LIFE: Six Women Photographers @New York Historical Society

JTF (just the facts): A group exhibit containing the work of six female photographers, divided into sections by artist. All of the works are framed in black and matted, aside from the enlarged images. The following photographers have been included in the show, with the details of their specific sections below:

  • Margaret Bourke-White: “Franklin Roosevelt’s Wild West” 1936 – 8 black and white photographs, 5 black and white contact sheets, 1 black and white enlargement, 1 vitrine with magazine spreads and telegrams
  • Marie Hansen: “The WAACs” 1942 – 13 black and white photographs, 1 black and white enlargement, 1 vitrine with magazine spreads
  • Martha Holmes: “Mr. B.” 1949 – 6 black and white photographs, 2 black and white contact sheets, 1 black and white enlargement, 1 vitrine with magazine spreads and letters
  • Lisa Larsen: “Tito as Soviet Hero, How Times Have Changed!” 1956 – 10 black and white photographs, 1 black and white enlargement, 1 vitrine with magazine spreads and letters
  • Nina Leen: “American Woman’s Dilemma” 1947 – 15 black and white photographs, 1 black and white enlargement, 1 vitrine with magazine spreads and letters
  • Hansel Mieth: “International Ladies’ Garment Workers: How a Great Union Works Inside and Out” 1938 – 9 black and white photographs, 2 black and white contact sheets, 1 black and white enlargement, 1 vitrine with magazines spreads and letters
  • 1 additional spread with magazine spreads and documents

Curated by Sarah Gordon and Marilyn Satin Kushner, with Erin Levitsky and William J. Simmons. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Progress in the world of photography has historically been measured mostly in terms of technology. Technical advancements in cameras, lenses, and more recently, image processors, software, and other digital tools are relatively easily quantified, leading to an arc of photographic technology that seems always to be moving up and to the right, or at least “improving” by some data-driven measures. Better, cheaper, faster, more powerful – these are the parameters of photography progress that we typically watch for or are working to achieve.

But in the past decade, we have seen a surge of effort to re-examine how we define progress in photography using the characteristics of human rights – we’re now consistently asking who is behind the camera, and we’re hoping (and expecting) to see verifiable progress in terms of the number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ photographers whose work we are seeing in museum and gallery shows, on the front pages of major newspapers, and in the commissions of important magazines. When we ask more of the right questions and re-evaluate the decisions that previously led to near saturation by white male image makers, we are consistently choosing to see more diverse perspectives, in various photographic genres and professions. Slow but steady progress is indeed being made, largely because the exposure and subsequent open discussion of these questions is working.

This museum show takes a quick ramble through the contributions of female photographers to the history of American photojournalism, at least as seen in LIFE magazine, providing some re-calibrating perspective on a handful of the female pioneers who have too often been overlooked or underappreciated. The exhibition isn’t a broad survey exactly, but more of a tightly edited sampler, showing us one project from each of six women photographers who worked for the magazine between the 1930s and the 1950s. Each section takes the form of a single photo essay, a form that was once dominant in the picture magazines of that time.

Margaret Bourke-White is certainly the most famous of the women photographers included here, and her images of the Fort Peck Dam project in Montana offer some reasons why. The marching regularity of her photograph of the concrete supports captured some of the aspirational romance of the new industrial might of the United States, and a similarly awe inspiring image of a huge circular steel liner (a caption notes that one fourth of the Missouri River would flow through this object) uses immense scale and elegant geometry to tell her story. But in many ways, it is Bourke-White’s lesser known pictures of life in the shantytown that sprung up around the construction area of the dam that attest to her enduring humanism. The photo essay includes images of flimsy buildings scattered across an empty plain, hardy entrepreneurs (many of them women) building businesses doing laundry or renting rooms, and nightlife in makeshift dancehalls and bars, where young workers and families drank beers, ate sandwiches, and let off steam.

Nina Leen’s smart photo essay “American Woman’s Dilemma” from 1947 is the strongest in the show, mostly because it shows exactly why women need to be behind the camera – few men could have tackled this subject with as much nuance. Her images capture the complexities of post World War II life for women, where motherhood and full time work came into obvious conflict. Some capture the routines (and expectations) of family and home life, from vacuuming and other housework to child care, with posed family portraits an ever present reminder of the standards of domestic perfection women were held to. Other photographs subtly find the dissonance hidden in the attempt to merge home and work. One woman gets a manicure while her baby rests in a bassinet, another works in a factory making dolls (of all things), a third works (at home) while her daughter plays at her feet, and a fourth attempts to rehearse her lines as a TV broadcaster, while her husband and child wait in the wings. The sharpest image in the group stages a woman apparently leaving for work while her husband and son watch from the windows in the house behind her – in one crisply formal image, a whole host of frictions and emotional conflicts are collapsed into one symbolic moment.

The other photo essays bring a female perspective to a variety of important and sometimes controversial subjects. Martha Holmes made pictures of the giddy reception given to the multi-racial singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine by white fangirls in 1949 (one with an embarrassed girl laughing and nestling into his shoulder), her images creating a flurry of angry letters to the magazine (a few are shown in the nearby vitrine) complaining about the inappropriateness of such behavior. Marie Hansen followed the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, watching as they trained to support active troops, do clerical jobs for the military, and manage supply chains; her photographs of women in uniform, doing calisthenics, eating in mess halls, and wearing gas masks made a compelling case for the ability of women to ably serve in the armed forces. And Lisa Larsen’s images of Tito’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1956 got beyond the staged photo ops of a historic trip, turning away from the political posing to look closely at the more ordinary individual women who were in the crowds or nearby; she did her job of documenting the moment, but she also reoriented the story to consider the perspectives of women.

While it is dangerous to overgeneralize about how men and women might approach the same photojournalism assignments, it is clear from this small group of projects that sending out women to cover these stories generally led to pictures that better included issues relevant to women that were naturally embedded in the larger narratives. Skip ahead to the present day and organizations like Women Photograph (here) are still actively working to help get women photojournalists from around the world access to these kinds of assignments. The group’s weekly statistics tallying the percentage of featured images made by female photographers in leading world newspapers are sobering to say the least. But every small show like this one helps reinforce the truth that progress can be made – the historical heroes are there to be found if we look a bit harder, and if we better understand and acknowledge their contributions, the closer we are to changing our collective mindset about where we want photojournalism to go in the future.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. While Margaret Bourke-White’s work is often found in the secondary markets, the other included photographers have much less consistent presence at auction. At the retail level, many of the LIFE magazine photographers are represented by the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe (here).

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Read more about: Hansel Mieth, Lisa Larsen, Margaret Bourke-White, Marie Hansen, Martha Holmes, Nina Leen, New York Historical Society

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