Producers of online instructional videos about bokeh emphasize disks of light and out-of-focus backgrounds. They demonstrate how camera lenses and technical features can render bokeh, or unfocused areas. Photographic and video bokeh ordinarily appears away from the center of attention. The bokeh genre, in opposition to typical photography and video practices, foregrounds the peripheral and proposes aesthetics and ways of looking by seeing and not seeing objects. However, producers of online instructional videos about bokeh sometimes couple their sensual aestheticization of backgrounds to their stated attempts to satisfy viewers’ investments in filling foregrounds with images of objectified women. These producers emphasize unconventional aesthetics as a means of establishing their creative and technical expertise and obscuring their reproduction of traditional conceptions of women as viewable and controllable. Close textual analysis, literature on photography and transparency, and feminist considerations of representation allow me to consider the aesthetics and functions of this how-to form.

Photographers lovingly itemize out-of-focus, blurry, buttery, and creamy backgrounds in YouTube videos. Circles of golden yellow, cherry red, grass green, and many other colors dapple, pierce, and even fire against the dark plane of the moving image. There are often scantily dressed women in the foreground. However, photographers state throughout their videos that these texts and the associated aesthetics are focused on bokeh, or the light effects and other features of out-of-focus backgrounds. The term “bokeh” is an English spelling of the Japanese word for haze. It describes the ways lenses, camera settings, and the number and shape of aperture blades influence the focus and blur in images. Bokeh, according to photographer Nasim Mansurov, is “one of the most popular subjects” because it makes representations “visually appealing.”[1] Due to these interests, photographers render how-to instructional videos about bokeh and its aesthetics, including the aestheticization of women.

The producers of how-to videos about bokeh are usually portrayed as male instructors who explain about camera technologies and produce photographic and video images. They consider camera lenses, settings, technical specifications, attractive images of women, and ways of rendering bokeh. They emphasize bokeh by literally focusing their cameras on something else. Photographic and video bokeh ordinarily appears away from the subject and center of attention and downplays the background and bordering parts. The bokeh genre on YouTube, in opposition to typical photography and video practices, foregrounds the peripheral and proposes aesthetics and ways of looking by seeing and not seeing objects. However, the producers of how-to videos about bokeh often couple their sensual aestheticization of backgrounds to their stated attempts to satisfy viewers’ interests in filling foregrounds with erotic images of women. Photographers claim to be honoring audience requests when replacing the items deployed in still-life photography with passive and objectified women. In this article, I argue that these photographers emphasize unconventional aesthetics as a means of establishing their creative and technical expertise and obscuring their reproduction of traditional conceptions of women as viewable and controllable.

Popular how-to photographers and video producers, including DigitalRev TV and Kai W. and Matt Granger, assert male artistry, emphasize the aesthetics and eroticism of bokeh, and tend to depict women as sexualized and available. Their production of bokeh is related to technical aesthetics that are achieved through manipulating cameras and lenses and cultural values that relate approved forms of artistry, technological aptitude, and skill to men. While women are rarely producers of these photography how-to videos on YouTube, women nail polish bloggers demonstrate ways of rendering bokeh on their nails and Ree Drummond of The Pioneer Woman blog holds bokeh photography contests. Close textual analysis, literature on photography and transparency, and feminist considerations of representation allow me to consider the gendered aesthetics and functions of this how-to form. I outline how cultural conceptions of aesthetics and expertise reassert gender norms, photographers emphasize focus and indexical representations, aesthetics are established through online videos, and women are figured.

Gendered Aesthetics and Expertise

Aesthetic commentary usually conveys conceptions, appreciation, and/or criticisms of the beautiful. Rather than being distinct from gender norms, contemporary aesthetics are often correlated with expectations that men produce art works and young white women, and in some cases young white men, are most appropriately rendered for aesthetic appeal. Interrogations of photography’s aesthetics and the gendered, raced, and classed “meanings of creation and ownership,” according to women’s studies scholar Karina Eileraas, started with the development of photography and continue with contemporary practices.[2] For cultural critic Pierre Bourdieu, “The norms that organize the photographic valuation of the world” are “indissociable from the implicit system of values maintained by a class, profession or artistic coterie, of which the photographic aesthetic must always be one aspect, even if it desperately claims autonomy.”[3] Bourdieu and more recent scholars assert that photography’s aesthetics are determined by cultural values and norms. This includes depictions that enable people to examine other people and places without being conflated with these individuals and worlds. These biased cultural perceptions inform and hierarchize the formal and thematic aspects of photography and such related imaging technologies as video.

