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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

Julia Margaret Cameron's leonine portrait of scientist Sir J.F.W. Herschel (1867) looking like an Old Testament prophet as imagined by Rembrandt, Imogen Cunningham's crisply erotic still life of the interior of a single iris blossom (1926) and Laura Gilpin's otherworldly landscape vista of the rocky spires of Utah's Bryce Canyon (1930) are among the many celebrated images on view.

Not chronological, the show has instead been divided into eight thematic categories: narrative and allegory; landscape and the urban scene; nudes; still lifes; portraits; documentary; fashion, advertising and theatrical; and experimental photographs. While the categories aren't exclusive--Lange's "Migrant Mother" is one obvious mix, blending narrative, portrait and documentary--the thematic emphasis shows women working in virtually every corner of the photographic field.

It also deftly undercuts any notion of a linear, separate-but-equal history for women photographers. Rather, women's changing social circumstances in relation to photographic practice during the last 150 years come to the foreground.

Nineteenth century realities of class gave some women--Cameron, say, and Lady Clementina Hawarden--the advantage of leisure, which allowed their experimentation with the newfangled medium of photography. If few urban images exist from before World War I, the absence may reflect the social constraints that made it improper (not to mention unsafe) for an unaccompanied woman to explore city streets. Sometimes, as in the 1950s photojournalist work of Grace Robertson, we see domestic stories of women, by women, to which no man would likely have access. The abundance of portraiture may suggest a social bias--one that perceives women as more emotionally responsive than men, and thus more suited to the demands of the genre.

Portraiture also provided one accessible means for women to earn a living making photographs. By the time Dorothea Lange closed her successful portrait studio in San Francisco to photograph displaced refugees of the horrific Dust Bowl, she faced problems specific to women with families--from established economic limitations to issues of child care--that gave her a degree of ready understanding of the plight of the workers who became her subjects.

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In selecting artists for the show, the curators understandably had to choose an arbitrary cutoff date, given the proliferation of women making photographs today. With a few exceptions, the photographers on view were born before 1950.

Cindy Sherman is among the exceptions--she was born in 1954--and it's easy to see why. Her inclusion illuminates a fundamental historical difference between photographers now and photographers at the time of the medium's invention.

The new invention of photography was initially seen to be more technological novelty than art. Because it had no established tradition, with all the exclusionary trappings of training and apprenticeship that kept women from becoming painters and sculptors, women were drawn to the medium from the start. Large numbers were again drawn to camera work (including video) in the wake of the contemporary feminist movement, and for similar reasons.

Here's the difference: Women of Julia Margaret Cameron's generation had little choice, and they made the best of their limited option; women of Sherman's generation made the choice with their eyes open, fully aware that the social limitations could be powerfully harnessed as subject matter.

More than any other's, Sherman's fictionalized portraits of herself as everything from Hollywood glamour queen and neighborhood tomboy to fairy-tale monster and goofy schoolgirl (the swell picture here) crystallized a moment: The established second-class status of photography as an art form met the traditional second-class status of women in patriarchal society, all within a new awareness of the gathering critical mass of a media-saturated environment.

Given Sherman's specific achievement, as well as the central role she and other women played since 1980 in moving photographic art to center stage, it's good to finally have "A History of Women Photographers." And note that this show and book are specifically billed as a history, not the history; a lot of territory remains for exploration.

To be sure, any number of dull and pedestrian photographs can be seen in the show, such as Christine B. Fletcher's homely still life of carefully posed grapes tumbling from a hand-woven basket (circa 1938). This is the sort of amateur-hour photography that sweats bullets in its conservative desperation to be considered art--just like a painting!--an attitude that killed off Pictorialism as a lively genre decades before.

But, for every one of those tedious hobby shots, at least one Anneliese Kretschmer or Belle Johnson will generate a double-take. (Don't miss the Missouri-born Johnson's fascinating--and vaguely creepy--figure study, which pictures a row of three turn-of-the-century women showing off their long hair, unfurled and cascading to the floor.) Photographs like these only leave you wanting to see more.

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"A HISTORY OF WOMEN PHOTOGRAPHERS," Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St. Dates: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Ends Aug. 17. Prices: Adults, $4; senior citizens, $3; students and children 6-17, $1.50; under age 6, free. Phone: (805) 963-4364.

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