Dana Kyndrová, Woman Between Inhaling and Exhaling @Czech Center

JTF (just the facts): A total of 41 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space on the second floor. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1974 and 2001. No information on physical dimensions or edition sizes was provided. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: We’ve recently arrived at a point in photographic history where there is genuine, renewed, and in most cases long overdue interest in the photographs made by women of women. While the cultural and social environment that surrounds us at this moment has sparked more inclusion on many artistic fronts, the women-picturing-women theme further succeeds on two fundamental levels – it immediately removes the distortions of the male gaze that have long framed the lives of women, and it anchors the visual storytelling in a place of authentic understanding and empathy, given that those behind the camera can identify with the situations faced by those in front of it. Female photographers, and their images of women, are being discovered (and rediscovered) at an unprecedented pace, incrementally rebalancing the long arm of art history.

This exhibit brings together roughly four decades of the work of the Czech photographer Dana Kyndrová, where women, and the stages of their lives, are made visible. The photographs were largely made in what was once Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic, as well as in other nearby European locations, so at some level, they are steeped in the political and social realities of those times and those places, as experienced by women. But seen as a group, the patterns and rhythms of life for these women feel remarkably universal, almost regardless of the specific Communist or post-Communist context of any one moment.

The show isn’t organized with strict attention to chronology or theme, but certain overarching life stages do group the pictures into a recognizable framework. Kyndrová’s images of youth start with gymnasts striving for perfect posture and standing in leotards at public events, and quickly transition to the furtive embraces and optimistic smiles of young couples. The search for female identity manifests itself in a sweaty Black Sabbath t-shirt and jean jacket, as well as frizzy 80s hairstyles held together with headbands, but eventually finds grounding in the easy going shared laughter of university girls in nightgowns.

Kyndrová approaches motherhood with the same attentive perspective. She documents the physical exposure, trauma, and exhaustion of childbirth, with images of a wailing child still attached by its umbilical cord, a new mother standing with a glassy-eyed blank stare, and an infant tucked into a grocery cart crib. She also captures the not so subtle trials and roles of motherhood, where a woman nurses her child in the midst of a crowd, another burps her baby at the breakfast table while her husband reads the paper, and a third cuddles and comforts her bottle-fed kids in bed. In all of these pictures, Kyndrová deliberately and overtly orients our experience around the mother and her vantage point.

Kyndrová’s photographs of women at work are consistently studies of persistence and strength. Women do the backbreaking jobs of sweeping the parade grounds and hoisting huge bags of laundry. In the cow barn, an in-charge woman explains to men what they need to do, and in the hospital, a nurse patiently listens as a doctor tells her what she already seems to know. The grimmest and most quietly powerful of these scenes captures a man as he leads a thin cow through the fields, as a resigned but determined woman (presumably his wife) trails slightly behind carrying a sledgehammer.

Kyndrová calls out the male gaze for what it is in several images of men looking at women. The performative situation hardly matters – she shows us a bride in white, a fashion model striding in lingerie, a female bodybuilder showing off her muscles, and an erotic dancer in nearly nothing at all, and there are always men watching, or critiquing, or groping. But then she deftly turn this whole motif on its head with a jubilant image of a woman hooting at a man onstage, her hands raised up in a mock shimmy.

Aging and death are difficult subjects for many photographers, but Kyndrová sensitively shows us the overlooked female side of these end of life trials. As the women get more isolated, by the death of loved ones they can now only visit in the graveyard or by the growing space between spouses, many turn to other women friends for support and companionship. Kyndrová shows us groups of women drinking coffee and socializing, the bonds of friendship continuing through until the women are hunched over and using canes to climb stairs. Two of the most poignant images in the show were taken when the artist was just 19 (in 1974), capturing the death of her grandfather. In one, her grandmother leans her head against the hospital bed in despair, while in the other, she gives her husband a last tender kiss – both powerfully telling the story of loving and being left behind.

Installed as one intermingled up-and-down jumble of life moments, Woman Between Inhaling and Exhaling brings them all together as part of one human continuum. Kyndrová’s photographs are consistently engaging and thoughtfully constructed, and they deserve better recognition, particularly in the context of European documentary photography from the 1980s and 1990s. She repeatedly aims her camera at the subtle moments of women’s lives, and the care and attention that she invests in her pictures opens up space for viewers to find connections to their own personal narratives.

Collector’s POV: Dana Kyndrová does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, nor has her work reached the secondary markets with any regularity. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the Czech Center staff or directly with artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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