Park in New-Jersey, at that time most popular among ordinary Americans. Several years before the shot in her application for Guggenheim Grant Diana mentioned this type of public events as one of the possible photographic topics attractive for capturing various emotions demonstrated by different prize holders: from the Nobel Prize to joky  «anti-trophies».

The first approach to the photograph brings a number of interpreters to the idea that Diana aimed at criticizing the ritual events of endlessly competing Americans who in the heat of the struggle do not notice people’s feelings and emotions. However, the photographer’s motivation probably had quite a different nature. In the image of the Other chosen for the picture she recognizes all the modalities of his/her inner world: desires, dreams, feelings, fears, weaknesses – thus transforming the documentary photography machine into “the subjective machine of expression.” The Other in Diane Arbus’ work is someone who in the situation of photography plays not a smaller part than the photographer herself. It is someone who, just like her, takes part in the process of creation.

Critic Susan Sontag in one of her essays presented in the fundamental analytical work “On Photography” argued that Diane Arbus photographed people who cause pity and rejection not by chance.  Instead of using popular speculations on such topics in order to make the photographed event more visually spectacular or shocking, Arbus tried to support such people and trigger in the viewers not rejection, but empathy, to emphasize their closeness and natural state, their equality with any other person, “visible” by the society. As Senior Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Sandra S. Phillips notes: “She was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of what has become recognized as a new kind of photographic art.”. The tears in the picture “A Child Crying” are a marker of crying as a natural state of a person of any age. This condition as captured by Diane Arbus, is shown in the work as not less natural and routine for a child than, for example, laughter, and therefore having the same reason to be photographed.

The naturalness of tears demonstration as a human emotions indicator can be found in the work of the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader, in particular in his film «I’m Too Sad to Tell you» made in 1971 and presenting Jan’s three-minute crying. As a gesture of symbolic performance the artist also mailed a self-portrait of his weeping, signed with the film title to a number of his friends. Analyzing Bas Jan Ader’s performances in the article “Bas Jan Ader in the Age of “Jackass” («Contemporary Magazine», February 2004), the Dutch filmmaker and writer Rene Daalder wrote about the artist’s tears as of a demonstration of “an overt “femininity” that we can readily appreciate today but which would have been wholly unacceptable in the macho artworld of California in the 1960s“.

the image of tears in photographyOn the official website dedicated to Bas Jan Ader, a fragment of the video with the crying artist is shown at the site’s main page, thus the emphasis is put on the emotional fragility of the author as a leitmotif not only of his work, but of his whole life.

There are two reasons why the project «I’m Too Sad to Tell you» can undoubtedly be quoted as one of the iconic works dealing with the subject-matter of tears in photography. The first one is a direct consequence of Rene Daalder’s comments: for a long time in any cultural tradition tears were really considered to be a women’s lot. Since the XIX century in Europe there was a gap between “male” and “female” behaviors, where men were firmly associated with socially significant and rational, whereas women – with private and emotional. Men’s tears, in case they did take place, were supposed to have a really relevant reason and be scarce. Neither is present in Bas Jan Ader’s crying. As critics from various countries of the world unanimously write: the cause of crying has never been specified by the artist.

The second feature of the project is taking the topic of tears into a public environment. A man is shown not only able to manifest his emotions of sadness in quite an expressive way, but also ready to talk openly about it, actually confessing his fragility and vulnerability. Such a gesture, in its turn, returns the viewer to a radical sensationalism of philosopher John Locke, that is to the natural role tears used to play in the culture of the XVIII century, where the position of a person was determined not by spirituality, but by sensitivity, and the boundaries of sensitivity were very loose, also due to aesthetization and erotization of the image of a sensitive person. However, excessive sensitivity in relation to the reality matter subtleties played with Bas Jan Ader a fatal joke. He died young, missing during his performance “In Search of the Miraculous” when he set off into the open ocean on a small boat reading Hegel’s “The Phenomenology of Spirit“. One of the remaining notes of Jan’s said: “The sea, the land, the artist has with great sadness known they too will be no more.”

Today, the topic of male tears in photography has not lost its relevance. It was further developed in a number of works created by contemporary photographers, for example in a series with the weeping celebrities made by famous British photographer Sam Taylor-Johnson. In her comments to the series the British photographer admits a desire to “show a different side” of “these big, masculine men” whose images, as we all know, were artfully and artificially created as such by mass media and Hollywood movies. Did Sam Taylor-Johnson manage to achieve the task or the shots she made were just another trick of talented actors’ in manipulating the viewers’ trust is up to each of us to decide, but we can firmly state that the project has raised a warm response in the hearts of many women, who follow the successful careers of the men who in the series showed their ability to cry.

the image of tears in photography© Sam Taylor-Johnson. Benicio Del Toro, 2002. Courtesy White Cube.

A sort of a replica to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s project was a series “Communion” made in 2008 by the famous duet of Belarusian fashion photographers Kanaplev-Leydik. However, judging by the commentaries given by one of the authors, Julia Leydik, in the Belarusian version the focus in weeping men photographs was made not on discovering their “different side” but on the visual interpretation of the link between beauty and tears.

