Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Barthesian Notes on a Photograph: Naked Dress Up by Ben Bale

*Please note that the photograph discussed in this post contains nudity. To see this photograph click on “read more” at the end of the post.


I came across a photograph entitled Naked Dress Up by Ben Bale through a Tumblr post. It depicts an attractive, well endowed, muscular and lithe young man with dark, short-cropped hair and some facial hair. He stands with clenched fists wearing a sheer, checked, frilly apron or dress that barely covers his large uncut penis. There is a necklace around his neck and he wears a leather? bracelet on both wrists. He stares out at the viewer with a look of vulnerability or defiance or perhaps an oscillation between the two.

This photograph at first animated my desire on a physical and visceral level (I was sexually attracted to the subject of the depiction), but also I wanted to understand my imagistic desire for this depiction beyond just lust, beyond just the cumshot. The ability of this image to endure for me beyond ejaculation is in part because it does not devolve into simply pornography. It is an erotic photograph as defined by the French literary theorist, philosopher, critic and semiotician Roland Barthes in his profound treatise on photography, Camera Lucida, that fosters a desire, my desire, not only because of the image’s visual appearance, but also because it is an intriguing meditation on gender and sexuality. Through its denotation it enacts a series of binary relationships that are mapped onto the fundamental concept of the dominant fiction** masculine/feminine in which the masculine term is always privileged over the feminine. Naked Dress Up (re)produces these binaries in order to subvert and undermine them. My need, my want, my coveting of this image is in part engendered by this critical impulse. It speaks to me as a queer/vext subject and provides me with both scopophilic and intellectual pleasure.

The Phallus and the Penis

The subject of the photograph displays for the camera a masculine body of taut muscles, but it is his large penis which grabs my, the spectator’s attention. It is inescapable. His penis is prominently exhibited for the viewer and the almost covering of the penis by what I am calling the apron-dress somehow enhances its presence. The penis is a testament within the dominant fiction to the subject’s manhood, virility, strength, sexual prowess and to his traditional masculinity. It’s large size may at first make one mistakenly view it as the Phallus instead of a fleshy, defenseless appendage attached to the male body.

The term “Phallus” is understood here in terms of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The Phallus is not an actual or imagined organ, but rather an unobtainable signifier which generates meaning. Despite the continual imaging of the Phallus/penis equation within culture, no one can really possess the Phallus because the subject is never at one with language, but always symbolically castrated. Traditional masculinity is predicated on the denial of this symbolic castration and the equation of the Phallus with its lesser anatomical stand-in the penis.

This (mis)equation of the Phallus and the penis enables conventional masculinity to deny castration and lack as part of the production of all subjectivity while simultaneously assigning this lack a corporeal meaning: the “castrated” female body. Femininity is understood as constitutive of both castration and lack against the wholeness and unity of the masculine male body. It is this (mis)equation which is central to the structuring of sexual difference and its accompanying system of privilege, exclusion and negation in which the masculine body becomes the dominant term. But does the Bale photograph sustain this (mis)equation between the Phallus and the large cock of the pictured model?

Disrupting the Masculine Display through Feminization

Naked Dress Up does resist the (mis)recognition of the Phallus and the penis by literally feminizing the male body of the subject and metaphorically castrating it through the frilly checked apron-dress “worn” by the model. (The apron or dress in my understanding has been photo edited onto the body of the male model using another photograph of a different model in that piece of clothing. One notices traces of the other photograph particularly in the chest and stomach where the skin is paler and in the right arm of the model where there are ghosts of the arm from the other image.)vargas The sheerness of the apron-dress reminds me of 1940’s pinups by Alberto Vargas. Although the Bale photograph does not have that “come hitherness” like the Vargas, the play on concealing and revealing with the transparent apron-dress seems to operate in Naked Dress Up as well.

Furthermore, my reading of the clothing worn by the male model as an apron is distinct and subjective to me alone perhaps. Its appearance to me as a frilly 1950’s style hostess garment dovetails nicely with the Vargas link and suggests to me the return to a cult of domesticity after World War II. After the war women who had worked and helped win the conflict, were culturally told to return to the home and become real woman again. The sexy apron is a needed garment in this return. It confers the woman a meaning both domestic and sexual.

These two connotations of the photograph serve to disrupt its virile display of masculinity as exemplified by the large cock of the model. The model is positioned as a “pinup”. He is meant to be seen as an object to be visually enjoyed by the spectator. Being the object of the gaze is not the traditional state of the masculine subject in the dominant fiction. Men look, they are not looked at in our culture. (Even now with the rise of the metrosexual, the positioning of men as objects to be visually enjoyed is problematic and often ads for men’s (metrosexual) products attempt to elide this fact by conferring on the man depicted the status of husband and father rather than sexual object although he has already displayed his body in the ad.)

