Our Selves: Photographs by Women from Helen Kornblum @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A group show of works (by 62 individual photographers or partnerships) drawn from a recent gift to the museum by Helen Kornblum in honor of MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci. Hung against white and mirrored walls in a single room gallery space on the fifth floor of the museum.

The following works are included in the show:

  • Justine Kurland: 1 chromogenic print, 1998
  • Alma Lavenson: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1932, 1933
  • Lotte Jacobi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Margrethe Mather: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Rosemarie Trockel: 1 chromogenic print, 2004
  • Tatiana Parcero: 1 chromogenic print and acetate, 1996
  • Lorie Novak: 1 chromogenic print, 1987
  • Germaine Krull: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Claude Cahun: 1 gelatin silver print, c1929-1930
  • Gertrud Arndt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Lucia Moholy: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Lola Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, c1945
  • Ruth Orkin: 1 gelatin silver print, 1951; 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 1947
  • Margaret Bourke-White: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Mary Ellen Mark: 1 gelatin silver print, 1983
  • Anne Noggle: 1 gelatin silver print, 1986
  • Dorothea Lange: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Consuelo Kanaga: 1 gelatin silver print, 1963
  • Nell Dorr: 1 gelatin silver print, 1940
  • Susan Meiselas: 2 chromogenic prints, 1978; 1 gelatin silver print, 1974/c2000
  • Candida Höfer: 1 chromogenic print, 1997
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston: 1 platinum print, 1899
  • Jessie Tarbox Beals: 1 platinum print, 1908
  • Lorna Simpson: 1 set of 21 photogravures, 1996
  • Sharon Lockhart: 1 chromogenic print, 2010
  • Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie: 1 photocollage, 1990
  • Tracey Moffatt: 1 offset lithograph, 1997
  • Meridel Rubinstein: 2 palladium prints, 1982, 1993
  • Carrie Mae Weems: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990
  • Cara Romero: 1 inkjet print, 2018
  • Catherine Opie: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1993
  • Jeanne Dunning: 1 silver dye bleach print diptych, 1994
  • Amanda Ross-Ho: 2 chromogenic color prints, 2010
  • Louise Lawler: 1 silver dye bleach print, 1984
  • Josephine Pryde: 1 gelatin silver print, 2002
  • Silvia Kolbowski: 1 set of 8 gelatin silver prints and 4 chromogenic prints, 1983
  • Laurie Simmons: 1 chromogenic print, 1990
  • Inge Morath: 1 gelatin silver print, 1955
  • Ilse Bing: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Yva: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Kati Horna: 4 gelatin silver prints, c1933, c1938
  • Marie Cosindas: 1 dye transfer print, 1966
  • Tina Modotti: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Dora Maar: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Ringl+Pit: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1929, 1930
  • Barbara Probst: 1 inkjet print diptych, 2010
  • Marta María Pérez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1991
  • Mariana Yampolsky: 1 gelatin silver print, 1989
  • Graciela Iturbide: 1 gelatin silver print, 1981
  • Ana Mendieta: 1 gelatin silver print, 1981
  • Flor Garduño: 1 gelatin silver print, 1989
  • Barbara Morgan: 1 gelatin silver print
  • Imogen Cunningham: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1920, 1935
  • Sonya Noskowiak: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Florence Henri: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Ruth Bernhard: 1 gelatin silver print, 1943
  • Nelly: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Charlotte Rudolph: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920s
  • Ursula Johanna Richter: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Jane Reece: 1 gelatin silver print, 1922
  • Margaret Watkins: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Laura Gilpin: 1 platinum print, 1933

The exhibit also includes a series of vitrines with various magazine spreads, photobooks, exhibition catalogues, and other ephemera related to the included works. (Installation shots below.)

A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the museum (here). (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: When a museum acquires a large number of works from a single private collection, there is typically an urge to celebrate the generosity of the collector (or collectors) who built the collection by featuring a selection of the donations in an exhibit, sometimes with a catalog to further commemorate the occasion. Depending on the composition of the collection and the prominence of the donors, such shows can range from essentially arms length (a simple gathering of notable artworks with little or no connecting curatorial thread) to something quite personal (a more in depth review of the collectors, their backgrounds, their choices, and their interests).

