The New Woman Behind the Camera

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Galleries 691–693, and 851–852
New York
Upper East Side
Jul 2nd — Oct 3rd

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“Nice girls,” a supervisor once told Berenice Abbott in response to some photographs she had taken, “don’t go down to the Bowery.” “Well, I’m not a nice girl,” Abbott retorted. “I’m a photographer. I go anywhere.” Likewise “The New Woman Behind the Camera” goes everywhere, highlighting photographic works made by 120 artists from more than 20 countries between the 1920s and the 1950s. Though expansive, it captures a portion of the electrifying rise of a rarely examined wave of photographic production by women who traversed the world from the early to mid-20th century.

Many of the featured artists were pioneers in their own countries. Dora Kallmus became the first woman to open a photography studio in Vienna in 1907; Homai Vyarawalla was among India’s first female photojournalists (in an uncredited snapshot from the late 1930s, she appears standing knee-deep in water, one eye closed as her other eye presses into the camera). The exhibition takes care to frame women as advocates not just for their gender, but also for marginalized classes of all kinds—as proto-social documentarians, of sorts. One Dorothea Lange photograph captures a heartbreaking protest by an interned Japanese-American store owner, who hung a sign reading “I AM AN AMERICAN” in their storefront.

“The New Woman Behind the Camera” doesn’t allege that these works matched those of these women photographer’s male counterparts, or even necessarily surpassed it—but rather, that these images were powerful in their own right. Women were skilled in exploiting the few advantages they held: the unprecedented rise in fashion photography, for instance, led to a surge in female photographers. In Frances McLaughlin-Gill’s photograph of Toni Frissell working on a fashion shoot, her husband and daughter can, in a wonderful reversal, be seen frolicking in the foreground as he looked after the children while she worked.

The exhibition also posits that photography by women was formally innovative. When women shot other women, the subjects tended to embody a greater intimacy that was not exclusively sexual: Yvonne Chevallier’s silver gelatin print Nude (1929) captures the dark crevice between limbs as if it were a rock formation. Self-portraits, too, have the time-skipping effect of vindicating the current practice of selfies, imagining them not solely as self-indulgent—but instead as a valuable and artistic form of production. See: the former model Lee Miller’s Self-Portrait with Headband (1932), or the German artist Elfriede Stegemeyer’s candid and ambiguous picture of herself that’s angled from beneath her chin. Ultimately, these are just a few notes one can tease out of what was an electrifying blare of new production—and one that continues to resonate well into this century.

Claude Cahun (French, 1894–1954), Self-Portrait ca. 1927. Gelatin silver print, Image: 10 1/16 × 7 15/16 inches. Wilson Centre for Photography.