The neglected female photographers of the 20th century are starting to get their due

A famous bikini-clad model lies on the crystal-clear shore of a beach in Jamaica. The corpse of a An SS prison guard walks down a river. Three boys play, chasing each other with sticks in a wasteland in the Bronx. What do these images have in common?

These are all photographs in The new woman behind the camera, a sprawling and ambitious exhibition curated by the National Gallery of Art and now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show spans four decades, 20 countries and 120 artists, and covers fields as diverse as fashion, journalism and avant-garde art. The works are united by a common theme: they are all about female photographers – modern, but not necessarily modernist. It is a testament to both its curator, Andrea Nelson of the NGA, and the astounding suppression of female artists over the past century, that it is reaching such a scale.

The new woman is an attempt to set the record straight, to “go beyond the Euro-American narrative which has really structured the history of photography”, as Nelson describes it. (Europe and America, however, are still over-represented.) By expanding its geographic boundaries, The new woman also widened its temporal boundaries: although the year 1945 is generally considered to be the end of the modern period in Europe, more recent studies have shown that modernism continued to develop abroad during the 1950s.

It’s a breath of fresh air to see some of the exhibition’s best-known names – Ilse Bing, Germaine Krull, Margaret Bourke-White – finally getting their due, as they are too often relegated to exhibition corners to say , indeed, “Oh, and there were women too!” Bing, in particular, is a star of the show, as his Self-Portrait with Leica (1931) asserts an unwavering feminine gaze. Like Annemarie Heinrich and Florence Henri, whose work also appears in the exhibition, Bing uses mirrors to play with the photographic flattening of three-dimensional space, obscuring the distinction between reality and reflection, subject and object. When we see beautiful women in pictures, they usually don’t look back at us, judging our looks; Bing’s camera thus becomes a sort of weapon, a radical self-defense.

Margaret Bourke-White, “Self-Portrait with Camera” (ca. 1933), gelatin silver print, tinted, 13 1/4 × 9 1/8 inches (courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection)

The new woman also digs up some buried treasure. Each photograph is accompanied by a biographical text, which sheds light on certain recurring themes: forgotten works found by chance, famous husbands who have eclipsed them, avant-garde circles who celebrated the work but then evolved. Lola Álvarez Bravo belongs to the category of famous husbands, although she is a genius in her own right; “In Her Own Prison” (circa 1950) is reminiscent of Moholy-Nagy’s famous portrait of Oskar Schlemmer, while making a powerful political statement about the invisible barriers that limit the progress of women. Niu Weiyu is another star. In one of his photographs, taken on a mission, three women seated around a table in almost chiaroscuro, painting and assembling dolls. At the same time photojournalism, metaphor of the act of creation, it is a kind of microcosm of The new woman the exhibition itself – women at work, in full concentration. (The image was never selected for publication, another unfortunate commonality within the show).

One of the curiosities of the exhibition is that its vast scope means that some major figures in the history of photography are only briefly touched on. Helen Levitt is represented by a single work, which is surprising since she has recently been the subject of several major retrospectives and, in 1992, was the first female photographer to receive a solo exhibition at the Met. The show also passes one of the most influential and infamous female photographers of all time: Leni Riefenstahl. With her bobbed hair and bossy demeanor, Riefenstahl embodied the New Woman that this exhibition so valiantly strives to emerge from the obscurity. She was also a great Nazi propagandist whose films were instrumental in bringing about the Holocaust.

Claude Cahun, “Self-portrait” (ca. 1927), gelatin silver print Image: 10 1/16 × 7 15/16 inches (courtesy Wilson Center for Photography)

The presence of Riefenstahl complicates The new womanthe heroic tale of; While the mural text next to his photograph recognizes the “fundamental questions” his work raises “as to whether we can or should separate the ethics of artists from their art”, the exhibition misses an important opportunity to examine how the ideal of the new woman intersected fascism and authoritarianism. , as he so clearly did. What do we do with women artists who engage in morally wrongdoing? The new woman cast a large net, which is both its triumph and its downfall; the show must dig deeper, and not be satisfied with passing glances.

The new woman behind the camera continues at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (1000 Fifth Avenue) until October 3. The exhibition is curated by Andrea Nelson, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The Met presentation is curated by Mia Fineman, Curator, with Virginia McBride, Research Assistant, both in the Photography Department.

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