Postures that appear arrogant are typical for fashion photography in high gloss magazines and within the scene of model photography. It is in trend to either look down upon the recipient, to show a sloppy posture, as if they would not care about the way they are perceived by the recipient. Or they even look angry as if they were annoyed by being photographed – three ways to communicate an arrogant attitude. But who would enjoy  looking at such pictures? The article at hand focuses on the recipient and detects various reasons why it might be gratifying to consume such photographs, from a masochist tendency up to a thereby articulated connoisseurship.

Being ignored or arrogantly looked at. The recipient of “High Fashion”-photographs will be familiar with this attitude. “High fashion” is a genre in staged people photography which is typical for high gloss fashion magazines or within the scene of staged people photography. The term derives from the french “Haute Couture”, but, in a strict sense, the latter only refers to certain labels which are members of the prestigious Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. “High fashion” on the other hand could be any dress which looks elegant or extraordinary and is presented in a certain way. Among this presentation, the arrogant gaze is characteristic. But why does it obviously work? Who would enjoy being looked at in an arrogant manner [1]?

„Representation itself is coined by structures of power and hegemony“ (Brandes 2010, 15). An arrogant posture, expressed by posing and mimics, can be understood as a visualization of power. Let’s look at the term “arrogance”. The term of Latin origin is usually translated as “exaggerated pride” and thus carries a negative connotation as opposed to “pride” itself. „Arrogant behavior is disapproved, except if it is shown by the powerful.. Whoever looks down upon others, does not find any sympathy“ (Bucher 2012, 91). In fashion photography, there are various ways to show arrogance, but it mainly refers to posing and mimics, here condensed as “posture”. Such postures are in many cultural contexts ­– among them the ones it is intended for – understood as arrogant. But there are also various props and costumes which carry the connotation of arrogance, for example, huge hats reminding the viewer of English horse races, but also weird dresses which would never be worn for “usual” occasions. Furthermore, a certain style of photography suggests the same. It includes mistakes done on purpose, such as the cut of the image through the model’s fingers, the use of an internal flash, which is seen as a beginner’s mistake, the use of a wide-angle lens which distorts the model’s proportion, and so forth.

Foto: Pascal Heimlicher. Model: Sigrid Silversand. Stylistin: Mariem Horchani. Body: Pierre Mantoux.

Foto: Pascal Heimlicher.

The posture

“As soon as the lens is pointing towards me, everything is different: I am taking a ‘posing’ posture, immediately create myself a different body, change myself already to become a picture. This change is active: I am feeling, that PHOTOGRAPHY creates or kills my body, just as it pleases to her” (Barthes 1989, 19) – this description of Roland Barthes should be kept in mind: Just the perceived presence of the camera will automatically lead to some kind of posture, even if the composition seems to be accidental. A posture implicates the anticipation of an effect – whoever poses is conscious of his or her body at this moment, and whoever tells others how to pose has a certain concept on his mind.

There are various kinds of posing which connotate arrogance. The most obvious style is the kind of posing in which the model looks down upon the viewer, often, her chin is lifted, her gaze pointing downwards, usually towards the camera. Apart from this, the posing often resembles the typical posture people take when wanting to be perceived as attractive, chic, and sophisticated, and is coined by a certain body tension. The facial expression usually stays neutral – it is the posture of the head and the eyes, which bring arrogance into play. This kind of posture is in many cases combined with locations which connotate wealth – yachts, expensive cars, far away countries. The dresses might show logos of prestigious companies or signifiers for the upper class such as big hats or silky materials.

A different style presents models who look as if they were annoyed. They frown, their mouth might be opened as if they would like to scold. This is often combined with posings coined by an extreme tension: Instead of a usual posing which accentuates the model’s charms – chin up, chest out – the shoulders are hunched, the back is crooked. Thus, such postures are the opposite of the elegant and beautiful style. The body is under tension as well but this tension is used just for the opposite: It conveys the impression that the model would be annoyed, would not want to be photographed, or would urge the photographer to hurry up with his job. In full body images, photographers often choose a low angle in order to make the model look tall and slim. Settings and stylings vary, but there are some stylings especially matching this reluctant posing: Outfits which can hardly be described as “beautiful”, “elegant”, or “pleasing”. On the opposite, those outfits overstep the boundaries of good taste by exaggerating certain aspects, using huge shoulder pads, heavily accentuated eyebrows, or  clashing colors.

