PRINT March 1976

‘Women of Photography’: History and Taste

“NO SUCH THING AS A ‘Female Eye’ Behind Camera,” concludes a review of the “Women of Photography” show;1 and indeed, if that were what the organizers wanted to prove—a literal “female eye” or “sensibility” lurking behind all women’s work—then their method certainly would have failed. More likely Margery Mann and Anne Noggle, who put the show together at the San Francisco Museum of Art, simply wanted to present the work of fine artists and decided, because of current interest in the subject, to choose women.

And why not? You have to place limits on any show, and an all-women show picked by two women makes sense. But Mann states very clearly in the catalogue that she found no common themes, methods or imagery in the work (except perhaps the preference for people over landscapes). The organizers, who selected the work over a two-year period, apparently don’t believe in the “fictitious female eye,” or possibly do not operate from a strictly feminist point of view.2 If we stopped with the catalogue statement and the reviews, we would probably leave the show believing what we have been told, finding solace in the genderless universality of photographers’ collective similarities. But we would also be far from the mark in pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of “Women of Photography: An Historical Survey.”

Everyone would agree that photography, from its infancy, has been a technology available to both men and women; and, unlike painting, for some women in the 19th century it was much more than a Sunday afternoon’s diversion. The field is “full of illustrious girls’ names,” as another reviewer chose to put it.3 For a man or a woman, painting involved a long, academic apprenticeship and struggle, one demanding that an aspiring artist give his or her life over to it. For a woman this involved giving over much more, for the artist’s life was male-dominated, bohemian, and a woman had to give up her female identity. This often meant dressing like a man. For the woman photographer such dedication was not necessary until much later, since there was no “photographer’s lifestyle.” (An early, and fascinating clue to the changes that were to take place is Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Self-Portrait, with cigarette and beer mug; she is haughty, independent, and delighted to be out in the man’s world.) Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Käsebier, the empty but witty Lady Filmer, and of course, Frances Benjamin Johnston, all took pioneering photographs. This has led some observers to the conclusion that photography has been “happily free of sexism,”4 as well as, “Gender is not as important in photography as factors of time and circumstances . . . the women are photographers first and women only in ways that have little to do with their work.”5 It is as if time and circumstance contribute nothing to women’s status or viewpoint, as if women (and apparently men) are mysteriously shorn of their genitals upon peering through a lens. Of course, the equality of the sexes in photography and the thesis of a true female sensibility are different matters; one purports to deal with historical and social fact, the other is esthetic conjecture.

That women show up in any lively photography show, that their works have been widely disseminated and discussed, that their works have been sometimes assimilated into the “masterpieces of photography”—these are facts. That the emerging women’s movement in the mid-19th century released some women from the home and into a world that had been until then exclusively a man’s world is fact. Women, used to roles as mother and homemaker, extended their “natural talents” in the direction of social work and teaching, places where they could function in the new industrial capitalist societies of England and the United States. These women also took to photography, a relatively easy, yet socially and morally useful, medium, to record their new-found freedom in the world, as well as to record their horror at the social injustices they encountered in that world. Newspapers seized on these injustices for sensational purposes and increased circulation and exploited the sensitized woman’s view by admitting some into their ranks as photographers. No doubt the women who had access to photography were the more wealthy, affluent, leisure-class women—and thus they were those most sheltered from the “harsh” realities of a world outside the home, a world created by their ambitious husbands.

Women were not “by nature” more sympathetic to the poverty and injustice they encountered, but their social roles certainly led them to seek out occupations and images that would be sensitive to issues of welfare and also be morally satisfying. The instructive value of photography seems to conform with both teaching roles and moral commitment. The photographs of Jessie Tarbox Beals, in which she explores the slums of New York City with muckraking outrage, are not objective or alienated documents. They are statements of a personally committed, action-taking moralizer. It is not enough merely to show, her photographs say; we must do something. Her values may be middle-class, repressive or verging on Salvation Army, but her philosophy is one of action in the world. Her photos, like others from this period, are products of a prudish, industrious, moralizing age. The photographs we are familiar with from this time are from the centers of Victorian thought—England and the United States—the countries where women were making the most gains and involving themselves in growing suffrage movements. It would be interesting to know what women’s photography from other countries looks like at this time—that is, if any exists. Many young Russian women were especially cosmopolitan and high-status compared with their Western sisters, but we do not know anything about their photographic life.

So what is remarkable about all this is not that women come so readily into photography, but what forces make photography a medium appropriate for the emerging modern woman, emancipated from her home and ready to make her mark, her image on the world. Women such as Johnston and Tarbox Beals were uniquely suited for exposing injustices in a new, albeit naïvely committed way, a way which becomes more sophisticated in the 20th century (in Marion Palfi’s scathing indictments, as well as the work of Tina Modotti and Dorothea Lange).

