Sharon Green's short film Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer (1971) represents a collision of incipient cinefeminism and autobiographical filmmaking. Containing a blend of still photographs and subjective moving-image shots of her body, the work has largely been overlooked because of a reductive framing of it as mere homage to male avant-garde artists such as Stan Brakhage, for whom Green was a nude model. By analyzing aspects of visual form, production, and exhibition, this article performs a corrective “microhistory” that reclaims Green's film as an important hybrid of erotic self-portraiture and social critique. It also situates Green in relation to proximate artists Carolee Schneemann and Yvonne Rainer. Despite ongoing neglect of the work, Green's Self Portrait remains a potent visual archive that reveals the power hierarchies of the 1970s film community in Pittsburgh, while it questions the masculinist assumptions that underlie avant-garde media and historiography.
In 1971, nineteen-year-old University of Pittsburgh freshman student Sharon Ruppert Green made a four-minute, black-and-white silent film entitled Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer (figs. 1, 2). As she tells it, she completed the film (both the editing and recording) in a single stressful evening just before the assignment was due for a production class at the university. The resulting film is deceptively simple and straightforward. The first part consists of photographs that Robert Haller, arts administrator of Pittsburgh Filmmakers, had taken of her, and the second half consists of original moving images created of and by Green herself. To make the second section, Green used a handheld 16mm black-and-white camera to produce mobile shots of her body both in full view and focused on different parts—breast, vagina, nipple, eyes, hair, hands, and so forth. Shortly after making it, Green dropped out of school and left Pittsburgh. She spent time living in Colorado, then Texas, until finally settling down in Washington state. By 1972 she had left the experimental film world and started training as a modern dancer and a photographer. Years later, she pursued and received a master of science degree in social work, and today, she is a practicing Lacanian psychoanalyst based in Seattle.
Though almost unknown and rarely discussed today, the film offers a compelling and generative case study given its creation, content, and reception. It tells a larger story of how women were visually objectified in the 1970s, and how they sometimes complicated this one-way objectification by making images of themselves, for themselves. Over the course of the film Green presents her own self-image and subjective point of view, allegorizing women's wider existential struggle for self-actualization and self-definition under a patriarchal system. This portrait of a woman's self-appearance has a remarkably contemporary feel. While highly critical of how men treat women as objects in a fantasy of power and control, and prefiguring the thinking of feminist critics Laura Mulvey and Mary Ann Doane, it also suggests the possibility that to be displayed and looked upon by the spectator is pleasurable, empowering, and perhaps worthy of defending. Green's film resists the necessary division between pleasure and politics that obtained in British and US feminist art practice and film criticism in the 1970s and mid-1980s. Its unique historical context and powerful aesthetic design make it a compelling work of “degree-zero cinefeminism,” B. Ruby Rich's term for women's filmmaking that is a form of theorizing in its own right.1
Additionally, there is a larger story here that involves feminist historiography and the problems surrounding the preservation, curation, and canonization of women's avant-garde film. In my interviews with Green, she discussed how the film is reflective of a different story about avant-garde filmmaking in Pittsburgh in the 1970s. Whereas historians like Haller, in his telling of the past, speak of Pittsburgh as a “third coast” of avant-garde art, defined by social harmony and modernist creativity, Green describes a fragmented community, riven with sex and gender hierarchies.2 Largely because of the difficulties surrounding the making and presentation of this project, she soon turned away from experimental personal film, stating, “I never again attempted to make ‘art.’”3 She reflects that it was a transitional historical period in which “gender roles were breaking down,” yet she faced numerous obstacles:
All [film] spectators were assumed to be adult men, all pronouns masculine, the God of my family and church could only be imagined to be a masculine entity. … “The” masculine was conflated with activity and subjectivity, and “the” feminine with passivity and objectivity.4
Today she remains ambivalent about the images made of her at an early age, and how they circulate within a male-dominated art community. I have collaborated with her to make explicit the biases and norms that affected her in the era. This untold history about the gendered dynamics of Pittsburgh's avant-garde film circle in the 1970s is at stake, and so is Green's stature as an artist who challenged male power in the arena of independent film.
This article complements and builds upon Green's own analysis of and memories from the period in question. Through embracing the emergent method of “microhistory,” which seeks to examine “minor” artists in order to retell the past, I highlight the formal strategies by which Green was depicted in films and photos by local artists as reflective of larger patterns of how men depicted women more generally.5 Her film treats the figure of the nude model and exposes its (unstated) centrality to the experimental tradition. In this regard, Green's work connects in some ways to works by the temporally proximate feminist artists Carolee Schneemann and Yvonne Rainer. All three were models and artists, occupying a dual identity that they explored in their work. This analysis retrieves their shared interest in redefining representations of the female nude.