A third version of a particularly arrogant posture is not coined by tension or even extreme tension, but by its opposite: The posings seem to be very relaxed, even sloppy as if one would not pose for the camera. Models often lean on walls or other objects, the arms dangling, the facial expression bored. Alternatively, models slouch on a sofa. This kind of posture does show arrogance as well, it is arrogance in the sense of disrespect – as if the models do not have any need to take a favorable pose for the camera, respectively for the recipient. The settings often appear to be rather ordinary, as if the shooting was not based on considerations concerning the setting. It might be a location communicating wealth such as a special hotel lobby. Neither is the locationtidied up for the picture, nor does it stress the chosen angle and its features. Additionally, some mistakes that are build in on purpose can be found, such as overexposures or shakes.

In all of these variants, the recipient gets a role assigned which is inferior to the model’s role. This is astonishing: When looking at model photography, many people, among them social scientists, assume a different power imbalance. In her analysis of nude photography books, Christiane Schmerl talks about “women’s sexually pleasing bodies draped to form a field for conquerors, a, if not the possibility to express undeniable superiority, effective winner’s demeanor, and really tough masculinity” (Schmerl 1992, 166) – the man, obviously understood as the photographer and as the recipient. However, here it is the woman who poses as a winner. This posture cannot be understood in vacuo, but has a cultural foundation: “The posing only works in its recognisability, this is as a visual reshaping of a picture, which underlies cultural conventions and which precedes the subject (Adorf 2004, 126). Bernd Stiegler writes referring to Pierre Bourdieu: „Photography is the social norm which became a picture. It is the iconic archetype of social conformism. Photography is the medium of affirmation which continues social norms as well as traded interpretations schemes of the reality in a rigorous and consistent way and applies them” (Stiegler 2006, 332). Is this right? Or is the system upside down nowadays and is the model[2] the one who can be arrogant in first place, before her photographer, the recipient, and the employers?

The context of formation and reception

Before answering this question, it is necessary to look at the context of formation and reception. The same style of posture can be found in advertisement pictures, as well as in editorials. As Gerhard Goebel shows, both, editorials as well as advertisement, show identical structures (1986, 466, for the critical discussion, see Venohr 2010, 21 f.). Pictures which are taken within the scene of staged photography adjust to this structure. Within the scene, people explicitly refer to magazines favorable and the aesthetics are often denoted as “Vogue”- or “magazine style”. The resulting pictures are often assembled with text elements to further resemble the magazine look, which obviously is understood as something very desirable. On the other hand, advertising or editorial photography for (a long time) does not work by putting products, fully lit and well recognizable, in the center of a picture. Especially advertisement photographs for products understood as elite, rather feature an atmosphere which should be associated with the product. Thus, there are more lifestyle or emotional pictures which do not tell much about the actual product (see Felser 2015, 13). Such advertisement pictures are based on three assumptions, as Roman Meinhold illustrates (see 2005, 145): The human being looks for recognition, strives for improvement and occupies himself with metaphysics which is addressed by fashion in its rhetorics of renewal. “The renunciation of an obvious commercial goal implicates a change which opens up spaces and which promotes the approach to other photographic styles” (Brodersen 2017, 7). Thus, the boundaries of artistic and commercially motivated photography are blurred.  This kind of photographs are perceived in contexts which are usually coined by informality and are unconstrained: One does not have to look at the pictures. In the case of print magazines, people even pay to look at them, and usually, it is a free-time activity. Thus, people must be intrinsically motivated to look at them, they must have some kind of use and/or gratification when looking at pictures like these. The dresses, the make-up, hairstyles, and props might tell them what is currently en vogue. However, this alone is not sufficient as an explanation, as this information could be given in many different stales, such as a friendly smile towards the camera, for example, the “Cheese”-smile usually expected when taking family photographs.