Obviously, not all women choose subject matter which reflects a new social freedom or consciousness. Among those who exploited the more purely sensual and esthetic qualities of their medium are Imogen Cunningham (with her near-O’Keeffian imagery), Florence Henri, Lotte Jacobi, Barbara Morgan, and Carlotta Corpron, who is hypnotized by formal properties and sensual surfaces of objects. The descendants of these women proliferate in the section of the show devoted to newer photography, where various new techniques are used to achieve visual sensuousness (mostly through color or exotic processing). In this show we do not see any younger photographer actively using social subject matter as Doris Ullman or Tarbox Beals did; maybe that way of working isn’t possible for them at this time (shades of social realist nostalgia). I would not want to propose here a dualism in photography, but there seems to be a split between socially committed imagery and personal, intimate expression. There certainly seems to be such a split in this show. Certain “classical” photographers, along with the younger ones, would be in contrast to socially concerned women. And we are simply not shown new work committed in the traditional reformist way.

What is marvelous to me is how so many of these photographers, young and old alike, who are fond of personal expressiveness, are also indebted to dance––another bodily aware, sensuous art form. There are the famous photos of Martha Graham by Cunningham (not shown here) and Morgan’s Letter to the World (1940), which give a glimpse into dance-inspired and dance-as-subject-matter photography. Earlier photographs, such as Jane Reeces’, Annie Brigman’s, and J. M. Cameron’s, freeze stylized moments or singular emotions, composed in such a way as to suggest dance. I am aware how, historically, such things are relegated to movements—Pictorialism, Pre-Raphaelite—but this does not account for the family resemblance of early work inspired by these movements and later work removed from such context. Need I say that dance—classical ballet as formalized in the 19th century, and especially modern dance—is an art involved with stylization of emotion, with the physically posed and poised, a formal expression of space through bodily movement? Both dance and photography, as the expression goes, are of the world.

This is not to say that women who choose a more socially oriented content are any less concerned with compositional and formal or emotional qualities of their image. For Mann and Noggle, we might say that the emotional qualities are inherent in the content (through the subject’s facial or bodily expression, or atmosphere) and the formal qualities are what transform this raw emotion into “art.” This is conventional enough—it is the view that art equals emotion harnessed by form. But this definition leaves out context, intention, and, of course, social comment. It acknowledges content only in its “moving” or “expressive” manifestations, equating it with “emotion.” It is not, then, the titles of Lange’s photographs which should give us pause; although they are interesting, they are merely contextual, and not as relevant as the emotion revealed by facial expression. Social meaning is inevitably reduced in such a situation, and in that case, how could a “female” sensibility be allowed to emerge? No social context, no shared social similarities, only vague biological ones. In a completely art historically dominated situation, such things must fall by the wayside. Even when the women leave us long titles (Lange’s Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded, San Joaquin, 1935, or Funeral Cortege, End of an Era in a Small Valley Town, California, 1938; Beals’ The Crawford Shops, Where Usefulness Brings Happiness, c. 1919) we feel removed from the woman’s intention not only to move us but to report accurately, objectively, why she was interested in the subject, what she thought was the meaning of her image. The original impact is greatly diminished.

A few of the women who use images of people in contemporary situations cynically announce their objectivity by such titles as Elsa Dorfman’s Winnie Lawrence at Home, which turn potentially engaged imagery into something ironic, displaced, and ultimately personal. These women have been affected by certain photographic trends of the 1960s, and more generally, by a social environment which hardly allows for truly engaged imagery. As Harold Rosenberg says of so-called political art, “The effect is to leave a residue of partisanship and indignation in the spectator which may or may not eventuate in appropriate political behavior. Political art of this type shades off into art satirizing current social attitudes . . .”6 Here, Diane Arbus is probably central to the matter, for she has been superficially read by many as an ironic commentator on the decadent society of the ’60s. This reading is supported as much by her myth as her photographs.

But her photographs, to me, are about something else. She probably invented the straightforward portrait in which objectivity is invalidated. Her images, which were seen staring around the corner from Lange’s at the “Women of Photography” show, openly announce the tensions between objectivity, social comment and obsessive personal meaning. It was not surprising to see the exclamation, “How dare you show Arbus with Lange!” written in the guest book at Janis. Arbus turned Lange’s technique inside out. Their images, strikingly similar, simple, mostly close, torso shots of single subjects, are actually so radically different in emotional appeal that juxtaposing them is shocking.