Last, I retrace the film's afterlife of reception and its problematic characterization by male critics, exhibitors, and filmmakers. Drawing on flyers, reviews, and program notes from the 1970s, I identify a consistent reduction of Green's work in which it is treated as homage rather than pioneering sociocultural critique. This reductive framing, I argue, is indicative of a masculinist bias in experimental studies identified by Constance Penley, Janet Bergstrom, and other feminist voices since the late 1970s.6 This bias continues to hamper women's access to technology and symbolic resources and obscures their place in history. It points to the ongoing need for scholarly “retroactivism,” Jean Bessette's term for recontextualizing the work of women through expanding what counts as evidence, challenging archival borders, and deploying against the grain critical rereadings of typically well-regarded narratives.7
COMPLICATING THE PICTURE: SHARON GREEN AND UNEQUAL GENDER POWER IN THE PITTSBURGH FILM SCENE
In the early 1970s Pittsburgh became a central node in the global nexus of independent film and media art thanks to the establishment of two institutions, the Film Section and the Pittsburgh Filmmakers.8 Sally Dixon founded the Film Section at the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art in 1970 and quickly gained renown as an effective curator who brought international artists to the city. In 1971 she cofounded Pittsburgh Filmmakers, a media center where visiting artists Carolee Schneemann and Yvonne Rainer gave workshops to the public. Against high odds, Dixon proved that she could cultivate, sustain, and expand the public's interest in repertory, foreign, and experimental films; in the first year her museum program drew more than forty thousand filmgoers.9
However, Pittsburgh Filmmakers and the Film Section were hardly sites of women's equality. Though Pittsburgh was fast becoming a regional center in the women's movement, this activity was largely insulated from its film world.10 Many women reported that feminism in these years was not well received or represented in the area of independent filmmaking, which Dixon's former assistant, Jean Rowlands Tarbox, describes as a “boy's club.”11 The local press often wrote confused or skeptical pieces about women filmmakers visiting the city. Storm de Hirsch and Gunvor Nelson, for instance, were interrogated on their relationship to women's liberation politics for raising issues of gender and self-identity in presentations of their recent work at the museum.12
Dixon resigned from her post in summer 1975 despite wide success around the Film Section—Jonas Mekas had praised her museum program as the nation's best—after discovering that she and her curatorial assistant were paid lower salaries than their museum peers of equivalent seniority.13 Dixon's career had already been impacted by a controversial presentation of Schneemann's Fuses in November 1973. This screening rankled the museum's conservative board of directors for its explicit portrayal of female nudity and sexuality. Thus, the optimistic recollection of 1970s Pittsburgh as a “crossroads” by contemporary historians like Haller glosses over real power hierarchies working along axes of gender, class, and sexuality.
Green entered this artistic ferment upon graduating from high school and relocating to the city, where she became close friends with Dixon and attended her screenings. The films of Stan Brakhage first piqued her interest in avant-garde film. They were visually chaotic, shot out of focus, featuring hypnagogic yet restless camerawork that zoomed in and out, sometimes cutting hundreds of times within several moments. They were also silent. Her father was a deaf, blue-collar patriarch. She had grown up in a conservative family with no concern for the arts, and had been expelled from high school for an incident concerning marijuana.14 In the dense personal tumult she experienced in her first year at Pitt, she cited the silence of Brakhage's films as provoking in her an insightful reflection about distance she had felt from her father. She was also drawn to the films' visceral presentation of the human body. Describing her reaction to seeing Window Water Baby Moving (1959), Green stated that “it brought everything about film and bodies and filmmaking into question—that is, what could be thought about (and seen) and what couldn't be thought about (or seen) in social discourse. The film showed a baby being born, Stan's penis, other images that now seem ordinary—but not then.”15 These fragmented, silent images of bodies, which she described as “non-Hollywood-coded,” attracted her. Before from this brush with Brakhage's work, she had had little to no background in film or art history.
Green became Brakhage's nude model by means of a misunderstanding. They first met when he attended an organizational meeting of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers at the Selma Burke Art Center on September 13, 1971. Green had seen his work at an informal showing at the Hillman Library and on a television interview where he showed and discussed Mothlight (1963).16 She had also attended his presentations at the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art (fig. 3) earlier that month, which included Dog Star Man (1961–64) and Deus Ex (1971). During that fateful encounter at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, she overheard Brakhage lamenting that the person who had offered to help him on a film had not shown up. “That's when I volunteered, thinking it would be ‘technical,’ and ended up being the model for Sexual Meditation: Room with a View.”17 She appeared in that work and Office Suite (1972). She was also photographed by Bruce Baillie.18
Though she did not say as much, this “misunderstanding” regarding the expected roles of men and women in the experimental film production context is rather typical of a male viewpoint, pervasive at the time, that saw women principally as muses in the creative process.19 In experimental films up until the 1970s, women mainly served as nude models—physical objects to be displayed and altered, like raw material, through cinematic technique. The figure of woman in experimental and dominant cinema became a floating signifier, according to Claire Johnston, and thus a convenient pretext for any number of experimental-formalist preoccupations.20 As B. Ruby Rich observed in her account of budding feminism in the avant-garde film world in the 1970s, for a young male all one needed was a camera and a half-naked girlfriend, and you were already halfway to becoming a filmmaker.21 Though this is partly playful exaggeration, it is confirmed by numerous women's accounts.22
Green's own participation with male filmmakers in Pittsburgh was not atypical. Her first appearance on-screen was not in the Brakhage pieces but in a film by University of Pittsburgh student Greg Gans, who also worked at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and a local film-processing lab. Gans became a significant figure in the local scene for creating film poetry “of everyday life.”23 Titled The Room and made in 1971, this film explored the formal properties of light, framing, filmic space, and offscreen space. It was shot on a sunny day, midafternoon, and Gans ran the film through his camera two times to double expose it. The Room is composed of several superimposed layers of shots: mobile and static, close-up and long, illustrating spatial relations of motion, transparency, flatness, volume, and so on.
