Featuring almost exclusively photographs of women by women, Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until October 2, is a curious exhibition in both content and execution.
Constrained by the inherent limitations of a collector’s eye, Senior Curator of Photography Roxana Marcoci worked creatively to enhance collector Helen Kornblum’s vision while stamping her own tastes into the mix. Indeed, through the calm imagery and creative yet respectful rhythm, the curation emphasizes contemplation while never letting go of the fact that historically, female artists who use a camera have had to distinguish between classicism and provocation.
Photography, a tool of resistance
The languorous image of Justine Kurland Bathers, 1998 sets the tone for the exhibition and illustrates the opening hypothesis which asks: “How have women artists used photography as a tool of resistance? The photo is a classic example of Kurland’s quest to depict girls on the cusp of womanhood while showing them in full command of their surroundings, as if living in a world devoid of men.
In counterpoint, Ruth Orkin’s iconic photograph of Ninalee Craig walking confidently through a group of admiring men in Florence, is directly reminiscent of tropes that infuse playful flirtation into a common infatuation with women. Although the image seems set, when Orkin and Craig met while staying at the same hotel in Rome in 1951, they decided to cross town; shopping, visiting monuments and just being tourists. Although interpreted as an example of jingoism, Craig said: “The photograph is not a symbol of harassment. It is the symbol of a woman having a wonderful time… Italian men are very grateful.
Upon repeated viewings of the work in the exhibition, it becomes apparent that many of the women featured in the photographs are universally strong and comfortable in their own skin. Perhaps the very nature of being photographed by another woman brings comfort and clarity to the women in the photos and imbues their myriad poses with a sense of calm.
Straightforward, unapologetic responses are evident in many images – by Lotte Jacobi Head of a dancer, 1929 to the mighty by Margaret Bourke-White Woman, Medallion, Georgia, 1936 at Angela Scheirl, 1993 by Catherine Opie – these and other images allow the viewer to examine the subject at length without any sense of artifice or forbearance where the person posing almost says, “Here I am!”.
Sometimes themes repeat themselves that do not always support photography as a tool of resistance – putting on makeup while looking in a mirror, traditional interpretations of classic still lifes, and the nurturing implied by the presence of a child or of a small animal.
Fortunately, this comfortable flow is interrupted by images like Lorie Novak’s multiple exposure Self-Portraits, 1987 and the captivating portrait of Mary Ellen Mark Tiny, Halloween, Seattle, 1983 of its seminal study of homeless and troubled youth. A little research reveals how Mark stayed true to his subject matter for over thirty years and created one of his most significant long-term projects.
But it is in the middle of the exhibition – the back wall of the rectangular gallery – that the curation takes off and makes the most daring and revealing presentation. Bookending by arguably the best-known image of Carrie Mae Weems Untitled (Woman and Girl in Makeup), 1990, and Sappho and Patriarch, 1984 by Louise Lawler, the works of Cara Romero, Catherine Opie, Jeanne Dunning and Amanda Ross-Ho (in order from left to right) tackle the question of gender representation and the pervasive notion that men always want to see women through the gauze of history while confirming their preference for sexual innuendo. The layout of this section commands attention with oblique placement and rhythmic certainty while masterfully playing with scale and color.
In the hundred or so images on display, strong moments are nevertheless displayed as in Tracey Moffat Up in the Sky, 1997and Susan Meiselas A funeral procession in Jinotepe for slain student leaders, 1978.
Photographs of women BY women
It’s not until the show’s third section — where we’re asked to slow down and consider imposing the public technology that’s featured in Exhibition #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 to 1990 whose main task was to spy on the public – the best example of message broadcasting replacing the medium appears.
A chilling sense of foreboding permeates the mundane recording of two women on a New York street where multiple frames of the same scene were shot simultaneously with multiple cameras via a radio-controlled system. Rather than certain exposed examples of photographic manipulation, Probst’s work asks us to both imagine and manipulate the concept simultaneously while looking at the commonplace.
It is unclear whether image selection involves resistance through difficult traditional image presentation or simply through the content presented. Photographs of women BY women does not reinforce these images simply by their provenance, but suggests that perhaps women need to work harder to create a unique voice in a traditionally male-dominated field.
If a single photograph supports this theme, it is that of Susan Meiselas Tentful of Marks, Turnbridge, Vermont. 1974, a gaze filled with men under the influence of the charms of an exotic dancer seen from behind and at stage level. By showing the trance-like faces of the men watching the dancer, Meiselas definitively takes a stand in the traditional objectification of women.