Read Time 8 minutes

The lover’s gaze: On photography & partnership

The medium is tacitly central to our relationships, where we attract, communicate, and document our loves through images.

In 2022 dating apps reached 366 million users globally, with platforms like Tinder, Hinge and Bumble utilising photography-led user interfaces to help people market themselves to potential partners. Established relationships are played out online as well as IRL, meaning communication is just as likely to be visual as verbal – a dick-pic here or a snapshot of something amusing by way of an update there. The camera marks the milestones of our relationships just as it marks the everyday, the public soft-launches of a new love and the most intimate moments kept private, between two people, shared over WhatsApp, or as discrete polaroids stashed in underwear drawers. The camera is a ubiquitous documentary tool which most of us carry around in our pockets.

More than ten years ago I had a brief but formative relationship with a man with artistic pretensions; he was in a band [and was actually good], and took photos of everything on an analog camera [and was good at this too]. It was just before I myself left home to go to art school but he’d already graduated, and, inevitably, I was immediately smitten. Photography played a key role in our liaison; the exchange of primitive, lo-fi nudes sent from crappy camera phones, the fact that I found his––admittedly Tumblr-esque––photography a massive aphrodisiac. He only took one picture of me: caught off-guard, looking down at my phone, messy hair and cheap striped knickers, a second India reflected in the mirror. I’m stood next to the net-curtain in his bedroom, and he must have been stood on his mattress [on the floor of course, no bed frame] to get the shot. The photo has all the hallmarks of twenty-first century, indie-sleaze, bohemian squalor, but to me it’s a profoundly erotic object. Myself, seen through the eyes of someone I was intimately connected to, for a time, the one piece of documentary evidence that this relationship ever happened. Beyond the photo it’s just a collection of memories and the intangible ways it changed me.

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Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, photographer and year unknown
Self-portrait [reflected image in mirror, checked jacket], Claude Cahun [1928]
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Marcel Moore, Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore [1928]

There are many lenses through which to view couples who make art: Jane Alison and Coralie Malissard frame the phenomenon, in Modern Couples, within the context of the avant-garde. In the extraordinary 2018 Barbican exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, the couples [and throuples] examined were multi-disciplinary, but all rooted, deeply, in the project of modernism, byproducts of the machine age. For them, art became a way of living, a state of being that infiltrated every part of life – that sex and art should collude was inevitable. For Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron in the series of essays that make the book Significant Others, the subject is a corrective to the notion of the singular heroic artist, squirrelling in his garret, haunted by this thoughts, his humanity crushed under the weight of his own throbbing talent. We are urged to remember that not only is art the product of external influence, but that in many cases there is an unsung hero, usually a woman, indoors, facilitating the creative flow by making sure the artist can flourish without ever having to worry about washing his own smock or fetching his own lunch. Kate Bryan’s book The Art of Love appraises romantic love as an artistic tool as rich in possibility as the paintbrush or the pencil, considering the ways its application [or removal] can implicate the creative process.

But to examine couples who make photography, is to broaden the net beyond bluechip artists, as the patterns and motivations apply not only to the professionals but to the amateurs, indeed to anyone who has ever turned their focus onto their lover and snapped a picture of them, however little regard for composition, for crop, for exposure they may have. We all do it, almost without thinking.

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Lee Miller [neck], Man Ray [1929]

An intimate partnership between people may act as a place of safety in which to create and experiment – with art, yes, but with our own identities too. It was thus for Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, lovers and collaborators since their teenage years. Their photographic work––largely credited to Cahun but widely accepted to have been co-produced––served as an expression of their subversive alliance. Not only were they step-sisters and lovers [the latter coming first, the former enabling them to live public lives together], they were gender non-conforming, queer modern artists, and Cahun from a prominent Jewish family. Their life was made increasingly precarious and unsustainable as Naziism gained traction in Europe, and the joint venture of making art must have been a haven, where they were free to exist, momentarily, only within the warm halo of the other’s gaze, the place where they were their truest selves. If there is enough trust, then photography can act as a mechanism to capture the most vulnerable and fragile parts of ourselves, and to experiment with our own image in an environment free from judgement.

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Untitled [Peter Hujar], David Wojnarowicz [1989]
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Untitled [Peter Hujar], David Wojnarowicz [1989]

A couple like Man Ray and Lee Miller used the darkroom as a playground of exchange and mutual influence, whereas others, like Annie Leibowitz and Susan Sontag or Tina Modotti and Edward Weston exerted their individuality through their respective photographic practices. During the three years Modotti and Weston spent together in Mexico [one of eight countries Modotti lived in during her short, adventurous life] the bodies of work they made were differentiated by their individual preoccupations. Where Weston was drawn to shape and form, Modotti was more interested in politics, social reality and labour. Both took photos of Mexico, but extrapolated different meanings from it as a subject. To see the same world and shared experiences through the eyes of someone else, particularly someone you love, is one of life’s great joys. Photography is, perhaps, the greatest [and most literal] vehicle with which to do so. Leibowitz and Sontag approached photography with different skillsets and expertises, one as an image maker and the other as a theorist – they pushed each other to be better, to think harder, while maintaining independence and ownership in their preferred arenas.

At the end of Sontag’s life Annie Leibowitz took to photographing her, documenting her beloved friend/lover/companion [the label is disputed, but it was a profoundly important relationship regardless of whether platonic or romantic] on her deathbed. Of all the beds we share in our lifetimes, the deathbed is surely the most intimate. David Wojnarowicz’s photos of his former lover Peter Hujar at the moment of his death capture a loss so massive it is hard to fathom – but only because of how much love was there to begin with. Grief is the cost of love. The loss of love––through death or heartbreak or conscious uncoupling––is part of the cycle, and it is private, intimate, and terrifically difficult; sometimes photographs do the talking when words fail.



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