The gendered practices of producers of how-to videos about bokeh are related to the procedures of other artisans and specialized workers. As noted by historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, artisans began to record their procedures starting around 1400 in Europe.[4] This enabled these mostly male creative producers to establish and document their knowledge. Such expertise is understood, according to Gita Taasoobshirazi and Martha Carr’s research on science and proficiency, as a “collection of characteristics that discriminate experts and novices.”[5] People’s notions of expertise thus articulate the sorts of skills and aesthetics that are valued and rank practitioners. These practices and their aesthetic criteria are also conveyed through classes and manuals. For instance, photography classes and how-to handbooks, as Karen Cross states in her study of photography education, are designed to “train the eye of the photographer to adopt a particular technical aesthetic.”[6] In addition, classes and manuals extend the belief systems of instructors.

Online manuals, frequently asked questions texts (FAQs), and how-to guides are used to dispense information and assert particular kinds of knowledge and taste. The Linux Documentation Project produces operating system “HOWTOs.”[7] Instruction sites like eHow promise to “empower” readers without acknowledging the different ways gendered individuals are understood and addressed in Internet settings.[8] wikiHow indicates that such guides retrain individuals and that its “comprehensive step-by-step instructions in multiple languages enables billions of people to improve their lives.”[9] In a related manner, the producers of how-to videos about bokeh assert that they know how to do things. These videos include male photographers’ technical and aesthetic narratives, instructions for viewers to replicate certain settings and effects, representations of photographs, and erotic depictions of women.

Conceptions of expertise are based on gender, racial, and other identity characteristics, according to the research of Esther Ruiz Ben and Andrea B. Hollingshead and Samuel N. Fraidin.[10] Men are more likely to garner prestige by being identified as experts. Feminist art historians have critiqued the ways training privileges male artists, the ways society relates approved aesthetic forms to male and masculine producers, and expectations for particular kinds of gendered representations. For instance, art historian Linda Nochlin indicates how the cultural emphasis on nude depictions in nineteenth-century paintings and proscriptions against women seeing nude bodies during this period prevented women from producing culturally valued works.[11] In Carol Duncan’s feminist research, she argues that these abundant representations of women offer little variety and poor identification models for women. In museums, there are “simply female bodies, or parts of bodies, with no identity beyond their female anatomy—those ever-present ‘Women’ or ‘Seated Women’ or ‘Reclining Nudes.’”[12] Cultural frameworks, where men are scripted as ideal producers and women as objects, are also deployed within photography. In Mary Bergstein’s study of photographic portraits of artists, she argues that photographers’ association of masculinity and men with agentive artistry results in women being depicted as “natural,” “passive,” and performing as the “opposite and complementary” to men.[13] This happens in how-to videos about bokeh when Granger depicts women against, blurring into, and associated with nature, including flowers, vegetation, and park settings.

The Gendered Aesthetics of Photography and Focus

Producers of bokeh videos connect male artistry to out-of-focus images and technical skill. These contemporary accounts about bokeh are different than early writing about photography. Early texts considered the functions and meanings of focus and tended to associate out-of-focus images, as suggested by Mirjam Brusius’s research on the subject, with a lack of technical skill and women producers.[14] For instance, Julia Margaret Cameron’s nineteenth-century out-of-focus photographs were the result of deliberate decisions, including using lenses that were not designed for her camera. However, Cameron’s choices were understood, according to art historian Carol Armstrong, as “feminine,” “hysterical,” and indicators of a lack of technical control.[15] Nineteenth-century pictorialist photographers produced images that were, as described by photo historian Liz Wells, “out of focus, slightly blurred and fuzzy.”[16] Literary scholar Jennifer Green-Lewis further explains that by labeling pictorialist photography as “fuzzy” and emotional, the images and associated photographic practices were gendered.[17] Straight photographers, as suggested by Alan Trachtenberg’s research in this area, rejected the more painterly practices of pictorialist photography and indicated that their more sharply focused images provided accurate records of the world.[18]

Focus is a key feature of photographic aesthetics. Lindsay Smith’s study of focus emphasizes how historians of photography have “assumed an authoritative link between the photograph and a fine-art tradition, in part, through a conception of photographic focus as correlative with ‘style’ in painting.”[19] Blur, when not contextualized as part of an aesthetic practice, is often conceptualized as what cannot be seen or understood and what has not been properly produced. Due to these issues, photographers and other individuals manage the aesthetics of bokeh and out-of-focus images. They highlight the work and aesthetics of photography and video rather than photography’s purportedly objective and object-oriented features, as asserted by straight photographers.

