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ART | REVIEW

Giving Them Proper Exposure

Female photographers are focus of eye-opening 'History.'

June 22, 1997|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

SANTA BARBARA — The spellbinding "Head of a Young Woman" photographed by German artist Anneliese Kretschmer around 1930 shows a face pressed close to the picture's surface, its enigmatic mystery perversely heightened by the sheer insistence of its tight-in intimacy. So close are we to the subject and so velvety dark are its dominant blacks that it's hard even to make out the lower half of the picture, beneath the woman's face; there, she appears to clutch to her breast a garment with a trim of white fur--a little pillow of radiant fuzziness on which her grimly determined head seems to rest.

The photograph, in its portrayal of a beautiful face radiating light from out of pitch-black darkness, is perhaps stylistically informed by the sharply contrasted look and mannerisms of contemporary silent movies. The rims beneath her shadowed eyes are stark white crescents, accentuating the breathless stare--hers and, upon reflection, ours. The experience edges toward melodrama.

In 1928 Kretschmer had photographed a street scene that couldn't be more different in subject from "Head of a Young Woman." Still, it too shines with an unmistakable intimacy.

The location is Paris, outside the unassuming Hotel de la Havana. The angle of soft light and near absence of people on the street suggest the time is early morning.

The photograph is split in half, literally down the middle, by the sharp vertical edge of a shop window on the right, against which the artist must have stood. The darkened window glass creates an indecipherable maze of transparency and reflection, while the left half of the picture, opening onto the narrow street, is a crisp mosaic of exuberant urban signs, shapes and disappearing pathways out of the tangle of interior claustrophobia implied on the right.

Kretschmer, in both the portrait and the urban landscape, uses her camera to make you feel that, by privileged extension, you are the only person present before her subject. A contrary sense of estrangement looms, manufactured from a photographically induced intimacy.

Kretschmer (1903-1987) is an artist new to me, as she probably also is to most visitors to "A History of Women Photographers," the exhibition that opened recently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (it remains through Aug. 17). Not entirely unknown--the two pictures were after all loaned to the traveling show from a German museum collection--neither is Kretschmer's a name you will find in standard photography reference books.

Perhaps there's good reason. Two compelling pictures are not enough on which to gauge a career that spanned half a century; maybe the exhibition's able curators, Naomi Rosenblum and Barbara Tannenbaum, have been unusually adroit in choosing the only Kretschmer pictures worth looking at.

The point is that, together, "Head of a Young Woman" and "Hotel Havana, Paris" make you want to see more of this little-known but apparently gifted artist's photographs. And in this very big, even sprawling survey, which means to call attention to the particular contributions made by women to the art of photography since the mid-19th century, that happy experience recurs quite often.

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The exhibition makes its case through the sheer force of volume: Some 200 works line the gallery walls, while half a dozen vitrines display books, magazines, albums, daguerreotypes, stereographic prints and other photographs. In sum, more than 200 photographers are represented, most by a single work.

Arrival in the exhibition's handsome galleries can even be a bit daunting, as room after room stretches out before you. (Incidentally, the show is also being celebrated by 13 other art spaces around town, including the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum on nearby Paseo Nuevo; they've independently organized adjunct exhibitions relating to women photographers.) The point may not be surprising but it is inescapable: Women--and lots of them--have made great photographs throughout the medium's history.

The show is based on Rosenblum's critically well-received 1994 book of the same name, although the pictures on the walls are not necessarily the same as those in the book. (There is no catalog.) While a few non-Western artists are included, such as China's Yang Ling (represented by a straightforward 1949 documentary image descriptively titled "Villagers Welcome the People's Liberation Army"), attention is almost exclusively focused on those who have been based in Europe and the Americas.

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The exhibition also boasts its share of iconic images. Dorothea Lange's magnificent "Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California" (1936) is easily the most famous. This indelible picture of three children in tatters huddled around their abject mother creates a kind of working-class American Madonna of the Great Depression, whose labor-weary central figure seems far older than her 32 years.

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