Women Photographers: whose world?

“Photography by women is a loaded subject, replete with every issue that has plagued or glorified the sex, from its sacrifices and confusions, to its sensing powers and sense of destiny.” So the introductory essay to this new volume begins. A lavish and costly hardback, it is the second book of this title to be published by Virago. The first, ‘Women Photographers’, subtitled ‘The Other Observers 1900 to the Present’, produced in 1986 and written by Val Williams, was about British photography. The new book, with images selected by Constance Sullivan, who compiles and edits photographic books in America, has an essay by Eugenia Parry Janis, an American art historian.

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Yet the two could not be more dissimilar. The new book is a cornucopia of visual gems. However, the supporting material is not sufficiently contextual. The text of Val Williams’ book, though superbly enlightening, has limited images; they are disappointing in their choice, reproduction and absence of colour. The new book purports to be world-wide in scope, yet has an obtrusive North American bias in selection, text and sources which is bound to worry many readers.

Here are 200 large images, with 35 in colour and 165 in tritone reproduced from original cyanotypes, albumen, silver, platinum, palladium and colour prints. Arranged chronologically and sequenced visually between 1850 and 1989, there are some 73 photographers represented. Of these there are: one Italian, one Canadian, two Mexican, three French, four German, six British, and 56 American.

America has dominated the photography scene since the 1920’s. There are many reasons for this, including a strong photographic tradition, healthy art market, consistently brilliant light, a truly surreal environment, comparatively greater wealth and education. But the conclusion of the book reveals a contemporary scene–the last decade–entirely composed of 28 American photographers and no-one else.

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Women Photographers begins with the usual (British) pioneers: Anna Atkins, Lady Filmer, Lady Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron, with the addition of the little-known Lucy Fleming, active in the 1860’s. It opens with a hand-coloured daguerreotype of 1850 by the French photographer Maria Chambefort. The equally little-known American, Louise Deshong Woodbridge, who worked in the 1890’s, is introduced.

One of the chief difficulties in a book of this kind is selecting prints by major celebrities, where it is necessary to show their genius without their most hackneyed images. Those of Gertrude Kasebier and Julia Margaret Cameron do this well. There are some of Anne Brigman’s mysterious works from the 1920’s, two very boring prints by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Jessie Tarbox Beal’s New York tenements of uncertain date, Doris Ulmann’s people in the Deep South (including a lake baptism where the water’s stillness is other-worldly), Laura Gilpin’s landscapes and Margaret Watkins’ domestic still-lives.

The noted Imogen Cunningham is represented by six nude studies, one of her calla lillies and ‘Snake in Bucket’. A Dorothea Lange nude is followed by the work of Tina Modotti and then a breathtaking Consuelo Kanaga close-up face of a black girl sniffing a white flower in bright sunlight which is heavy with mood and texture. Then come Alma Lavenson’s fragments, Margaret Bourke-White’s industrial work, the European cityscapes of Ilse Bing, Marjorie Content’s aerial shots, Florence Henri’s portraits and photomontages, ‘The Smoker’ by ‘Studio Ringl and Pit’ (of whom we are told nothing) and the art and documentary work of Lee Miller.

Lotte Jacobi’s portraits are followed by two of the best by Madame Yevonde: the Goddess Medusa and the sultry Flo Lambert. Margrethe Mather, Berenice Abbott and Lucia Moholy’s revealing portraits from the 1930’s, Wanda Wultz’s stunning cat/self portrait, the photomontages of Hannah Hoch and Alice Lex-Nerlinger are followed by Lotte Beese’s Bauhaus work and an Ellen Auerbach interior. Aenne Biermann’s elegant montage ‘Portrait mit Champs Elysees’ of 1929 also makes a propitious book cover, with a woman’s face on top of an inverted shot of the Champs Elysees.

Berenice Abbott’s New York shots appear with Germaine Krull’s cityscapes and nudes and Eudora Welty’s scenes from the South. Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White’s images of the desolation during the slump years are followed by more New York scenes by Helen Levitt and Lisette Model from the ’40’s and ’50’s. Then come Diane Arbus’s shots of freaky people and the Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide’s equally bizarre and incongrous shots of women and monsters.

The final section comprises what Constance Sullivan describes as “important and emerging photographers”, the 28 Americans. Of their images, some are stunning, such as the still-lives by Jan Groover, the portraits by Annie Leibovitz and Maude Schuyler Clay (especially that of William Eggleston with a gun), Debbie Fleming Caffery’s haunting images, Sally Mann’s suburban life of the ’80’s, Ruth Thorne Thomsen’s ‘Expeditions’, Laurie Simmons’ underwater stills, Lois Conner’s shots in China and Linda Connor’s in India and Cindy Sherman’s latest self-portrait. And although the remainder contains such notables as Nan Goldin and Sandy Skoglund, with her ubiquitious ‘Radioactive Cats’, they do not add greatly to the collection.

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“This book (a fiction of sorts),” states Sullivan in the Preface, “attempts to explore the questions, concerns and considerations raised in looking at a selection of photographs by women.” “A single quality”, she continues later, persistently asserts itself in these compelling images. The arresting gaze and ardent contact with which each photographer captures her subjects imbues the pictures with a sensation of intimacy. While reflecting a personal point of view I hope my selection conveys the power of that vision.” I believe that while the selection does convey the power of that vision it does not sufficiently “explore the questions”. Perhaps the problem is simply that, with such an important subject as women’s photography, it is hard to accept one person’s “personal point of view”. We prefer such decision-making from a consensus, despite a collective’s tendency to produce a less cohesive whole.

The accompanying essay, ‘Her Geometry’, has some useful insights but it is chiefly refined reflection lacking solid facts. It does little to illuminate the uncomfortable mix of fantasy-art-image with death-in-full-colour reportage; the important documentary work of Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark especially needs a context. Instead, the author infuriatingly refers to photographs not reproduced and discusses one image for two out of the seventeen pages of the essay, whilst most images are ignored.

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Whilst it is especially pleasing to see the status awarded to Madame Yevonde, her equally innovative contemporary portraitist, Dorothy Wilding, is not included. Then neither are Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Sarah Moon, Alice Springs, Gisele Freund, Olivia Parker, Rosamund Wolff Purcell, Deborah Turbeville, Inge Morath, Toni Frissell, Alice Boughton, Joan Lyons, Ruth Orkin, Lillian Bassman, Genevieve Naylor, Diane Keaton, Sheila Metzner, Ruth Bernard, Fay Godwin, or any of the Farm Security Administration pictures.

Despite its palpable bias and conspicuous omissions, Women Photographers is still a very valuable source book for artists. The concerned reproduction quality enhances the images and the selection reveals no disparity in subject matter between male and female practitioners, despite the confines of the latter. It also conveys a sense of continuity from vintage prints to contemporary colour work, possibly compensating for some neglected and obscured careers along the way.

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