Focus is also part of photography and photographers’ logic. Photographers employ focus to render point-of-view and their position because, as Smith indicates, focus “confers intelligibility upon objects in spite of their planar disparity and further implies centerdness in its signification of ‘a centre of activity.’”[20] Thus, focus supports photography’s ability to convey objects that are taken as real, renders relational worlds, and distinguishes what is supposed to be seen. The technical and experiential features of depth of field and spatial arrangements are referenced in producers’ how-to videos about bokeh. They encourage individuals to displace centeredness and crisp focus with smeared, grainy, and spotted surfaces that do not itemize objects.

How-to producers’ emphasis on the aesthetics and technological rendering of bokeh, rather than the ways photography conveys objects, is notable. Theorists of photography, including Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, identify photography as a trace of the real and the associated images as direct conveyors of what was once in front of the camera. This conception of photography encourages viewers to look “through” the photograph rather than studying its artfulness and other features. In Sontag’s book on the subject, she identifies photography as a “trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.”[21] Barthes argues in his affective study of viewing that the “photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.”[22] For Barthes, palpable experiences with conveyed scenes and people are more influential than the framing structures and aesthetics of photography.

Researchers have also challenged the ways cultural procedures and individuals make the photographic medium transparent. In Kendall L. Walton’s study, he emphasizes people’s inability to differentiate between seeing things through photographs and seeing without photographic mediation.[23] He urges people to pay more attention to the frameworks and presumptions that influence seeing. The features of bokeh and how-to producers’ discussions of the effects of blur also encourage individuals to be attentive to the processes and conceptions of perception. Bokeh and its producers ordinarily disrupt understandings of photographs as transparent and as offering traces of and access to objects. They foreground photographs’ technical processes and surfaces. Nevertheless, photographers’ promises to provide images of and access to women, as outlined later in this article, reestablish the referential aspects of photography and negate the critical possibilities for bokeh to underscore how photographic processes and photographs culturally work.

Correlating the Aesthetics of Photography and YouTube Videos

Photographers’ how-to videos demonstrate how cameras and lenses produce bokeh in still as well as video formats. These practices are related because the terms of video editing, as indicated by Shelly Brisbin in Mac Life, “come from film, tape-based video editing, and even still-image work.”[24] The functions of YouTube and other Internet video sites also have photographic features. For instance, mousing and scrubbing, or reviewing parts of videos by moving the bar playhead, generate a series of frames that look like photographic stills. This design allows viewers to control playback and the associated images. It works along with the practices of male how-to producers when the associated content delivers images of women that can be advanced, replayed, and paused at pleasurable moments.

DigitalRev TV and Kai’s standard opening video sequence underscores the relationship between still and moving images and the expert position of producers. The segment starts with colored droplets falling across a grey background. A series of blank images appear, are hit by these droplets, and develop into detailed photographic images. The sequence functions as a creation narrative that allows the male producers to assert their creative power. The producers also multiply the pictures as a reminder of their ability to replicate things and the duplicative nature of photography. The images express video characteristics and the process of digital morphing by moving across the screen, consolidating into a mass, and rotating. In a similar manner, BLACKS’s video, from a series offered by this ecommerce store, begins with circulating still images.[25] These sequences appear to transport viewers through collections of images and underscore producers’ comprehensiveness.

Producers of how-to videos also use YouTube’s “About” the author pages—a format that is part of many websites—to highlight the value of their photography and video work. DigitalRev TV and Kai identify as the “most viewed and subscribed photography channel” on the Internet.[26] Blunty is an “Australian adventuring in online video production since YouTube was still in its infancy.”[27] His project provides “variety,” including such things as “Camera, photography gear reviews, Travel blogs, event, con and expo coverage,” and many other video genres. “Whether you shoot Nikon, Canon, Sony, Pentax, Leica... or WHATEVER,” writes Granger, “you are welcome here!”[28] He offers, “Photography tips, tricks and reviews.” Each of these male producers asserts the significance of their YouTube channel by indicating their skill, popularity, long production history, and/or comprehensiveness.

