A Woman’s Place


Two Generations of Photographers’Identify’ With Their Subjects

The big, provocative, enticing exhibition now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is probably not served all that well by its title, “Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography.”

It’s accurate, in the same way that a long, complicated, explicatory title about an essay on string theory might be accurate — and is just as appetizing. What it doesn’t do is hint at the diversity, size and scope of the 70 works on display here by 18 women artists, all of whom use the power of photography to express ideas, poetry, emotions and imaginings about feminine identity.

Indeed, the title suggests a gender-based tract, but it doesn’t even begin to suggest the remarkable quality of work, or the individual approaches by such an eclectic yet gifted group of artists.

Anyone interested in photography will no doubt be familiar with some of the names here, especially in the section on the first-generation photographers that includes the likes of Cindy Sherman, Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann and Nan Goldin.

This generation — liberated by the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1970s — used notions of conceptual art, and often their own selves, to create visual essays that showed both the obvious and hidden roles of women. A second generation of photographers, beginning in the mid-1990s, went a little further, referencing film, television, digital arts and the rise of globalization to ponder women’s identities in a larger context.

The focus on gender quickly becomes apparent as you tour the exhibit, but there’s also the sheer wow factor in the ability of these photographs to project unforgettable, inventive imagery. Although men (as subjects or content) are conspicuously absent in most of the works, you can feel their presence as they cast a kind of contextual shadow against which you measure some of the art.

Men, or other women for that matter, are absent from the work of Cindy Sherman, who is famous for using herself as a model in her pictures, though she constantly shifts and disguises her identity to the point where you have no idea who Cindy Sherman actually might be — is she the Lana Turner-esque moll in the series on film noir, or is she the woman with the quizzical eyes, a chameleon with a fecund body? I think there’s always been an emphatic suggestion in Sherman’s photographs that women — to function and move ahead in society — act much like the legendary Persian Queen Scheherazade, always weaving stories, presenting faces that are partly real, partly a mask. Despite our notions of equality, women — still relatively more so than men — are keenly and constantly aware of how they look, or should look, or want to look, and what their appearance means to them and to the people around them.

While Sherman turns the lens on herself to reflect on appearance, Mary Ellen Mark looks at the “outsider,” people exotically and wildly on the margins, from street children to prostitutes. Mark’s documentary, black-and-white, edgy style — perfect for capturing people on the edge — has become her trademark as she gives voice to the silently disenfranchised.

Sally Mann, too, is well known for her controversial, sometimes uncomfortable portraits of children as an object of not always healthy interest for adults. Despite their apparent vulnerability, her subjects — which include her own children — tend to be both knowing and beautiful. Likewise, Nan Goldin unearths in her own life the gritty, yellow-lit reality centering around family, sex and a claustrophobic tension of close proximity and intimacy.

Not all of the images are so immediate or the subjects as accessible as, say, the dysfunctional family next door. Eleanor Antin felt the mythologies that defined historical characters such as Florence Nightingale fueled the outsider status of women in the 20th century. So she constructed photography to create alternative realities of the idealized nursing pioneer, re-imagining her in the Crimean War, for instance, in 1977’s “The Angel of Mercy.”

Carrie Mae Weems, meanwhile, resurrects 19th-century ethnographic daguerreotypes of slaves that haunt modern African Americans, such as in “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.”

If these earlier photographers (conspicuously missing is the work of Annie Leibovitz who published a whole book on portraits of women) kept themselves in the background, their work is hardly discreet or quiet. Rather, it’s menacingly subversive, suggestive of what lies beneath — that the female roles portrayed are not at first glance what they seem.

There is an interesting, almost electric detachment in the work by women photographers who followed this first generation, their ideas more self assured and firmly plugged into a certain context. Taken in their entirety, they represent a reinvention of the world in which women not only know their place, but have taken their share of seats in it as well.

Nikki S. Lee, for instance, confidently dances around diverse American subcultures, invading the lives of exotic dancers, hip hoppers, skateboarders and Latinos at will. In stark contrast, German-born Barbara Probst elegantly beautifies New York social scenes from a glamorous distance.

At the other end of the spectrum, Sharon Lockhart captures kinetic images of girls inhabiting boy’s worlds such as athletics, while Justine Kurland photographs a matricentric world full of matronly, sexy, beautiful nudes that have nothing to do with Playboy.

In a way, the obvious difference among the two generations’ of work here is that the first set of women photographers explored issues of identity and role-playing in a striking yet more covert fashion, while the second pulled no punches in laying bare women’s “place” in society. In both cases though, the result is moving, original, playful, dreamy but urgently real.

Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography through Jan. 25 National Museum of Women in the Arts 1250 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.