For the most part, the more we get to know the collectors, the more intriguing and memorable such a show tends to be, as we can start to get a feel for the intimate reasons for why a collection was built, and for the often contagious passion that drove its assembly over years or decades. Talk to any serious collector about his or her collection and the act of collecting consistently turns out to be an exercise in storytelling – in artistic ideas that changed his or her worldview, in unexpected artworks discovered or sought after, in pieces with an eclectic backstory of creation or acquisition, in personal relationships made with artists, and in unlikely connections made between artworks that were lived with and treasured.

As installed in a single room amidst the flow of the permanent collection galleries on the fifth floor of the museum, the top-level unifying theme in this show of photographs donated by Helen Kornblum is that they were all made by women. Underneath that umbrella constraint, its parameters get slightly less fixed – they are largely photographs from the 20th century; are largely photographs of women (when women are present in the images); and are largely presented in a diverse and inclusive “one of each” approach rather than a deep dive into the work of certain photographers. In general, the show takes an aloof curatorial stance, leaving out the likely sparkle and warmth of Kornblum’s personal collecting journey (a bit of this color can be found in a couple of audio clips on the museum’s website) and instead organizing her collection into a series of small clustered subject matter themes that flow around the walls of the gallery space like pockets of ideas, ostensibly exploring the various readings of how we might define a feminist photograph.

By its very nature, collecting is a process of selection, of determining what’s in and what’s out, and of choosing between one image and another. And so even within a collection devoted exclusively to photography made by women, there are countless ways to make the individual choices that then aggregate to form the structure of such a gathering of pictures. As seen here, Kornblum’s eye seems to have been consistently drawn to the overlooked and somewhat lesser known, not only in terms of some of the artists themselves, but in the images she selected for her collection – she rarely opted for the best known or most famous image by a given female photographer; instead she seems to have tried to choose a resonant work that felt representative of the aesthetics, ideas, or subject that artist was most interested in or of a strong female perspective more generally. One of the joys (and downstream benefits) of such an approach is that it wasn’t what everyone else was doing, so when these works slide into the larger body of the MoMA photography collection, they will likely fill in holes, add new names, and expand holdings rather than be duplicative.

After an initial female-only scene setting work by Justine Kurland, the show opens with a string of female faces, in the form of self-portraits of the artists themselves, and portraits and isolated body parts of various other women, many of whom were also artists, dancers, or creative types of one kind or another. Female identity is being created and asserted in each picture, whether in the pose, the look, or the gesture, and several of the photographers have opted for costumes, montage effects, multiple exposures, or other hand-crafted embellishments to further open up the possibilities. Works by Tatiana Parcero, Lorie Novak, Claude Cahun, and Gertrude Arndt all explore this kind of individual expressiveness, which is then later balanced by collaboratively austere portraits of weathered unadorned female faces by Lucia Moholy and Margaret Bourke-White.

Faces then continue to pop up throughout the show, especially in the groups of pictures sequentially devoted to documenting a broad range of women’s roles. In these selections, classic images by Ruth Orkin (the pestered American girl in Florence) and Mary Ellen Mark (Tiny in her Halloween costume) are then interleaved with Anne Noggle’s deadpan portrait of a retired female air force pilot, Susan Meiselas’s masked portrait of an anonymous female revolutionary in Nicaragua, images of mothers with their children by Dorothea Lange, Nell Dorr, and Carrie Mae Weems, and pictures of schoolgirls by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Jessie Tarbox Beals, and Consuelo Kanaga, with the intensity of working, studying, and caring for young children seen with similar sensitivity and respect.

This thread of the possibilities of roles continues through works made by Indigenous photographers and those who have documented local and native peoples in Central and South America. Cara Romero incisively unpacks the American Girl doll phenomenon with her diorama style arrangement of authentic Indigenous clothing and accessories, while Graciela Iturbide, Maria Yampolsky, and Flor Garduño collectively celebrate the chain of everyday daughters, mothers, grandmothers, and queens across Mexico. More conceptual approaches from Ana Mendieta and Marta María Pérez Bravo bring bodily interaction and symbolism more forcibly to the forefront, in the form of female shapes built from cracked and burned mud, and bound arms that cover eyes and prevent seeing. A selection of images of female dancers from various times and traditions, filled with exuberant jumps and dramatic gestures, similarly offers evidence of the power of female expressiveness, especially when seen by and performed for other women.