The skills of these video producers and the extensiveness of their works do not equate to program length. The aesthetics of YouTube content, as suggested by Jean E. Burgess and Joshua B. Green’s study, is informed by the brief duration of videos.[29] How-to videos about bokeh tend to run for less than twelve minutes. YouTube’s grainy image aesthetic, which was originally based on storage and streaming limitations, is echoed by the low-resolution of some photographers’ how-to videos and their deployment of out-of-focus images. In addition, these how-to produce bokeh videos are self-referential, with photographers mentioning previous videos in the series, citing key texts and producers, and suggesting that viewers watch the next installment for more information. YouTube supports this successive or “binge” viewing by presenting similar videos alongside selected content through algorithmic assessments and, depending on settings, streaming related videos. This means that viewers of bokeh videos are offered similar materials and encouraged to adopt the associated genre and aesthetics.

The Aesthetics of How-To Photography Videos and Bokeh

Photographers define bokeh and its aesthetics through their how-to videos. They also emphasize male photographers’ creativity and status. Asserting aesthetic criteria may in itself be a tactic for advancement. This happens when BLACKS and its featured photographer Ryan Visima depict bokeh as the “blur, or more appropriately the quality of the rendition of the out of focus elements.”[30] Visima’s ambiguous use of the term “quality” is, among other things, an evocation of class and value. Blunty performs a related strategy and argues, bokeh “is used to describe the aesthetic quality of the out of focus bits” in “Cheap-Ass Bokehlicious Lens.”[31] Blunty asserts his skill and that he can produce creative images from inexpensive materials. Viewers of Blunty’s video are presented with a demonstration of this craft through a series of landscapes, plant matter, and details, which move in and out of focus as the aperture changes. Photographers are figured as white men when Blunty and his large white hands adjust the camera. Individuals are also informed about their relationship to bokeh when Visima argues, “Everybody loves a bit of bokeh.” He asks, “Which lens produces nice looking bokeh?” and figures viewers as having aesthetic interests that require information and instructions. These distinctions in what appears to be “nice” and the quality of bokeh are features of many of the videos, including videos that compare different lenses as a means of judging bokeh. Producers depict bokeh as a key component of photography’s aesthetic appeal and as aesthetics that require knowledge, taste, photographic and evaluative skills, and camera technologies.

Viewers are informed that how-to videos and the knowledge that they impart will bring bokeh into sight. In “How to Take Bokehlicious Photos,” DigitalRev TV inquires, “How often do you think about the out of focus bits when taking a photo? If you are like most of the people, not very often.”[32] The producers of DigitalRev TV, including Kai, thereby distinguish themselves from most people. They hint that individuals ordinarily think about the foreground and the centered content rather than the periphery and what is out of focus. People are imagined to understand photography as transparent and to be viewing objects through images. DigitalRev TV and Kai promise to change people’s perception and their relationship to the generic and mainstream. They contrast humorous footage with more traditional examples of soft-focus images. For instance, they reanimate sushi by holding it in the air and making “flying fish.”

Photographers like Kai assert their authorial and creative positions. Darren Newbury’s research differentiates between the education of artists and photographers. While artists are associated with individuality and “philosophies of practice are openly debated, the general perception of photographic education seems to render the individual’s status non-existent.”[33] Newbury suggests that the cultural association of photography with “window and mirror” and traces of the real reinforces the “ghost-like status” of photographers. Yet how-to bokeh producers use self-representations and voiceovers to emphasize their presence in videos. They also establish their construction of images by distinguishing bokeh from the referential aspects of photography. Blunty, Granger, Kai, and Visima hold, demonstrate, and show the output of expensive equipment in a manner that associates them with creative work, economic success, and technological skill.

DigitalRev TV and Kai promise viewers in “How to Take Bokehlicious Photos” that once they “start paying attention to the blurry bits, as well as the main subject,” that they will be on their “way to take some ‘bokehlicious’ photos! Watch the video to find out how.” DigitalRev TV and Kai argue that the aesthetics of bokeh distinguish viewers from the mainstream and provide an expanded or shifted aesthetics. However, xBreaketh comments that this “aesthetics or the standard of beauty” is typically “defined by the majority of people.”[34] Even if producers create an alternative aesthetics in their promotion of bokeh, the popularity and mainstreaming of the associated videos conventionalize this aesthetics and reinscribe expertise.

