Women as Women, Women as Artists, Women as Photographers

The fourth Women in Photography Conference was held in Houston, Texas, and presented by Houston Center for Photography in association with the University of Houston Department of Art, Martch 24-27, 1994.

Marlee Miller

Nationally renowned feminist, scholar and author Carolyn G. Heilbrun set the stage: “Womens’ Lives – Telling Our Own Stories.” She opened the fourth Women in Photography Conference with challenges, insight and humor about women and their lives.

It was an apt beginning, but what came after her inspiring address were three days of interaction with more than 300 women who are living their lives as women and showing it through their art, work and love.

Participants of the Women in Photography Conference were from all across the nation, with thirty-two states represented and four foreign countries. The conference was held at the University of Houston, hosted by Houston Center for Photography. The lead sponsor was Professional Imaging of Eastman Kodak Company and additional support was provided by Compaq Computer Corp., Texas Committee for the Humanities and American Airlines.
Keynote speaker Heilbrun, who is the Avalon Foundation Professor Emeritus in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Colombia University, spoke of what it is that allows a woman to become “accomplished”: it is her ability to resist socialization. Some women resist socialization as girls and others have a second opportunity past 50, according to Heilbrun.

She spoke of telling the advantage of being past 50 to young women: “It’s a lot more fun being me than you. One day when you are burdened down with all the marvelous thrills of youth, I hope you’ll look ahead to that wonderful time when you’re 50, when you can really be yourself. People don’t look at you very much, but you will look at them. It is better to look than to be looked at.”

Gloria Steinem is the subject of Heilbrun’s next book and she quoted Steinem’s 1994 commencement address at Wellesley College. Steinem suggested to the graduates that women invert the Golden Rule: “To learn to do for oneself what one has been doing for others.”

As Heilbrun concluded her remarks that Thursday night, and answered a variety of questions from the audience, we knew we would soon be called upon to interact among ourselves. We all tentatively “broke-out” and sat with strangers to hear their stories and possibly share our own. It began slowly.
Our group decided to go around the circle, introduce ourselves and tell a little about our lives. It was a good beginning, some of us were academics, some professional photographs, a few under 30 and a few over 50.

We discussed Heilbrun’s theory on power and where the women’s movement had gone. Heilbrun had said: “The hardest thing about power is personal cost. We all grew up thinking that if we are nice, they’ll love us. If we’re good they’ll love us. When you get into any institution – academic, religious, business, government – they don’t love you. And power is not a source of love, it is a use of love.”

One of our group members had never experienced lack of respect or power in her academic career, yet her husband had felt in the business community. Another woman had raised her children on her own and felt power from that and enjoyed her freedom after 50. Yet another woman spoke of her struggle to do her art while working full-time and mothering three children.

And so the conference began. We were starting to talk, we were sharing our stories and bringing it all back to ourselves as women, some as visual artists, others as scholars, curators, mothers and daughters.

This aspect of interaction was a predominate theme. We weren’t allowed to sit back and listen. We were forced to tell our own stories through breakout groups. The planners of the Women in Photography conference – Jean Caslin, Executive Director of Houston Center for Photography; Adele Horne, Houston Center for Photography Program Coordinator; and Nels Highberg, a graduate fellow in the Women’s Studies Department of Ohio State University – developing this essential difference through their experiences at previous Women in Photography conferences, similar events, feedback from more than twenty focus groups, and a desire to present women the opportunity to share and grow from one another’s friendships and experiences. They had even taken the advice of a few psychologists on how to best set up the interactive groups. From the positive responses of conference attendees, the interactive groups provided them with opportunities to personalize the broader issues being discussed at the conference. “Sometimes this was very painful,” wrote one woman on her conference evaluation form. “However women must face their fears in the supportive environment of other women.” A few women expressed frustration at the groups for not having a facilitator, not enough time or losing focus, but most agreed it broke the ice and kept them interested. The breakout groups followed several of the speakers and panel discussions and the printed program included questions to help lead the discussion.

Recurring Themes

Thirty-one speakers participated, including specialists in the fields of photography, video, literature, art history, psychology, law, medicine, ethnic and women’s studies. The panelists discussed women and the representation of aging, women and autobiography, women and technology and glass ceilings and closed doors.

The themes winding throughout the discussions and panels, however, were not so clearly marked. Anticipating and/or celebrating ourselves and our lives as we age, exploring our relationship with out mothers and how they have impacted our lives and art, and finding strength and kinship in others’ stories as we struggle to keep art from being a lost priority in our lives.

In reading the participant questionnaires from the conference there are no favorite speakers or topics but there are standouts and a few disappointments.

Nationally-known artist Gay Block’s moving slide show and discussion of her mother and their relationship clearly impacted the entire audience. Block photographed her mother for eighteen years but did not work with the images until her mother’s death two years ago. She said that now maybe it is possible to see her mother as a person.

Block began her presentation by showing a series of family photographs – of her mother growing up, herself through the years, and her own portraits of her mother. As slides slowed, Block turned to the screen and said: “Hello mother, I love you.”

