The New Woman Behind the Camera @Met

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing more than 200 photographs, photobooks, and magazine spreads made by more than 120 different photographers, variously framed and matted, and hung against white, grey, and black walls in a series of connected galleries on the second floor of the museum. The exhibition was organized by Andrea Nelson of the National Gallery of Art, with collaboration from Mia Fineman at the Met. (Installation shots below.)

The show is divided into named sections, as follows:

(introductory video: 2 minutes 43 seconds)

The New Woman

  • Alma Lavenson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Unknown: 1 inkjet print, 1940/2020
  • Margaret Bourke-White: 1 toned gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Lee Miller: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Elfriede Stegemeyer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Unknown: 1 gelatin silver print, 1920s
  • Unknown: 1 inkjet print, late 1930s/later
  • Arthur Rothstein: 1 gelatin silver print, 1940
  • Shu Ye: 1 gelatin silver print, 1960
  • Frances McLaughlin-Gill: 1 gelatin silver print, c1940
  • Elisabeth Hase: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Claude Cahun: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Adele Gloria: 1 collage with gelatin silver prints, 1933
  • Ré Soupault: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Marta Astfalck-Vietz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Gertrude Arndt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Wanda Wulz: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Jeanne Mandello: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942/later
  • Florence Henri: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Lotte Stam-Beese: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927
  • Annemarie Heinrich: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Germaine Krull: 1 gelatin silver print, c1925/1978
  • (vitrine): photographer unknown: 1 magazine 1940; Ringl +Pit: 1 bound volume of photographs, collages, watercolors, 1931; Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: 1 book, 1930, 1 photomontage, 1929-1930

The Studio

  • Florestine Perrault Collins: 2 gelatin silver prints, early 1920s, mid 1920s
  • Karimeh Abbud: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930s
  • Germaine Krull: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930
  • Rogi Andre: 1 gelatin silver print, 1941
  • Berenice Abbott: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1926, 1927
  • Trude Fleischmann: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Annelise Kretschmer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Steffi Brandl: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Freida Gertrud Riess: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Dorothy Wilding: 1 chlorobromide print on tissue and card mount, 1937
  • Eiko Yamazawa: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1943-1944
  • Yvonne Gregory: 1 gelatin silver print, c1928
  • Annemarie Heinrich: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Helen Muspratt: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Ruth Harriet Louise: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925-1930
  • Madame Yevonde: 1 Vivex color photograph, 1935

(exterior walls in hallway)

  • Wynn Richards: 1 collage of gelatin silver prints, 1948
  • Trude Fleischmann: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Niu Weiyu: 1 gelatin silver print, 1956/later
  • Lola Alvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1955
  • Kati Horna: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Homai Vyarawalla: 1 inkjet print, 1940/later
  • Dulce Carneiro: 1 gelatin silver print, c1957
  • Elizaveta Igantovich: 1 photolithograph, 1931
  • Tsuneko Sasamoto: 1 gelatin silver print, 1950-1953/1993
  • Toshiko Okanoue: 1 collage on paper, 1954
  • Ilse Bing: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931

The City

  • Rebecca Lepkoff: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947-1948
  • Berenice Abbott: 1 album pages with 10 gelatin silver prints, 1929-1930
  • Helen Levitt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Lola Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, c1950
  • Tazue Sato Matsunaga: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938-1939
  • Tsuneko Sasamoto: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946/1993
  • Edith Tudor-Hart: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Lisette Model: 1 gelatin silver print on newspaper mount, 1933-1938
  • Dora Maar: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Alice Hirsekorn: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Genevieve Naylor: 1 gelatin silver print, early 1940s
  • Hildegard Rosenthal: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1940, 1940
  • Alice Brill: 1 gelatin silver print, c1953/later
  • (vitrine): Margaret Michaelis: 1 book, 1936; Berenice Abbott: 1 book, 1939

