To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Rencontres d’Arles has dedicated one of the most beautiful spaces in the city, the Espace Van Gogh, to women photographers. The festival pays tribute to a trio of politically engaged women—Abigail Heyman, Eve Arnold, and Susan Meiselas—who, in the early 1970s, contributed to the emancipation of women with their groundbreaking publications.
It is hard to think of a more potent opening to the exhibition than a self-portrait in a bathroom mirror: a woman facing her own reflection. The image sums up the tenor of the exhibition: women talking about women, their own intimacy, and their condition as objects of beauty, use, and pleasure. The self-portrait of Abigail Heyman is taken from her book Growing Up Female, published in 1974, which addresses the issue of stereotyping women. We go from the middle-aged woman shopping with curlers in her hair, to the devoted stay-at-home mom, to the little girl who primly pushes a stroller around the yard. These are clichés which conceal the boredom of a life delineated in advance and predictable. These “non-subjects” are reduced, in Eve Arnold’s work, to a simple impersonal and repetitive gesture: that of a hand scrubbing a pan or mending a sock. The effective and direct style emphasizes women’s domestic function and dehumanizes them.
Behind the scenes
If a woman is not a mother, then she is a lover, that is, a fantasy. We might see her strip on the stage of a makeshift theatre, as in Susan Meseilas’s 1976 book Carnival Strippers. For four years, the photographer documented fairground striptease shows in northeastern United States. Her poignant testimony reveals the goddesses of the night behind the scenes: their waiting, weariness, fatigue. However, not all of them consider themselves victims and proudly pose naked before the camera, asserting their bodies and their profession. Susan Meiselas depicts, above all, free and independent women, in touch with the times, breaking free from the stranglehold of prejudice despite working in an oft-stigmatized profession. This is also true of Eve Arnold’s images. In her 1976 book The Unretouched Woman, which inspired the title of the exhibition, the photographer breaks down sexist stereotypes and celebrates the natural woman, without makeup or airbrushing. In particular, she offers beautiful, rare images of Marilyn Monroe, an icon of the desirable woman, whom she manages to photograph spontaneously, at unexpected moments in her daily life. These photographs contrast with Arnold’s series devoted to Joan Crawford and documenting the endless makeup sessions and other beauty treatments the actress would submit to before any public appearance. These moving images shed light on women’s condition and offer a tender insight into their private lives.
By Coline Olsina
Eve Arnold, Abigail Heyman and Susan Meseilas : Unretouched women
July 1 - September 22, 2019
Espace Van Gogh, Arles