Breaking through the boys’ club of photography, these fearless female visionaries spotlighted identity politics, the body and sexuality
Like much of art history, the realm of photography has long been dominated by the stories of men. On the 6-7 November, organised in partnership with UAL London, University of Creative Arts, and LCC’s Photography and the Archive Research Centre, Tate Modern will host an exciting conference exploring the dynamic evolution of women in photography over the last century, titled Fast Forward: Women in Photography. With an international scope and a drive to dig deeper than just the well-known names, speakers will discuss a multitude of issues, such as identity politics, the impact of war on society, the archive, and the female body. The event is not definitive of the breadth of inspirational female photographers throughout history. Similarly, this top ten intends to profile a small cross-section of the women considered in the programme, particularly focusing on those you might not have heard about before.
Swedish photographer Agneta Ekman’s work can be framed within the context of an international post-war wave of 'feminist’ image production. Testing out ideas about female sexuality, and its relationship to the natural world, Ekman’s 1967 photobook Tall-Maja was an evocative portrait of the folktale siren ‘Maja of the Pines’. The use of double exposure, soft focus, black and white, and superimposed frames evoked a strong sense of empowered mystique and sensual eroticism, which was formative for generations to come. Other Swedish photographers, such as Eva Klasson and Tuija Lindström, can be seen as part of this lineage, due to their similar trajectories around intimacy and the body.
Aside from a few notable names, the remarkable tradition of Japanese photography has tended to be overlooked in the West, meaning the visibility of Japanese women photographers has been particularly obscured. Miyako Ishiuchi’s first photobook Yokosuka Story (1977) depicted the small port turned US naval base, where she grew up in the ruins of WW2. The grainy and obscured visual landscape reflected a struggle between past and present and represented an uncertainty about Japan’s future. Rather than an objective documentary approach, like those of her mentors Daido Moriyama and Shomei Tomatsu, the work was concerned with the passing of time. This theme has encapsulated her career, working on projects about the death of her mother, the memory of the 1945 Hiroshima bombing, and most recently about Frida Kahlo.
In Finland, fashion photography was traditionally the field where women photographers were able to forge and sustain successful careers. Men didn’t tend to enter the business until the 1960s and so female fashion photographers held prominent roles. Claire Aho’s participation in the burgeoning Finnish design and advertising scene in the 1950s is an example of this success. Underwear was still considered a very delicate area of fashion photography, and Aho, being female, held an advantage when navigating issues of modesty with her sitters. Despite this, the models often wanted to remain anonymous, and so faces were hidden inventively with crops, poses and even masks. Aho’s staged images can be seen as tableaus of early consumer culture.
In 1978 Zofia Rydet embarked on an ambitious project to photograph the people she encountered while travelling through Poland. The result was a monumental body of work titled Sociological Record. Rydet’s practice expanded and branched off in new directions over the years, which meant the work was never technically finished; it ended with her death in 1997. This sociological experiment created a substantial photographic atlas of Polish domestic life, embodying the specific context of post-war communist Poland, and signifying a desire to embalm a moment in time through the lens of intimate community portraits. The material is still undergoing an intense process of digitisation and analysis, which will in turn function to provide a comprehensive understanding of the project’s findings.
Jo Spence has been an integral figure within photographic discourse since the 1970s. In the 1980s, Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer. Much of her subsequent work was a response to her treatment by the medical establishment and an attempt to navigate its authority through alternative therapies. Work such as “Cancer Shock” and “The Picture of Health?” depict Spence’s concerns through narratives, montages, and staged scenes. The taboo subject of the unhealthy and ageing female body was unabashedly presented. Phototherapy, a practice developed with Rosy Martin, was an attempt at formulating a pictorial language that could connect one’s intimacies and traumas to a broader public discourse. Jo Spence’s work is currently on show at Tate Britain.
Homai Vyarawalla, also known by her pseudonym ‘Dalda 13’, was India’s first women photojournalist, working for nearly fifty years from the 1930s to 70s. Her vast archive of historical images represent monumental moments in 20th century history, such as the first flag raising, the departure of British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi, as well as notable dignitaries who passed through Delhi, such as Jacqueline Kennedy, President Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King Jr. Photographers during the earlier part of the century were able to gain intimate access. However, this was prevented by the prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1966, which meant Vyarawalla slowly retired from photography; "People changed. That graciousness and that dignity were just not there. When the graciousness was gone, my interest in photography was gone as well,” she said.
NONTSIKELELO ‘LOLO’ VELEKO
Nontsikelelo ‘Lolo’ Veleko’s depiction of urbanisation and fashion in post-apartheid South Africa represents a bold and expressive youth culture. Her Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder series was exhibited in Okwui Enwezor’s 2006 group exhibition Snap Judgements at the ICP, New York. Enwezor’s show encapsulated a new emphasis on conceptual art, documentary, and fashion photography since the millennium. Veleko’s ‘street style’ portraits use fashion to question how identity can be perceived, and often assumed, while also demonstrating how her subjects use their clothes to construct their own guises of identity. She defines her photographs as a ‘collaborative process’, seeking permission from the subjects, giving them editions of the work, and welcoming them to the exhibition openings.
German-born photographer Ilse Bing is a key example of what was at stake for women who wanted to become professional photographers during the interwar years. After shocking her family by pursuing photography, in 1929, Bing moved to Paris. Her commission to photograph the Moulin Rouge in 1931 caught the attention of fellow artists and critics, and she was crowned ‘queen of the Leica’. Her work was exhibited alongside iconic photographers, such as Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray. Bing later fled to New York with her husband to escape Nazi persecution, and slowly faded into obscurity, despite a career revival in the 1970’s. This revival was due to museum’s re-evaluation of photography’s importance, alongside an interest in those whose careers had been interrupted by the WW2, as well as the rise of feminist art history.
The black female image has been historically controlled and manipulated. Orianne Lopes is part of a new generation of women using photography to reclaim ownership and visualise multiple black female identities that neutralise the dominant singular narrative of the past. Her Les Mélanies series was born from a reflection on the representation of the body of the black and mestizo women in Western visual culture, “by staggered and parodic photographs, my project attempts a challenge to the image of the African woman and her aesthetic and sexual stigma”. The trivialisations produced by ethnographic photography of the colonial period and contemporary erotic imagery are all diverted and re-interpreted.
Sara Davidmann is an artist and photographer. Since 1999, her photographs have been taken in collaboration with people from London’s queer and transgender communities. These photographs record a dynamic period of time in the changing social history of gender, sex and sexuality. Davidmann will be presenting her latest body of work at the conference, which considers images from an inherited family archive – a series of photographs that her uncle Ken, who was transgender, took of his wife Hazel in the 1950s. The title for the project has been taken from her mother’s writing on one of the found envelopes among the photographs. Davidmann’s use of analogue, alternative and digital processes was in response to the vintage portraits. The series will be published in 2016.
Fast Forward: Women in Photography is on 6-7 November at the Tate Modern