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The Innovative Achievements of Women Behind the Lens

The Innovative Achievements of Women Behind the Lens

A new exhibition brings together 100 works made over the past two centuries to explore the ways women have shaped the development of photography.
Paula Chamlee, Nude Collage #1, 1998 © Paula Chamlee

History is filled with works of art that have survived save one salient point: the name of the person to whom their creation might be attributed. In the 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, British author Virginia Woolf knowingly surmised, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

Even though it wasn’t until the twentieth century that women began to command the political and cultural capital to demand credit where it was due, their contributions are all too often left out of the pantheon alongside their male counterparts. It is only in recent years that mainstream institutions have begun to center those relegated to the margins of history, and in doing so offer new paradigms by which we may reconsider women’s roles in shaping the world.

Berenice Abbott, “El” Station Interior, Sixth and Ninth Avenue Lines, Downtown Side, 1936 © Berenice Abbott

The new exhibition, “Underexposed: Women Photographers from the Collection”, in Atlanta, brings together 100 works made over the past century, presents a panoply of perspectives and approaches across a wide array of genres including photojournalism, documentary, portraiture, and advertising. Featuring works by Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, Zanele Muholi, Sheila Pree Bright, Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems, the exhibition explores image making through the female lens.

I’m Every Woman

“Underexposed” reminds us that women have been significant contributors to photography since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. The exhibition begins with the work of British photographer and botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871). No less than William Henry Fox Talbot, the father of photography, introduced Atkins to his revolutionary inventions: photograms and calotypes. By 1841, Atkins had a camera and that very year she became the very first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images.

Imogen Cunningham, Magnolia Blossom, 1975 © The Imogen Cunningham Trust

“Underexposed” advances against the backdrop of “The New Woman,” a term coined by Irish writer Sarah Grand in 1894, then quickly popularized by writers Ouida and Henry James to describe a new generation of independent career women making their name across Europe and the United States at the turn of the century. With professionalism widely admired and embraced, the foundation was laid for artists including Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Ilse Bing and Margaret Bourke-White to advance the aesthetic, conceptual, and documentary possibilities of photography.

As the twentieth century advances, a new wave appears on the scene, with artists like Barbara Kasten Sheila Pinkel, and Elizabeth Turk exploring a host of experimental processes while Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Sally Mann reframe the way we look at gender, sexuality, and identity through different approaches to portraiture. But it’s not until the end of the century that Black women are welcomed into the fold, with pioneering artists like Carrie Mae Weems leading the charge. In centering a new host of aesthetics drawn from the Black experience, artists like Mickalene Thomas and Zanele Muholi are at the vanguard of the twenty-first century.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, from the “Untitled Film Stills” series, 1979 © Cindy Sherman
Nan Goldin, Cookie and Sharon on the Bed, Provincetown, MA, 1989 © Nan Goldin

As “Underexposed” deftly reveals, notions of the “female gaze” are in their infancy; some claim it while others do not, while efforts to define it often fall short. With less than two centuries of work upon which to reflect, we are just beginning to consider new ways of seeing. By identifying, uplifting, and engaging with the work of women as a group, we may begin to consider just how expansive the “female gaze” could truly become when we make space for women of all races, ethnicities, creeds, classes, ages, abilities — and the intersections that lie within.

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including TimeVogueAperture, and Vice, among others.

Underexposed: Women Photographers from the CollectionThrough August 1, 2021, High Museum of Art in Atlanta, 1280 Peachtree St NE, Atlanta, GA 30309, YSA. More information here.

Jill Frank, everyone who woke up at the yellow house, 2016 © Jill Frank
Sheila Pree Bright, Untitled 13, from the “Suburbia series”, 2006 © Sheila Pree Bright
Mickalene Thomas, Les Trois Femmes Deux, 2018 © Mickalene Thomas

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