A comprehensive guide to girl on girl photography

A new book offers an in-depth appreciation of the female gaze and features photos from Maisie Cousins to Zanele Muholi and Pixy Liao

Pin It
Mayan Toledano Girl on Girl Dazed
‘LA Girls’, 2015Photography Mayan Toledano

The ‘female gaze’ has become something of a buzzword in recent years with a growing community of women taking control of their narratives through photos taken for and by them; self-published without the need for middle-men legitimising their work. Documenting this revolution over the past few years has been Dazed contributor, Charlotte Jansen, whose curation of work by these talented women is now a book, set to be launched tonight at The Photographers’ Gallery. 

Titled Girl on Girl – itself the reappropriation of a term from that last bastion of the male gaze, porn – Jansen’s book is a testament to how women are taking back control of their images from this objectifying perspective that has existed throughout history but was only named by film critic, Laura Mulvey, in the 70s. Be it through Molly Soda’s webcam and Piczo (remember that?) graphic edited selfies, or Juno Calypso’s surreal photos from a solo honeymoon to a love hotel in Pennsylvania – female identity is being explored in more varied and exciting creative ways than ever before, and Girl on Girl is Jansen’s effort to make sure that this “shouldn’t be seen as a passing trend.” 

“I love women and I love photography,” Jansen says of why she started this project – but she wants to stress that ‘female gaze’ isn’t just the liberally applied term for a female photographer that it seems to be in the mainstream media. “I don’t think it’s a question of gender or sexuality,” she says, clarifying, “it’s a whole new way of seeing the world, differently to the rigid, vertical male gaze that dominates.” From Izumi Miyazaki’s strange, questioning self-portraits to Pixy Liao’s reversed-gender role look at dating – these are universally resonant examples remaking the world, deservedly celebrated in this new book. Here, we talked to Jansen about the importance of this mission, and how it’s changed with the development of new technologies. 

Tell us about the title, there’s a wordplay there that’s fascinating.

Charlotte Jansen: Well, it’s obviously reappropriating a term from porn, it is a statement but it’s also a bit cheeky...It kind of goes with one of the discussions in the book – that we associate women very strongly with certain ideas, but we can broaden those ideas.

How did you approach the curation process of the book?

Charlotte Jansen: I’m an arts journalist so I already had a list in mind from my work but I also, of course, did lots of research, going to exhibitions, reading and asking other artists and curators for suggestions. I wanted to make sure I really had a good mix of ideas, approaches and techniques in here, so there are artists from different fields from fashion and advertising to art – but at the end of the day, it all converges in photography. The only criteria I had was that the artists are focused on shooting women (either themselves or others) and have emerged in the last five to seven years.

“Perhaps women are more able to visualise this more fluid, open, social structure but it isn’t something only women can understand or relate to” – Charlotte Jansen

‘Female gaze’ is a phrase that seems to apply to any kind of female photographer these days – what does it mean to you?

Charlotte Jansen: The term originates in academia, specifically for looking at cinema. In the last year it’s been applied, as you say, more widely – but to me, it’s not about being a female photographer. I don’t think it’s a question of gender or sexuality: it’s a whole new way of seeing the world, differently to the rigid, vertical male gaze that dominates. Perhaps women are more able to visualise this more fluid, open, social structure but it isn’t something only women can understand or relate to.

How do you think the ideas of the ‘female gaze’ have changed over the three years you’ve been making this book?

Charlotte Jansen: I think the female gaze has become far more prolific and is gaining pace in the art world and within the media in general – artists are getting better and bigger opportunities and people are taking the shift more seriously. However, there is so much still to be done, and this shouldn’t be seen as a passing trend. For example, it’s pretty telling that only one male editor so far has shown interest in this book (at the British Journal of Photography, I salute you!)

Have you seen certain trends or themes come about when looking at the subject of the ‘female gaze’?

Charlotte Jansen: Yes, for sure. I think creating a world at home – constructing the reality you want to see rather than going out into the world to explore it with the camera – is a dominant tendency shared among female gazers. Also, revisiting history through images – either through photographs or paintings of the past – to interrupt, disrupt and reinvent it, is something I have seen happening, and that’s really interesting. I think the female gaze is completely unlimited in terms of topics though. It’s definitely not limited to feminism and femininity. 

How important do you think new technologies/media have been to the development of female narratives?

Charlotte Jansen: I think they have been significant because they have given women the chance to control their images like never before – and to publish them (and earn from them) independently. You don’t have to wait anymore to get your work noticed.

“...creating a world at home – constructing the reality you want to see rather than going out into the world to explore it with the camera – is a dominant tendency shared among female gazers” – Charlotte Jansen

Do you think the ‘female gaze’ has been co-opted by brands – if so, what are the positives and negatives of this?

Charlotte Jansen: Absolutely – this is one of the things I touch on with artists in the book. Perhaps what we should all be most concerned about is the commercial gaze, since the automatic, corrosive commercialisation of every ideal and idea that is developed is creating excruciating inequalities in the world. It’s also worth thinking about the fact that the so-called waves of feminism have coincided conveniently with global economic need. Oh, men are dying at war? Women, here, we'll let you vote and work now! Oh, look we've invented a new drug! Women, you can have sex with more people now!

As far as I know, this is one of the first critical studies of the new ‘female gaze’ phenomenon – what do you hope people take away from the book?

Charlotte Jansen: I think you can take away whatever you want – be aroused, be amused, be annoyed – but if it changes even one person’s mind about women and the work they do with their bodies, it will have been a success in my mind.

Girl on Girl – published by Laurence King – launches tonight at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, click here for more information

More Photography

Like this?
Like Dazed on Facebook