“Into the Light: The Relationship between Gender Expectations and Lighting Techniques in Photography”

“The picture that you took with your camera is the imagination you want to create with reality.” – Scott Lorenzo

The modern world is full of many things—the list is infinite, but we know that some of them can be categorized as physical objects and others as social constructs. Now, if there’s one thing any STS scholar knows, it’s that things belonging to different categories often share a relationship that can be traced back in time. Take for instance photographs (physical objects) and the [human] hegemonic expectations of gender (social constructs). We’ve been witness to countless number of scholars claiming that the media perpetuates stereotypical gender norms through the use of imagery—the main pieces of evidence being the postures and clothing (or lack thereof) that photographers demand of their models during photoshoots. There’s certainly truth in these claims. In a 2003 journal article titled, “Image, Imagination, Constructing Gender through Visual Representation in Search for the Ideal,” Tessa Adams wrote, 

…the unconscious manifestations of our image consciousness as if forges our allegiances to belief systems and the rhetoric of social exchange…Namely that visual culture carries the banner of gender difference.[i]

She further elaborated by stating,

…whether or not we feel that we subscribe to the images that historically and currently mark out masculine and feminine territory, we inevitably unconsciously internalize dominant gendered iconography. It is indisputable that masculine and feminine are image-laden concepts. The media, as we know cull this obvious resource of psychological alignment that impacts on all aspects of social exchange, reinforcing an image-driven social currency that gossips about nuances and courts notions of gender deconstruction.[ii] 

So, we know that societal gender norms are closely entwined with imagery, but what if I told you this: the relationship between photographs and our perceptions of gender extends beyond a model’s physical appearance and includes the very reason photography exists: light. 

Photography, Light, and Gender: Historical Context

According to Patrick Keating, a communication and film studies professor, photographers have been using lighting to place further emphasis on a model’s gender. This, he says, can be attributed to “a logic of sexual difference.”[iii] In a 2006 work, titled “From the Portrait to the Close-Up: Gender and Technology in Still Photography and Hollywood Cinematography,” Keating cites the work of pictorialist and portraitist Paul L. Anderson’s 1919 The Fine Art of Photography to discuss (what Keating considers to be a fact) that photographers, when creating a scene, enter with an assumption that men and women have “different degrees of character.”[iv] In this work, Anderson claims the following:  

Men are most likely to have strongly marked characters, since their mode of life tends to develop the mental processes and to encourage decision, whereas our present unfortunate ideals of feminine beauty incline toward mere regularity of outline and delicacy of complexion. One finds, nevertheless, a good many women whose features express mental activity and firmness of will, the higher beauties of the mind rather than the mental indolence which is imperative in the cultivation of what is popularly termed beauty.[v]

As such, Anderson writes, lighting should be used to emphasize these ‘natural’ characters. Portraits of men should contrast light and dark. Portraits of women should typically have a warmer, brighter tone. 

Keating’s use of Anderson’s work provides ample context as to why photographers have (and may continue to) portray men and women differently and yet something is missing. Keating reveals that, with lighting, there are three main techniques that can be used to establish the sense of “character” that Anderson described: contrast, lens diffusion (blur), and backlighting. The description of each technique and its relation to portraying gender in human portraiture is explained below:

  1. Contrast: Used to create or overemphasize shadows. Can be created or adjusted both during the photography session or afterward during the editing process. Portraits of men typically have a great amount of contrast (e.g., black vs white or other contrasting color combinations). Portraits of women, on the other hand, tend to use this technique minimally (e.g., a model wearing red surrounded by a brown background).
  2. Lens Diffusion (Blur): Used to ‘soften’ physical features by use of “gradual gradation in tonality,” including outlines and backgrounds.[vi] Can be created or adjusted both during the photography session or afterward during the editing process. Portraits of men tend to be detailed—the background is recognizable, and the subject’s physical features are sharp. By comparison, portraits of women tend to have backgrounds that are usually at least somewhat blurred, with the subject’s physical features depicted in a more ‘delicate’ manner. The use of lens diffusion to create gender differences is especially true for close-ups.[vii]
  3. Backlighting: The use and placement of one or more light sources. Often used as a tool to create both contrast and blur during the photography session itself. If placed directly in front or behind the human subject (in relation to the camera lens), the camera will capture the greatest degree of contrast in silhouettes; if placed at an angle to the subject, the subject’s physical features will be further emphasized, resulting in fewer or softer silhouettes. In relation to lens diffusion, multiple light sources from many angles can diminish the existence of shadows and, thus, create a “diffusion” of tones.

In the Modern World

            You might be thinking, “okay, but that was then, and this is now.” And that’s the thing: Keating’s work, as informational as it is, discusses photography and human portraiture as it was used in the early to mid-1900s. And yet, evidence that these gendered lighting techniques are still being practiced is quite easy to find. Where? The internet, of course!

            If you make separate Google searches for “advertisements with women” and “advertisements with men,” the results speak for themselves. The search with women brings up imagery that tends to use lighter colors and have minimal shadows. By contrast, the search with men results in dark colors and heavy shadows. Another thing you might notice from these two searches is that the cutlines (or the captions) link to websites that discuss the relationship between gender and advertisements, using ‘problematic’ imagery to nail the point in. This observation is likely due to the presence of “advertisements” in the search line, leading to articles and images discussing the topic. But what about the searches “female portraits photography” and “male portraits photography”? These are the searches that are perhaps the most telling for they open the search to the whole of human portraiture, limited not by the recent popularity of articles seeking to reveal and break stereotypes. In the search for women, we find images using soft contours (a common use of blur and minimal shadows), colors that don’t completely contrast (e.g., red on black), and lighting that has a warm tone and touches most of the models. As for the search for men, we find images that have heavy use of contrast, both in the common use of black-and-white photography as well as the fact that the models appear to ‘pop’ out of the background, minimal use of color (most of the models wear dark-colored clothing), and a light source that touches only a portion of the models’ bodies.

Thinking in a New Light

            The existence of these photos and the search results in which they appear makes clear that the gendered uses for lighting techniques were not just limited to the 1900s. Instead, the dominance of these images in the search results reveals that these techniques remain a standard practice in modern photography.

            It’s important to note that the lighting techniques themselves aren’t the problem—the problem lies in the way these techniques are used in a gendered pattern that perpetuates gender norms. With this in mind, perhaps the route to seeing a break in this pattern is to look to the people who control the images themselves from the moment of creation: the photographers. I return your attention to the introductory quote by Scott Lorenzo: “The picture that you took with your camera is the imagination you want to create with reality.” The relationship between hegemonic expectations of gender and photography is clearly composed of both a social and technical aspect. If Lorenzo’s statement is true, then perhaps it is photographers who can dream and enact the change in this relationship that is so greatly needed.

 By Ryce Matsumoto

Works Cited:

[i] Tessa Adams, “Image, Imagination, Constructing Gender through Visual Representation in Search for the Ideal,” European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counselling & Health 6, no. 4 (December 2003): 317–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/1364253042000281333.

[ii] Ibid, 318.

[iii] Patrick Keating, “From the Portrait to the Close-Up: Gender and Technology in Still Photography and Hollywood Cinematography,” Cinema Journal 45, no. 3 (2006): 90-108, 90.

[iv] Ibid, 93-94.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, 106.

[vii] Ibid, 100.


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