Green features in the film as yet another object-modality of visual interest.24 Her presence adds an element of erotic stimulation to what otherwise might have been a drily formalist exercise. Green is shown piecemeal, forming another component of the thickly collaged visual field. Importantly, she is shown in/as fragmented parts; mainly we see her bare side and breasts. Elsewhere we see her nude body standing beside a window with sunlight pouring in; in these shots, her head and face are not shown. At certain points her outstretched arm produces a shadow blocking light entering from the windows. Her body is a visual detail within and part of the architecture, never separated or isolated from the space of the room.
The fragmentary construction and eroticized display of Green's body in this film is reiterated in Brakhage's Room with a View. In her fragmentary and abstract figuration in Gans and Brakhage's work, Green unwittingly stands in for many other women models who found themselves involved in experimental filmmaking at this time and place, even when they may have desired a more creative or technical role.25 Tellingly, Green describes her presence in these films as a kind of ghost, “an abstract female element.”26
This pattern continued in the photographic work of Robert Haller. Through his regular documentation of Film Section events and his meetings with visiting artists, Haller generated a large collection of photographic documents of this period; he saw himself as a historian actively chronicling important events when others were neglecting to do so.27 And indeed, his social photographs are excellent archival documents. They tend to be well framed, with rich shadows, clarifying areas of light, and well-focused subjects placed in their social environs. They have since been reproduced in publications, catalogues, and exhibitions about avant-garde film history.
Haller had another major interest: taking photographs of the female form and relating it to landscape.28 These photographs utilize the tropes and poetic conventions of pictorial art photography to present their female subjects as anonymous and eroticized objects within natural environments (fig. 4). They borrow the style of František Drtikol, a Czech photographer who in the 1920s and 1930s made nude portraits and landscapes infused with dramatic lighting and geometric abstraction. Haller's female subjects are framed and lit in such a way as to blur boundaries between figure and background, transforming the human body into a landmass: a sand dune, a mountain, a hilly plot of land with contours and crevices. Haller writes:
When I started making these photographs in 1971, I was interested in exploring how the body could be reduced to surfaces with curves similar to sine waves and other mathematical topographies. Initially, the images were very close up and at times difficult to decipher. Was a form a shoulder, breast, or elbow? Very soon my interest expanded to seek out subcutaneous structures of muscle, bone and tendon.29
In these images, the woman model is unspecified, decontextualized from her ordinary existence as a real person and placed in an Edenic natural wilderness (fig. 5). Natural or dramatic lighting and pastoral iconography (trees, grassy plains, stones, and few signs of civilization) carry over to the women, whose lithe, nude bodies combine with the scenery. Haller described his method of working with his models in these terms:
With Sharon, as with all of the others, we would shoot alone, sometimes using a single lamp for highlighting. Vanessa, another model I photographed for two years, was rather detached, saying that her body was her “instrument” either for pictures or her employment as a professional dancer. She had never been photographed before to her satisfaction, a common feeling I often encountered. For most models I became a kind of mirror, and we had repeat sessions.30
When the woman in Haller's photographs looks back at the camera, she displays what the art historian T. J. Clark, discussing nude models in modern painting, describes as a dreamlike nongaze.31
During 1971 Haller hired Green for this growing body of art photography that occupied him. In contrast to Haller's account, she described the experience of being photographed by Haller and other men as “uncomfortable”:
The photographer [Haller] posed me in various settings and positions in order to obtain the particular composition he wanted. This usually involved being very close to my nude body. I often could feel his arousal and I experienced his passion for his work as possibly disguised passion for my body. … In appreciation for my work, he [Haller] gave me copies of the photos and proof sheets for my gaze.32
The photographs of Green are beautiful in their framing and handling of light and dark, but overall they have a leaden and sterile quality, owing to their voyeuristic compositions and visual clichés. Green, like the other female subjects in the photographs, appears frozen in the eternal time of Pictorialism. Her body reflects a male fantasy about women, and nothing of the interesting and complicated social lives that women models led outside the confines of the idyllic, isolating scenes in which they were placed. Such a masculinist photographic enterprise has direct presentation in Green's film. But in her hands, the pastoralizing treatment of femininity as a passive object of enchantment and mild erotic stimulation, and the implicit glorification of the male artist as creative force over the female as passive material to be shaped, both undergo a radical revision.
