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Through her eyes

A newly published book features portraits of women, all taken by women.

June 22, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

After a year of seeing Nicole Kidman's prosthetically altered face staring out from magazine pages and billboards, confronting an actual photo of Virginia Woolf is a bit of a shock. Three years before Woolf's suicide, Gisele Freund took a portrait of the writer and it is included in "Women Seeing Women" a collection of photographs published in May by W.W. Norton. Even giving due credit to hindsight, it is almost breathtaking how this woman's face betrays her fate. The jaw is still strong, and carefully combed-back silvering hair reveals a forehead broad and brilliant, but Woolf's flesh is lined and drawn, her eyes deep-sunk and sleepless. Her mouth holds itself still, and she stares down, at a bit of floorboard, perhaps, but it is an internal gaze, and what she sees within herself is familiar but not a comfort. The image is haunted and haunting; here is the face of a gifted woman who is but 56 and knows -- look at her face, she knows -- she is not going to last in this world too much longer.

It pretty much renders any other interpretation of Woolf's life and end superfluous.

This, of course, is what a good photograph does -- makes words not just unnecessary but redundant, sometimes intrusive. In this collection there are many such portraits of women, some well-known, some not, all taken by photographers who also happened to be women. That is the conceit of this collection, the implication being that there is something quantifiably different about the way female photographers see and portray other women. Something more honest, perhaps, something more revealing.

It's difficult to know what to make of this. The book's subtitle insists that it is "A Pictorial History of Women's Photography From Julia Margaret Cameron to Annie Leibovitz," but that's not exactly right since all of the photographers included have shot many subjects who were not women -- or people, for that matter. The introduction, written by art historian Naomi Rosenblum, is essentially a timeline of women's participation in the art of photography. Not until the very end does she herself ask the question the collection poses -- do female photographers see women differently than male photographers? No fool Rosenblum, she mutters something about letting the work speak for itself and deftly lobs the whole messy thing back to the audience.

And what to do with it? There are consistent themes in the work beyond the gender of the subjects. Eyes stare up or out or down, fierce even in reverie, even in sadness. The curve of wrist and hand and finger are portrayed with more emotion, more eroticism than any bare breast or buttock or thigh, although these appear as well, lovely in their lines but too matter of fact to be sexual. Few of the women smile. Instead, they seem to be watching the watcher, more participant than object.

But how much does this say about the artists? Do they "see" women differently, or do women act differently in front of them? Perhaps the similarities are simply a mark of the selection process, revealing more about collector Lothar Schirmer, whose German publishing company compiled and originally published the book.

Which isn't to say the collection is not striking or provocative. Amazingly enough, there is really little artistic difference between the portraits taken in 1860 and those taken in 1999. Clothing has changed, and mores, but the staged symbolic imagery begins with the biblical and myth-inspired tableaux of Julia Margaret Cameron and ends with the postmodern gaggle of naked redheads composed by Vanessa Beecroft. Likewise, the attempt to find the soul in the droop of an eyelid or spiral of a fist threads its way through the years.

Neither do the subjects change much, not really, and maybe that is the most interesting thing of all. Representing 100 years of vast social and technological change, these women are different from one another -- some are old, some poor, some tormented, some brilliant, some are Colette and Greta Garbo -- but the differences have nothing to do with time. Lotte Lenya's gaze is as unflinching as Jodie Foster's, though 60 years divide them. The faces of three women in 1970 Poland would not have been out of place among the 1930s work of Margaret Bourke-White or Dorothea Lange. And you could swap the 1915 date of a young German dancer with that of a young German actress in 1990, and only a photo historian would know the difference.

On each of these faces is a life vividly lived. That is what connects the photographs -- the subtle proof that beauty is a cumulative process, an ability to refine experience into expression. The steepled fingers, the exposed breast, the arched back, the sideways glance, the broad and brilliant brow have nothing to do with any shifting social standard, and all defy attempts to mimic a beauty idealThese faces and figures are a distillation of the years that led up to an hour or so before the camera.

That the images are of women, and by women, may or may not be telling, but certainly as a group they are an important gift for women. In an age when many are doing much to erase the fingerprints of age, the "imperfections" of face and figure, "Women Seeing Women" is, if nothing else, a tangible reminder that it is the imprint of time that makes us who we are, that gives us whatever loveliness we possess.

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