Masochistic pleasure

The most obvious explanation is a certain pleasure that the inferior position conveys to the recipient. Favorable can be understood as masochistic. In art, at least in literature, masochism is nothing new. Ever since the Enlightenment, it was regarded as an opposition towards the oedipal, dominant fiction of the bourgeois culture (see Mennenga 147, for a psychoanalyst perspective on masochism see Mennenga 2011, 140 ff.). It evolves itself around the „love of a man to unreachable, strong, cruel women” (Gratzke 2000, 6). Psychoanalytically, there is a closeness to narcissism, as both are „coined by the fundamental desire of the male subject for the mother-child-dyad” (Mennenga 2011, 143). Implicitly, the recipient is assumed to be male. Looking at the scene of staged photography, about 50% of the recipients actually are men, looking at fashion magazines this percentage will be much lower. There might be women who experience some kind of homosexual, masochistic please – but looking at male as well as female recipients it is very unlikely that this is true for the bigger part.

Feeling powerful

A second explanation is grounded on the change of perspective – the recipient imagines to be the model shown and experiences the feeling of power and superiority from her point of view. Thus, without having to fear any social sanctioning, he or she can outlive arrogance. Opposite to the first explanation, this empathic pleasure would match female recipients better than male recipients, as there are usually female models and it might be more difficult for a man to empathize with a woman.

However, Diana Crane’s analysis has shown that the serious, self-confident, aggressive, and/or inexpressive look on the models‘ faces does not offer much potential for identification for the typical female recipient (see Crane 1999, 553). Furthermore, the very slim and young bodies might make it difficult to empathize with the models. To keep up this explanation, one would have to assume a very specific audience. The high editions of such magazines refute this assumption.

Change of values

Staying in the context of the previous explanation, the feeling of female empowerment, but abandoning the thesis of empathy, the arrogant posture might stand for a change of values referring to big parts of or even to the entire society which the expected recipient should approve: Women show power, also the power not to please, not to pose in a typical advantageous way, eager to please, but be free to pose however they want, even to express negative feelings. However, there is an area of conflict, as these women are photo models, thus, they are usually very attractive and very young women who were selected by mostly male and older agency bosses, photographers, or employers. Further, the topic of the pictures stays fashion, or the actual avant-garde look and not any political statement. The context of presentation in the magazine or on the internet, is usually absolutely apolitical. If one wants to detect a political statement within this context, it would be rather a reactionary, conservative statement, the continuation of the focus on the female body.

A similar field of conflict in the context of the female body and the change of values, seemingly towards more self-determination, is described by Sabine Hark and Paula-Irene Villa: “The bodies of women are a preferred arena of the media staging as well as the every-day negotiation of social norms. The ‘Yes, you can!’ when looked at closely (…) becomes a ‘Yes, you must!’ My belly is mine, thus, who should stop me from liposuction, if I want it? But it is hardly reflected that this ‘wanting’ does not happen fully autonomously and not free of social entanglements” (Hark and Villa 2010, 12). In our context, the ‚yes, you must‘ does not only concern the body, but also the posture which of course is ultimately prescribed, or at least approved, by the photographer or the employer, so that the model shown actually finds herself in the usual context of a job which can be characterized by established, sexist tendencies. Yet, the image she will show, the picture which is created with her, will give the impression of self-confident, feminine arrogance, the staging communicates superiority.

Liking the disliked

The consideration about the change of values might not only refer to the status of the woman within society but might be transferred to a trend regardless of gender which can be assumed to emerge in these sections of society which consume the pictures: Not wanting to please pleases. It speaks of unconventionality, independence, and self-confidence. Due to this campaigns such as „Geiz is geil“ („greed is sexy”) are successful. Something socially undesirable such as greed is proclaimed as personal style. The trend towards extreme hair colors and visible tattoos, confronted with a job market which is shaped by an older generation and often does not approve such looks, is another example, as well as the Hipster-style which plays with props that actually were frowned upon as outdated such as horn-rimmed glasses, chequered shirts, and pants at half-mast. One might argue that the fashion avant-garde has to put up with dislikes to make itself stand out from the crowd. What is interesting here is the vicious cycle, in which the wanting to be disliked leads itself ultimately ad absurdum.