And even though the model stares out at the viewer and clenches his fists which implies action or a readiness to fight perhaps the spectator, his look does not deflect the viewer’s gaze. It may be a look of defiance as supported by the clenched fists, but it is not making us look away. Indeed, he seems to oscillate between challenging the viewer (the clenched fists) and a state of vulnerability (his look and the apron-dress he is (forced) to wear.) The sheer garment barely covers his cock and thereby enhances his “nakedness”, making him more exposed to the gaze of the viewer, more defenseless.

Furthermore, the ghosting of the model from the other photograph used to edit Naked Dress Up continues this masculine disruption. The pectorals in the image seem paler in color to the other skin of the model. This “discoloration” serves to feminize the male body of the subject by transforming pecs into breasts (even though the paler areas do seem to be from another male body). It is reminiscent of a woman who has become tan but her clothing kept her breasts a lighter, more white skin shade.

The left nipple of these pec-breasts is pierced by a small barbell which signals the nipple as an area of sexual pleasure for the model. In the dominant fiction, the pleasure of the male body is supposed to be restricted to the dick and nowhere else despite the fallacy of such a restriction in the actual lived experience of men. What this transference of erotic zones from penis to nipple does is suggest same-sex desire. Often gay men in mainstream culture are still depicted and conceptualized as feminine. It is another way in which the male model in the image is feminized and forced to acknowledge that his cock is not the Phallus because it is not positioned as the supreme locus of gratification. Additionally, the piercing suggests pleasures available beyond the penis which is in itself a liberating act in the midst of traditional masculine sexuality within the prevailing culture.

The title of the photograph, Naked Dress Up, suggests the activity of young girls who put on mommy’s clothes. Boys may “dress up” as well but they always wear the uniforms of traditional masculine archetypes: the soldier, the cowboy, the knight, the superhero. The model does not embody any of these archetypes. Only his muscles, facial hair and enormous dick serve to identify him as a male subject. But this subject position is challenged by the apron-dress he is wearing. In this photograph the dressing up, a playful, fun childhood activity, does not exactly seem voluntary or pleasurable as evidenced by the clenched fists of the model. There is a degree of tension here between the model and the item of clothing he is forced to wear. Indeed, “forced” is the correct term. The original image of this model standing with his big cock was photo edited, made to wear the apron-dress by technology and the photographer, Ben Bale. Bale adorns the model as if he is a paper doll. He is “made up” by the photographer which is a decidedly feminine practice within the understanding of the dominant culture.

Pornographic or Erotic?

The pornographic/erotic binary is the final dynamic enacted by the Bale photograph. In order to explore this binary I once again (as I always do), look to the work of Roland Barthes in his decisive and profound book on photography, Camera Lucida. In the first part of the book, Barthes divides photography into 2 categories, those images that belong to the studium and those depictions that belong to the punctum. Photographs classified under the studium, express knowledge about their subject, whether that knowledge is cultural, social, political, economic and so on. Barthes states:

What I feel about these photographs, derives from an average affect, almost a certain training. I did not know a French word which might account for this kind of human interest, but I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, “study,” but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity. It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimonies or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.

eriecanal3 When one sees, for example, an historical photograph, such as this one of a bridge over the Erie Canal in Rochester, NY circa late 19th century one participates as Barthes says in the image, noticing things about dress, setting, gesture and so on that gives the viewer knowledge or information about a particular time and place, social and cultural custom, etc.

The second category Barthes creates is the punctum which is not just the opposite of the studium, rather the punctum is that which “breaks or punctuates” the studium. It can be a detail within the photograph which “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me…this…element…will disturb the ‘studium’ I shall therefore call ‘punctum’; for ‘punctum’ is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole- and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).

The punctum is the detail in the photograph that goes beyond history, culture and even beyond language to an almost pre-Oedipal state. It is a poignant and profound punctuation which disturbs the knowledge of the photograph and takes me, the viewer, to a space outside denotation, outside knowledge. In Naked Dress Up the punctal detail for me is the clenched fists of the model. It is a distraction that “pierces” me. It forestalls and interrupts the knowledge of the photograph: the cultural denotations of the photo shopped apron-dress, the necklace around the model’s neck, the leather? bracelets he wears on both wrists, his enormous cock and his muscular body. The clenched fists undermine the studium of the image namely it’s pornographic nature. For while pornographic photographs belong to the studium, the erotic photograph is purely punctal in nature.

