The Photograph as Gendered Arbiter of Truth in Contemporary Detective Films

By Wendy Sterba.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

While the photograph has frequently been used in detective films to show the truth in black and white, with the gradual acceptance of photography as art, the nature of the photograph in film has changed. An analysis of recent detective films that rely on photographs as evidence shows that the relationship of the photo to objectification varies depending on the gender of the film’s protagonist. An analysis of 25+ films shows that women find in photographs an ambivalence rather than a monolithic truth. While male heroes tend to use the photograph to investigate the nature of an absolute “objective” reality, they almost always try to preserve a sense of integrity in their pursuit of a universally acceptable although not necessarily happy solution. In films with women protagonists, the truth is inevitably more complex and the solution less optimistic. Some films reveal both masculine truth as feared betrayal, and a subjective feminine version and thus a duplicity of the image’s meaning. By examining specific photographs and the protagonists’ interpretations of them, it is discovered that photography represents something different in the world of feminine desire and pleasure than it does in one of masculine order and law.

Keywords: Detective Film, Objectification, Photography as Art, Photographic Objectification, Subjective Reality, Gendered Ambivalence, Love Crimes, Basic Instinct, Femme Fatale, Nancy Drew

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp.29-42. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.955MB).

Dr. Wendy Sterba

Professor, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, College of St. Benedict, Collegeville, MN, USA

Wendy Sterba has been a professor of film theory and history at St. John’s University/ College of Saint Benedict for more than 20 years. Her publications focus on voice as instrument of power as well as gender and the way it relates to constructions of power in both American and international film. She is currently finishing up a book on the depiction of the photographer in contemporary film that focuses on the way subjective truth is presented in the photographic text.