The New Woman Behind the Camera
On ViewMetropolitan Museum of Art
July 2 – October 4, 2021
This massive photography exhibition is a collaboration between the National Gallery of Art, where it originated, and the Met. As such, it bears a canonical imprimatur, the weightiness of a new definitive history. It is all that, and yet still strangely familiar, as if a revolution had taken place but nothing had changed. This “revolution” is the insertion into the archive of a very large group of women photographers, many of whom have been virtually unknown to contemporary viewers. Of course, there have been previous attempts to make such insertions, especially Naomi Rosenblum’s A History of Women Photographers. Here the curators acknowledge at the outset the problematic nature of the designation “woman,” and it is appropriate to do so, given that several of the photographers take aim specifically at their own gender identification. But the general gist is more familiar: women have been excluded in a big way, and a proper assessment of photographic history is impossible without this correction.
Based on the compelling quality and interest of the hundreds of examples collected in the exhibition, there can be no argument. As someone who has in his own way attempted, on several occasions, to rewrite the history of photography, I know that as soon as you grab a thread like this, you soon find that you are not dealing with something as simple as a dropped stitch, but the makeup of the fabric itself. In so many cases, examples are not just tantalizing but maddening. I feel I must see more work by Frieda Riess, Florestine Perrault Collins, Toshiko Okanoue, Bernice Kolko, and a dozen others. Where do I find the pictures? This is the tip of the iceberg, and there are bound to be even more in future exhibitions. (I lament the absence in the exhibition of members of the so-called Texas Bauhaus—a group of women art photographers influenced by their contact with European transplants Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes.)
On the other hand, the sense that nothing has changed comes from the fact that, for the most part, these photographers are slotted into familiar categories that have defined the medium’s conventional history: documentary, conflict photojournalism, fashion, portraiture, experimental photography, ethnography. There is no attempt to re-orient thinking about the medium itself and no far-reaching claims are made for the importance of the work. That said, given the historical forces that shaped photography and its distribution, of course the pictures are going to look familiar. They are not there to dislodge the canon but, ideally, to expand it.
Nevertheless, there is a revisionist thesis here that needs to be pursued further than the exhibition takes it. This has to do with modernity as it was experienced by women. The temporal bracket of the exhibition extends roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s, a period which corresponds not only with the tremendous expansion of photographic media but also with a transformation of the social and economic possibilities for women in middle class society. Although the curators carefully couch their assertions, the clear implication is that modern (think “liberated”) ideas about women’s identity were not just born with the camera but in a profound way created by it. Photography became the new woman’s work, you might say. And this is not just a question of agency but value. If we step back from the instrumental categories of the photographic genre and look at what the pictures are actually about—conscience, style, camera-based aesthetics, and bodies in motion—we can begin to see currents of vision cutting new and wider channels. The most obvious is in the photography of domestic situations. Of course, women were not the only artists who turned their attention to children, and to the home and its rituals and routines. Unlike most of their male counterparts, however, their gaze did not simply glance and move on, or exploit conventional sentiments. Helen Levitt is only the best known of many women who made various aspects of this world visible. Contemporary photojournalists like Letizia Battaglia and the late Alexandra Boulat have demonstrated the crucial importance of such material to the full understanding of situations of conflict and violence that are usually portrayed as exclusively male.
I am wary of essentializing ideas of gender in descriptions of any of these photographers. And yet, I was riveted by the many portraits in the exhibition. Taken together they seem to display attentiveness and attachment to their subjects to an extraordinary degree. Kata Kálmán, Lola Álvarez Bravo, and Trude Fleischmann fix our eyes on the faces of others. In this context, and despite its problematic circumstances, the most important photographic portrait ever made—Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936)—is almost impossible to imagine as a male production. Photo portraits are a game played with and often against appearances. As Roland Barthes pointed out, they are encounters with a mask, and women have understood what it means to be looked at as a form of confinement. But these photographers so often manage to allow their subjects to live and breathe beyond the frame. This may be the most important gift of liberation they bring.