(Originally published in the San Francisco periodical Photo Metro, 1990)
“Photography by women is a loaded subject.” So opens the essay by Eugenia Parry Janis in Women Photographers, edited by Constance Sullivan. This new book explores how spatial relationships, metaphorically and historically construed, contribute to alternate sensibilities and practices in women’s photography. In it we are asked to ponder how women use the medium to think and imagine.
In clearing the ground, Janis tells us this work fits neither corrective feminist art histories, nor modernist aesthetic programs. Attempted instead, is a sociological archeology of women’s “imaginative potential” (read not as a “sense of beauty,” which would be an inaccurate term betraying patronizing authors’ exportations of values onto others). Janis’s specific use of language is woven with great consideration through her analysis.
A good example is a quote introducing and linking photographer and daughter in a powerful image produced around 1909, Getrude Kasebier O’Malley at Billiards:
In the process of making photographic pictures and becoming good at it, each [woman] discovered in the self an unexpected other, with formidable powers of concentration and command.
By extension, presumably, the pool player, photographer, essayist, and woman artist all share these powers.
The reference to an “unexpected other” is post-psychoanalytic art parlance used here to elaborate on the internal negotiation within a historical continuum of gender consciousness. For likely interpretations consider: oscillating identifications of insider and outsider; a woman’s relationship both to herself and her society; neither objectification of “the Other,” nor the full intersubjective experience as “another,” and so on. These are the conceptual means by which issues of culture are examined, that is, as something inherited, processed, changed and reinstated. Phew!
Being able to locate a clearly female realm of liminality in relation to a dominant culture is not so clear-cut, however, since issues of race, religion, age, political party, class, etc. also intervene to compound history’s segregations and opportunities. Janis’s unexpected strong suit is that her model seems additive and applicable to minority photographers in general. Except for the content and specificity of each photographer’s life and output, that is.
This brings us back to the starting point of the book. Stale questions about whether a female visual intelligence exists, after all seem proscribed and circular. Although Janis attempts to get beyond the things we already know, you definitely get the feeling that some of the generalizations in her sumptuous structuralist argument fall short. For instance, the images that she examines supports her theory, but her theory only supports some of the very same photographs. This would not be a problem except for the outrageous expectations attached to the book’s title. Going with “Some” Women Photographers, perhaps, would’ve been a better game plan.
Throughout the bulk of the book, the inflection and pacing of Sullivan’s image selection is finely distilled. But she admits that,
Every[one] . . . could list what they consider to be unforgivable omissions. I trust that not too many of these can be blamed on my ignorance or lack of awareness.
Baited, my similarly non-definitive list of missing artists includes Ruth Bernhard, Giselle Freund, Joyce Tennyson, Meridel Rubenstein, Judy Dater and more. The omission of Dater is of interest because her work from the 1970s (which address aspects of the feminism of the day) reveals an awareness of major differences in context, image content, as well as the subject’s response to women photographers. This was also a period when women anthropologists began to publish a huge wave of new ethnological research, after encountering entire social spheres missing from the pervious field work performed by men. But there I go sliding toward the revisionist history camp.
It is also interesting that many conceptual artists like Eleanor Antin, Bea Nettles, Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, etc. are absent. Perhaps it’s because these artists are not strictly photographers categorically. Or maybe the sheer volume of post-modern output, when measured against the larger history necessitates many exclusions. All recent surveys draw different limits around these issues. Who we do or don’t include is, nonetheless, revealing. Sullivan’s strong point is in the superb and lesser know work she’s uncovered, thereby allowing her own historical spin.
Such was Kasebier’s rare and little-know family pool game example. Helen Levitt’s Mexico City of 1941 is another. Much is hinged into the analysis of these two photographs. They alone provide much of the bridgework, overall structure and gist of the book. The Levitt image, therefore, becomes all that more fascinating for a number of reasons.
Throughout Helen Levitt’s long career she has been known as one of the strictest self-editing artists. Sullivan’s choice does not fit Levitt’s own tightly choreographed public canon, which has more or less been kept intact for the last fifty years, and mostly codified since the 1965 edition of her book, A Way of Seeing. This rare image, then, represents more than you might otherwise guess. Among other things, it reflects the larger but less public side of Levitt’s total life work.
It appears that a loosening of the reins of what may or may not be perceived about this particular artist is occurring. Either that or we are witnessing history’s curious courtship with an expanding market for these things. Power and vision is wrested and honored on a case by case, and recently commodified, basis. Sullivan and Janis, therefore, pose interesting questions in finding fresh examples of where we might redirect our gaze.
Women Photographers, edited by Constance Sullivan. Essay by Eugenia Parry Janis. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.