POSES, GESTURES, AND MEDIA CIRCUITS: GREEN'S
SELF PORTRAIT OF A NUDE MODEL TURNED CINEMATOGRAPHER
Green explains her film's form: “For the opening [section], I created a montage of the still photographs taken of me by the male photographer. The opening shot establishes the setting as a photographic session between a photographer and model. Naked, I casually sit with my arms folded over my legs in a photographic studio with a camera tripod placed in front of me while gazing directly into the camera.” Green continues by noting the eroticized quality of the photos she appropriated: “They are sensually signified by conforming to the lighting and composition codes of photography that create the patriarchal ideal of an attractive young female.”33
However, it is significant that the first photographic image she selected from Haller's collection for this montage is not beautiful or sensuous at all: it is poorly cropped, clearly intended for the cutting-room floor (fig. 6). It shows an office space at the Selma Burke Art Center, where a nude Sharon Green sits in profile view on a desk. Shot from an awkwardly low angle, her upper half is cropped out, revealing only her legs and buttocks. The window blinds are drawn closed and a lighting kit is visible. What is most prominent in the picture frame—the true subject of the image—is a camera tripod. Via its obtrusive presence, this behind-the-scenes shot posits the subjective viewpoint of the photographer. This “found” image precisely depicts what is usually concealed in art photography: the artificial technical environment of the studio, and the (implied) presence of the photographer who assembles (or dissembles) the realities of production behind a well-crafted image. It sets in motion a process of cognitive dissonance that sustains throughout Green's film, ensuring that whatever erotic gratification we may receive from the nude images is at least partially negated by the fact that the photographic apparatus is on display.34
After this startling reference to the originary context of photographic production, what follows is a series of found images that relate Green's body to processes of visual abstraction, pointing to Haller's trademark naturalistic notions of femininity and woman-as-space (figs. 7, 8, 9). Green is framed in a way that abolishes the sense of a fully realized and specific corporeal human figure; instead she seems semi-translucent, ghostly, one part of a thickly collaged visual composition (also recalling Gans's The Room). She at one point appears as a composite of multiple photographs, each one assigned different light values, ranging from dark to near white, arrayed in a graphic pattern like a fan. At other times she appears monumentalized, her tilted, resting face looking like some mysterious giant's visage.
The montage culminates in several contact sheets of Green nude, whose presence troubles a scopophilic relation to Green that we may have felt intermittently during the first few moments in the montage (fig. 10). The contact sheet is another reminder of the base artifice of the photographic enterprise, conveying, in Catherine Russell's words, a texture of “discontinuity and shocking collision.”35 In showing contact sheets rather than “properly” cropped individual frames, Green refuses the photographs their intended presentation as artful (alienated) commodities and instead points to their means of construction, their history. The spectator thus becomes increasingly sensitized to photographic representation as a coded production of femininity. These fragments of the posed model and her body parts point to a language of desire that is fetishistic. As Russell explains, the body that appears in found-footage cinema becomes denaturalized, a particularized cultural body.36 This strategy of multiplying the female figure—unlike in the work of Haller and Gans—generates a sense of excess and critical detachment. The repetitions of Green reveal the artificiality of such poses, gestures, displays, and their effects.
The contact sheets also recover the labor of Green's performance as a model—an aspect notably missing from Haller's recollection of working with her. Green recalls that she continued modeling in order to make money and support her creative pursuits:
I became a “nude model” for both painters and photographers as a way to support myself as a student and aspiring film artist. This was occasioned by necessity: my father, trapped in the normative discourse on appropriate vocations for women, did not believe in supporting a girl's college education (though he had supported my older brother). Modelling was more flexible and provided greater income than most other jobs open to a teenage girl trying to support herself.37
The contact sheet both complicates the erotic quality of the images and stresses that the work between sitter and photographer was transactional in nature. Green's modeling was a financial necessity born of her father's patriarchal views on women's work and educational attainment, which shaped her mobility (or lack thereof) in the local arts community.
A homemade title card reading “Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer” initiates the latter half of the film. Here the visual content shifts from the recontextualization of found imagery to original footage in which the movie camera moves and observes Green's body with surprising vibrancy and curiosity (figs. 11, 12). In one shot, Green is framed in a mirror. The significance of the mirror, she explains, is to move the spectator and the filmmaker into a consideration of how the model herself views her own image apart from the masculine gaze that colored the previous idealizing depictions of her.38 The self-mirroring also negates Haller's statement that he acted as a mirror for his female models. Green no longer needs a male artist for her own self-visualization: “This shot heralds my transition from object to subject; I am announcing that I am the active agent as the cinematographer controlling the film viewer's gaze and revealing that there is someone—an active subject—behind the movie camera.”39
Green, now the cinematographer, re-performs several poses and images from Haller's photography. The resulting copycat images have a decidedly rougher feel, or what one critic at the time called a childlike “innocence” that characterizes her handling of the camera and the portrayal of her own femininity.40 She remakes in particular Haller's images of her eyes, which had previously suggested an ethereal and ghostly presence, suggesting woman as mythic siren. Green reshoots her mouth and eyes with a material directness that recalls Dziga Vertov's radical “kino-eye,” a fusion of human and machine, in Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
Her principal innovation is to utilize the handheld camera in a way that aligns the viewer with her subjective point of view (figs. 13, 14, 15). In several instances she places it on her chest or right above her pubis, granting it physical embodiment in a way radically distinct from Haller's disembodied photographic objectivity. The resulting views are often uncomfortably close to the body, partially obscured by it. We see human flesh without the softening abstraction of a skillfully placed lighting kit, without the controlling eye of an aspiring art photographer, recalling the work of other women artists whose intimate approach to bodies rendered them in new configurations, such as Constance Beeson, Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Hammer, Yoko Ono, and Barbara Rubin.
Green writes, “The male fantasy of the naked female body is reduced to the everyday reality of my lived body in its average everyday desiring[,] [i]n the fragmented, subjective views of body parts that appear and disappear.”41 Of her handling of the movie camera, she recalls making a conscious effort to connect it to her own real, naked eye.42 While I agree with Green that the camera becomes a prosthetic extension of her eye, in fact it is decentered from a knowing consciousness and monocular perspective by virtue of being placed where no eye can see. What these novel framings reveal is how it is to feel, be, and see as a body.
