Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 2, 2021
Andrea Nelson, ed. The New Woman Behind the Camera Exh. cat. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2020. 288 pp.; 8 color ills.; 269 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781942884743)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, July 2–October 3, 2021; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, October 31, 2021–January 30, 2022

In May 1914 Wilson’s Photographic Magazine devoted thirteen pages to a celebration of “how women have won fame in photography.” Apparently this triumph was short-lived, because, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, major museums have once again opened their galleries to photographs whose defining criterion for inclusion was the gender of their creators. Building on the ambitious Qui a peur des femmes photographes? 18391945 (Musée d’Orsay, 2015) and the Museum of Modern Art’s Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography (2010–11), the National Gallery’s The New Woman behind the Camera (first shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) limits its chronological range to the 1920s–1950s and expands its geographical scope to women from “over twenty countries” (15). Opting for breadth rather than depth, the show and its handsome accompanying catalog survey the careers of 128 women, most of them represented by one or two works.  

Faced with a potential field of thousands of women who made, sold, exhibited, and published photographs, curator Andrea Nelson opted “not merely to insert neglected, forgotten, or marginal figures into existing art historical narratives, but, more importantly, to complicate and enrich our understanding of modernity” (17). The “New Woman”—bold, single, young, sexually liberated, and often politically radical—becomes the model for these working photographers. Although it could be argued that the English term “New Woman” and the explosion of successful, socially liberal women photographers dates from the 1890s, Nelson favors sharp-focus and experimental photographic styles identified with the New Vision and the “Neue Frau,” both coined in Germany in the 1920s. “Radical” or avant-garde photographic style is thus wedded to radical lifestyle, despite the persistence of Pictorialism and conventional studio portraiture made by equally progressive women in the pre–World War I era. Thus, one finds no Doris Ulmann, Clara Sipprell, or Margrethe Mather here, and only later examples or prints by the many women who trained under Photo-Secessionist Clarence H. White, such as Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Wynn Richards, Margaret Watkins, and Laura Gilpin.

One of the selling points of the exhibition is that the New Woman photographer was a global, multicultural phenomenon. Commendable efforts (particularly difficult during the coronavirus pandemic) were made to include five representatives from Japan, two from China, and one from India, but their pedestrian styles and meager numbers make them read as tokens. The presence of four African American photographers (commercial portraitist Florestine Collins; photojournalist Vera Jackson; anthropologist Eslanda Robeson; and Hampton Institute teacher and amateur Louise Davis) similarly fails to do more than show that they existed in these various domains. In fact, almost half the photographers in the show were born in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with another thirty-four in the United States. What strikes one when perusing the catalog’s appended biographies is that much of the apparent internationalism of the exhibition is the result of widespread displacements triggered by two world wars. By my count, sixty-seven of the photographers were Jewish, a sociological phenomenon that might inspire more thought about the career paths available to emigrants and the educational attainment and ambition of Jewish girls. Most women represented here were on the move—escaping political regimes, war, personal tragedies, and economic hardship. Perhaps rather than thinking in terms of nationalities, we might conceptualize a photographic diaspora populated by educated women who found running a small business more lucrative and attractive than typing or teaching grade school.

To make sense of the diversity of photographic practices, the exhibition and catalog are broken into thematic sections that at times overlap or seem arbitrary. In the Met’s installation, the introduction to the New Woman in the brightly lit Menschel Hall was the most visually and conceptually coherent. A video of women of different ages and cultures talking about their careers brought home the struggles between creative fulfillment and societal bias that they faced. Adjacent, one saw compelling self-portraits and portraits of them at work that gave them an individuality too often lost in subsequent galleries, in which a single picture sat next to another based solely on similarities of subject or form.

The problems with an ahistorical, thematic hang were immediately apparent in the section “The Studio.” Roughly paralleling Nelson’s chapter on women who ran commercial studios, the presentation confused a locale (an interior space staged by a photographer) with a function (portraiture). Despite the fact that commercial studio spaces at this time were the sites for most fashion and advertising work (gathered in a different room in the Met installation), this section grouped interior pictures of people that were rarely conventional portraits. Compared to Madame Yevonde’s fantastic allegory of Lady Bridget Poulett (1935; one of only two color photographs in the show), Eiko Yamazawa’s five studies of a Japanese actress en rôle (1943–44), Steffi Brandl’s sensual Sleeping Beauty, Berlin (1929), and Berenice Abbott’s famous view of Jean Cocteau directing a pistol at the viewer, Karimeh Abbud’s lineup of three Palestinian girls cannot help but appear uninspired. If the point were to prove that women of color also ran studios, then the failure to include similar commercial work by Western, white photographers ends up defeating its political purpose. The exhibition seems not to know if it is trying to represent normative commercial photography by women (excluding categories such as scientific, industrial, copy, and museum photography) or only pictures that meet current criteria for beauty and originality.

