Beauty, Beauty Look at You

Meighan Ellis

Photographic/Video Artist

“What is new about a desire that already seems so strangely familiar?” [1]

behold, be still, 2009, Meighan Ellis, HD Video, © Meighan Ellis. (Used with permission.)

The first thing one notices is their stillness. Filmed in a single, lingering take, real and (potentially) invented emotion disturbs our assumptions about a male public image and the intimate, invisible act of a portrait sitting. We soon recognize they are in fact ‘alive.’ Their faint expressions break the impasse and we regard their subtle, fleeting gestures via the desktop or handheld device. [2] The participants assert the autonomy of ‘their picture,’ revealing this enclosed space between themselves, the screen and the duration of the sitting ­­– only vaguely we are aware of the apparatus recording this pose. The electronic machine defines and directs this interaction and duration of the look, dislodging any privacy from this span of recording due to the cinéma véritéwhich uses the camera openly, contrasting conventional filming techniques which conceal the camera’s presence. [3]

Limitless potential in how the present moment can be re-presented and re-ordered through an expanded duration via the technology is suggested, interrupting the illusion and allusion to time and the experience of this tangible live-ness now in close proximity to the beholder. Having returned the portraitist’s gaze during the recording, the subject is now presented in an online configuration, accessed by a virtually connected audience for distribution (sharing) and validation (liking). The relationship between the sitter, the apparatus, my gaze and the invisible spectator is revealed as is the distance and space between the lived and original time of the sitting. Through this extended look we become aware of monitoring our own gaze and how one is seen by others via the infamy of the camera, and the virtual stage of the web.

As the moving image attempts to capture a likeness, the pose becomes a revelation of the subject’s masqueradedself and we witness a bi-polar record of what is perhaps ‘truthful’ and what is a convincing performance.

Mobile tablets and touch screen devices, such as the Apple iTouch, iPhone and iPad play, loop, and freeze the animated, miniaturized portraits, and here I present a cyclic return to the young technology of the nineteenth century nodding to the intimacy and handheld scale of the daguerreotype. In the animated cameos, each pensive sitter is placed before our scrutiny, commanding time to view their theatrics and physiognomies within the silent tête à tête. The sitter stares out straight ahead, mute, without smiling or otherwise acknowledging my presence and we witness embarrassment, boredom, resentment, or unease due to the camera’s tarnished reputation, the extended duration of holding a pose, and the knowledge that they will be distributed, shared, and displayed online. The live-ness engages us in an experiential, perpetual here and now – there is a sense of being with these sitters in the present, not looking to a fixed past, that the conventional photographic portrait describes.

Employing the website format and uploading the tableau vivants to other digital platforms is a way to exhibit and ‘feed’ into a wider networked community – helping to locate and legitimize my position as an antipodean woman artist working in new media remotely. The initial inquiry was driven by a tireless (and private) pursuit to replace an absence, ‘making’ portraits of enlisted male surrogates. Collecting stand-ins or ‘male-types’ gave solace for this absence and augmented a desire to expand upon a pre-existing archive. It is from here I made the departure from the stasis of the still, employing interactive multimedia to transfer and present the male sitter to a networked screen. [4]

The Absent, 2009, Meighan Ellis, MPEG 4 © Meighan Ellis. (Used with permission.)

Boy Scouting

There is a limited visual history in the representation of young manhood and in particular locating notions of the ‘beautiful boy’(the male is rarely deemed a beauty or beautiful within most accounts and definitions) beyond the conventional portrayals of a typical masculine ‘look.’ [5] Within the canon of photography, desire and othering is a frequently called-upon motif, but rarely do these two tropes meet – the boy and his beauty. Locating this beauty in my collection of ‘boys’ solicited a need to be at ease with an implicit feminist lineage and a tentative scopophilia, while identifying the current shifts in new media as women (producers and consumers) occupy an active spectatorial position within the virtual space of the web. [6]

The history of looking and visual pleasure within the parameters of a gendered gaze is embedded firmly within the discourse of essentialist feminist thought and post-feminist film theory and explored by contemporary woman artists specifically working with photography, video, and new media. Analysis into the scopic operatives of viewing, the look, and regard of the photographic image spans almost two centuries – since its inception and popularity in the nineteenth century. The traditional dominant modes of seeing attested that men look and become empowered in this process of an active engagement, while women’s experience and position is submissive. [7]Feminism exposed the one-sided nature of photographic production, where men did the taking and women submitted to their demands and desires, fulfilling their role as spectacle, passive object, and other. [8]