Green's original footage is notable also for its disorienting dance with the camera: she places the camera at her hip, observing her legs swaying back and forth (see fig. 15). The carpet below shifts, creating an impression of an incipient earthquake. Shots of her pelvic region and pubis reveal her hand hurriedly covering her vagina. On the one hand this may suggest feminine modesty, recalling the tradition of Western female nudes, thereby indicating a covert (or overt) courting of a voyeuristic gaze. On the other, it could also suggest the reverse—that Green wishes to conceal aspects of herself for herself, away from a desiring gaze.
The film's power derives from its presentation of overwhelming absences, of visual gaps. The use of vertiginous movement, and the incomplete views of the female body in close-up and first-person subjective shots, coexist with the male-authored photographs that depict what Mary Ann Doane later called femininity's “overwhelming presence-to-itself.”43 The female body here is not ethereal and stylized and possess-able, but creaturely and basely materialistic.
Green demonstrates the narrative passage common to erotic self-portraiture in film, presenting a woman author through a “distinction between sex object and active erotic subject,” culminating in the artist placing herself in “the dual role of author of the image and the image represented.”44 In this way, the viewer comes to occupy the viewpoint of a nineteen-year-old female artist, seeing her as she sees herself, perceiving how her body looks and feels in a mediatized world. The use of subjective shots shows us a proto-feminist aesthetics forming around the female body—one that emphasizes formal traits of bodily fragmentation, jarring motion, and haptic visuality. She reconciles the public nature of photographic images of her body with her own contemplative, private vision, demonstrating a dynamic of feminist cinematic portraiture that became increasingly common in the mid-1970s.45 Green was resisting the clichéd treatment of feminine form and its commodification via art photography and other masculinist modes of visual culture. Haller's images—representing a patriarchal logic—would not have the final say on women's lived experience.
Importantly, Green does not subject Haller's images to erasure; she does not strike through them or tear them up in order to symbolically dominate them. Rather, her film reconstitutes them as an archive of which her body is the founding site. The dualistic structure carves out a meeting space for two rival modes of representation, two modes of spectatorship, two different ways that a woman might be aware of herself as the seer and the seen. Green recovers the intensive labor she performed as a model for male artists. In juxtaposing male and female spectatorial positions side by side, the film does not banish sexualized displays of femininity for the sake of critical politics, but incorporates them into pleasure. Against the claims that will soon dominate the incipient feminist film theory of the 1970s, Green's film also shows that visual pleasure and critical detachment can in fact coexist.
WOMEN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA: RADICAL ARTIST IDENTITIES IN GREEN, SCHNEEMANN, AND RAINER
In her 2010 essay “Embodied Female Experience through the Lens of Imagination,” Green remarks that the exhibition of Self Portrait was traumatic for her. When first screened for the instructor and her peers in the classroom, it was received with a “thunderous” silence: “When the film ended, there was … no applause. No comments. Just silence. The shock and shame that I experienced in the wake of this silence was immense.”46 The shameful and shaming silence was, for Green, repeated thirty-four years later when Self Portrait was shown as part of its restoration screening event organized by Robert Haller.47 “When the film was shown at the debut of the NEA film programme in New York City in 2005—again, silence from the audience and a surge of shame in me.”48
Silence in a literal sense (it is a silent film) and in the reception of the film (the wordlessness of the spectators) is perhaps understandable given the ontological shock caused by its shift from a male point of view to a fragmented and fragmentary female one. One reviewer remarked: “The viewer has the tendency to figure his or herself prominently in the compositions—the focus of the camera's eye. At the point in which the film has generated this response, nervous coughs, shuffling feet and a dead silent theatre witness this audience response. We are all too aware of ourselves as the model on display.”49 The modern tradition of the female nude that depicts femininity as existentially vacuous, as discussed in Patricia Mathews's research on the genre, is here replaced by an eruption of the model's subjectivity.50 However, the meaning of the audience's response is ultimately ambiguous; Green, today, admits that the silence could have signified empathy or wordless acceptance as much as negative judgment.
But a third, paratextual source of silence has to do with the problematic framing of the film since its creation. Masculinist bias has colored the reception of Green's work, as evidenced by the clippings, flyers, art newsletters, and exhibition advertisements for its screenings over the years since she left Pittsburgh. Green has kept a personal scrapbook of materials documenting the promotion and reception of the film, which she generously shared with me. The historical framing of “Sharon Green” in these texts is typical of how masculinist avant-garde film criticism has commonly apprehended and framed women's experimental filmmaking. Namely, the work is treated as personalized, emotional, and non-artistic, as in: “Sharon used her feelings rather than techniques to unify the work.”51
Another tendency is to position it as an homage to male influences. The title of Green's 1978 retrospective at Pittsburgh Filmmakers was Films by/of Sharon Ruppert, which right away signals the ambiguity of its engagement with Green as a historical actor in/of avant-garde film history. In the description for the event, Haller gives an account of her as an artist. After stating that Green appeared in several artists' films and photographs, he notes she made a film in 1971 as a “response” both to men's perceptions of her and to her own self-perceptions as “overweight and unattractive” (he quotes an interview with her to this effect). The film, for Haller, examines how her body became an object of men's desire. He downplays the political implications: “In the first part she is regarded from a male perspective, being looked at, and in the second part, from her own perspective, she seems to look out.”52 He notes that for years she hid the work inside a shoebox until Brakhage finally saw it, enjoyed it, and convinced her to show it to the world. Through a circular logic, Green became a filmmaker only through her encounter with Brakhage, and in turn Brakhage completes her work by rescuing it from obscurity. This dynamic of male creative influence echoes the reception of Schneemann's early films.