Avant-Garde Experimentation

  • Lucia Moholy: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925-1926
  • Margaret De Patta: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Bernice Kolko: 1 gelatin silver print, c1944
  • Gertrude Fehr: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Marianne Brandt: 1 photomontage on paper, 1930
  • Olive Cotton: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Anna Barna: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930s
  • Grete Stern: 1 gelatin silver print photomontage, 1949
  • Gerda Leo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Imogen Cunningham: 1 gelatin silver print, c1925
  • Cami Stone: 1 gelatin silver print, c1929
  • Sonya Noskowiak: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Tina Modotti: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Louise Barbour Davis: 1 gelatin silver print, 1953
  • Vera Gabrielová: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935-1936
  • Germaine Krull: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Elfriede Stegemeyer: 1 gelatin silver print photogram, 1934
  • Jaroslava Hatláková: 1 gelatin silver print, c1936
  • Olga Máté: 1 gelatin silver print, c1930
  • Nobuko Tsuchiura: 1 gelatin silver print, c1938
  • (vitrine): Valentina Kulagina: 1 book cover maquette, 1930

Fashion and Advertising

  • Toni Von Horn: 1 gelatin silver print, 1932
  • Ringl + Pit: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Margaret Watkins: 1 palladium print, 1924
  • Yva: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1930
  • Jeanne Mandello: 1 gelatin silver print, c1935-1938/later
  • Regina Relang: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Frances McLaughlin-Gill: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946
  • Caroline Whiting Fellows: 1 dye transfer print, 1930s
  • Liselotte Grschebina: 1 gelatin silver print, c1935
  • Toni Frissell: 1 gelatin silver print, 1946
  • Genevieve Naylor: 1 gelatin silver print, 1945-1946
  • Louise Dahl-Wolfe: 1 gelatin silver print, 1942
  • Lillian Bassman: 1 gelatin silver print, c1950
  • (vitrine): Louise Dahl-Wolfe: 1 magazine, 1942; Elizabeth Buehrmann, 1 gelatin silver print mounted in press book, c1920; Wynn Richards, 1 book, 1937

Ethnographic Approaches

  • Denise Bellon: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Marjorie Content: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Laura Gilpin: 1 platinum print, c1930
  • Genevieve Naylor: 1 gelatin silver print, early 1940s
  • Jeanne Mandello: 1 gelatin silver print, c1945/later
  • Erna Lendvai-Dirckson: 1 gelatin silver print, before 1934
  • Ré Soupault: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Constance Stuart Larrabee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947
  • (vitrine): Eslanda Goode Robeson: 1 book, 1945; Anna Riwkon: 1 book, 1950; Ella Maillart: 1 book, 1935
  • (vitrine): Ellen Thorbecke: 1 book, 1935; Hélène Hoppenot: 1 book, 1946; Jette Bang: 1 book, 1940

Social Documentary

  • Margaret Bourke-White: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1936, 1937
  • Lucy Ashjian: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935-1943
  • Dorothea Lange: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1936, 1942, 1942/1965
  • Rosalie Gwathmey: 1 gelatin silver print, 1943
  • Marian Post Wolcott: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Marvin Breckenridge Paterson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1937
  • Hansel Mieth: 1 gelatin silver print, 1943
  • Esther Bubley: 1 gelatin silver print, 1943
  • Vera Jackson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1940s
  • Consuelo Kanaga: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Edith Tudor-Hart: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1932/later, 1940s/later
  • Éva Besnyő: 1 gelatin silver print, c1940
  • Tina Modotti: 1 gelatin silver print, 1926
  • Elizaveta Igantovich: 1 gelatin silver print, 1930s
  • Marianne Breslauer: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Ruth Bernhard: 1 gelatin silver print, c1939
  • Ruth Orkin: 1 gelatin silver print, 1950
  • Constance Stuart Larrabee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1948/later

Modern Bodies

  • Irene Bayer-Hecht: 1 gelatin silver print, c1925
  • Leni Riefenstahl: 1 gelatin silver print, 1936
  • Charlotte Rudolph: 1 gelatin silver print, 1925
  • Barbara Morgan: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Trude Fleischmann: 1 gelatin silver print, c 1930
  • Lotte Jacobi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Ilse Bing: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Homai Vyarawalla: 1 inkjet print, late 1930s/later
  • Madame D’Ora: 1 gelatin silver print, 1921
  • Germaine Krull: 1 gelatin silver print, 1924
  • Jeanne Mandello: 1 gelatin silver print, 1928
  • Laure Albin Guillot: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Yvonee Chevalier: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • Ilse Salberg: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938

Reportage

  • Niu Weiyu: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1949/later, 1952/1988, 1955/later, 1956/later
  • Constance Stuart Larrabee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1944/later
  • Lee Miller: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1940, 1945
  • (vitrine): Margaret Bourke-White: 2 magazines, 1943, 1945; Emmy Andriesse: 1 magazine, 1947
  • Galida Sanko: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1942, 1942/1960s, 1943/1960s
  • Homai Vyarawalla: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1945
  • Toni Frissell: 1 gelatin silver print, 1945
  • Kati Horna: 1 gelatin silver print, 1937-1938
  • (vitrine): Gerda Taro: 2 magazines, 1937; Thérèse Bonney: 1 book, 1943; 1 comic, 1944
  • Thérèse Bonney: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1939, 1940-1941
  • Hou Bo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1956/later
  • Tsuneko Sasamoto: 1 inkjet print 1953/2020

A catalog of the exhibit has been published by the National Gallery of Art (here).

