What, exactly, characterizes the work of a female photographer? Is it the social context in which it was created that makes us look at women’s work in a certain way, or is there some kind of gendered visual poetics to it? A pair of Parisian museums is currently asking: ‘Who’s afraid of female photographers?’ The thesis of these companion exhibitions tends toward the former explanation, without totally discounting the latter. Cataloguing hundreds of works produced in just over a century – across media from cyanotypes to daguerreotypes to photographic prints and film – the curators Thomas Galifot, Ulrich Pohlmann and Marie Robert argue that these artists specifically fought against notions of a ‘feminine’ photography, such as that defined by the critic S.R. Nalys in a review he wrote for the magazine L’Officiel de la couture et de la mode de Paris in 1937 of the exhibition ‘Femmes artistes d’Europe’ (Women Artists of Europe) at the Jeu de Paume: ‘Brutal man holds a lens like a machine gun. Woman, however, wields it tenderly, caressing her subject with its gaze. A chasm divides the two gestures: femininity.’
The 165 mostly American and European photographers whose works are gathered here were fully aware that they were typecast in the roles of gentle mothers and wives. In the 19th century, the show suggests, photographers could get away with shooting very sensitive material by working within these clichés – photographing their daughters (as did Lady Clementina Hawarden) barefoot and en déshabillé, evoking the iconography of prostitution, or producing innocent images of female friendship that throb with suggestions of same-sex desire, as in Alice Austen’s The Darned Club (1891).
In the 20th century, many women photographers rejected these roles, making the female body monstrous or alienating and calling out male viewers who would see in the female anatomy all the mystery of ‘the eternal feminine’. In Untitled (Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy) (c.1930), Lee Miller presents, in two side-by-side photos, a severed breast on a white dinner plate in the Vogue studios, having recuperated it from a Parisian hospital. It looks a bit like blueberry pie until you realize what it is: a response to the surrealists’ fetish for female bodies in fragments, recasting the breast not as an object of desire but as meat on a plate, something to be consumed. Many of the photographers tackle the surrealists’ fantasies of dolls, totems and fractured bodies in pieces, like Miller, or Anna Barna, in Doll & African Sculpture (after 1930). Some, like Mary Dillwyn’s bald and wide-eyed Dolls (1853), anticipate the spooky role dolls will play in 20th-century avant-garde art.
Georgia O’Keeffe habituated viewers to seeing vaginas as flowers, and Tina Modotti’s Roses (1924) are beautiful and visceral in the same way. Sonya Noskowiak’s sexy radishes and artichokes (1930–32) are more unexpected, as is the feral textuality of Ilse Bing’s photographs of dust and spiderwebs settling on Champagne bottles in the Pommery caves in Reims. In these works, the inanimate becomes animate and species crossbreed; the 1920s saw a flourishing of women photographing themselves as cats, superimposing feline images over self-portraits or as objects in a curio cabinet, their faces captured in bell jars, decorative yet monstrous, vampiric: specimens captured in the wild or odd knick-knacks, part of the furniture in some learned man’s study.
Seeing the second half of the show, at the Musée d’Orsay, on its own, we can imagine the obstacles these women had to surmount in order to create their work, but we don’t realize just how high the stakes were until we see the first half. Berenice Abbott, Germaine Krull and Helen Levitt’s urban photographs seem that much more daring when you discover how rare urban photography by women in the 19th century was, because it was more lucrative (and genteel) to work inside the studio, taking portraits of women and children or works of art. Similarly, the collages of Claude Cahun and Dora Maar are contextualized with the family albums of the mid 19th century, which also use collaging techniques in surprising, proto-surrealist ways. The show tells us these women were fulfilling their roles as custodians of family memory, but there’s also something subversive about, for instance, Georgiana Louisa Berkeley’s family collages (1866–71): graphic yet decorative, they feature family members cut out of their original settings, then re-placed into watercolours of a salon, or the family porcelain, as if reflecting on the reduction, once again, of people to things.
If there is one blind spot in the show’s vision, it’s that it features almost exclusively work by white women. I counted just three photographs by a woman of colour, Zaida Ben-Yusuf: a portrait of Carl Sadakichi Hartmann (1898), a self-portrait (1898) and the orientalizing The Odor of Pomegranates (1899). Some kind of curatorial gesture to contextualize this omission would have gone a long way. But perhaps, in the end, one of this rich, fascinating show’s most important achievements is that it inspires us to look further.
First published in Issue 176