Lange’s people reach out and touch us, exposing their dilemmas. It is their captured openness which allows us to respond, to be “touched.” Lange augments this openness with an open, “unadorned” look that is her trademark. Arbus also lays her image right out in the open, and her people stare right at us. (They are so open that they are sometimes literally naked.) But where we can enter into Lange’s subjects’ worlds and connect, be moved, there is no space to get into Arbus’s photographs. Her people refuse us, and they also refuse Arbus. This is the fascination she had for them, for their openness is consistently contradicted by the stigmas placed upon them. It provokes those ambiguous, tense, unresolved feelings that I think we all have when looking at an Arbus. That technique which exposes all closes us out completely. Furthermore, when Arbus exposes social facts we have been conditioned to ignore, or are too frightened to confront because of their forbiddenness, the photographs declare the impossibility of any action whatsoever, on the part of the artist or audience.

The close proximity of Lange and Arbus that upset that visitor was as much a matter of space as of esthetic revulsion. When I saw the show the first time in San Francisco, it had a lot more room, and the photographs were spaced leisurely along a long corridor and a large gallery. There was even a smaller room with videotapes of conversations with, and “poetical” evocations of, some of the women. At Janis, the effect was overwhelmingly different, and positively claustrophobic. You had to sit on the floor and stand on a ladder to view all the work.

Seeing Lange and Arbus smack up against one another was only one disturbing thing. I saw the show in San Francisco without thinking much more than, “Gee! What a lot of neat pictures!”—beautiful but tiring. Mann and Noggle must have had a similar experience, carefully combing over several thousand photographs over a couple of years. The mass of information, the painstaking detail involved, must have been elating but exhausting. Did it also leave them unable to take the broader view of what they had done, to step back after all that over-exposure and examine everything all at once? If they had, wouldn’t there be some common bond, some continuity to the work?

I don’t know the answer to that. When I saw the work at the jam-packed Janis, I said to myself, “There must be some kind of continuity running through all this.” It was just like the movies, where, whether you like it or not, images brought together by editing mean something they didn’t mean when they were separate. The environment forced a different meaning on the work, brought it into perspective for me, along with changing my thinking about it.7 I was being forced to find that “female eye.”

Oddly, New York reviewers felt no such impulse. They were quite pleased at not finding any similarities, and furthermore, acted as if this was as it should be. Some of the photographs were on the level of “masterpiece,” after all. Again, Mann’s method demands such a reading. I was amazed to find people speaking of the social subjects that women addressed themselves to in the past as “outdated” and “quaint,” or that these women were simply “doing their jobs” as newsmongers out for a buck. This, even if they were exposing racial hatred and injustice or chronicling minority advancement in society. The element of nostalgia built into photography was all they could see. Audiences apparently believe that such social problems are “outdated” and no longer exist.

Under the circumstances, Mann and Noggle could not be expected to come up with a definite statement about women’s preoccupations, since their criteria of achievement are those of a well-established orthodoxy which exempts sex distinction as a valid element of the work. The “History” of their title is a given history, just as their specific preferences are those of a given taste. One knows that each photograph has been selected on its “artistic merits,” objective values which choose what will pass into the lineage of masterpieces, a lineage which has not discriminated women’s from men’s photography. There is to be no gender when discussing masterpieces.8

Although there is work from 1975 which makes use of a battery of formally innovative techniques, none of it dares social comment except on the level mentioned before. The tradition of Beals, Lange, and Bourke-White in her more socially conscious moments is absent here. The late works are also the least successful esthetically, although they were chosen with esthetics in mind. Most of them are as empty as Lady Filmer’s collages. This may just reflect the complexities of working in color, or in any new technique, which always confounds the artist in that she has few historical models to draw from. I was reminded of Clifford Ackley’s show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1974. It was entitled Private Realities: Recent American Photography, and was involved with surreal imagery. Much of the new women’s work here is in this vein, relying on Surrealist techniques and images. One would have thought this kind of thing too involved in sexist Freudian cliché to be of much use to women. The predominance of such work reveals how outer reality has given way to private fantasy (it does not dominate the choices of the 1930s and ’40s). This is not a problem with the photographers themselves, as there are some women currently working with social problems. Helen Levitt comes to mind,but she hardly counts as a “new” photographer.

At Janis we are given work such as Betty Halen’s Road and Rainbow (1971), which we read as “woman-oriented” by virtue of its sewn colored rainbow on photo transferred to cloth. Or Judy Dater’s familiar portraits of women, which, to me, are neither committed to women nor intensely personal. Photographs such as Halen’s present the action of the artist, but do not ask for an equally energized audience. Being inner-directed and self-reflexive, it does not refer to anything outside its maker or the institution it is shown in. By offering a mild type of social engagement, Mann and Noggle’s selections envision a renewal in women, probing woman’s humanness. Only by delving into herself can she begin to take on the outside world. The circle closes. From domestic role-playing to mobile professionalism out in the world, women photographers today use images to closet themselves in a dream house of their own. Identity, personal themes and preoccupations and images are expressed in conventional surreal, dreamlike or collage forms, freely associating the work with a time when (men) painters were re-evaluating imagery and finding primordial psychic roots using surreal techniques.