Reading this, it is impossible to ignore that Haller—and avant-garde film scholarship in general—is so invested in an idea of a male, outsider genius figure that it only perceives and understands other filmmakers (of diverse identities or minority backgrounds) by assimilating them into this model. It matters not if this maleness is announced. As Homi Bhabha remarks about the unmarked presence of masculinism in art discourse, it is “about the subsumption or sublation of social antagonism; it is about the repression of social divisions; it is about the power to authorize an ‘impersonal’ holistic or universal discourse on the representation of the social.”53 Haller's account demonstrates masculinist bias by ignoring the realities that Green faced, by presuming an equality that did not exist between men and women artists who belonged to different age groups, classes, and educational backgrounds. He represses the social divisions that put Green in a dualized existence and finally led to an absence of encouragement for her art making. Green writes, “The intense shame that I felt as a student aborted my fragile identity development as an artist/subject.”54
In my interview with her, I asked Green about Haller's account, stating that it seemed like he positioned her work as a reaction against male artists. She noted of Stan Brakhage that she admired him greatly; of Robert Haller, that she admired his portraits. Part of herself found their scopic fascination with her body gratifying. Nevertheless, the film is not reducible to an homage to the artist(s) who gratified her with images of her body; nor is it wholly a reaction to a male-dominated visual culture of female objectification.
Toward rewriting the masculinist bias and recovering the film's incipient cinefeminism, we can compare Green's film to Carolee Schneemann's Fuses (1965). Both artists share an interest in the ambivalent position of women as “images and image makers.”55 They created autobiographical, self-shot works that utilize the body as material, reflecting their relationships with men and their struggle to retain an independent artistic identity and sexual autonomy as women. Both were nude models for experimental artists and filmmakers (Schneemann modeled for Brakhage, Stephen Dwoskin, Robert Morris, and Peter Gidal).56 They are linked further in their relation to Brakhage, their filmmaking both indebted to and breaking from Brakhage's hypnagogic vocabulary. Schneemann says:
[Fuses] was in conversation with Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1959). I had mixed feelings about the power of the male partner, the artist subsuming the primal creation of giving birth as a bridge between male constructions of sexuality as either medical or pornographic. … I know that Stan and Jane passed the camera back and forth, but I was still very concerned that the male eye replicated or possessed the vagina's primacy of giving birth. … Brakhage's work touched into the sacred erotic. But we have to remind ourselves that throughout the sixties, only men maintained creative authority: women were muses, partners.57
Schneemann's objective in Fuses was to redefine feminine eroticism away from being a taboo subject; to achieve this goal, she presented direct images of female sexual pleasure and a man and woman's naked, coital bodies (figs. 16, 17). She organized the visual field in a collaged way (there were literally so many pieces of film glued onto the celluloid that she was unable to make copies at the printer) so as to disrupt the rigid binarization of women and men in visual art: “I edited sequences so that whenever you were looking at the male genital it would dissolve into the female and vice versa; the viewer's unconscious attitudes would constantly be challenged.”58 According to Schneemann, James Tenney, her partner in the filming, was her intellectual and physical equal. There was no power struggle in the act of creation, for he played a part in shooting and editing the film. Thus an equality formed between camera operator and sitter. In contrast, the implicit power struggle between male photographer and female subject/object provides much of the tension in Green's work. Because Schneemann's film depicts real scenes of lovemaking between a man and a woman (Tenney and herself), she broke barriers in representing men and women's genitals and naked flesh on-screen. Gene Youngblood famously said of the film in its first-ever review, it was like seeing “a ninety-foot penis in CinemaScope.”59
Schneemann and Green part ways in their treatment of gender representation as it relates to power. As shown in the visual analysis of Self Portrait, Green concerned herself with the power dynamic involved in gendered images, focusing on the act of artistic creation itself. It is evident that she sought to reveal a conflict that existed between herself and a male observer. Haller mentioned in his recollection of the film in 2005, “Unknown to me, she was making a film of being photographed. Ruppert used copies of some of my pictures of her.”60 This lack of knowingness on Haller's part underlines the risk Green faced in making the film. What if she had asked permission to use the images and he declined? But it also reveals that Green was concerned with the wider patriarchal dissemination and circulation of women's images—a system under which her artistry had to occur by stealth. Finally, the tone of Green's film is ambivalent and dissociative, whereas Schneemann's filmmaking is confident, rhapsodic, lyrical.