The search for authenticity

Another option to explain the phenomenon is to see photography in the field of conflict between documentation and pure staging without reference to reality: With the advent of the digital photography and the countless possibilities to retouch pictures, photography more and more loses its credibility. What was declared as a photograph could even be a computer graphic. Considering this, emotions and intuition become more important. Instead of the technical or artistic perfection, the aura of the photograph comes to the fore, an aura which lies in its indexicality. From the turn of the century something new entered the world of fashion photography, as Dagmar Venohr analyses: “On first sight, the new seems to be the beguiling realism of the photographs, their snapshot-aesthetics, and the authentic presentation. Looking more closely at them, it becomes obvious that this kind of authenticity in fashion photography is only the effect of staging because the contextualization of the photograph within a fashion magazine alone is already sufficient to know this and to know about the connected reflection. Thus, it is a staged authenticity, on the other hand, it is an authentic staging because the way model photography works shows that it is staged” (Venohr 2010, 47). Those postures, perceived as unposed or even reluctant seem to transport authenticity as if the models would not try to adopt a pose for the camera. The pictures seem to be more like snapshots, like real-life images and therefore more real. They stress the authentic feel: “The new model photography is emotional, less focused on an aesthetic value as rather on an immediate sweeping effect with multidimensional resonance” (Lipovetsky 2002). Photography seems to be primarily emotional, whenever one assumes it to be real. Yet, the recipient should understand – at least when he is thinking about these pictures – that they are not snapshots and that there were articulated or implicit instructions: “Nobody would take the emotions models show for a fashion editorial for ‘real’. They play a role, just like actors, and the recipient knows that these scenes are staged” (Ruelfs 2006, 213).

The recipient as a connoisseur

Thus, one more option should be taken into account: The recipient regards himself less as an addressed recipient but he takes over the position of the photographer. Thus, the arrogantly posing model just obeys his instructions – he wanted it this way: “The subject ‘acts’ at the behest of the camera, respectively the regime of the look”  (Adorf 2004, 126). Hereby the old power relations are re-established. Yet, it is questionable, why the photographer should want this kind of posture. To answer this question, it might help to look at similar media which use different visual codes. The catalogs of big, but not haute-couture fashion houses show attractive, friendly looking models in beautiful poses – “nice” images: “Women… are expected to smile and to show pleasant emotions“ (Crane 1999, 542). With such postures, fashion for everyone gets advertised. Thus, for more exclusive brands it becomes compulsory to be different, to be special, and not to be confused with fashion for everyone.

Arrogant posing follows alternative aesthetics, a different strategy which can only be understood by somebody who knows about it, who understands it and thus is privy to it. Thus, the appreciation or even indulgence of these pictures is based in connoisseurship. The humiliation of being looked at in an arrogant way turns into an elevation for the ones who understand the picture, know the cultural code. If following Meinhold (see 2005, 145) advertisement pictures are based on the individuals longing for recognition and improvement. This longing can be satisfied by understanding the pictures and thus becoming part of a desirable group – the ones who are initiated, the ones who know. Even transcendence, the third aspect Meinhold talks about, can be found when following this interpretation, not even as a renewal, but as transcending boundaries: The medium photography itself is transgressed, as its usual visual code is negated, as the models showed seemingly behave in a way as if the medium was not be important anymore.

Which of the presented explanations would be appropriate in the present case, will be hard to trace back, as many processes might be unconscious. How will things proceed? Which trend will be next, when the visual code of arrogance made it into the mainstream and no longer stands for connoisseurship? Anyway, is it going to be ordinary and thus lose its arrogance, or is this never going to happen, as the usual, beautiful posing is so much rooted in biology that everything else will always be weird for large parts of society? Here, research about human universals come into play which might suggest that the usual beautiful posing will never entirely lose its appeal, and therefore, the visual code of arrogance could be a perennial issue rather than a short-term trend.