Comments/Context: When someone from far in the future looks back on the photography world of the 2020s, one of the major trends that will be readily apparent is the dramatic transformation of inclusivity that is taking place. It’s as if a light switch has been switched on, and the once established (and thoroughly studied) canon of white, male, largely Western European and American photographers has been bluntly exposed as having been egregiously, and in some cases tragically, over narrow all along. Out of that semi-darkness has emerged the beginnings of an entirely new paradigm, that is now starting to re-identify and re-include a much broader diversity of previously overlooked or deliberately marginalized work by photographers of different genders, races, and geographies.

In many ways, it’s hard to imagine that a period like between-the-wars photographic Modernism can be studied (and celebrated) any further than it already has. And yet, even though there has been decades of intense scholarship poured into these few decades, and we might therefore reasonably conclude that the ground has been fully tilled and there is nothing more to discover or learn, recent museum shows like this one, and MoMA’s show of Brazilian modernism (reviewed here) have smartly upended our assumptions about what we thought we knew. They have proven that even photographic Modernism remains far more complicated and messy than our simplified view might imply.

While women have been active and innovative participants in photography from its very beginnings, it is undeniably the case that their contributions have often been underrepresented or entirely left out of the prevailing art historical narrative. Over the years, meaningful efforts (in the form of survey-style catalogs and exhibitions) have been made to attempt to rebalance the gender scales and draw clearer attention to the durably important work of female photographers. And while those projects have provided the broad frameworks that many of the more recent initiatives have built upon, much more work was (and continues to be) necessary to turn their initial sparks into something approaching wildfire.

The New Woman Behind the Camera departs from the existing comprehensive women’s photography survey baseline, and ably constructs the next brick upward. It narrows down to a smaller window of years (roughly 1920 to 1950) and then dives much deeper into the work of women during those years than we have ever seen previously. Fascinatingly, this makes the show much tighter and well bounded than previous efforts, but also much more extensive and wandering at the same time. It’s a far reaching cross section of work from a relatively thin slice of time, thereby doing exactly what this middle brick needs to do: tightening up the overall art historical argument but inclusively opening up the possibilities for further study of the now visible individual contributors.

Curatorially, The New Woman Behind the Camera first locates itself in a cultural and social context, rather than a strictly art historical one. While the “new woman” meant different things in different countries, as a broad feminist ideal, she brought together a new sense of female identity and aspirational self-empowerment. Given the unsettled context of two world wars, pervasive economic depression, the rise of communism and fascism, and the ongoing efforts of decolonialization, women were brought into professional and working life in countless new ways during this period, and these new roles led to further transformations in their lives, from entering politics and gaining the right to vote to exercising more autonomy in everything from sexual relations to traveling alone. Photographically, the combination of the widespread arrival of the hand-held camera and the rise of the picture press around the world meant that there were many more possibilities for women to participate in the medium. In the hands of a new woman, a camera came to represent not just an independent spirit, but an opportunity for self-expression and self-determination.

One of the critical things that The New Woman Behind the Camera understands is that this group of inspirational women can’t be defined or categorized by their gender alone – the women who became photographers during this period aren’t in any way a homogenous group. And while the curators have grouped their images into broad thematic sections, many women liberally jump from section to section. The only noticeable structure beyond these subject matter categories is a rigid sense of equality – famous names from Europe and America are given exactly equal footing with those working in other geographies or with less (or no) fanfare. We might have expected Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Tina Modotti, or Germaine Krull to variously dominate these proceedings, but this doesn’t happen. This deliberate egalitarianism is refreshing, as it forcefully encourages us to rebalance our received notions of who is daring, important, or innovative.