Another revealing comparison is to Yvonne Rainer, a pioneering dancer and filmmaker who made films in the 1970s that were highly critical of images of femininity. Rainer, like Green, aimed at a minimalist aesthetic that was analytical rather than expressive or exuberant. Throughout her films Rainer sought to transform hegemonic traditions of depicting women and women's bodies. For instance, Film about a Woman Who … (1974) reworks the melodrama form to examine how gender norms are maintained through overused narrative protocols and visuals. But while it is tempting to focus on Rainer's more overtly feminist output of the mid-1970s, her 1966–69 short film series Five Easy Pieces best exemplifies a demythologizing treatment of the female body that is of a piece with Green's work.61 Of particular interest is her first-ever film, which she termed an “exercise” rather than a fully fledged work, Hand Movie (1966). In this single-shot film (five minutes, silent, black and white) we see a static frame showing only a woman's hand moving subtly in place against an abstract white background. The hand becomes performative, with each finger enacting minimalistic movements that parallel Rainer's minimalistic dance choreography, albeit on a much smaller scale. On several occasions the entire hand shifts into a profile view; fingers move and bend but the hand remains upright, as though the fingers were dancers in an ensemble—the hand becomes stage, choreographer, and dancer all in one. Carrie Lambert describes Hand Movie as “vaguely clinical,” an example of “studied neutrality,” and argues that the series as a whole typifies the period's “attempt to think the human body as part of the physical world, an object among objects.”62
Even on the most superficial level, connections between Hand Movie and Green's film abound. Both Green and Rainer were dancers as well as filmmakers. In both works, plain, uneventful shots depict the female body. While Rainer's was shot by a male friend, both films present a first-person subjectivity instantiated by point-of-view shots of a woman observing a part or parts of her body. Through the figure of the hand, a haptic rather than optical connection is made between touching and seeing, and the hand (as in “the artist's hand”) is associated with creativity.
More deeply, we can say that Green and Rainer share an interest in overcoming ideals of femininity (whether in the dance realm or the photographic/filmic realm), working through ideas about self-image, and assessing the artistic capacity of the body. Both visualize the female body as an “object among objects.” Rainer made Hand Movie while she was hospitalized, while her body was in a state of crisis and incapacitation.63 This crisis coincided with her wider artistic project to move the feminine form of the dancer away from humanist, metaphysical symbolism. Similarly, Green made her film while battling negative notions around her self-image and body weight, and her “creaturely” point-of-view shots scarcely retain any romantic symbolism of the feminine. These short films enact a destruction of the aura attached to the female body, as when Green's film “mortifies” Haller's art-photographic images of woman-as-signifier.
Finally, an implicit violence is registered when Rainer's hand briefly molds into a fist. Such barely veiled aggression is matched by the symbolic violence in Green's film with the mortification of Haller's photos and the rapid editing and disorienting motion of her film's second half.64 The hand raised in a “stop” gesture, seen in both Green's and Rainer's work, enacts a stoppage in the process of signification that idealizes and possesses the body (figs. 18, 19).65
FORGING A COUNTER-ARCHIVE OF AVANT-GARDE FEMININITY: MULTIPLE BODIES, MULTIPLE SELVES
Standing alongside crucial works such as Dyketactics (1974) by Barbara Hammer, the first “lesbian-lovemaking film to be made by a lesbian,” or Regrouping (1976) by Lizzie Borden, an experimental documentary about a women's group, Green's Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer remains a powerful harbinger of incipient cinefeminism.66 It exposes the dualized nature of being both a nude model and a woman artist in the early 1970s, and centers on that most powerful topic of feminist poetics: point of view. Through a dramatic formal structure of autobiographical and appropriated images, it tells a larger story of how women were visually objectified and, subsequently, how they contested this one-way objectification by making images of themselves, for themselves. In Green's view, femininity is a continual process of “becoming.” Instead of fixing a new and idealized image of femininity, free from men's influence, her Self Portrait envisions femininity as constantly changing, (re)defining itself in response to different arenas and contexts.
Green responded to images of her nude body (stylized, artificial, constructed for a male gaze) with images of her own nakedness; in doing so, she laid bare the conventions and institutional effects of the female nude as a persistent genre of art. Art historian John Berger argues that this genre hinges on a distinction between nudity and nakedness: nudity is highly conventionalized, a carefully constructed performance or a kind of “clothing” that sheaths a body through conventions of style, as opposed to nakedness, which pertains to the everyday condition of being unclothed. A nude body is a body put on display for another person, but there is nothing unique or spectacular about being naked. In a state of nakedness, one inhabits one's body for oneself primarily, not exclusively for the look or ownership of an observer.67 Green's film highlights the tension of nudity versus nakedness in its dualistic structure, its transition between her presentation as nude versus naked, while tracking the concurrent eruptions of subjectivity that occur in those positions. We see how, from a model's point of view, the cycling from nudity to nakedness creates an internal, emotional disturbance; these images are, in her words, “‘me’ and ‘not-me’” simultaneously.68
The female nude also, as feminist historian Lynda Nead argues, concerns the repression of women, denying the reality of their bodies and their subjectivity.69 Green challenged this aspect of the female nude by forcefully foregrounding the space of work—the photographer's studio—and by indexing the long hours she worked performing as a model—the photographic proofs. These direct references to women's labor allow us to see the model in ways that are impossible for the typical female nude, revealing details that particularize her personhood, such as her working-class background. Green reflects on the process of being a nude model as the presentation of one's body as a screen for men's fantasies to be projected onto. In contrast to this condition, the fragmentary rhythm of the film, the presence of distracting and shocking black gaps between images, the shuttling between nakedness and nudity, and the direct gaze of the artist back at the viewer all result in a de-dramatization of the model's body. The aspects of woman's body that normally are repressed (such as pubic hair, which, as Berger writes, is a sign of woman's social power and personal agency) return with striking force. Green's film presents a “powerful demand for response,” seeking recognition of a model-artist who thinks, feels, and analyzes her body, her identity, and her wider situation. For all these reasons the work is an effective deconstruction of the female nude, a historical document of the complicated relations between men and women, and a self-portrait of Green's multiple selves as a questioning artist, compliant student, and self-aware young woman that “were generating a maddening conflict” in her.70
Self Portrait modifies our dominant accounts of 1970s US avant-garde film. These accounts too often minimize the conflicts and power inequalities that particularly affected women. They fail to consider the ubiquitous depictions of women as abstract female elements by male filmmakers, and overlook the social implications of these formulaic depictions, preferring to imagine avant-garde cinema as innately progressive. They leave unquestioned the prescribed gendered roles and labor aspects of the male artist and female muse. Additionally, other male critics have failed to call a spade a spade regarding the “misunderstanding” that occurred when Green initially thought she would be taught to use filmmaking technology, and instead became the nude model for Brakhage's films. This blinkered approach to the history of film and how women exist in the world makes it difficult to acknowledge the realities of women in avant-garde communities. It presents a historical world without conflict, without sexual divides and their consequences.
