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How Women Changed Street Photography

How Women Changed Street Photography

A new exhibit showcases the development of street photography across the 20th century, and how women came to define it.
Woman with Veil, San Francisco, 1947 © Lisette Model

Street photography has become a de facto part of modern life, with cellphone cameras snapping every passing moment. But its humble beginnings in the early 20th century, before the term “street photography” had even been properly coined, came to be defined by many of the women who participated in it. Before the rise of this new medium, most art forms were dominated by men; photography, and particularly street photography, was more democratic, and allowed women to not only join but help shape a new movement. All of this is explored in a new exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery,A Female Gaze”, which features an all-star lineup of female street photographers across seven decades, with Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, and Ruth Orkin among the set.   

Vivian Maier, who posthumously achieved newfound fame, is showcased here with some of the close-up, surreptitious photography she has become known for, flicking the shutter on her Rolleiflex camera that hung around her waist as she walked the streets of New York and Chicago. In one, she captures a woman delicately holding her coin purse behind her back, with one hand resting on the other. Another faceless image captures a woman bending forward as she adjusts her heel: an everyday moment immortalized by Maier.

Street Embrace, New York City, 1948-50 © Ruth Orkin
© Vivian Maier

Of the 49 images on display, one particular standout is Jodi Bieber’s Father and son trapeze act, which shows a young boy in a defiant stance, mid-air as his father twirls him around. Though it was shot 75 years after some of the photographs in the exhibition, it doesn’t feel anachronistic in this display, with the strong contrasts mirroring that of Lisette Model’s Woman with a Veil, which also hangs in the exhibition.

Also included are Esther Bubley, Rebecca Lepkoff, Helen Levitt, Mary Ellen Mark, Francis McLaughlin-Gill, and Barbara Morgan. Some images are more emotional, like Orkin’s Street Embrace, where a woman leans down and gently holds a man’s head close to her. Others are less interested in subjects, but rather focused on form, like Barbara Morgan’s City Street, a striking photomontage combining a bird’s eye view with an eye-level photograph, the two blending into each other with a beam of bright light bisecting the image. And then there are the everyday and the ordinary, as Esther Bubley captures in Coast to Coast, in which a group of passengers aboard a train are photographed through the window. Some are chattering away while others are looking ahead, and one woman, centered in the frame, is looking directly at the camera.

City Street, 1937 © Barbara Morgan
Coast to Coast, SONJ, 1947 © Esther Bubley

The photographs in the exhibition span close to a century in time, and with that, the development of novel photographic techniques, personal style, and the ever-changing world. The Female Gaze shows that there is no singular female gaze, nor one singular female photographic style. Rather, it simply exhibits a group of photographers pioneering a new medium, defining, and then re-defining it.

By Christina Cacouris

A Female Gaze will be on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery from January 19 to April 2, 2022.

Father and son trapeze act, Market Theatre Precinct, Newtown, c.2012 © Jodi Bieber
Early Morning Rush, Midtown Manhattan, 1940s © Rebecca Lepkoff
White Junior and Justin, 1983 © Mary Ellen Mark

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