Luce Irigaray identified in early psychoanalytically grounded scholarship the inadequacies and inequalities of the gaze within a masculine scopic regime.Laura Mulvey followed, noting that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between an active/male and passive/female.” [9]

She questioned the status and dominance of the male gaze and the psychological distances between the spectator and screen relationship specifically in cinema, which positioned the camera’s gaze on the woman as passive object. Identifying the operatives of pleasure and its relationship between the male-oriented gaze and desire in film, Mulvey has revisited her original argument, identifying cinema to be reconfigured by “new viewing”via the new technologies of our digital age. [10]

Kaja Silverman, extending from Mulvey’s original essay, sanctions a new position and scopic operative for woman as no longer the spectacle, but as an authority to assert her place as the female spectator, “giving woman the gaze” [11] andaltering the dominant mode of male spectatorship, and the power and privilege previously reserved for men to look upon the other as an object. She presents an inverse of the male gaze, where women now have the opportunity and ability to engage in and employ a privileged scopophilic drive, ‘adjusting’ the preceding, governing role of ‘male as image and woman as bearer of the look’ and proposing “feminists should also consider how men perform as objects of the gaze.” [12] I am refiguring this new position within my work, negotiating the conventions of viewing, and testing the limits of desire; the young men before my lens are submissive during this odd encounter, reversing Mulvey’s distinct active/passive divide that occurs while looking at a man as a woman.

Scopophilia is a pleasure and curiosity in looking. It is a process of discovery and fascination with the subject as opposed to a voyeuristic gaze that looks onto a private scene while the observed is unaware of the voyeur’s presence and in being the object of the gaze. [13] When I began this project, I had attempted to frame my gendered gaze as being scopophilic, and confessing myself as a scopophiliac – ignoring its negative and sexual implications and rebelling against Freud’sdefinition as a perversion.[14] As I began to research the limits of the term, I realized my work was not entirely driven by scopophilia, and I consciously began to suppress its meaning, insisting it was purely an unapologetic gaze and a pleasure in looking at beautiful images – the pathology and drive in collecting male ‘specimens’ for my archive came after.

My portraits are not sexualized, as I have focused on their male posturing that diminishes and dulls a libidinous scopic drive. [15] The collection does not reveal the object of my affection, as I describe the status of all as individual in the final line-up – steering away from the personal and offering an admissible way to reframe the work as a democratized digital survey. I am refusing the patriarchal mode of seeing by inversing the male act of looking and deliberately enacting a feminized scopic drive (presenting the threat of women operating the camera) and by opposing the scopophiliac’s traditional gendered connection between an active and passive view. As the camera is not concealed from my sitters, nor is my gaze – an act of compliancy and collaboration is disclosed. Through this, I am afforded an extended duration to ‘look’ as the technology permits and grants me access to solicit a simulation of their male selfhood, without risk or humiliation, as the subjects would never look at me or behave in this way without the device of the camera or the arena of the Internet. [16]

The modes of the ‘look’ in cinema are precursory to the modes of viewing computer and other networked screens. My opting to employ mobile and web technology alters the distinctive procedure of spectatorship and the act of looking/recording. It is an unusual mediation, as my subjects submit to and tolerate my directives, yet have the final authority of their performance and representation during the filmed sitting­ – presenting a tension as the boys are ‘captured’ yet consensual in this reciprocal, triangular stare.

My lineage and position concerning feminisms or third-wave feminism, is as unapologetic as (male) artists before me. I am not pioneering new territory – simply, unabashedly, I like looking at young, beautiful men and the onscreen tableau by way of mobile digital technology, and Internet spectatorship is the final production of this feminized exchange.

Virtual Mementos

“Historically, the discourse of absence is carried on by the Woman: Woman is sedentary, man hunts, journeys; Woman is faithful (she waits), man is fickle (he sails away, he cruises). It is woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has time to do so.”[17]

Illustrated, heterosexual depictions of the male I had rarely seen beyond the genre and spectacle of fandom and idolatry, the teen girl’s crush and collection of the pin-up poster boy. These are secure and ubiquitous images of the male, operating as the first accessible bridge to locate, desire, and gaze at the male ‘other’ in a non-threatening way.

To view the transition of youth to manhood, the flux of masculinity, kindled an interest for which I then focused my machine(s) and gaze upon for over a decade. I was compelled to reframe the picturing of this male for display and public view, no longer clandestinely for my personal archives (housed under my bed). Initially I was reluctant to do this due to the inquiry implicating the autobiographical, prefacing my taste and deeming me a deviant or “bad girl.”[18] In the nature of a confessional study, I began to examine this private act that derived from the analogue to electronic image which allowed an expanded way to look, record, and share (for the first time) my private collection to an invisible public.

