Neglected 20th-Century Women Photographers Begin to Get Their Due

A famous, bikini-clad model reclines on the crystalline shore of a beach in Jamaica. The corpse of an SS prison guard floats down a river. Three boys play, chasing each other with sticks in an empty lot in the Bronx. What do these images have in common?

They are all photographs in The New Woman Behind the Camera, an ambitious, sprawling exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art and now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show spans four decades, 20 countries, and 120 artists, and covers areas as diverse as fashion, journalism, and avant-garde art. The works are united by one common theme: they are all by women photographers — modern, but not necessarily modernist. That it achieves such breadth is a testament to both its curator, Andrea Nelson of the NGA, and the staggering suppression of female artists over the last century.

The New Woman is an attempt to set the record straight, to “move beyond the Euro-American narrative that has really structured the history of photography,” as Nelson describes it. (Europe and America, however, are still overrepresented.) In broadening its geographical boundaries, The New Woman expanded its temporal limits as well: although the year 1945 is typically considered the end of the Modern period in Europe, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that Modernism continued to develop abroad well through the 1950s.

It is a breath of fresh air to see some of the show’s more familiar names — Ilse Bing, Germaine Krull, Margaret Bourke-White — finally get their due, as they are too often relegated to the corners of exhibitions to say, in effect, “Oh, and there were women too!” Bing, in particular, is a star of the show, as her “Self-Portrait with Leica” (1931) asserts an unwavering female gaze. Like Annemarie Heinrich and Florence Henri, whose work also features in the exhibition, Bing uses mirrors to toy with photography’s flattening of three-dimensional space, obscuring the distinction between reality and reflection, subject and object. When we view beautiful women in pictures, they do not typically look back at us, judging our gazes; Bing’s camera thus becomes a sort of weapon, a radical self-defense.

Margaret Bourke-White, “Self-Portrait with Camera” (ca. 1933), gelatin silver print, toned, 13 1/4 × 9 1/8 inches (courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection)

The New Woman also unearths quite a bit of buried treasure. Each photograph is accompanied by a biographical text, which illuminates certain recurring themes: forgotten work found by accident, famous husbands who eclipsed them, avant-garde circles that celebrated the work but then moved on. Lola Álvarez Bravo belongs to the famous-husband category, although she is a genius in her own right; “In Her Own Prison”(ca. 1950) recalls Moholy-Nagy’s famous portrait of Oskar Schlemmer, while making a powerful political statement about the invisible barriers confining women’s progress. Niu Weiyu is another standout. In one of her photographs, taken on assignment, three women sit around a table in near-chiaroscuro, painting and assembling dolls. Part photojournalism, part metaphor for the act of creation, it is a sort of microcosm of The New Woman exhibition itself — women at work, in rapt concentration. (The image was never selected for publication, another unfortunate commonality within the show).

One curiosity of the exhibition is that its vast scope means that certain major figures of photography’s history are only briefly touched upon. Helen Levitt is represented by just one work, which is surprising since she has recently been the subject of several major retrospectives and, in 1992, was the first female photographer ever to receive a solo show at the Met. The show also breezes past one of the most influential and infamous female photographers of all time: Leni Riefenstahl. With her bobbed hair and empowered attitude, Riefenstahl embodied the New Woman that this exhibition so valiantly strives to rescue from obscurity. She was also a leading Nazi propagandist whose films were instrumental in carrying out the Holocaust.

Claude Cahun, “Self-Portrait” (ca. 1927), gelatin silver print Image: 10 1/16 × 7 15/16 inches (courtesy Wilson Centre for Photography)

Riefenstahl’s presence complicates The New Woman’s heroic narrative; while the wall text beside her photograph acknowledges the “fundamental questions” her work raises “about whether we can or should separate artists’ ethics from their art,” the show misses an important opportunity to examine how the New Woman ideal intersected with fascism and authoritarianism, as it so clearly did. What do we do with women artists who engage in morally reprehensible acts? The New Woman casts a wide net, which is both its triumph and its downfall; the show should dig deeper, and not settle for passing glances.

The New Woman Behind the Camera continues at the Metropolitan Museum of New York (1000 Fifth Avenue) until October 3rd. The exhibition is curated by Andrea Nelson, Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The Met’s presentation is organized by Mia Fineman, Curator, with Virginia McBride, Research Assistant, both in the Department of Photographs.

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