Kai and other photographers emphasize the aesthetic qualities of bokeh by using the term “bokehlicious.” On the Urban Dictionary website, Look Busy defines “bokehlicious” as something that is “greatly aesthetically pleasing; specifically applied to bokeh.” Bokeh is thus a form of aesthetics that is excessive in its overstated pleasures. Kai echoes this conception by vocally emphasizing the term. In “Bokehlicious Tiny Telephoto,” Blunty mentions DigitalRev TV’s use of the word.[35] Matt Granger’s “50mm Shoot Out!” identifies an image as “nice and bokehlicious, to steal someone else’s expression.”[36] In this and other instances, how-to videos about bokeh follow some of the rules of response videos, which cite and comment on other producers’ work. Their citations articulate a male creative lineage. The videos also reference and remediate the formal aspects of the photographic form through split screen comparisons, slide shows, and bordered stills.

Bokehlicious, as conveyed by the term and Kai’s descriptions, offers what is not ordinarily thought about or seen as delicious. His indication that people usually do not notice the bits of photography suggests that bokeh and how-to videos move people from an amateur inability to see to expert perception. However, bokeh is also for Kai a corollary for taste. When you look at bad and excessive bokeh it is “too much for your eyes,” says Kai in DigitalRev TV’s Canon and Sigma 70-200mm “Battle of the Bokeh.”[37] This is related to how cheese is “too much for your taste buds.” Kai relates “good” cheese that “melts away on your tongue” to camera bokeh, which “melts away in the background but looks beautiful at the same time.” Kai’s collapse of taste and viewing indicates the relationship between varied sensory experiences and aesthetics. It also establishes aesthetic parameters that resist popular products and the excesses of femininity, which in a similar manner to cheese can be coded as too much. The term “cheesy” describes excesses, tastelessness, and such things as wedding photography. Photographers also employ the term “cheese” to get sitters to smile and adopt the physiognomy associated with portrait photography.

Kai’s association of bokeh and cheese points to the fluid aspects of bokeh. Blunty underscores the potentially amorphous features of bokeh by referring to light effects as “bokeh blobs” in the “Cheap-Ass Bokehlicious Lens” video. Blunty’s emphasis on soft focus and aspects of the lens and its representations, which are “hard to put to words properly,” also renders bokeh as something that exceeds and is distinct from language and formed subjects. Indeed, his video starts with a difficult to describe sequence where overlapping orange and yellow circles and penumbras of light slowly transform into a night scene with car headlights. Video and photographs of such scenes, landscapes, and vegetation become more and less in focus as he changes the lens settings. For Blunty, the pleasure of the lens occurs when it is most likely to produce bokeh: “fun happens when it is wide open, supple, bloomy, and a little bit unpredictable.” For Blunty and Kai, bokeh needs to be defined and distinguished but also remains somewhat unknowable.

Gendered Aesthetics and Commentary

YouTube participants, according to Burgess and Green, help to normalize the site’s aesthetic values and conceptions of undecidability.[38] The engagement of commenters and my attention to their contributions are encouraged by the site’s name, which suggests that it is your and YouTube and belongs to all viewers. YouTube promises inclusion but how-to bokeh photographers and commenters and many other participants support traditional conceptions of gender and values. For instance, Lindsey Wotanis and Laurie McMillan study extremely negative commentary about the physiognomy and craft of women producers.[39] In allowing harassment and bodily judgments, YouTube perpetuates the training rituals and aesthetics that have kept women from being acknowledged as producers in other periods and that have been widely studied and critiqued by feminist scholars.

Viewers of how-to videos about bokeh sustain and contest male photographers’ aesthetics through commenting. This is related to more general Internet practices where participants are directed to help develop new media concepts and sustain settings. In the case of DigitalRev TV and Kai, they only respond to a few posts but still garner hundreds or even thousands of comments. These commenters repeat Kai’s phrases and chronicle his physical attributes and behaviors. Commenters are particularly attentive to breeches in their perceptions about photography and video conventions and their irritation and/or delight in these elements. For instance, viewers observe Kai’s nonchalant handling of expensive equipment and tendency to precariously place expensive lenses and cameras near water and overhangs. Such gestures generate admiration and anxiety among viewers. They emphasize the equipment and the fearless character of male photographers.