The Piano, 1993, Jane Campion, screen capture.

The Piano, 1993, Jane Campion, screen capture.

A Victorian portrait set in a dark, untamed New Zealand, and in the midst of colonialization, revealed parallels to my research and affections in the mysticisms of the photographic portrait – in particular the daguerreotype’s distinct and ‘magical’ traits, which Jane Campion presents on screen in The Piano. In this mise en scène, the character portrayed by actor Sam Neill peers closely at his unknown betrothed and yet-to-be beloved. Simultaneously entranced by his own reflection, his gaze shifts from an almost melancholic contemplation of his newly acquired possession, to contemplating himself reflected onto the mirrored image, in a strange mesmeric trance. What roused my interest from this scene was Campion’s almost meditative view of the daguerreotype portrait as it bewitched Neill’s character with its mnemonic powers, after its original inception from the portrait studio, to a distant continent and now in the hands of its proprietor. [19] We witness how this cherished object replicated a faithful yet ghostly image, with its ability to touch and pocket the uncanny subject due to its miniaturized scale. The period and landscape where this stage and feminized gaze is set and the director’s nostalgic lens stirred a connection to my own colonial history and as a woman in love with an absent beloved.


My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, 2011, Michelle Legro, Tumblr site, screen capture.

My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, 2011, Michelle Legro, Tumblr site, screen capture.

The Victorians were rampant scopophiliacs, and aligning my desire and art practice within a historical context exempted any potential salacious interpretation, while also identifying other online antiquarians interested in this melancholic age, and in discovering historical (male) beauties. The Tumblr site My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, created by Michelle Legro, was ‘shared’ with me after I first went ‘live’ – posting my boys online. With its tag line “Where Early Photography Meets Extreme Hotness,” [20] Legro’s blog locates daguerreotypes and vintage portraits of masculine sitters from other online archives and digitized collections – re-posting what another blogger has described as “male hotties” in a virtual album that features displaced and ‘lost’ beauties from the daguerreian era. [21] Cyber ‘followers’ of this site re-blog these ‘boys’ under monikers such as fuckyeahhistorycrushes, which endorses: “They’ll never disappoint you or make you feel awkward. And let’s face it, you’ve already stalked their lives. History never looked so attractive.” [22] The currency and fetishistic pleasure for the daguerreotype, which originated in the era of (women’s) melancholy and romance, is visibly celebrated in this digital age, as they are a testament to a time that out-lives the sitter, the portraitist, and the viewer – preserving a trace and index of the past.

Susan Sontag observed photography as being an “elegiac” [23] and magical art, making us aware of the subject’s absence and at the same time giving us a “pseudo-presence.” [24]The longing for a departed or imagined love object is triggered by an absence, and the desire to possess and safe keep a ‘replica,’ a mnemonic souvenir of this love, is as urgent to what the reproduction depicted. Within an archive, histories and identities are less important, allowing an appropriation for fantasy and projection to take place and “abet desire.” [25] The daguerreotype portrait is loaded with sentimentality and memory, as it presents a romanticized, untarnished beauty as potent and unfaded in the present as it was in the past.


Unidentified Man, ca. 1855, daguerreotype, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Unidentified Man, ca. 1855, daguerreotype, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

These blogs satiate a fascination for the historic – specifically the ‘golden age’ of nineteenth-century photography – uniting a community of online consumers (fellow scopophiliacs), encouraging interactivity via their contribution, connection and engagement in this new golden era of new media and modes of looking. One follower of My Daguerreotype Boyfriend sums up the site’s allure thus: “because having a crush on a living and breathing person is so mainstream.” [26]

I find the taxonomies from my own (website) collection sampled, shared and ‘pinned’ in other online archives, the latest being the content-sharing platform Pinterest, which allows its members to ‘pin’ images, videos, and other mementos to their (screen) board and includes all the obligatory social networking features. A digital and networked equivalent of the Lepidopterist’s collection, or the Victorian women’s scrapbook, it functions as a modern-day journal, a virtual photo album, and keepsake. It is a domain dominated by mobile- and tech-savvy feminine connoisseurs who disseminate their (inexhaustible) bourgeois tastes online – liberating a previously private pastime of collecting beyond the undisturbed confines of the parlor or bedroom.


Pinterest, 2012, website screen capture.

Pinterest, 2012, website screen capture.