I want to challenge one of the popular stereotypes according to which males’ revelation of tears is nothing but a manifestation of weakness and the lack of strong will. To put it shorter, a crying man looks shameful. While working on the project, I personally developed quite an opposite idea. They were crying and showing real men’s tears. It was their courage, the absence of fear in admitting their pain, it was a revelation in becoming cognizant through suffering. They approached the mystery and became a part of something common, their tears did not cause pity, because real men, and I can name every of the men we photographed as such, are courageous and beautiful also when being in tears,” – Julia Leydik says.

All men in this series are half-naked and photographed not against some specific background, as in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s project, but on a neutral gray or black studio wall. In this way the viewers’ attention is focused exclusively on the individual subject portrayed, on his personal experience of deep emotions revealed not only in the facial expressions, but also through gestures and postures.

the image of tears in photography© Kanaplev-Leydik, from the series «Communion», 2008

The history of women’s tears in photography is much richer than the experiments with male sensuality study. As the Swedish anthropologist Karin Johannisson notes in her “History of Melancholy”, in the course of history women were traditionally considered more emotional than men, their feelings were described as more spontaneous, while most men used them rather as a tool. According to the researcher, the symbolic value attributed to various manifestations of emotions is also obvious, with tears being possible to be viewed in this group, too, as they usually accompany melancholy, depression and sadness. For example, in the middle of the XIX century melancholy in women was seen as a disease and treated in hospitals, while a melancholic male was considered elite. To illustrate the relationship to melancholy in the context of two sexes, Karin Johannisson cites a story that took place in the life of Swedish writer Per Daniel Amadeus Atterbom. When a certain female writer approached him with a question asking why his sorrow could be called melancholy, and hers – no, he replied: “Because women are supposed to be merry and innocent.” At the same time, Karin Johannisson continues, there is a vast array of sources describing the “reserved, sad and grieving women“:

“Depression and existential angst were very common among middle-class women in the XIX and the large part of the XX century – this is how their subordinate position in society got imprinted on them. In the book “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) Betty Friedan used a special name to speak about female melancholy – “the problem that has no name.” It is a special feeling of emptiness typical of representatives of “the weaker sex”, oppressed, humiliated, deprived of the opportunity for self-realization.”

Perhaps it is this unequal treatment of women which can be used to explain the statistics that we have today: the diagnosis of “depression” in the contemporary world can be encountered among women are twice as often as among men.

A meaningful illustration, a kind of apogee of female tears representation in photography can be discovered in a project made by the American filmmaker and photographer Laurel Nakadate 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears who created a vast collection of daily records of the images of the crying artist. The project resulted in 365 color self-portraits of Laurel’s capturing her before, during or after crying, sincerity or artificiality of which cannot be discerned for sure. The projects geography is rather wide: the photographer cries in private spaces – the bedroom of her apartment in Iowa or a hotel bathroom – and on public – on the train, or while doing sights of Seattle. According to the self-established rules of the performance which lasted for the whole year, the photographer was taking part in the daily ritual of sadness.

the image of tears in photography© Laurel Nakadate, From the series 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, May 22, 2010, 2011.

In the conversation with American journalist Robert Ayers Laurel Nakadate comments on the goals and idea that underlie her project:

«Taking part in sadness and not running from it. I originally came up with the idea when I noticed that on social networking sites like facebook or Myspace, everyone pretends to be happy all the time. There are all of these normal people, all around the world, pretending to be happy. Maybe it’s a performance that they’re not totally conscious of, but there are all these normal people doing these performances every day. People hold their iPhone an arm’s length from their face and do a self-portrait and put it up on facebook every day. These layman’s daily self-portraits became interesting to me because of the idea that the self-portraits had to be happy. So I thought I would do a performance every day where I deliberately turn away from happiness, and deliberately take part in sadness».

One can firmly state that the project title fully expressed its essence. The photographer was successful in creating the vast self-portrait catalogue of women’s tears, thereby forming a courageous and at the same time very subtle ironic response of “the weaker sex” to popular stereotypes of female tears. To some extent, the project “365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears» can also be regarded as a symbolic illustration to the position the British activist Florence Nightingale took. In the XIX century she was demanding to return to women their right to pain claiming: “Suffering rather than indifferentism, for out of nothing comes nothing! Better have pain than paralysis! “.

Laurel Nakadate seems to experiment with the legitimacy of the exclusive status of happiness as the dominating mood on online photographic scene. What would happen if the place of happiness were taken by tears? What would happen if women really wept daily, as they are graciously allowed to by the society?

All the photos and photo projects presented above are only a small part of the endless visual archive of sensuality accumulated in the course of the medium’s existence, where at different stages of society development and in the context of different authors’ creative paths the image of tears fulfilled varying functions: from irony to the farce, from genuine existential sadness to professional artificiality, also being invariably determined by gender and social components.

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© Bleek Magazine. Text, translation: Olga Bubich.

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