Viewers distinguish between their favorite how-to photography instructors and what they deem to be more generic practitioners. In the comments section, Taneli Lahtinen describes the “Normal reviewer” who introduces the camera, expresses excitement about taking it out of the box, and indicates that the “image quality is really good.”[40] Kai is characterized as expressively declaring “Oh my gosh it is so bokehlicious!!!” the “bokeh is so creamy,” and “We must bring a sexy model here now!” Lahtinen, “simply love[s]” the channel and asserts that the only “Good reviewer in YouTube is DigitalRevTV.” Lahtinen thereby establishes personal preferences in and aesthetics for male reviewers and their how-to videos. As Lahtinen suggests, Kai’s utterances and practices are celebrated in YouTube comment streams. Such comments also point to the patriarchal and sexist features of these videos, including the correlation of men with expertise and the objectification of women.

Lahtinen indicates that distinctions between male producers and female models are expected aspects of how-to videos about bokeh. This is similar to art historian Lynda Nead’s description of how representations of women, and the correlation of women models with canvases and other objects, are used to associate art production and subjectivity with men.[41] Wotanis and McMillan specify that women producers are underrepresented on YouTube. They also argue that “gender matters on YouTube” because of such underrepresentation and the higher likelihood for women producers to experience negative commentary, including explicit posts about their physical appearance.[42] Wotanis and McMillan describe women’s familiarity with hater comments, which argue that the “performer offers nothing of value,” and sexually explicit feedback, which “suggests that the value of the performer is in her status as a sexual object or potential sexual partner for the viewer.” While the videos that I study do not feature women producers, women’s inclusion as models and erotic objects positions them as superfluous and less skillful than men.

TheSnapChick is the only woman photographer I found offering bokeh demonstrations on YouTube.[43] She self-presents in a low-cut tank on a pool table as a means of explaining the technologies, providing views of her breasts, and directing viewers to her website. Paying VIP members of her site are promised additional erotic views and can buy images of the photographer in lingerie.[44] Through such strategies, TheSnapChick suggests that women photographers must sexually subjectify themselves in order to have their artistic endeavors acknowledged. TheSnapChick’s performance echoes postfeminist assertions that women choose to self-present as visual and sexually available. Yet some feminist media scholars have critiqued these claims about women’s erotic empowerment because they do not acknowledge cultural directives for women to follow familiar gender scripts. For instance, Rosalind Gill’s research indicates how advertisements structure women’s agency and indicate that women should be beautiful, sexy, sexually informed, and ready for sexual activity.[45]

Conclusion: Looking at Women and Bokeh

Blunty references the sexual and a kind of bodily dematerialization when rhapsodically describing his experience in “Cheap-Ass Bokehlicious Lens.” With this lens, “Light just seems to start flowing like honey, it is hard not to be romanced by this bargain bin tube of glass.” In stating this, Blunty supports the sexualization of this aesthetic form. Art and the creative process are depicted as a kind of sexual activity. Art historians such as Amelia Jones analyze how the creative interests of male artists, including Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, are often collapsed with histories of their prowess and conceptions of their genitals. In a related manner, when the DigitalRev TV producers tell Kai that there is too much product placement in the Canon 50mm “Battle of the Bokeh,” he labels Pocky Sticks snacks with the term “cock.” Kai thus pleasurably utters, “Focus on the cock.” Nicshooter C repeats these conventions and comments: “make sure you focus on the COCK! lolz.” These narratives support men’s pleasure in reciting their body parts while making male genitals into a corollary for artistry. Blunty argues that it is “entirely possible to be a happy chappy on the cheap side of shutter buggery” and renders photography as anal sex. These statements temporarily replace erotic relationships with other people and the presumptions of heterosexuality with queer sex with surfaces and objects. The fluid aspects of Blunty and other photographers’ images, where light seems to cascade across and caress things, further this eroticization of the form. For instance, Blunty’s depictions of water emphasize the way light smudges and dapples the liquid.

Individuals “‘Do’ Bokeh,” as DigitalRev TV titles a video, and enact sexual activity.[46] They articulate an erotic that shifts between pleasures in backgrounds and some stereotyped conceptions of women’s bodies and foregrounds. These producers often presume that viewers are heterosexual men and construct spectators accordingly. They replace images of statues and trees with women in revealing clothing. These women are constructed as to-looked-at-ness, as Laura Mulvey and other feminists have described these viewing structures, and function as aesthetically appealing and available objects.[47] Mulvey’s psychoanalytic reading attributes the production of sexual difference, or the articulation of inscribed male and female positions, to the structures of pleasure and identification in classical Hollywood cinema. She indicates that the subject of the gaze is male, and the camera and projector support his empowered position, while its object is female, and she exists in order to be viewed. Terrell Carver uses the term “heterosexual male gaze” in his research because of the desires and identity usually linked to viewing.[48] This construction of women as to-be-looked-at-ness for heterosexual male viewers occurs when BLACKS uses an image of a woman, with her head tipped up to facilitate the inspecting view of the camera and viewers, as a means of illustrating background bokeh. The women in these how-to videos are seen and not seen because of the emphasis on bokeh and are like and not like this effect. skhuynh13 comments that a woman participant “is bokehlicious.”[49] jbmaru notes, “There was a bit of ‘boobylicious’ too.”[50] Through such comments, queer and obsessive interests in camera technologies are managed with narratives about women and heterosexuality.

