“A History of Women Photographers” Book Review

8 Feb

A Great Book About Women Photographers

by Lorette C. Luzajic

Photography is a way of seeing with a third eye, of looking at that which is not before you. Who has not spent a part of their youth, chopping and gluing with stubby fingers images from National Geographic? Reassembling these strange pictures, we created panoramas in dreamtime. These photos showed us beaches and deserts and strange dances and colourful streets that nourished our imaginations. Even now that we are used to a proliferation of photography, images still have the power to transport us to another time and place.

It is difficult for anyone living today to imagine a world without photography. It is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. Magazines of every possible interest arena are liberally illustrated with their subjects, from baking to kayaking to haute couture bridal to pets. The news is not the news without photographic documentation. The weekend is not the weekend without movies.  It is inconceivable that we have a birthday, get married, bury a loved one, or go through a holiday without snapping souvenir memories of every event. And coffee table books are simply a curated collection of photographs about a particular theme, from trains to Princess Di, that invite browsing with a cup of coffee or a glass of red wine.

But before 1839 – and really, for the average person, before mid last century – there was no way of seeing the world beyond. Never could a friend show you what their sweetheart looked like, and never could you hold precious photos of a deceased child or mother. You could never see their faces again! The descriptions of historical, political, and cultural events sound corny when we read them today, so heavily laden with descriptives desperate to impart a sense of being there with only words. Catalogues of products used simple quaint graphic illustrations, now a gold mine for collage. Upon reflection, the impact of the absence is staggering- how much could be hidden, denied; and how much we would simply never be exposed to.

Jill Krementz - E.B. White

Naomi Rosenblum’s seminal A History of Women Photographers is in a sense, a record of secrets. Like any collection of good photographs, it thrills with the joy of looking that is so integral to human curiosity. But as with other fields and histories, women were, as Rosenblum points out, “scanted in the general histories of the medium from which most people gained their knowledge of photography’s development.” She prefaces the volume with a listing of significant texts on photography’s history and notes the paucity of information and visual reproduction. Listing texts of record and study, she shows that the representation and documentation does not come close to parallel with the actual work of women in the field, who have been “actively involved with photography ever since the medium was first introduced in 1839.”

Nelly (Elli Neraidari) – The Russian Dancer

Rosenblum seeks to restore balance and repair omissions in the record. But this is not an attempt of homogenizing women’s work or showing a “female gaze.” Perhaps it is quite the opposite. Men and women are not the same: the idea that we are was fashionable only briefly; wishful thinking that has been firmly discredited by science. We are not blank slates who happen to differ only because of different coloured paint used in our nurseries. Still, it is equally as preposterous to compare men’s and women’s perspectives, as if there are only two points of view, as if all men perceive things in one way and all women in another. Here, the only thing the represented photographers have in common collectively is that they are female and that they are photographers. It is the variety of vision that matters here most. The stunning selection ranges from portraiture, photography as art, the feminist vision, photography as information, and more, with very diverse perspectives within each framework.

In addition to filling in some of the blanks about the history of photography, such a collection fills in blanks in history itself. Logically, it follows that if women’s photographic work has been shorted from the record, then the imagery on that work has also been less visible and even invisible. These stories – of the photographer and of her subject- have sat in wait of revelation for too long.

Belle Johnson – Three Women

Anyone who studies this collection will conclude that women have a superior sense of composition to male photographers because with almost no exception, every photograph is a lesson in the art of composition. The rule of threes and the breaks in said rule that are interesting; the balance created by intrigue and movement in shapes and contrasts; the seemingly intuitive weight of centering and off-centering of subjects; the perfect harmony that flows through photo after photo. But I suspect it is not every woman photographer who has this flawless sense of composition: I go out on a limb to suggest it is Naomi Rosenblum, who has curated impeccably with an instinctive eye for the best. I look forward to acquiring her other tome, A World History of Photography, to see for myself.

Lisa Fonssagrives – Penn & her son, Tom, 1955

Beyond the consistency of quality of every single photograph, there are also surprises on every page – women in burkas running down the street in Alexandra Bouat’s Looters In Baghdad; Lois Greenfield’s Untitled depiction of motion and male physical form that easily surpasses the power of any Mapplethorpe; Sally Mann’s provocative Jessie at Five which renders the viewer almost uncomfortable under the powerful and sensual gaze of her daughter; the absolute beauty of an elderly woman asleep in Judy Dater’s Consuelo Cloos; portraiture that veers from tradition through upshots like Lisette Model’s Singer, Sammy’s Bar and profile duo like Kathryn Abbe’s Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn and Her Son, Tom; the exquisite  contrast of  diaphanous tableau and graceful motion with the fierce, solid lines of the dancer’s body in Nelly’s (Elli Seraidari) The Russian Dancer; the eerie trilogy of another century’s women, all with hair past their waists, in Belle Johnson’s Three Women. Perhaps my favourite photograph in the book is completely uncharacteristic of my usual attraction to busy, ornate images- Jill Krementz’s portrait of E.B. White. With the Charlotte’s Web author seated in the corner of an empty shack, there is nothing in the photograph but the subject, his typewriter, an ashtray, and the contrasting lines and angles and shapes of the boards, a window, wooden table and barrel. Its starkness is somehow moving; the simple, lonely work of writing feels like an emotional all its own.

Sally Mann Jessie at Five

In conclusion, Rosenblum’s book is invaluable as a documentary that seeks to provide missing links in the record of the history of photography. But as an act of curation quite apart from scholarship, it is indeed something of a book of secrets. I have spent countless enchanted hours here roaming back and forth in time, transfixed by so many ghosts.

Humans have a penchant for seeking magic, dabbling in all kinds of experiments that might bring them closer to understanding the puzzle of existence, the mystery of it all. We flock to sold out stadiums where some charlatan will say, “I sense the letter M.  Did someone lose a loved one whose name starts with M?” We try to decipher meaning and information from the pattern of entrails or the lines in our hands. I spent much of my life trying to decode such messages myself, seeking enchantment, seeking ways of understanding the great mystery. What escapes devotees of such inane and primitive rites is the real secret, that true magic is obvious, not shrouded or available only to a chosen few. Art has always come closest to the divine as anything, and with photography, the marriage of art and science provides us with a direct link, literally, to other worlds and back in time. Photography allows all of us to be shamans.

It is astonishing how many “ghosts” we have at our fingertips. Photography has allowed us these past couple centuries to begin documentation of humanity, of ordinary individuals as well as kings and great beauties of time. I shudder to think how much magic we would all be robbed of if Marilyn Monroe had been born before the camera! Preserving stories, faces, surroundings, customs, happenings, in portable two-dimensional formats that anyone can share- the magic of this actually boggles the mind. Here, this is my father, this is a house before it was bombed to the ground, this is Billie Holiday, this is a flower that withered a hundred years ago, all captured in a lens, preserved forever, made out of paper and light.

Visit Lorette C. Luzajic at www.ideafountain.ca to see her photography, books, and art.

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