Furthering his definition of the punctum which is itself in a sense beyond definition, is somewhat ineffable and subjective to a particular spectator, Barthes states, “Now, confronting millions of photographs, including those which have a good studium, I sense no ‘blind field’: everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond…Yet, once there is a ‘punctum’, a blind field is created (is divined)…” It is the presence of the “blind field that distinguishes the erotic image from the pornographic one for Barthes. He continues:

Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me (and even then boredom follows quickly). The erotic photograph on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame and it is there that I animate the photograph and it animates me. The punctum, then is a kind of subtle beyond- as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward “the rest” of the nakedness, not only towards the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together.

My desire for Naked Dress Up lasts beyond the cumshot it can facilitate and directs me to what Barthes terms the blind field where I animate the image and it animates me. Within the blind field, there exists the “remainder” of the models body- his lower legs, his back, his ass and fantasies of actual physical, sexual contact with this photographic subject. But such a fantasy does not rest purely on the level of the somatic. Rather there is a connection for me to the model beyond just the physical. It is a connection to the humanity of the subject, to his soul and this occurs through the punctal detail of the clenched fists which makes the model more than just the fetishized or a flattered idol of pornography

While the fists signal resistance or hesitation, there is also an openness and a willingness to the depiction which despite the closed hands does not exist in the pornographic photograph. As Barthes states, “…the pornographic body shows itself, it does not give itself, there is no generosity in it.” While Naked Dress Up might not be completely generous in its nature, it does produce a body which is vulnerable and subject to the look of the spectator, a body which has been feminized. But it is positioned and framed for me not as a mere object, or masturbatory toy, but as “the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together.” I experience the subject as a living breathing individual whom I not only desire, but see having a consciousness. Such a relationship to this image, does not occur with my viewing of a pornographic photograph in which the body shown is a mere means to an end- sexual pleasure produced through the cumshot.

And the clenched fists take me even further outside the frame of the photograph beyond the remaining nakedness of the subject and the imagining of sexual encounters with him to a place of struggle and hesitation where we all contend with our own actual lived experience against the paradigmatic constructions of gender and sexuality within the dominant fiction. Even as we realize and understand that these roles and definitions are (false) images, we are still bound and circumscribed by them. They still impact upon our daily lives no matter how secure we feel and often make us feel less than or at worst ashamed.

Naked Dress Up is an erotic photograph in the Barthesian sense, because Bale has captured more than just the naked body of the model as an “motionless object” to be used for sexual pleasure, stimulation and masturbation by the viewer. The framing of this naked male body, its feminization, allows it to be generous no matter how hesitant or subtle. It is for me not a pornographic body which is only desired until ejaculation and then quickly forgotten and discarded. Rather Bale has found the humanity of his subject (the clenched fists) and how we all, men and women, heterosexual, non-heterosexual and in-between, must resist and fight against the sexual and gender paradigms of the dominant fiction. In this way, Naked Dress Up endures beyond sexual gratification and provides me with a moment of utter BLISS.

**The construction of sexual difference and the phallus/penis (mis)equation occurs in what film theorist Kaja Silverman designates as the dominant fiction in her 1992 book Male Subjectivity at the Margins. The dominant fiction can be understood as a representational system which “functions to arouse in the subject the conventional Oedipal desires and identifications.” (Silverman, p. 39-40.) Thus, the conventional (or positive) Oedipal scenario of the male subject is structured in terms of identification with the father and desire for the mother. Such a model of desire and identification serves to foreground the rigid binary opposition of male and female and to ensure compulsory heterosexuality.

Naked_Dress_Up_by_neb8neb Ben Bale, Naked Dress Up, 2004


  1. Really interesting. Great post, and really intriguing photo.

    Your Vargas comparison is inspired!

    He also reminds me of the bride in the Toulmouche. The defiant expression, the sense of the subject being reluctantly trapped in the gaze of the viewer, the barely controlled tension which suggests an escape is being planned, the garment indicating domesticity, servility...

    Are you familiar with the expression "her indoors?"
    There is an indoorsness being suggested here, power and powerlessness, domination and submission.

  2. Thank you Punctured Bicycle for another intelligent comment. I like the way you conitnued my reading of the feminization of the model through associations of servility and domesticity. There is a sense here of sado-masochism and one might read the image further using Kaja Silverman's deployment of masochism as a way in which man can refute the Phallus.

    The term "her indoors" is not familiar to me. Interesting though how the model resists the feminization or tries to, but still he is forced to bear our gaze and like I said I think the punctum of the fists takes us outside the frame to something "beyond".

  3. While you published this quite some time ago, I've only got round to reading it this afternoon. A really interesting post, which for me is slightly an exercise in self-celebration as I get to read your comments on a photo that I have a very strong attachment to as the author and model.

    Thank you very much for featuring my photo!

  4. Thanks Ben for your comment. I am glad you liked the post. I reallylove Naled Dress Up. It is so great on many levels from intellectual to emotional. I have subscribed to your blog to keep up with your work!

    Best, K.