Granger and other photographers use viewer commentary to justify their representations of women’s bodies. People “didn’t love” Granger’s test shots of “gnomes and trees” so he gets a “beautiful model to be a test subject” in the “King of BOKEH” video.[51] Through this title, Granger renders empowered photographers. He also depicts the model in erotically coded red high heels and a body-conscious dress in the park. Yet Granger underscores the unsuitability of these items with footage of her scraping mud off the heels. While models understand how they are supposed to visually present and use such materials to further market their careers, this focus on the “improperness” of her garb implicates the model in her representation. After some demo images and explanation, the model reappears in a matching black and red bra and briefs with the heels. “Oh you have changed, more comfortable,” inquires Granger disingenuously and laughs. The woman’s position as visual and regulated and his questionable concerns about her comfort are emphasized when he tells her to flatten her stomach in a seated pose and then asks, “You sucking your tummy?” In a related manner, as my research on boudoir photography suggests, women who book boudoir photography sessions celebrate their images while describing the extreme pain of posing.[52] Chronicles of this embodied unpleasantness could challenge the agreeableness and availability of women. However, Granger’s comments justify viewers’ assessments. His remarks are also likely to make women uneasy about their bodies and concerned about being criticized for their attempts at bodily management.

Granger and a group of men at the park watch the model. The vocal male cohort makes her uncomfortable and underscores the problems with gendered presumptions about being comfortable, viewing, and being seen. According to John Walker and Sarah Chaplin’s visual culture research, being gazed upon can be “pleasurable or painful.”[53] There are “times when being watched or recorded makes us feel acutely embarrassed, persecuted even.” Such embarrassment is foregrounded when Granger asks, “You wearing a G-string or is that a normal brief?” He learns that the model is wearing a G-string and explains, “That would be why they are interested” and indicates that she is complicit in their attention. Granger tries to render her as the willing postfeminist subject who decides to erotically self-represent. He further structures pleasurable male viewing and women’s position as objects when commenting that the men in the park think that the shoot is “fun.” Granger directs her to “face towards the guys” and also figures the position of male video viewers. He recommends that women ignore their own comfort in favor of other individuals’ pleasures and the purported necessity of positioning women as in-focus objects and peripheral subjects. In a related manner, Duncan and Mulvey critique the ways representations render men as active subjects and women as passive objects.

Granger later looks at images of the model in her underwear and talks about lenses and their output. Granger places the model in the background or effaces her when arguing, “At the end of the day, this is just to compare the bokeh, so that’s all that we’re looking at here.” Kai justifies his images of sexually rendered women by noting in DigitalRev TV’s Nikon and Sigma 85mm battle, that there always has to be a “point of focus so we had to find a subject to focus on in order to look at the bokeh.”[54] This focus and positioning is interesting since cinematographers shot classic Hollywood female stars in soft-focus in order to emphasize their visual appeal. Of course, Kai and Granger’s remarks about women’s bodies and the related comments of male park viewers and YouTube spectators indicate that they are looking at women and bokeh.

The oscillation between making videos that are about background and asserting the need to put aestheticized women in the foreground, results in what commenter Danny Pires describes as “Battle of the models.”[55] His framework references the standard “battle” of the lens videos that address different capabilities. While such posts could critique the ongoing objectification of women, Pires’s proposal for “Alamby v Kinki v Tiffany” and direction for DigitalRev TV to “MAKE IT HAPPEN!” suggest how invested viewers are in the evaluation of women’s bodies. John Paul Cabangis references the correlation of foreground and background and erotic and photographic interests when commenting, “Tits should have been the main object” rather “than the trophy bird.”[56] He too plays with the terms of the genre since Kai shifts between photographing a plaster “tit bird” and women as a means of highlighting women’s erotic parts. These producers compromise their emphasis on bokeh and out-of-focus views by ideologically centering men. In Kai’s terms, they “focus on the cock” by providing heterosexual men with images of women. Feminist art historians and media studies scholars have interrogated such assertions about and spotlighting of male expertise. Like many of these scholars’ sites of investigation, Kai’s practices facilitate men’s tastes and expectations that their interests will be fulfilled. By claiming that bokeh is an alternative aesthetic, male producers establish their expertise and depict women without any culpability.