These gender dynamics risk being overlooked if we do not embed Green's film in a more expanded context. The shift to expanding the stories of avant-garde film is manifested in the work of feminist scholars such as Lucy Fischer, Patricia Mellencamp, Lauren Rabinovitz, and more recently Ara Osterweil, who all question the roles and relationships of women artists.71 In retelling Green's story in the materialist spirit of microhistory, we become sensitized to minor artists and little-seen works that deserve to be part of our official histories, and realize how the very concepts of minor-ness and nonvisibility are the outcomes of the unequal distribution of social resources and the persistent inability to confront power. This bias can only change when we seek out uncomfortable silences and omissions in the historical record instead of downplaying complex truths about gender, discourse, and art. Green wrote to me:
When I immersed myself emotionally back into 1970–72, in order to try to give you an emotional feel, it re-evoked the Dionysian madness—not just of me—but the times! However, I would worry if I left the impression that I—and my friends—were not also interested in thinking about film. We were, but didn't have the film theories and discourses through which you can now look backwards. Stan's films and others were ripping into the existing film codes (symbolic order) and unleashing a lot of “the Real”—which is linked to life, death, sexuality. And the era was struggling with war, birth control, free love, etc etc as we discussed trying to figure out the new “rules of the game” in light of the new technologies (birth control etc).72
Green's biography and work continue to be important for complicating the picture of avant-garde art and film. Her dialectical imagery deconstructed the male artist / female muse binary and helped lay the groundwork for the explicitly feminist filmmaking to come. Indeed, while Green's film points to the lack of discourse on feminist and critical approaches to visual culture existing in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, shortly after she left the city a number of women artists developed work that challenged and expanded the space of women's representation on film. Stephanie Beroes, Green's slightly older contemporary, became the first exhibitions director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and created a series of explicitly feminist films such as Recital (1978), which depicts nine women reading love letters, second wave feminist theoretical texts, and artist statements by women like Carolee Schneemann; Valley Fever (1979), an essay film that questions the gendered nature of perception; and The Dream Screen (1986), a collage of found images and original footage that explores the troubled life and aura of flapper icon and movie star Louise Brooks. Then in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of radicalized women artists including Peggy Ahwesh, Margie Strosser, and Natalka Voslakov blew open the film scene, creating a sensational body of Super 8mm work—dubbed by the local press “Super 8 chic”—that mixed Warholian aesthetics and punk-music attitude with working-class feminism (all three came from depressed mill towns).73 Green's work thus marked an incipient feminist counter-public in Pittsburgh that grew and thrived through the mid-1970s and early 1980s.
While we must clarify the power asymmetries that existed then so as not to collapse Green's work into a reductive homage-gesture to the men she admired, it is also important to acknowledge that, since making the film, Green has remained friends with Haller and fondly recalls Brakhage (who died in 2003), Baillie, and Dixon. These individuals have had a profound effect on her life and career. In the spirit of Osterweil's study of 1960s American avant-garde “flesh cinema,” which explored how friendship informed the making and meaning of significant films, we should critically analyze friendship and explore the “perverse biographies” of artists, using them as tools for historical analysis, and thereby generate more accurate and expanded accounts of the past.
Like the volatile film scene of New York, Pittsburgh's close-knit community was organized around both intimacy and “off-screen struggle,” and the conflictual, entangled relations between visiting artists, local artists, and administrators became rich fodder for art. Because of the deeply personal nature of independent filmmaking, the radical films that emerged from the era “pioneered new forms of relationality” and “complex identifications” for “the people who created them and for the people who beheld them.”74 While Green may have been unable to articulate the full significance of these experiences at the time, her Self Portrait offers a potent visual archive that looks back at her emotional complexities, her fierce creativity, and her resistance to male control while pointing ahead to diverse new ways of women's image making. She notes: “Perhaps that is the nature of ‘art’—to create openings for imagining new possibilities before words are available to generate new emergent discourses.”75