Make no mistake, however, this is a sprawling show, spilling into all of the galleries usually reserved for photography on the museum’s second floor; for some visitors, it will undoubtedly feel expansively diffuse, or just a lot to absorb in one continuous stroll. The exhibit begins by introducing the women who will anchor and define this new study, first with an exhaustive list of included names and then with a tighter series of portraits and self-portraits. Almost none of these portraits could be considered traditional. Apart from the surface signals of short hair cuts and practical long pants (as seen in many of the images of women actually at work making photographs out in the field), most of the women have taken the opportunity to carefully craft their personas. Masks, multiple exposures, mirrors, and collage help some of the women to distort or amplify their appearance or identity; others use the camera as an interrupting mechanical stand-in for their faces. This initial parade of faces also introduces an unusually broad geographic mix, adding female photographers from China, India, Japan, Argentina, and Uruguay (among others) to those from more predictable Western locales.

Wherever they called home, opening up a commercial portrait studio offered these new women photographers a range of enticing possibilities: the chance to be entrepreneurial, to define a professional identity, and to earn an income, the flexibility to be independent, and the opportunity to serve customers (like women and children) who might, in certain societies, feel more comfortable with a woman behind the camera. The second section of the exhibit provides examples of their studio efforts, from the straightforward to the more experimental. Karimeh Abbud’s portrait of three women from Palestine feels like a window into a world we rarely see, the confidence and quiet presence of the sitters captured by a mobile studio Abbud set up in their homes. Images by Florestine Perrault Collins (in New Orleans) and Eiko Yamazawa (in Japan) similarly show us faces and gestures that have been underseen, while Madame Yevonde and Helen Muspratt (both in the UK) have taken more aesthetic risks, with color costuming (including hair ribbons that look like flowing seaweed) and shadowy solarization respectively.

City views, street photography, and more avant-garde visual experiments are the bread and butter of photographic Modernism, so it’s not surprising to find these kinds of images well represented here. Standout urban examples from lesser known photographers include Lola Álvarez Bravo’s shadow study that creates a prison bar effect around a woman in a window, Dora Maar’s portrait of a boy holding a cat with tense vulnerability, Anna Barna’s image of a boy standing on a chair looking over a fence (creating a shadow that looks like a face), and Hildegard Rosenthal’s layered street scene of a watermelon seller in São Paulo. Texture studies, photograms, shadow play, and precisely arranged still lifes populate the avant-garde section, with unexpected examples from Bernice Kolko, Gerda Leo, and Grete Stern.

An in-depth reading of the wall labels in The New Woman Behind the Camera will find a number of “first woman photojournalist in (X country)” designations, and three separate sections in the exhibit make documentary work their thematic center. Works by Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange make deserving appearances in the social documentary subset, but strong images by Consuelo Kanaga, Marianne Breslauer, and Constance Stuart Larrabee match them in intensity and compassion. And lesser known wartime images by Niu Weiyu, Lee Miller, Galina Sanko, and Toni Frissell lead the reportage section with similar on-the-ground tenaciousness.

Other sections focus of fashion, advertising, and bodies (including the nude form), and each has its overlooked stars. Margaret Watkins makes a bar of soap on the edge of a sink look elegantly tactile, Lillian Bassman plays glamorously with a silhouette and the edge of translucent hat, and Jeanne Mandello uses a billow of draped tulle to surround a perfume bottle. Other works bring bodies to the forefront, from Leni Riefenstahl’s endless rows of Olympic calisthenics and Barbara Morgan’s twisting dance to the elemental angles in nudes by Yvonne Chevalier and Ilse Salberg.

Seen as a single curatorial statement, The New Woman Behind the Camera is both an engagingly inclusive reevaluation of a key period in photographic history and a welcome opening point for layers of additional scholarship. Based on the visual evidence presented here, many of these overlooked female photographers deserve more thorough research and study. At the moment, this re-envisioned compendium feels a bit unwieldy and open-ended, but dismantling biases and resetting long standing inequities takes time and effort, and this show is certainly a solid step toward a more robust and thorough history of the period, especially because it has named the names of many important female photographers who need some attention. This show successfully continues the process of breaking down the previously fixed walls of photographic Modernism, opening up some promising new lines of thinking that should, in the coming years, yield further discoveries and reconsiderations.

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 the gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories of the individual photographers.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by MACK Books (here). Embossed hard-cover with tip-in (17 x 24.5 cm); 72 pages with 37 monochrome and 4 color reproductions. Includes texts ... Read on.

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