How-to instructors and viewers find it difficult to conceptualize women as agentive producers, even when women handle cameras. Kai and DigitalRev TV invited “Garcia out on a Battle of the Bokeh shoot” of the Canon and Leica and purportedly offered her the ability to control representations.[57] Yet her skill is undermined because they first “explain to her what Bokeh is” and then show her how to turn on the camera. These practices thus diverge from Mulvey’s assertions, in an interview with Roberta Sassatelli, that women can now manipulate images and reverse cinematic power relationships.[58] The reasons for featuring Garcia in the video are quite distinct from Kai’s performances as an expert. “Garcia definitely brightens/livens up your videos!” posts I-Love-Music, “You should have taken more pictures of her.”[59] waytoosquirrelly comments that “She has no idea” but this is deemed acceptable because Garcia is “pretty nice.”[60] Viewers figure Garcia as a visual and sensual desire that they want to be satisfied. For instance, brianminkc is satisfied because there is “finally a hot Asian.”[61] By supporting stereotypes of erotic and available Asian women, DigitalRev TV produces male photographers as active subjects.

The videos offer instruction but women who need training are intellectually dismissed. In the comments section, AP asks, “Why on earth did they have someone who didn’t know what they were doing for this video? It made the” lens “look bad.”[62] Garcia is deemed undeserving of the equipment. MobiusCoin comments, it is “easy for the M9” camera to “make her look like an idiot.”[63] She is unworthy of the Leica, which according to MobiusCoin conveys to people who have the money to buy it “but not the skill, ‘fuck you, you’re not ready yet.’” Thus, it is the camera that finds Garcia lacking. Garcia and other depicted women are conceptualized as technically inadequate but as pretty and available heterosexual love interests. This happens when localiset puts on a “Girl voice” as part of a post and repetitively writes “KAI HAVE A GIRLFRIEND!!!”[64] While localiset adopts a childish voice that dismisses girl culture, Garcia and other women are deemed to be untrainable subjects.

Photographers tend to figure women as visually and sexually accessible in their how-to videos about bokeh. Yet many photographers displace these constructions by indicating that they are looking at bokeh rather than women and meeting commenters’ demands. The ways Internet practices and technologies produce individuals and social structures are also too often displaced. Early literature by such authors as Alain J-J Cohen tended to suggest that people’s identities were not discernible and that everyone was equally empowered by the Internet.[65] Critical interrogations were deemed unnecessary because as Peter Steiner’s cartoon argued, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” or a woman, or other disenfranchised subject.[66] These analogies require further interrogation.

Ongoing writing about and marketing of new media experiences, in a similar manner to conceptions of photography, suggest that technologies are transparent and give access onto real people and worlds. For instance, Apple prompts consumers to “Pick up the new iPad” and “You’re actually touching” things. “Nothing comes between you and what you love.”[67] These texts encourage people to ignore the ways technologies structure and facilitate values and norms. Thus, photographers’ displacements of the ways their videos depict women are part of more widespread denials about objectification and repression of critiques. The people associated with these aesthetics could further foreground the surfaces, technologies, and social practices through which they produce deeply mediated images and worldviews. Instead, how-to producers deploy the aesthetics of bokeh to make it seem as if there are cultural and technical reasons that women have to be viewable when backgrounds are blurry. Producers’ narratives about focusing on the background and unconventional aesthetics, like Internet claims about empowerment and inclusivity, elide the perpetuation of gender norms in new media settings. It is these sorts of elisions that make feminist analysis of aesthetics imperative.

Author Biography

Michele White is a Professor of Internet and New Media Studies in the Department of Communication at Tulane University. Her monographs consist of Producing Women: The Internet, Traditional Femininity, Queerness, and Creativity (Routledge, 2015); Buy It Now: Lessons from eBay (Duke University Press, 2012); and The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship (MIT Press, 2006).

This article has been supported by grants from the Newcomb College Institute and the Carol S. Levin Fund.


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