Warning: This post includes quite a few portraits of full frontal male nudity. Prepare yourself before reading on.
Imagine walking into a darkened room filled with half a dozen full-length, mirror-size portraits staring back at you. Glowing with the help of light boxes, these portraits depict nude men hoisting cameras up to their faces. The viewers are charged with figuring out what's more distracting -- the naked phalluses or the equally penetrative camera lenses that seem to be flashing before their eyes.
This is exactly what happens when a person enters "P.O.V.", an installation by Michigan-based photographer Stafford Smith.
The chilling art installation cleverly turns the male gaze back on itself, allowing viewers to ogle "the limp shriveled penises" of male photographers stripped naked in a public setting. The cruel nature of the photographic image has lately been at the forefront of Hollywood headlines. With leak after leak after leak of nude celebrity photos, Stafford's portraits seem at first like some kind of vindication for the strangely unceremonious viewing of young women's personal imagery. Visitors to "P.O.V." could feel, in some way, like vigilante voyeurs.
At the same time, it exposes the underlying -- if not a bit exaggerated -- horror of photography. As Stafford puts it, "the long term effects of the real being callously shoved aside by its representation."
"In P.O.V., the presence of the photographer is hard to miss," he writes in his artist statement. "Yes, this is an installation about voyeurism, surveillance and the gaze. But it is also about our inherent need for attention and how that sets us up as willing victims and self-incriminators. The need to look is balanced by the need to be seen. The line between photographer and subject has been crossed."
Stafford is hardly indicting the young women whose images were plucked from privacy and launched into cyberspace without consent. Instead, his work gives -- literally -- a 360-degree view of the effects of viewing and sharing images in a social age. The other end of the spectrum is broadcasted selfies and readily available pornography. Some image makers do want attention, the artist concludes, "to an extreme cost."
"According to Sigmund Freud, we are afflicted with an incredible need for attention, so much so, that we have created religions in order to imagine that an omniscient deity is constantly watching us. This need plays into our easy exploitation at the hands of the image making industry."
Take a look at Stafford's installation, on view at Kendall College of Arts and Design until January 31, 2015, below. And let us know your thoughts in the comments.