A version of this article originally appeared
in Hyperallergic on August 12, 2010.
Over at MoMA, there are two big survey shows that focus on a single theme throughout the history of photography from the heyday of the daguerreotype through to the present. The first, Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, is an "installation that comprises more than 200 works by approximately 120 artists." The second is an examination of photography's relationship to sculpture titled The Original Copy: The Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, that "brings together over 300 photographs, magazines, and journals, by more than 100 artists."
Reading the numbers alone, these shows - though the first much more than the second - are about MoMA flexing permanent collection muscle (or indulging in a Scrooge-like coin-counting of photographic riches). There are a lot of individually great photographs to see in the show, but an exhibition that claims to be remarkable based on the number of works or the number of artists that appear in it, rather than a studied examination of a particular theme, school, technique, or trend, is like a magazine that expects to sell quality prose based on the quantity of recipes, ab workouts, or things to do butt naked that appear in its pages. A good exhibition is not a numbers game. And in Pictures by Women, which is a little diffuse, it shows.
The exhibition presents pictures "made exclusively by women artists," which carries with it the implication that there was some latent misogyny that kept women from making photographs. Yet the curators note that the glut of pictures by women from more or less any period in its history "demonstrates the medium's accessibility to women from its inception."
Great. So why a whole show about this undisputed fact? Is it just a lazy exercise in second wave feminism that's forty years too late? Beyond the fact that the curators can do all of this great drawing from the permanent collection, they fail to make any claims about why, exactly, and particularly at this moment, the ability to fill The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries with pictures by women makes sense.
None of this is meant to undercut the individual works on display; there are a ton of great photographs: experiments in a classical idiom by Julia Margaret Cameron, such "Venus Chiding Cupid and Removing His Wings" (1872); expressive, almost Romantic platinum prints by American photographers Laura Gilpin and Anne W. Brigman; suggestive works by Frances Benjamin Johnston with tongue in cheek titles like "Class in American History" (1899-1900); painterly imagery from Gertrude Kasebier, as in "The Manger" (1899); Ilse Bing's anxious, flatness-fracturing "Self Portrait in Mirrors" (1931) which plays wildly with the art gaze and predates Jeff Wall's "Picture for Women" (1979) by decades, though it does seem to reference Dziga Vertov's influential 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera; Bernice Abbott's wonderfully strange, referential "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman" (Negative c. 1930/Distortion c. 1950). There are the requisite Cindy Sherman images, as well as a few lush and lascivious Nan Goldin prints. My disappointment has nothing to do with what's on display - it has to do with the fact that, given these strong works, the curators didn't pull together a better argument. Instead there's a thesis and a collection of great works, it's like a brilliant essay that someone accidentally shredded before trying to read aloud.
Photography began as chemistry, which has not always been as gender friendly as it is today (or isn't - depending which of Obama's economic advisors you ask). The earliest photographs were made by rogue chemists or 19th century natural philosophers and, in general, the kind of tinkerers who played with too much with sodium bicarbonate and mercury. So sure, there were some initial barriers that had to do with a less than fair bias at the medium's outset.
More to the point, the rapid commercialization of the basic processes quickly brought photography within reach of many (wealthy Europeans or Americans). Who could photograph has less to do with whether they were man or woman and more to do with specious biology or material wealth. Who could afford to buy platinum for prints? Thus the egregious misogyny of the period gives way to a combination of privilege and whiteness.
There are, for example, very few (I don't actually know of any) Native American photographers from the medium's earliest days, though pictures of Native Americans abound and sold in large, sepia-toned quantities. There are equally few African American photographers from the earliest days of the medium. Yet neither demographic is underrepresented in terms of their appearance in photographs as subjects.
Carrie Mae Weems's composite narrative "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried" (1995) is one of the strongest pieces anywhere on the floor. Composed from a series of found photographs that Weems has rephotographed, color toned, and onto which she has superimposed sand-blasted text, the images write out the unforgiving story of African Americans as photographic subjects for largely white photographers from throughout the medium's history.
"The photographs were made for very, very different reasons originally," explains Weems. "At least, most of them were. They were intended to undercut the humanity of Africans and of African Americans in particular. This way of looking at the African as subject says a great deal more about Anglo-American photographers than it does about the African subject. When we're looking at these images, we're looking at the ways in which Anglo-America, white America, saw itself in relationship to the black subject."
One image, printed twice (once flipped), book ends the sprawling, wall-sized horizontal work. It's the face of an African woman and the prints look in from either side. Each bears different text. "From Here I Saw What Happened," says the text superimposed onto the blue-toned woman on the left. Then the viewer walks through what happened: "you became a scientific profile" says a panel, "a negroid type" the next, "an anthropological debate," ... "a photographic subject" ... "you became playmate to the patriarch" ... "and their daughter" ... it continues until "you became the joker's joke &" the other, blue-toned bookend, facing all of the othering and objectification that just unfolded, claims simply "and I cried."
It's powerful. And to the point. It addresses the sleight implied in the exhibitions title head-on, and reflects the history of photography alongside its less than polite relationship to its subjects with fresh eyes and a gaze as pitiless as the sun.
Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography is curated by Roxana Marcoci, Sarah Meister, and Eva Respini, and it continues until March 21, 2011, at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan). For a complete list of the photographers included in the exhibition, visit DLK Collection's post on the show.