Inadequate consideration of the contexts of individual photographs also marred the section dubbed “Ethnographic Approaches,” which featured white women photographing nonwhite subjects (apart from Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, a Nazi documenting the German Volk). What “ethnography” signifies in style and purpose was confused, since a case full of travel books by Jette Bang, Anna Riwkin, Hélène Hoppenot, and others with short-exposure shots of people working (not unlike what is found in the sections devoted to reportage and social documentary) was flanked by an artistic platinum print by Laura Gilpin of a woman in a Pueblo dwelling, a street view of a Brazilian café by Genevieve Naylor (her similar snap of a crowded Rio trolley is in the “City” room), and a close-up of a Xhosa woman applying ritualistic face paint by Constance Stuart Larrabee. Rhyming Larrabee’s “artistic” and “elegant compositions” with Ré Soupault’s similarly posed enlargement of a fashionably dressed Tunisian woman applying lipstick, the curators leveled cultural difference and erased what Jessica R. Williams, in a recent October essay, has shown to be the racist assumptions underlying Larrabee’s “Native Studies.” Kim Sichel, in her focused catalog essay on women photographers in Africa, admits that “colonialist ideas” shaped many of these projects, but the anodyne wall labels sidestepped any position: women variously “produced sensitive portraits that celebrate cultural difference” or portrayed them “in ways that reinforce hierarchical concepts of race and ethnocentrism.”

The overall impression left from this expansive inventory of photographs by women is that harder questions need to be asked of this material. If the goal is to prompt visitors and readers to find out more about the careers of these exceptional women, then the exhibition surely succeeds. But if the goal, as Nelson states, is “to generate new conversations about a global phenomenon that has pressing implications not just for the history of photography but also for the continual struggle of women to gain creative agency and self-representation” (61), then it falls short. What these “new conversations” might be is never made explicit, nor is how they differ from the conversations inspired by the hundreds of publications and exhibitions devoted to women photographers since 1900 (a search for “women photographers” in my university library catalog yielded over eight hundred books).

Despite disclaimers that “women constitute a heterogeneous group whose identities are defined not exclusively by gender but by a host of variable factors” (13), the show avoids any sustained discussion of the sexual orientations of these women. Elizabeth McCausland is politely mentioned as Abbott’s “partner” in a bio, and Elizabeth Otto in her catalog essay, “Modern Bodies,” dances around Germaine Krull’s homoerotic nudes, which are better addressed in an essay by Marina Molarsky-Beck buried in the Met’s website. How many of these women were single, queer, bisexual, divorced, mothers with children? We are never told. Does this knowledge make a difference? By implication, if being a woman makes enough difference to warrant this exhibition, then I would have to say yes. We cannot keep writing art history as if the personal is not political, as feminists recognized decades ago.

The catalog appropriately expands upon Naomi Rosenblum’s A History of Women Photographers (1994) and introduces many hitherto unpublished images and illustrated books, over thirty-five of which were added to the National Gallery collection for this exhibition. Like the Met’s installation, it has no conclusion, because it lacks a synthetic thesis about why women entered photography and what they added to the work done by men. There are also no checklist and bibliography, apart from monographic studies listed in the biographical notices. Organized, installed, and authored by women who argue with passion that women can do anything men can do, The New Woman Behind the Camera stops short of challenging the categories of “surrealism,” “the New Vision,” or even “the fine arts” and “modernism” that have shaped twentieth-century photo history. It was still Max Hollein, the latest in a long line of male directors, who introduced the exhibition’s “virtual opening” on the Met’s website before ceding the stage to Mia Fineman, who expertly hung the show in New York and deftly commented on individual works. New women may be behind the camera, but they are still behind.

Anne McCauley
David H. McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University