[1] Using them in advertisements and the editorial part of magazines as well as in social media implicates that the involved actors assume a positive impact – thus that the recipient will be motivated to look at the pictures, appreciate them and ultimately buy the product or keep reading the magazine respectively reward the pictures with “likes”.

[2] For the distinction between “model” and “supermodel” see Adler 2016, 169.

Works Cited

Adler, Anthony Curtis (2016): Celebricities. Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life. New York: Fordham University Press

Adorf, Sigrid (2004): Blicke überleben. Die unheimliche Treffsicherheit verfehlter Blicke in Claude Cahuns (1894-1954). In: Febel, Gisela und Bauer-Funke, Cerstin (Hg.): Menschen-Konstruktionen. Künstliche Menschen in Literatur, Film, Theater und Kunst des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts. Göttingen: Wallstein. S.107-127

Barthes, Roland (1989): Die helle Kammer. Bemerkungen zur Photographie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Brandes (2010): Fotografie und „Identität“. Visuelle Repräsentationspolitiken in künstlerischen Arbeiten der 1980er und 1990er Jahre. Bielefeld: transcript

Brodersen, Sylvia (2017): Modefotografie. Eine fotografische Praxis zwischen Konvention und Variation. Bielefeld: transcript

Bucher, Anton (2012): Geiz, Trägheit, Neid & Co. in Therapie und Seelsorge. Psychologie der 7 Todsünden. Berlin: Springer

Crane, Diana (1999): Gender and Hegemony in Fashon Magazines: Women’s Interpretations of Fashion Photographs. The Sociological Quarterly, Volume 40, Number 4. 541-563

Felser, Georg (2015): Werte- und Konsumentenpsychologie. Berlin: Springer

Goebel, Gerhard (1986): Notizen zur Semiotik der Mode. in Bovenschen, Silvia (Hrsg.): Die Listen der Mode. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. S. 458-479

Gratzke, Michael (2000): Liebesschmerz und Textlust. Figuren der Liebe und des Masochismus in der Literatur. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann

Hark, Sabine und Villa, Paula-Irene (2010): Ambivalenzen der Sichtbarkeit – Einleitung zur deutschen Ausgabe. In: McRobbie, Angela herausgegeben von Hark, Sabine und Villa, Paula-Irene: Top Girls. Feminismus und der Aufstieg des neoliberalen Geschlechterregimes. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag. 7-16

Lipovetsky, Gilles (2002): Modischer als die Mode. In: Lehmann, Ulrich und Morgan, Jessica (Hg.): Chic Clicks. Modefotografie zwischen Kunst und Auftrag. Boston und Ostfildern: The Insitute of Contemporary Art

Meinhold, Roman (2005): Der Mode-Mythos: Lifestyle als Lebenskunst. Philosophisch-anthropologische Implikationen der Mode. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann

Mennenga, Hans-Christian (2011): Präödipale Helden. Neuere Männlichkeitsentwürfe im Hollywoodfilm. Die Figuren von Michael Douglas und Tom Cruise. Bielefeld: transcript

Ruelfs, Esther (2006): Käufliche Emotionen. Inszenierte Authentizität udn demonstrative Ausdruckslosigkeit in zeitgenössischen Modefotografien. In: Sykora, Katharina, Derenthal, Ludger und Ruelfs, Esther (Hg.): Fotografische Leidenschaften. Marburg: Jonas Verlag. 213-219

Schmerl, Christiane (1992): Kunst – Kommerz – Kommunikation. Die Gewalt der Bilder. In: Schmerl, Christiane: Frauenzoo und Werbung. Aufklärung über Fabeltiere. München: Verlag Frauenoffensive. 157-178

Stiegler, Bernd (2006): Theoriegeschichte der Photographie. Wilhelm Fink Verlag

Venohr, Dagmar (2010): medium macht mode. Zur Ikonotextualität der Modezeitschrift. Bielefeld: transcript