The Feminine Eye
The art specialist Naomi Rosenblum introduces in Spain the republication of her classic “A History of Women Photographers”.
She hasn’t been the first to look trough a camera’s lens, but one of the most concerned about collecting the history that there is behind all these images taken by women. The wide renowned American historian Naomi Rosenblum visits our country for presenting the republication of her most important work, A History of Women Photographers (Abbeville Press), updated, moreover, with the works of young female authors from Africa and Middle East recognized as such only since some years.
The women’s purpose and the style behind the camera has evolved in agreement with social change’s future. At the beginning, when what was expected from them was keeping the beauty and the virtues of family life, their works were nothing but a reflection of this exclusive role. "Of course, in this period [at the end of XIX century] we talk about middle class women who enjoyed the domestic help necessary to let them dedicate to their art", explains Naomi. Pioneers with status they could open their own photographic business, mainly portraits studios. But there was also who got separate from this emphasizing tendency of the beautifulness ready and achieved, like, for example, Frances Benjamin Johnston, who managed to self create a space in the press and agencies’ world. Travelling the whole history of photography with Rosenblum (that only includes two Spanish women, Cristina Garcia Rodero and Marta Sentis) it’s easy to wonder about a feminine eye. The author considers that, with the time, these women had managed to apply for the same works as agencies and developed projects in similar fields, for which, although we are talking about individual styles, it results very hard to establish different genre characteristics. "In Dorothea Lange case, we see a higher empathy in her works with a human element than in others works produced by FSA agency, but not for this reason we can consider that a feminine special feature". And adds: "Observing Margaret Bourke-White’s industrial photographs, it would be difficult to establish its creator genre".
Rosenblum in her volume creates an exhaustive review, biographic and graphic, to more than 200 essential names. There aren’t all the photographers (Rosenblum recognizes she didn’t want to realize an encyclopedia), but the women who contributed to change the photography course.
A traveling exhibition on women photographers doesn't skirt the issue
Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White . . . most of us have heard of these photographers and have some familiarity with their work. But how about Grace Robertson, Ruth Orkin or Lily White? These names are probably unfamiliar, but they won't be for long. Between a book published in 1994 — A History of Women Photographers, by art historian Naomi Rosenblum — and an exhibition of the same name that is now touring the country, photographs by all these women, and more than 200 others, have been brought together and placed in historical context. Co-curated by Rosenblum and Barbara Tannenbaum, chief curator of the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, the show began its tour last fall at the New York Public Library. It is now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (until May 4), and will later go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California (June 7 to August 17) and the Akron Art Museum (September 6 to November 2), which organized it.
The steady stream of visitors who went through the show when it was in New York, as well as its long list of supporters, headed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, testify to the fact that our interest in photography, including its history, is stronger than ever. In the past year or two alone, scholars and curators of all stripes have raised the visibility of the works of Dorothea Lange, Dixie Vereen, Graciela Iturbide, Consuelo Kanaga and the inimitable Julia Margaret Cameron — the list goes on — and that's just the tip of the iceberg. In the sifting process, the great images will endure; but they must be seen to be judged.
"People have asked me, why a show on women photographers?" says Rosenblum. "It's not that I want to separate out women and say they're better or worse. It's because the history was getting lost, that's why." Rosenblum realized this when she was researching her earlier book, A World History of Photography, which was first published in 1984 and is now a standard reference work. She kept running across fine women photographers who, although often well known in their own time, seemed to be slipping into oblivion. The situation has changed since the mid-1970s, says Rosenblum; there has been a huge increase in the numbers and prominence of women working in the field. The need now, she says, "is to recover, and present to a wide public, the work of those who preceded them."
Lily White is the most recent case in point. When Rosenblum visited the Portland Art Museum in Oregon last year, curator Terry Toedtemeier showed her Lily White's platinum prints. White, who lived from about 1868 to 1931, had a houseboat, the Raysark, that she kept on the Columbia River. Her father had built it complete with a darkroom and running water. White is represented in the show by a print entitled Evening on the Columbia, circa 1902-04; the partially concealed structure near the shore may be the Raysark.
White didn't make it into the book; it had just been published. But that's all right with Rosenblum and Tannenbaum. They don't regard the book or the show as definitive. The way they see it, filling in the gaps in our photographic history is an ongoing process — and one that promises to continue.