An exploration of the male gaze informs Keeley Bentley’s interpretation of pre-pubescent innocence at the cusp of her burgeoning sexuality.
Keeley Bentley, a fine art photographer from Blackpool, takes inspiration from Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, an essay written in 1975 by Laura Mulvey, a British feminist and film theorist who explores the male gaze and poses the notion that it denies a woman her identity, reducing her to an object to be admired for its desirability.
It’s a topic that, 40 years on, still dominates women’s advocacy in the West.
“I strongly believe in Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory,” says Bentley. “In Lo-Lee-Tah, I try to test that theory as much as possible – for both a male and a female spectator.”
Lolita, written by Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov, is one of the most infamous and controversial novels of the 20th century – an uncomfortable love story, perhaps, in which Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged professor, becomes obsessed with 12-year-old Dolores Haze (aka Lolita), whom he sets out to possess, both artistically and physically.
“Lolita the character treads somewhere on the cusp between childhood and adulthood – a liminal zone that leaves her susceptible to being pulled this way and that, subject to a blueprint of changing bodies and desires,” explains Bentley. “My series, Lo-Lee-Tah, sits on the cusp of when a girl is available and when she is not.
“After testing the limits for a male spectator, I began to test it with females to see if they got the message I was trying to convey in the same way that males did. It became apparent they didn’t,” she says.
Bentley was born in Blackpool in 1989, raised in a close-knit family, surrounded by several generations of strong, supportive women in equally strong and supportive marriages. “I can’t say I was lonely as a child, although I have always felt like I haven’t met many people who understand me fully.
“I was a typical girl, obsessed with classic novels like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. I love big characters in novels, like Captain Hook and the Mad Hatter. I’ve learned a lot from books and I firmly believe they make my work what it is. I’ll read a book and it will plant a seed in my mind, which I will develop into a project.”
Bentley’s appetite for 1950s décor features prominently in Lo-Lee-Tah, with vintage objects often juxtaposed against some undeniably contemporary elements – one of the ladies featured has a nipple piercing, another tattoos.
She set about preparing her shoots, choosing settings with a retro feel, namely her 86-year-old Nan’s home, and even her own bedroom.
“I have a love for vintage, and it shows throughout a lot of my work,” she says. The subjects in Lo-Lee-Tah, all of whom share and understand Bentley’s vision, are depicted wearing pleated skirts and cotton socks, at times legs splayed or exposing a breast. Bentley teases out sexual innuendo in what represents an adolescent; not quite child, not quite woman.
“I tested the ‘male gaze’ theory further, relating it to a woman’s psyche. I realised that women enjoy looking at the pictures just as much as men do, but they don’t understand them in the same way,” she says.
“Girls seem to slide down the slippery slope of stereotyped adolescence: we assume we know them well enough to pinpoint their respective characteristics when they come alive in the works of, for example, Balthus, or in controversial ad campaigns by the likes of Calvin Klein. Tracing Lolita through the works of various artists and photographers runs a diverse and sometimes exalted linage of men begetting desirable girls – the same girl over and over again – with an appealing twist here and there to keep things lively and fresh.”
The threads of adolescence and identity are woven tightly into Bentley’s Lo-Lee-Tah, perhaps because her own adolescence was severed when life took an unconventional turn. “Having a child at 18, I had to grow up quickly. While all my friends were going off to university to do their degrees, I was getting a nursery ready. I wasn’t ready to grow up, yet I’ve had to look after myself and my son without anyone’s help. I put my life on hold to raise him and make sure he has a lovely childhood.
“That fine line between being a child myself, and being an adult, is one I’ve really struggled to grasp. I think mentally I will always want to be young. I think I was born in the wrong era – one photographer I assisted called me a 1950s housewife with Disney tattoos and Docs, and I think that pretty much sums me up.
“There’s a quote in Lolita that inspired me majorly through my project: ‘There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, […]; and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids.”
Keeley Bentley is part of a collective of 24 photographers called Incandescent16. The collective’s publication of the same name recently launched its first edition at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool.