Photographs of Female Artists by Helen Kornblum – The Brooklyn Rail
The Museum of Modern Art
From April 16 to October 10, 2022
Photographs can be slippery. We see them as exact encapsulations of reality. We forget about the person holding the camera, choosing what to include (or not include) in the frame. With a little thought, this medium, so mimetic of our collective visual experience, can be used as a form of resistance, a way to create – or perhaps recreate – a view of the world as the artist alone sees it. , or as the artist wishes it to be. The use of the photographic image in the reworking of narratives is at the heart of Ourselves, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of ninety photographs taken by women artists. Curated by Senior Curator of Photography Roxana Marcoci with Assistant Curators Dana Ostraner and Caitlin Ryan, the exhibition draws inspiration from Helen Kornblum’s collection and showcases one hundred years of work that connects the radical act of taking a photograph to feminism, civil rights and the complicated analysis of identity continually at play in women’s lives.
Near the entrance to the exhibition, Alma Lavenson’s duotone self-portrait (1932) shows the artist’s hands reaching around the front of the camera, turning a lens to bring it into focus. In a simple play of light and shadow, the power of the image and all that it brings is literally placed in the hands of a woman who defines herself as much by her camera as by her own body. Amanda Ross-Ho plays with coverage and layering in the two large panels that make up invisible ink (2010). In 2000, the artist applied temporary tattoos all over her body and made life-size photos of herself. Unable to afford professional archiving of the images, she sewed a pair of translucent fabric cases to protect them. In 2009, she returned to case images, cut out eye holes and re-photographed them. The resulting images give hazy, hazy glimpses of the artist, who is still camouflaged by her tattoo adornments.
Moving the camera view outside, Inge Morath finds a woman hiding in plain sight. In A nap lottery ticket seller, Plaza Mayor, Madrid (1955), she documents a woman dressed in black leaning against the corner of a building, the pages of a newspaper protecting her head and hands from the midday sun. As her paper disguise completes her anonymity, it also buys her a moment of intimacy during which she can rest. Ilse Bing captures a similar moment in Christa on the edge of the tub (1934). The photograph shows a girl perched on the edge of her bathtub, her feet submerged in a few centimeters of water. Her prepubescent body is naked, but a washcloth covers her face. She’s too old to say hello, but I hope she’s also too young to hide her face in shame at her nakedness. Perhaps Bing preferred that the child’s face be concealed in order to protect her from (or at least signal) the predatory world into which the photo and the child will be received.
The subjects are not hiding in a photograph by Carrie Mae Weems from her “Kitchen Table Series”; Untitled (Woman and girl with makeup) (1990) features the artist and a little girl seated in front of table mirrors, each applying lipstick. Amidst the tenderness of this domestic scene, questions arise about who holds the power and what it means to put on makeup to be seen in the (male) world. Maybe the answers lie in Ruth Orkin’s chill American girl in Florence, Italy (1951), in which a young woman walks with lowered eyes down a street crowded with ogled men.
For Cara Romero, visibility goes through the dismantling of stereotypes that surround indigenous peoples. wakeah (2018), from her “First American Girl” series, features artist and dancer Wakeah Jhane wearing a traditional Southern buckskin dress, standing in a doll’s box surrounded by handmade accessories. Alluding to dolls that inaccurately portray Native Americans, the image repels sloppy depictions that reinforce colonial narratives of powerlessness and disappearance.
Documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White and Mary Ellen Mark are well represented, as are the forgotten women who appear in their work. Susan Meiselas, one of the only American photojournalists to investigate the socialist revolt in 1970s Nicaragua, expresses both the turmoil and the hope inherent in the resistance movement in vividly colored prints.
A particularly moving series of photographs, Lorna Simpson’s Details (1996) was the highlight of the show for me. In twenty-one small framed photographs, Simpson zooms in on details of the black minions drawn from archival sources, each captioned with an enigmatic label such as “desired” or “reckless” or “acted in self-defense “. The hands hold telephones or flowers, neatly bent into turns or hanging rigidly from the sides; the intimacy expressed in each gesture activates a sensory connection between viewer and subject. Framing the rest of the body, Simpson offers us the faintest glimpses of identity, clues that left me wondering about the lives intentionally left behind.