Close Enough: New Perspectives from 12 Women Photographers of Magnum @ICP

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of the work of 12 photographers of Magnum Photos, on view on the second and third floors of the museum. The exhibit was organized by Charlotte Cotton.

The following photographers have been included in the show, with the number of works and their details (as is minimally provided on the wall labels) as background:

  • Olivia Arthur: 46 black-and-white photographs, 2016-2022
  • Myriam Boulos: 18 color photographs, 2012-2022
  • Sabiha Çimen: 30 color photographs, 2017-2020, displayed on folding screen
  • Bieke Depoorter: 11 color photographs with hadnd-written captions, 2 double-sided screens showing videos/slideshows, 4 stacks of printed texts, 2017
  • Cristina de Middel: 100 color photographs with captions, 2015-2022
  • Carolyn Drake: 32 color photographs (6 large, 26 smaller), 2012-2020
  • Nanna Heitmann: 40 color photographs displayed in accordion fold
  • Susan Meiselas: 8 photographs, 4 videos, 2015-2016, with an additional installation of 22 artworks made in workshops
  • Hannah Price: 15 color photographs, 2009-2012
  • Lua Ribeira: 13 color photographs, 2022
  • Alessandra Sanguinetti: 12 color photographs, 6 videos
  • Newsha Tavakolian: 1 video, 2020

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: As the interest in hearing from more diverse photographic voices has meaningfully increased over the past few years, institutions that have long been dominated by the perspectives of white men, particularly major museums and galleries, have hustled to reframe and re-orient their programming and collection building in an effort to better match the more inclusive cultural moment. This has meant a quick (and well deserved) turn toward the work of artists who are women, Black, and Native, as well as others who have been previously marginalized or overlooked for one reason or another.

In many ways, the major photo agencies around the world have had to wrestle with a very similar kind of repositioning. Long dominated by white male photographers, agencies like Magnum Photos have had to work hard to actively rebalance their stables, adding many more women and people of color to their rosters over the past decade. But bringing perception into line with reality takes some conscious marketing effort (and the passing of time), and this exhibit feels like an intentional exercise in promoting if not a “new Magnum” (on the occasion of its 75th anniversary), at least one that has visibly adapted to the changing times and is thoughtfully reinventing itself for an age of broader representation.

This show gathers together the work of twelve members of Magnum who are women, focusing on their longer term personal projects rather than their commissioned and on-assignment imagery. Each photographer is represented by a single project (with a short first person description or introduction which serves as the wall text), and these projects have been given ample space to breathe, both in terms of the number of photographs (and videos) included and the way they have been installed across the museum. The result is an engaging 12-stop tour, each separate unit designed to be an immersion in a singular photographic point of view.

While no overarching themes or motifs are overtly offered by the formal structure of the show, there are certainly patterns and common artistic pathways to be found in the work on view. Several of the projects offer a women-seeing-the-lives-of-women (or girls) vantage point, a few of which have taken form as recent photobooks or gallery shows. Sabiha Çimen’s images from a Turkish Quran school (reviewed as a 2021 photobook here) provide one of the strongest presentations; her pictures (shown here as panels on a folding screen) follow the everyday lives of the girls, intimately capturing both their emerging confidence and their vulnerability, where studies and meals give way to bolder and more playful expressions of personal individuality. Magnum veteran Susan Meiselas also does well in her attempt to tame the infamous towering wall in the ICP galleries, with her series on women rebuilding their lives in domestic abuse shelters, the sparsely occupied rooms in the pictures giving us a compassionate and cautiously private glimpse of the personalities and families trying hard to start over. The installation choices applied to the projects of Alessandra Sanguinetti and Carolyn Drake are somewhat less compelling, even though Sanguinetti’s images of the evolving friendship of two girls have become a landmark of long term portraiture and Drake’s project (reviewed here as a 2022 gallery show) explores active collaboration with a group of women from Mississippi in uniquely complex and nuanced ways.

Two projects push further inward, blurring the traditional boundaries between artist and subject and exploring more uncertain risks. Bieke Depoorter’s powerhouse images of Agata Korbus are entrancingly claustrophobic, bringing the photographer inside Agata’s erotic life, to the point that it’s hard to separate reality from performance. The best of the photographs from the project tease out these contradictions and try to find flares of genuine identity, the role playing, seduction, and personal trust becoming richly (and some might say dangerously) tangled. And in Newsha Tavakolian’s mesmerizing video work, symbolic snippets of imagery are blended into a highly wrought personal meditation on the pain and emotional trauma of pre-menstrual syndrome. Clips of endless empty apartment blocks, suffocating plastic-wrapped sunflowers, and wet, dripping faces feel slowed down to the point of intense attentiveness, with everyday action at bus stops and plazas turned into choreographed movement, the visuals constantly turned back toward the artist and her own internal reactions and struggles.

Two other projects reverse the gaze and look directly at men and their baser impulses. Hannah Price has made portraits of men who have catcalled her on the streets of Philadelphia, actively responding to their attentions and making surprisingly sensitive portraits of the strangers who have approached her with less than polite grace. And Cristina de Middel has made portraits of men who have paid for sex (and in some cases, the empty locations where the encounters took place), listening to their stories and trying to understand the contours of loneliness and desire that have led them to these moments. In both cases, it’s difficult to get beyond human surfaces to visualize underlying intentions, but even the act of opening up the conversations and reversing the typical anonymity of the situations feels unexpected and brave.

The rest of the projects included in the show are less overtly gender driven, and turn toward the subtleties of geographies, war zones, and subcultures. The most memorable of these is Olivia Arthur’s wide ranging investigation of human bodies, where touching and intimacy take various forms, and bodies (both male and female) are seen in mechanistic ways, in some cases replaced or augmented by technology, and in others, their natural functions broken down into resonant gestures. Her black-and-white pictures shimmer with confrontational charge, as if to brashly upend our well worn visual expectations for how bodies are normally seen and portrayed.

If the goal of this survey exhibition is to both introduce some of the talented women who now work under the Magnum Photos brand and to attempt to evolve the characteristics of that brand to include more diversity and gender balance, this show is certainly a promising start. And for those who don’t much care about that corporate repositioning exercise, the show also succeeds as an intriguing sampler of work by contemporary photographers who are women. As a dozen small solo shows essentially rolled into one integrated experience, there is inevitably a bit of an art fair booth feel to the flow of this gathering, but that rambling expansiveness is perhaps part of its strength – we’re at a moment when we’re in search of multiple vantage points, as this show delivers that kind of range and heterogeneity with a consistent degree of quality and insight.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. All of the included photographers are represented by Magnum Photos (here), and resultingly, their prints and photobooks are generally available from the Magnum shop (here), in addition to any other gallery representation relationships they may have individually. Given the large number of photographers included in this group show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Alessandra Sanguinetti, Bieke Depoorter, Carolyn Drake, Cristina de Middel, Hannah Price, Lua Ribeira, Myriam Boulos, Nanna Heitmann, Newsha Tavakolian, Olivia Arthur, Sabiha Çimen, Susan Meiselas, International Center of Photography

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