Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which through October 2 is showing almost exclusively photographs of women by women, is a curious exhibition in both content and execution.
Constrained by the limitations inherent in a collector’s eye, senior photography curator Roxana Marcoci has worked creatively to enhance collector Helen Kornblum’s vision while infusing her own taste into the mix. Indeed, through the calm imagery and creative yet respectful pace, the curation emphasizes contemplation without letting go of the fact that historically, female artists using a camera have had to walk a fine line between classical and provocative.
Photography, a tool of resistance
The languid image of Justine Kurland Bathers, 1998 sets the tone for the exhibition and illustrates the opening hypothesis, which asks: “How have female artists used photography as a tool of resistance?” show how they are in total command of their surroundings, as if they live in a world without men.
In contrast, Ruth Orkin’s iconic photo of Ninalee Craig confidently striding through a group of admiring men in Florence references directly tropes that infuse playful flirtation with a shared infatuation with women. Although the picture appears furnished, when Orkin and Craig met while staying at the same hotel in Rome in 1951, they decided to traverse the city. shopping, sightseeing and just being a tourist. Although interpreted as an example of chauvinism, Craig said, “The photo is not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having a wonderful time…Italian men are very grateful.”
Reviewing the works in the exhibition, it becomes clear that many of the women featured in the photographs are universally strong and comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps nature’s being photographed by another woman brings comfort and clarity to the women in the photos, lending a sense of calm to their myriad poses.
In many pictures – by Lotte Jacobi – direct, unbiased reactions are clearly expressed Head of a Dancer, 1929 to Margaret Bourke-White’s powerful Woman, medallion, Georgia, 1936 to Angela Scheirl, 1993 by Catherine Opie – these and other images allow the viewer to examine the subject in depth without any sense of artificiality or indulgence, with the person posing almost saying “Here I am!”.
Occasionally, themes recur that do not always support photography as a tool of resistance – the application of makeup while looking into a mirror, traditional interpretations of classic still lifes, and implied nurturing through the presence of a child or small animal.
Luckily, that comfortable flow is broken by images like Lorie Novak’s multiple exposure Self Portraits, 1987 and Mary Ellen Mark’s captivating portrait of Tiny, Halloween, Seattle, 1983 from her landmark study of homeless and troubled youth. A little research shows how Mark stuck to her subject for over thirty years and created one of her most significant long-term projects.
But it is at the focal point of the exhibition – the back wall of the rectangular gallery – where the curation takes flight and makes the boldest and most revealing presentation. Worn by Carrie Mae Weem’s most famous picture Untitled (wife and daughter with makeup), 1990, and Sappho and Patriarch, 1984 by Louise Lawler, works by Cara Romero, Catherine Opie, Jeanne Dunning and Amanda Ross-Ho (in order from left to right) address the issue of gender representation and the pervasive notion that men still have an urge to represent women through the Gaze at the story while confirming their penchant for sexual innuendos. The layout in this section commands attention through skewed placement and rhythmic certainty, while masterfully playing with scale and color.
In the roughly one hundred images shown, strong moments are nevertheless shown, such as in Tracey Moffat’s In Heaven, 1997and Susan Meiselas A funeral procession in Jinotepe for murdered student leaders, 1978.
Photographs of women BY women
It is only in the third segment of the show that we are asked to slow down and consider the imposition of public technology presented in Exposure #78, NYC, Collister and Hubert St., 2010 by Barbara Probst – that a deeper thread of curatorial intent emerges. In a conceptual pairing reminiscent of the Stasi – the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic from 1950-1990 whose main task was spying on the public – the show’s best example appears, with the news replacing the medium.
A chilling sense of unrest pervades the mundane shot of two women on a New York street where multiple images of a single scene were captured simultaneously by multiple cameras via a radio controlled system. Rather than displaying specific examples of photographic manipulation, Probst’s work challenges us to simultaneously imagine and manipulate the concept while contemplating the mundane.
It is unclear whether the choice of images implied resistance through challenging traditional image presentations or simply through the content presented. Photographs of women BY women not only reinforce these images through their origins, but suggest that women may have to work harder to create a unique voice in a traditionally male-dominated field.
If a single photo supports this theme, then it is that of Susan Meiselas. Tentful of Marks, Turnbridge, Vermont. 1974, a charged look at men caught in the midst of an exotic dancer’s charms, seen from behind and at stage level. By showing the trance-like faces of the men eyeing the dancer, Meiselas takes a firm stance against the traditional objectification of women.