As the show progresses, Kornblum’s eye shifts from images of women to images of objects that act as stand-ins for women, or for representations of women and femininity more broadly. A female face is projected on an atomic bomb by Meridel Rubinstein, luscious red petit-fours are given legs by Laurie Simmons, Silvia Kolbowski takes a closer look at the codes of feminine shoes and bracelets, and Louise Lawler applies her smartly loaded spatial dynamics to an arrangement of a statue of Sappho and an ancient male head in the distance. In each case, the artist is exploring how female identity is represented, often with a more overtly feminist bent, even though this collection isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, a gathering of feminist or conceptually-heavy art.

Kornblum then extends this idea of indirect representation to surreal images of doll heads, masks, mirrors, and female mannequins (from Kati Horna, Marie Cosindas, Tina Modotti, Margaret Watkins, and Dora Maar), and then even further to images of various natural forms, from the Modernist clarity of images by Imogen Cunningham, Alma Lavenson, and Sonya Noskowiak to eggs and curved seashells as seen by Ringl+Pit and Ruth Bernhard. And while some of these natural forms clearly evoke female symbols and bodies, more literal female nudes (made by women) do not seem to have been an interest of Kornblum’s, perhaps because the collaboration (at least in many 20th century cases) still wasn’t as equal or mutual as she might have liked.

Kornblum doesn’t seem to have been a comprehensive, completionist type collector, as if she was a relentless checklist maker, names like Arbus, Sherman, Abbott, Goldin, Levitt, Mann, Model, Ishiuchi, and Dijkstra might have made appearances here (which they don’t). The same can be said for the two ends of the chronological barbell – the 19th century, and the most recent 21st century – as works from both periods are largely omitted from this installation. Instead, Kornblum seems to have aimed her collecting energy at digging deeper and wider, adding lesser known female names to her assemblage of images; in tallying up the names of the included artists here, we added nearly a dozen new names to our photographer database. As a collecting approach, adding new (or rediscovered) voices to the chorus instead of amplifying the obvious feels like a deliberately smart and engaged way to make trade-offs.

While the timing for a group show of female photographers like this one is certainly apt, this particular exhibition isn’t entirely authoritative in its organization or messaging, nor quirkily and lovingly eccentric in its mood, falling somewhere in the middle, which will likely dilute its long term influence and memorability. But even if this summary exhibit is soon forgotten, the lasting power of Kornblum’s gift is indeed strong, and she can certainly be commended for ably shoring up plenty of weak spots in the museum’s collection of female photographers.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices, and given the large number of photographers included in the show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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Read more about: Alma Lavenson, Amanda Ross-Ho, Ana Mendieta, Anne Noggle, Barbara Morgan, Barbara Probst, Candida Höfer, Cara Romero, Carrie Mae Weems, Catherine Opie, Charlotte Rudolph, Claude Cahun, Consuelo Kanaga, Dora Maar, Dorothea Lange, Flor Garduño, Florence Henri, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Germaine Krull, Gertrud Arndt, Graciela Iturbide, Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, Ilse Bing, Imogen Cunningham, Inge Morath, Jane Reece, Jeanne Dunning, Jessie Tarbox Beals, Josephine Pryde, Justine Kurland, Kati Horna, Laura Gilpin, Laurie Simmons, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Lorie Novak, Lorna Simpson, Lotte Jacobi, Louise Lawler, Lucia Moholy, Margaret Bourke-White, Margaret Watkins, Margrethe Mather, Mariana Yampolsky, Marie Cosindas, Marta María Pérez Bravo, Mary Ellen Mark, Meridel Rubenstein, Nell Dorr, Nelly (Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari), Ringl+Pit, Rosemarie Trockel, Ruth Bernhard, Ruth Orkin, Sharon Lockhart, Silvia Kolbowski, Sonya Noskowiak, Susan Meiselas, Tatiana Parcero, Tina Modotti, Tracey Moffatt, Ursula Johanna Richter, Yva (Else Neuländer-Simon), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

One comment

  1. Janet Borden /

    I am curious why neither you nor MoMA talked about this material’s having been cherry-picked from Kornblum’s collection. She has a much larger collection. Maybe you should have asked her?

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