It’s difficult for people to name female artists. In general. Which is why the challenge to name three female artists is still disturbingly difficult for many people. One of the fantastic things about photography is that it’s much more balanced in terms of presenting women as accomplished artists in the medium—to the point that most female artists people think of now happen to be photographers.
At the same time, all is not well. While I was viewing the Francesca Woodman exhibition and thinking about how her work should be required viewing for any teen girl taking self portraits and posting them to flickr/facebook, it occurred to me that every female photographer that I could think of is most-noted for taking photos of people.* And this is certainly true for every female photographer whose work I’ve seen featured in a museum.
*I’d say portraiture but some people define this term to be strictly posed photos. What I’m really talking about are portraits, candids, and street portraits. Obviously, when we get into the street, there’s a huge continuum from posing strangers on the street to just using people as a compositional element. The dividing line for me is probably Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful.
I’ve been thinking about this even more since Eve Arnold’s passing when I noticed that the resulting obits talked about how she was one of the few female photojournalists but noted her most-notable work to be her portraits of Marilyn Monroe.
After further deliberation, I’ve got the following list of art-museum-worthy (as deemed by museums) photographers whose notable work includes a large portion of photos which aren’t about people. I’ve gone ahead and listed what areas they specialize in too.
- Berenice Abbott—architecture
- Hilla Becher—industrial buildings
- Margaret Bourke-White—photojournalism
- Sophie Calle—conceptual
- Imogen Cunningham—botanicals (as well as portraits)
- Fay Godwin—landscape
- Vivian Maier—street
- Lee Miller—photojournalism (and partial credit for perfecting solarisation)
It’s a small list.* I cannot help but wonder why this is. Whatever the reason is, it certainly isn’t a good one.
*If anyone has suggestions for someone I missed, please let me know.
My gut reaction is that we tend to approach women artists the same way we treat other non-white artists—as representative of, and speaking for, their minority group. So, as a result, the work which gains the most acceptance in museums is that which explicitly offers—or which can be framed to offer—a different, female, perspective. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging this perspective* but the idea that it’s the main way for women artists to be presented is completely wrong.
*God knows we need it.
That kind of thinking is not only insulting and pandering but it trivializes artists whose work isn’t about their minority perspective.* Either they get shoehorned into a group to which they do not belong or the get saddled with the “token” label.
*Bringing to mind the Ruth Asawa exhibition at the De Young which kept trying to make it about her being asian and/or female when her work has nothing to do with any of that—unless you think the beautiful mathyness of it all is because she’s asian.