women photographers at moma

ilse bing, “self portrait in mirrors”

Through Her Lens:  “Pictures by Women” at MOMA, NYC

A new and important exhibition of works by female photographers entitled, “Pictures by Women:  A History of Modern Photography,” opened May 7 and runs until August 30, 2010, filling the Edward Steichen Photography Galleries at NewYork’s MOMA museum with over 200 works by 120 different artists, with selections of the most contemporary remaining on display through 2011.  The show progresses chronologically through the six interconnected galleries, and heralds both technological and sociological modernity in the works over the decades, while allowing for interplay amongst the works’ stylistic differences, diverse subjects and artistic experimentalism.  Particularly strong are the featured photographic series within the exhibition, which highlight specific artist’s motifs, style, influences and contribution to the medium in more detail and breadth than single pieces can alone.  In its entirety, the show portrays images of women and motherhood, family, cities, and culture and through them communicates era-spanning, multifaceted narratives about identity, beauty, history and politics.

barbara morgan, “letter to the world”

Portraiture of self- and others figures in many of the strongest works in the exhibition.  Turn of the century highlights are found in the series by Gertrude Kasebier, featuring solemn, light-suffused scenes, the platinum prints’ luminosity and soft focus lending an almost lyrical grace to the images of women with children.  A bit later comes one of the most striking photographs, the dancer Martha Graham performing the piece “Letter to the World”, immortalized in Barbara Gordon’s gelatin silver print from 1940.  The Diane Arbus 1960s selections offer distinct personalities engaging their photographer and implied audience:  a NYC widow dwarfed and haunted-looking surrounded in her overstuffed apartment; a New Orleans woman posing, the lines of her bouffant hairdo echoing in the ruffles of the skirted toy poodle perched on the table beside her; a caped and costumed circus worker standing in a still moment outside the show; a young waitress at a nudist camp, barefoot, armed only by her headband, coif and half-apron.   Sally Mann’s “Untitled” from 1982 is a telling portrait of adolescent awkwardness:  the girl turned sideways in her chair, her flowing hair, lithe body and gracefully entwined legs contrasting her forlorn and clunky expression.  All are definitive and unusual representations of beauty, age, metamorphosis and femininity.

sally mann, “untitled”

Experimentalism within the medium may be found throughout the the installation, from the room of 1920s-30s pictures forward.  One of the earliest examples comes in Ilse Bing’s “Self-Portrait in Mirrors” from 1931, showing the artist posing with camera before a vanity of mirrors, her image, the camera and the picture playing off the different vantage points.  Toshiko Okanoue, a little known Japanese artist, has a photocollage from 1953, “In Love”, in which she forms a composite from American magazine scraps to create a surreal interpretation of Westernization.  Collages from the 1950s-70s by Jay DeFeo, Yayoi Kusama,  Martha Rosler and Mary Beth Edelson manipulate flat imagery to construct everything from modern abstractions to feminist narratives about post-war idealizations and stereotypes.  The pinnacle of this collage experimentalism is found in Annette Messager’s “My Vows”, the overlapping circle of relics from self and lovers forming a narrative of intimacy, memory, touch and self-exploration.  In these, as well as the film still inclusions from such artists as Maya Deren and VALIE EXPORT, one finds these artists deftly adapting photography to posit redefinitions of themselves and their environments and to stretch the medium to new effects whose fragmented imagery underscores the conflicts and complexities inherent in modern life.

annette messager, “my vows”

Experimentalism within the medium may be found throughout the the installation, from the room of 1920s-30s pictures forward.  One of the earliest examples comes in Ilse Bing’s “Self-Portrait in Mirrors” from 1931, showing the artist posing with camera before a vanity of mirrors, her image, the camera and the picture playing off the different vantage points.  Toshiko Okanoue, a little known Japanese artist, has a photocollage from 1953, “In Love”, in which she forms a composite from American magazine scraps to create a surreal interpretation of Westernization.  Collages from the 1950s-70s by Jay DeFeo, Yayoi Kusama,  Martha Rosler and Mary Beth Edelson manipulate flat imagery to construct everything from modern abstractions to feminist narratives about post-war idealizations and stereotypes.  The pinnacle of this collage experimentalism is found in Annette Messager’s “My Vows”, the overlapping circle of relics from self and lovers forming a narrative of intimacy, memory, touch and self-exploration.  In these, as well as the film still inclusions from such artists as Maya Deren and VALIE EXPORT, one finds these artists deftly adapting photography to posit redefinitions of themselves and their environments and to stretch the medium to new effects whose fragmented imagery underscores the conflicts and complexities inherent in modern life.

jay de feo, “blossom”

The most articulate and resonant photographs are the series included which are photojournalistic and documentary works in nature.  Turn of the century selections from the Hampton Album, by Frances Benjamin Johnston, show students at the Virginia school in various scenes from their domestic and scholastic life, commissioned and shown at the Paris Exposition of 1900 to translate what “modern life” was then like for African Americans.  Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era and postwar photos of women from the 1930s-50s chronicle the solitude, resilience and strife which characterized urban and rural American life over the course of those decades.  Helen Levitt’s NYC street scenes from the 1970s show a host of characters, all animated, humorous, full of individuality and reflective of their era and the city’s multiplicity.  Alternatively, Nan Goldin’s photos of herself and her social circle tell a personalized account of the NYC 80s downtown scene, like pages ripped from a diary:  the artist, her apartment and city, lovers and friends, the damage of drugs and illness on her solipsistic world.  In each series one feels the passing of time, bears witness to our collective history, considers the different experiences and gains intimate insight into these perople/eras to a greater penetration than merely reading historical accounts can afford.

helen levitt

Overall, the exhibition offers a glimpse into the contributions made by women photographers to both art history and modern culture.  Because of the span of the works displayed and their stylistic differences, at times the show feels episodic or lacks cohesion but the standouts included compensate for this and definitely merit consideration and further study.  While there are more obvious and familiar contemporary choices, the older and lesser known artists here presented lend gravity, diversity and depth to the linear development of the show.  This, along with the symposium organized at MOMA and the release of the book–“Modern Women:  Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art”– published in conjunction with the exhibition and made possible by the Modern Women’s Fund, presage a new concentration on these generational and sociological offerings by women.  These works’ particularity, vividness and sensitivity is hard to ignore but until these artists are commonly integrated into such large and renowned institutions, they are still being done a disservice by the art world and society at large.

cindy sherman, “untitled”

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