2010Gertrude Käsebier (American, 1852-1934)
Blessed Art Thou Among Women, 1899
Platinum print, 9 3/8 x 5 5/8" (23.8 x 14.3 cm)
March means that winter’s icy grip may be loosening a bit, and it also means that it’s Women’s History Month. And in New York, this year, that heralds a crop of shows featuring works by women artists.
Two of these are photography shows---each with striking work, each carefully-curated, and yet each quite different from the other. And they're both terrific for anyone who is already a professional photographer, or who is just learning to use a camera.
Pictures By Women: A History of Modern Photography, the show at the Museum of Modern Art, takes up three rooms of the museum, and leads the viewer on a head-spinning tour of the work of the greats in photography; walking through the show is a little like reading the history of photography, particularly the history of women’s photography.
The show begins with work by some of the earliest photographers such as Gertrude Kasebiers and Julia Margaret Cameron. Cameron was known for making elaborate scenes with models, often replicating stories from mythology and religion, resulting in ethereal images as if she was photographing not in the 1800s, but in a misty time of earliest history.
But the history of photography as exhibited here isn’t predictable. Some of the work of Anne W. Brigman from the early 20th century and the 1927 cityscapes of Germaine Krull are nearly abstract, as if foreshadowing the work of the abstract expressions of the mid-century (an exhibit of which is also on show at MOMA, until April 25).
Although the show isn’t arranged strictly chronologically, it does begin with primarily black and white photos, so that when a visitor comes to the next room, the color work of Helen Levitt is particularly arresting. In contrast with the understated elegance of the early 20th century work, the more recent photographs by Levitt, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin is bold, sharp, and often not a little unsettling.
Cindy Sherman (American, born 1954)
Untitled #92, 1981
Chromogenic color print, 24 x 47 15/16" (61 x 121.9 cm)
Visitors who want to see original prints of well-known photographs won’t be disappointed: there is an entire wall of Dorothea Lange, and another of Diane Arbus.
In contrast, A Woman's World, organized by Professional Women’s Photographers and on show in the 8th-floor gallery at Macy’s Herald Square, exhibits work of contemporary photographers working today, many of whom attended the opening reception on Thursday, March 3rd.
Much of the work in the show illustrates the range of the the ways women work in the world, from Morocco to New York, from Mexico to Egypt. There are images of a beautician, a surfer, a choreographer, a presidential candidate, a lallbraider. (You’ll have to see the show to see a lallbraider at work).
But the show also shows the work of the photographers themselves---the laborious process of learning the tricks of light and shadow and color and tone and framing--- because the intense work that goes into making a great image is what’s really on view here. We see the women in the photographs through the lens of the photographers, and it’s fascinating to see what has fascinated them.
One topic that fascinated photographer Karen Smul was two girls riding in the Polish Day Parade, perched on the top of a white convertible’s back seat, one in her full traditional costume, beribboned, a crown of parti-colored flowers on her blonde head; she looks distracted by and anxious about the ribbons on her dress. The other girl clutches a pale blue ski jacket around her shoulders, but wears an expression of absolute and genuine contentment. The photo is titled “Car Ride: Polish Day Parade.”
Karen Smul, "Car Ride: Polish Day Parade"
“I was drawn to the solemnity of their expressions---before they had time to compose their parade smiles,” Smull said.
Another photo of colorful life being lived, “Pretty in Pink” by Trish Mayo, shows a pink-gowned bridesmaid mounting the steps of a church, the bottom of her skirt gathered up in one hand, the other hand clutching a bouquet. The pink of her dress is so rich it seems to glow.
Mayo said the photo works because of the curve of the dress and the gesture of the woman's arm. “It’s the epitome of feminine beauty and grace,” she said. Mayo said it was a “lucky shot,” taken as she stood with other awed on-lookers as a wedding party entered a church in Harlem.“As she walked up the steps, I knew I had it,” Mayo said. “The light was good, the background was the black open door, and it all worked.”
“Pretty in Pink” by Trish Mayo
Photographer Andy Mars also got a lucky shot through a doorway, but the effect she created with it is entirely different than Mayo’s. In this photograph, the viewer sees a waitress in a tiny restaurant; she’s seen through a screen door, and her image is also reflected in something unidentifiable within. “I love the relfection that gives you two images, and mystery of the dark contrast,” Mars said.
Andy Mars, "Waitress Behind Screen Door"
The work of Pamela Greene takes us farther afield, in this case to the rural and city streets of Mexico. “Female Cop,” gives us a woman on a motorcycle in Queretaro, wearing an expression that’s capable and proud---and wearing a bulletproof vest as well. The photo was taken during the silent procession of Semana Santa, and brings the viewer the solemnity of the occasion along with the danger with which many Mexicans live.
“Clearly serious about her position on the force, she is wearing a bullet proof vest yet maintains her femininity—rings adorn her fingers and her expression is composed,” Greene said. “At first glance, she seems to be riding a designer scooter, but closer inspection reveals that she sits astride a battered bike, with peeling paint. She is a small agent of peace who faced few challenges a few years back, because on this street in an up and coming city there was no open violence and no sense of the drug wars that would soon engulf Mexico.”
Pamela Greene, "Female Cop"
“A Woman’s World” is on view until March 23. Hours are Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 9:30 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit online.
“Pictures By Women: A History of Modern Photography” is on view until April 4. Hours are Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday 10:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. and Friday evenings until 8. For more information, visit online http://www.moma.org