We have become nonchalant and overt in the way we operate, participate in, and occupy the vast space of the web, employing digital tools and technology which Sadie Plant attests to being “positively feminine”in their ability to augment virtual intimacies and connectednessin this new age of information. [27] The web promotes and prompts authorship and feminine endorsement for its limitless electronic ephemera. Mobile devices, social media, and specifically the cult of the iPhone, have shifted the power and passivity of the look, as women openly consume and desire in a legitimized participatory experience via an active feminized gaze. New media platforms such as Tumblr and Pinterest exhibit this mastery and empowerment of a bold new virtual look, and the desire to possess digital stand-ins for what Foucault deemed an “unfillable absence.”[28] From these platforms, we publicly extol the status of our aesthetic desires and our domestic, cosmetic ‘needs,’ reporting on our taste and consumption. The frequent Internet ‘user’  [29] updates these at a galactic speed, competing for (virtual) validation, whilst contributing to the deafening cyber ‘chatter,’ and ignoring “netiquette” [30] as we ‘over share’ our personal data and daily status.

We never tire of looking at the human face, and the digital portrait has firmly established itself as a genre of its own beyond its steadfast position within the canonical histories of art. It exerts its popularity via the legions of available web ‘hosts’ and modes of networked technologies propelled by the onslaught of social media hysteria, and a culture of frenzied viewership and sharing. This fetishization of the image, specifically, our romance with the onscreen portrait, the profile picture or the cyber avatar which potentially becomes an understudy for the object of our affection(s), is tantamount today to that of the portraitists and patrons of the nineteenth century. The difference is that today’s feminized look is not examined or discredited as it may have once been by a league of Victorian men who held the authority over the medium from this period.

Sontag reminds us, “Desire has no history,” [31] and the desiring of beauty for women is no longer transgressive or peculiar, nor is the desire to collect and reciprocate the look of the male onscreen via the digital interface.


1. Geoffrey Batchen, “Spectres of Cyberspace,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London: Routledge, 1995), 238.

2. Meighan Ellis, behold, be still. MFA Thesis (Wellington: CoCA Massey University, 2009), 32

3. Yvonne Spielmann, Video: The Reflexive Medium (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2008), 313.

4. Ellis, behold, be still, 37.

5. Germaine Greer, The Beautiful Boy (New York: Rizzoli International, 2003), 228.

6. Ellis, behold, be still, 20.

7. Jonathan M. Metzl, “The Pharmaceutical Gaze: Psychiatry, Scopophilia, and Psychotropic Medication Advertising, 1964-1985,” Cultural Sutures: Medicine and Media, ed. Lester D. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 15.

8. William. A. Ewing, Love and Desire: Photoworks (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 40.

9. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (1975), 19.

10. David Campany, The Cinematic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 15.

11. Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992), 152.

12. Michele White, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006); Virginia Shea, “Core Rules of Netiquette,” in Netiquette (San Francisco: Albion Books, 1994), 48.

13. Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” 16.

14. Metzl, “The Pharmaceutical Gaze,” 15.

15. Ellis, behold, be still, 22.

16. Ellis, behold, be still, 24.

17. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 39.

18. Rosi Braidotti, “Cyberfeminism with a Difference,” Utrecht University faculty website, last modified July 3, 1996,

19. Ellis, behold, be still, 11.

20. Michelle Legro, My Daguerreotype Boyfriend (blog), June 10, 2011,

21. Julie Siegel, “My Daguerreotype Boyfriend,” Notorious (blog), January 4, 2013,

22. Fuck Yeah History Crushes (blog), January 9, 2013,

23. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 15.

24. Sontag, On Photography,16.

25. Sontag, On Photography, 16.

26. geegraphy (online name), “My Daguerreotype Boyfriend,” Lomography, November 13, 2012,

27. Katie Mondloch, “Reloading Cyberfeminism,” review of Reload: Rethinking Women + Cyberculture, ed. Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth, Afterimage 30, no. 1 (2002): 19-20.

28. Geoffrey Batchen. Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 182.

29. White, The Body and the Screen, 9.

30. White, The Body and the Screen, 25.

31. Sontag, On Photography, 16.



Meighan Ellis is a photographic/video artist, amateur petrologist and an aspiring antiquarian. Currently based in Auckland, New Zealand, Meighan lectures in photography, ghostwrites and ‘dabbles’ in social media and online marketing for a stable of brands and boutique companies. She has resided for the last number of years in London, Sydney, and Tokyo working as a fine arts/design educator and photographer, focusing also on writing for various international print and on-line publications, including Tokyo Art Beat. Recently shifting to employ HD video and networked technologies as an extension of her art practice, and investigating the axis of the still and moving image, Meighan has exhibited strands of this work in New Zealand, the United States, Europe, Australia, and Japan. She holds an MFA 1st class Honors with distinction.