The second part of the exhibition “Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers?” is in view at the Musée d’Orsay (until January 24, 2016), and covers the 1919-1945 period. Compared to the first part of the exhibition at the Orangerie, the tone changes, of course. First of all because this is familiar territory or so for anyone with a modicum of curiosity: most names are well known, most artworks are contextualized with familiar references. All right. But this all begs the question of what is this “modicum of curiosity?” How can one nurture it? Not really with history books (see the end of the previous post), but, in my case –I realize this with modesty and gratitude–, it was largely sustained by the series of exhibitions programmed these past few years by Marta Gili, the director of the Jeu de Paume (the only women currently running a prominent Parisian museum since Mme Baldessari was let go). Sure, I knew of Germaine Krull, Florence Henri, Laure Albin Guillot, Berenice Abbott, Claude Cahun, Lisette Model, Lee Miller (see also), and even of Eva Besnyö (but not of Kati Horna), but I was not really acquainted with their work for the majority of them.
You would not find elsewhere such a determination to show this area of photography, which is too often undermined. Not at the MEP, not at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (managed by women, though it only featured 3 exhibitions by women out of 37, if I’m not mistaken), not at the Centre Pompidou, not at the Rencontres d’Arles, not at XXX (fill in the blank yourself). Those last hyperlinks come from a blog, Atlantes et Cariatides (whose author is the photographer Marie Docher, as it was recently revealed), whose posts usually anger me when I first read them (Ah! more statistics about M/F sex ratios…), then prompt me to think further (I probably think better when I am angered and thus pushed outside of my comfort zone…).
But let’s come back to Orsay. The period between 1919-1945 saw women photographers gain ground on several fronts. Without pretending to be comprehensive, I would like to explore three or four of them. Self-portraits, which were scarce at the Orangerie (only those of Zaïda ben Yusuf, Jenny de Vasson, Frances Benjamin Johnston were featured, I think), then became a way to self-affirm, to assert women’s will to be present in this world. Indeed, according to Abigail Salomon Godeau, the use of self-portrait truly made a difference. Two artworks have touched me in particular: a 1933 indirect one by Margaret Bourke-White, peculiar because it is staged, shot from a low angle, featuring a camera which is not the one used to take the picture, showing the artist wearing pants, towering over her subject with the photographic chamber aimed at her target like a weapon. And, also from 1933, a frontal, direct one by Marianne Breslauer (at the top of this post), which plays wonderfully on the sexually ambiguous representation of the photographer, hunter as well as prey, author as well as subject: her naked breasts visible under the dressing-gown with a collar of fake white fur, her face hidden by her hair, her pubis in the tripod’s triangular shadow, in a full-on game of exposing and dissimulating.From there, then, they went towards sensuality and desire in a more assured, complex and also conquering way. They also took other secondary paths, such as those many women photographers who provided soft-porn images for adult magazines meant to satisfy men’s fantasies –like Olga Spolarics-Wlassics from Studio Manassé and this black hand, beautifully suggestive but also a bit ridiculous. Another pattern to master: the displacement of desire, so as not to be limited to pictures of desirable naked bodies. There are lots of them, male and female, but I don’t think the photographer’s gender is crucial, except for a few rare cases. Is it a man or a woman behind the camera? More often than not, I don’t know. Therefore, it is much more interesting to explore the margins, Claude Cahun’s bold “neutralization” or Lola Alvarez Bravo’s vegetal détournement (pictured above). As a matter of fact, the review from the French blog Le Beau Vice focuses on desire as well.
And going from desire to pain, and from love to sorrow, is easy: the exhibition features the photograph of a broken doll by Klara Langer (at the extreme opposite of Hans Bellmer’s work) absolutely tragic (pictured further below). Above all, there is this double image by Lee Miller: on a table, a rag used as a rudimentary tablecloth, a plate and cutlery, and a piece of meat. Upon reading the label, my vision blurs, tears come to my eyes, and my stomach churns: I am incapable of looking at this frontally, everything in my education, my sensibility, my rapport with women, everything prevents me from looking at this. Lee Miller retrieved a breast after a mastectomy at a hospital: the gaze is not desiring anymore, the breast is not a lovely fetish anymore, the body is not integral beauty anymore, it is only a piece of flesh, dead and evoking death simultaneously.
To settle down, let’s turn to some formal beauty, some purely aesthetic research: Ilse Bing peppered a commission by Pommery for advertisement material with more fantasmatical research on the diffraction of light through the cobwebs surrounding champagne bottles, resulting in abstract landscapes fueled by fluid drippings. Barbara Morgan, dressed in black, drew with a pen of light in front of her camera’s open shutter, undertaking a pure exploration of the essence of photography (but where does the neurotic man in the title bloody come from?).
Finally, away from desire, which does not explain everything here, I find some politics, commitment, testimonies. Some instances are well known such as these women in service of dominant ideologies of the century: Leni Riefenstahl (strangely –cautiously?–, not much featured in the exhibition; and very much so in the bookshop at the end of the visit…) and Erna Lendvai-Dirksen for the Nazis, Margaret Bourke-White for the Bolsheviks, Ellen Auerbach for the Zionists. Towards the end of the exhibition, some films flesh out this aspect.
Others are less known such as Julia Pirotte, photographer in the maquis, or Joanna Szydlowska, who, at Ravensbrück’s camp, clandestinely photographed the bodies of the women who endured the the surgical experiments of Nazis doctors: rare images from the inside of the camps (along with the Sonderkommandos’) which were hidden in the barracks and which Germaine Tillion smuggled outside after the camp was liberated. Damaged bodies like in Lee Miller’s images, but bodies that testify of barbarity (the photograph below is not featured in the exhibition, but it belongs to the same series).
What is there to add, except that these often superb examples of a side of photography that is neglected, if not occulted like in the nineteenth century, also signal that we, critics or curators, historians or heads of institutions, men as well as women, we all have to raise the question of our biased, constrained, sluggish point of view, we all have to ask ourselves: am I doing justice to women photographers? It is only then that I won’t be afraid of them anymore.
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: November 10, 2015.
Translation by Lucas Faugère