OPINION Zoë Brigley

NWR Issue 120

Just a Woman with Nothing on her Skin

What are the politics of a photograph? Legally, it belongs to the photographer, but how does this dynamic play out when so often women have been the erotic spectacle of photographs, whether they consented or not. This article is not about changing copyright rules, but it does recall Laura Mulvey’s statement, in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, that ‘in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.’

In my new poetry collection, Hand & Skull, the photograph becomes an important way to explore power, sexuality, violence and healing. At the heart of this discussion is a series of photographs: Alfred Stieglitz’s images of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. During the 1910s, Stieglitz was a photographer and key influencer on the New York art scene, and he and O’Keeffe went on to have a prolific correspondence, their letters leading to a passionate attachment, and eventually their marriage.

I first came across Stieglitz’s photographs in a book of postcards: a Christmas present when I was about thirteen. It was a picture of Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands: almost disembodied, lying on a bed of sumptuous material. The finger and thumb of one hand delicately hold a needle, while on the other hand, the middle finger is languorously extended, and capped by a thimble. I was very young, but the photograph meant something to me: spoke to me about power, delicacy, physicality and presence. I carried the postcard around in a notebook for years, until eventually I lost it...

Zoë Brigley is Assistant Professor in English and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. She has three poetry collections from Bloodaxe: The Secret, Conquest, and Hand & Skull, the latter just out at the end of May. She has a collection of nonfiction essays forthcoming from Parthian, Notes from a Swing State, and she co-edited the volume Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives (Routledge).

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