Spectatorship and Power Relationships


A Hennessy Ad, featuring Martin Scorsese



Tonight, I will be dissecting the role of spectatorship that many pictures are occupied with addressing. When you stare into a photo or a painting, there is a bond that forms between you and the artwork itself. You are the spectator, and your “gaze” is what creates the link between the form and arrangement of the work altogether. We, as humans, look into these photos and paintings with the intent to gain something or interpret what lies beneath. We become one with the photograph as the spectator.

In my first advert, this role is somewhat flipped on us. I was somewhat amused by the fact that the “Spectator” role is being reflected at us with a head-on, black and white shot of famed director, Martin Scorsese. We connect our gaze to his, as he is the direct center of focus and bears down at us with perhaps a larger presence. The video camera he is hunched behind adds another level of immediacy to his presence.

Were he a living being and not a photograph, he would be more than well aware that we are looking at him. Your eye naturally meets his until it breaks to scan the rest of the advertisement. Only then do you realize that this is an advert for Hennessy’s cognac. Even though the bottle in the lower right is the only colored object in the frame, it is secondary to Scorsese.

Speaking hypothetically, I would claim that Scorsese knows that he is in a photograph. He is focusing squarely at the viewer and even his camera is pointed straight at us. Foucault’s studies in the world of the gaze might lends to us the impression that he is watching over us.

Of course, it wouldn’t be real philosophy if there weren’t yet another step backwards to take. Lacan’s thought on the gaze was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis and Freudian thought. His heavily abstracted version of the “gaze” takes us a step further metaphysically. Lacan would say that, were Scorsese looking even slightly in another direction, he would not be “perceiving” our presence. There is, in his words, a “split” between the gaze and the human eye. Thus the paradigm shifts, Scorsese was already staring at us before we looked him in the eye, in the most strange fashion, we were the ones who did not notice his gaze at first.


A Stouffer’s ad, featuring a family


In our photograph here, we are offered the question of who is in power?

While there are many valid answers that could be offered in return, I believe there is a more sophisticated and less concrete answer that is perhaps not as immediate, but will service in almost any case.

Philosophy along the lines of Lacan or Christian Merz determines that the viewer determines the power of a photograph based on a number of elements, the most notable in this case (in my opinion at least) is the idea that whomever the viewer feels the strongest relation to will likely be the most “powerful” image asset.

In group shots and paintings of crowds, any good painter will construct each face and each pose uniquely if they seek to naturally present them as people. In Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” or Goya’s “Peasant Before Firing Squad” each show unique characters and locales of power. People will look to identify attitudes and behaviors that signify power.

Las Meninas 01.jpg

The most immediate figure in the photograph above is the peasant with his arms stretched above his head. Yet he is powerless in the photo. The monolithic presence in the right side of the canvas is that of the firing squad. None of their faces are visible, and in their namelessness and facelessness we derive a sinister power. This shows us that, despite what we immediately notice, “power” extends beyond focus and immediacy.


So when we look at this Stouffer’s advertisement, who do we see as the empowered figure? It’s possible that the little girl the fairy outfit is the most prominent figure, dressed in wild colors and taking up most of the right side of the frame. But in my opinion, the mother is the the figure that displays the most power in the photo.

She stands above the table, depositing a plate in front of her husband, while at the same time pouring a glass of milk on the opposite end of the table. She’s also making eye contact with her daughter, who has stood herself on the chair. All eyes are on the daughter, but the presence of the mother overbears her somewhat when you see how much of the area she occupies.

We may not see ourselves represented in this photograph, and we may not see immediately empowering actions represented either. Both are empowering as viewers to self-identify with a photograph’s contents. In cases where we do not see ourselves in what is shown, we turn to other criteria to find the focal point of power in a photograph.

In my opinion, the figure that is demonstrating the most action and the most occupying figure in the photograph is the most powerful. This figure is the mother, she is supplying food and drink, standing above all others (even those perched on chairs). In this photograph, the mother stands as the typical “Matriarch” figure.

If I were a mother or a matriarch figure, I would no doubt find some type of kinship represented in this image. As it is not the case for me, I do not view myself anywhere in the photograph. Yet I find it self-evident that the mother is the source of power in this photograph.


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