What I gather from the show is that we are going to be allowed engaged social imagery only if it has been filtered and made impotent by art historical judgments; engaged imagery is tolerated only as esthetic imagery accompanied by the myth of the artist. It is only with imposed esthetic distance that we come to explain these works solely on their merits as “good photography.” Injustices comparable to those Tarbox Beals was exposing in 1890 are still with us today. Contemporary imagery, if it were to be on the same level as older models, would probably not want to be “art.” There can be no “artist” dealing with overt social imagery, although such images might become art after the didactic content became dated, irrelevant, “quaint.” This is what happens to the women who crusaded for their cause; their images, when we are far enough from their engagement, become “art.”

If the photographs have been chosen as art, and not as evidence of a developing female way of seeing through the eye of a lens, what do they show about women? This is the question that I was forced to consider before. The most valuable thing, and the thing which most needed to be emphasized, was women’s intelligence. That’s what struck me. I would stress women’s intelligence, not “eye” or “sensibility.” The show didn’t make a “point,” but it at least confirmed the positive contribution made by women to intelligent photographic art. If the primary feature of sexism is its refusal to admit female intelligence—reducing women to the world of servants, children and animals—then in the arts this has meant that women lacked the abstract formal powers necessary to create great art. We have been inundated with arguments that women, being more soft-hearted and sympathetic, would produce equally soft-hearted, soft-headed art; emotional, maybe affecting, but not rigorous or abstract—realms left exclusively for the tough intelligence of men.

The perhaps particular reward of “Women of Photography” is to explode this myth once and for all, and concurrently show how women have used socially engaged imagery anchored in the most original formal way. Photograph after photograph rejects such false dichotomies as art/world, expressive/formal, social/personal, mind/body; furthermore, some of the imagery which has been termed “abstract” also reveals itself as—derives its meaning from—a bodily awareness of place in the real, contextual world, not in an alienated, timeless, asocial, apolitical, formalist world of bodily and socially repressive art.9

Ms. Mann has written extensively on Imogen Cunningham, and her choices throughout reveal not a woman’s bias, as we might expect, but the biases of a talented but amateur art historian. She has a great eye when it comes to conventional notions of beauty and composition. Her ideas are deeply rooted in a taste sensitivity that is conservative, school-learned, and, I might add, particularly Californian in its penchant for the tasteful, handsome, and decorative. It would have been quite difficult, with these biases, to make a directly feminist statement in her own words or in her choice of contemporary work. She has expanded our notion of individual women’s contributions to photography, but has not tried to change any prejudices about photographic history. I believe that she needed very strong contemporary work if only to affirm a great women’s tradition, and to upset the neutralizing adulations about “women’s photography” which were sure to occur. The choices do not prove that women can be merely “good photographers” (as one reviewer repeated endlessly, and we know he wouldn’t have hesitated to say “great” if speaking of men). What we realize is that, in the history of photography, women’s formal intelligence and their depth and strength of feeling are as vital as men’s; while, at the same time, it matters that they are women. The photos themselves prove this last fact. It is the basic unmentioned demonstration of the show. It was important enough to be mentioned.

Jeff Perrone reviews for Artforum from the Bay Area.



1. The New York Times, Dec. 21, 1975, Sec. D, pg. 41.

2. This phrase immediately brings to mind Anne Tucker’s A Woman’s Eye (Knopf, New York, 1973). The difference between this show and her book is in the scope; Tucker chose only American 20th-century women. It would have been difficult for her, then, to make any kind of historical reevaluation, much less a cross-cultural one. Tucker is excellent, though, in interpreting individual oeuvres, and is perceptive in dealing with men’s images of women.

3. The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 1975, pg. 13.

4. Ibid.

5. The New York Times, ibid.

6. Harold Rosenberg, “The Politics of Art,” in The Anxious Object, New York, Collier Books, 1966.

7. I have had a similar experience in viewing the work of W. Eugene Smith. There is a great difference between seeing photographs in the context of his book on Minimata, and seeing one isolated photograph in the museum context. There, without its social intent clearly stated, its meaning as—dare I say it?— propaganda against pollution, it is simply a photographic “masterpiece.” See Carl Baldwin’s review of “Photography in America” in Artforum, March, 1975, pp. 76–7.

8. See Carol Duncan’s review of Art Talk, “When Greatness Is a Box Of Wheaties,” Artforum, Oct. 1975, pg. 60. My discussion relies heavily on certain points, as I understand them, from this illuminating review. Certain insights, such as the acceptance of traditional (male) criteria in judgments concerning women’s art, are particularly relevant to criticisms lodged here.

9. See remarks by lady Chicago in conversation with Lucy R. Lippard, Artforum, Sept. 1974, pg. 60, on bodily identification with abstract imagery in women’s art.