She hated her mother for most of her life, Block said, and felt overwhelming guilt in her presence because she had wanted her dead. “My anger interfered with my life more than my mother’s. The purpose of this work is redemption for her and for me.”

Breakout Group Questions:

Photography by its very nature can provide routes of introspection that differ from traditional media. The group will discuss other models for representing maternal and paternal relationships.

One of the most favored panels of the conference was “Women & the Representation of Aging” moderated by Linda Kaeser, professor in the School of Nursing and the director of the Center for Aging, both at the University of Texas at Houston Health Science Center. She was joined by German photographer Herlinde Koelbl; New Mexico photographer Joan Myers; Anne Noggle, a former captain of the U.S. Air Force, a photographer and photo historian; and Ohio professor and photographer Elise Mitchell Sanford.

These artists specialize in photographing women over 50. They spoke of the fact that to age in our society means to become invisible. Television and films have shown little interest in the aging female except as a caricature and seek to counter existing stereotypes, creating news ways of picturing the vitality and sexuality of their subjects.

Breakout Group Questions:
(1)What are your greatest fears about growing old? (2) If you were to ask three questions of an older person about growing old, what would they be? (3) What are three things that you would share with an older person?

Both of the panels “Glass Ceilings/Closed Doors” and “Making a Living While Making Art (Oxymoron or Occupation?)” dealt with the reality of working in the world of photography – and working as a woman in general – whether you are an artist, curator, administrator or academician.

In “Glass Ceilings/Closed Doors” we were inspired by Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, photography curator Anne W. Tucker telling us we just have to think of Flip Wilson and tell yourself “Just do it honey, just do it!” Tucker urged everyone to network, to turn to our colleagues for support. She said that women are not as aggressive as men about getting their work our there. Only one out of six portfolios that pass over her desk are from women. Tucker also said that of the 704 photography curators in postions of power in the United States, only thirty-four are women.

Ideas of reorienting ourselves to that glass ceiling were given. Other panelists gave encouraging words not to give up. Others spoke of the “gatekeepers” and cautioned us against looking at leadership and professionalism in traditional ways. Offer an inspirational voice at key moments, said Los Angeles photographer Pat Ward Williams, as well as keep quiet when needed.

When it comes to making art and making a living, most agreed that promoting onself and exhibiting take as much time as making the art itself, and that most people don’t make a living through their work but make a living while making art.

K. Johnson Bowles gave us a list of skills needed to make a living – besides having multiple personalities. She said one needs the ability to communicate – write and speak about one’s work – organizational skills, ability to edit one’s work, create promotional packets and know how to pack the art and get it sent where it needs to go.

Breakout Group Questions:
(1) How do your own experiences compare with those of the panelists?(2) Are there experiences that were not brought out in the panel? (3) Have you developed personal methods that help you work through personal or professional barriers?


Only a few panels and speakers were repeatedly listed in the conference surveys as disappointments. “Women & Advanced Technology” and “Women & Their Relationship to the Land” were two of them.

Throughout the conference, women spoke of moving more and more into using computers to create their art. Many said it was a necessity in their jobs, others were fascinated with the possibilities, the freedom it gave them. The panel didn’t seem to meet the needs of the audience. “Not only were the presentations long and tedious, but most of the speakers were obviously uncomfortable addressing a large group,” wrote on attendee.
“I think the topic is just too broad.”

The high sugar content of the food, the lack of audio visual expertise exhibited by University of Houston staff (trouble focusing), and the somewhat haphazard car pooling arrangements during the conference were mentioned in the questionnaires, but only briefly compared to the praise given to the HCP staff for their helpfulness and organization – Caslin, Horne, Sam Lasseter, Michael DeVoll, and HCP board member Deborah Garza were all mentioned.

Several of the few men who attended the conference had complaints that they felt excluded. One wrote to the HCP to say: “I believe that the several males attending were looked upon as observers rather [than] participants… You will note that none of the males ever were in discussion circles. Although this might well have been good because of content of the discussions, it made the males feel alienated and unwelcome. Perhaps in the future there can be some way to exclude males from this meeting. (Yes, I know that it is illegal.) Maybe a registration category called observer.”

During the first several discussion groups, men were segregated to their own groups, especially when it came to gender relations and self-esteem discussions. But later in the conference, the groups were encouraged to “adopt a man” into their discussions. Including men wasn’t a major concern, according to the organizers, because the conference was designed for female photographers and administrators, and only twelve men attended.

Next Time

The 1994 conference in Houston was the fourth Women in Photography Conference. The first was held at Syracuse University in 1986. The second was at Bryn Mawr College in 1989 and the third was held by the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in 1993. There has been one offer to have it in Kansas City in 1996. Nothing has been decided yet, but it is clear that holding this conference is good for photography, and certainly good for women.

Editor’s Note: The following remarks are excerpted from Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s keynote address to conference attendees.
I’ve been thinking more and more that there comes a second chance in women’s lives to resist socialization… One thing that happens to women or girls who resist socialization is that they are often what they and others call lonely.

It has taken me many years to realize that loneliness is something someone can feel anywhere. In a crowded room, in a first marriage, in a close partnership… anywhere. We tend to think that those who go their own way are especially lonely. I think we have to learn to call it something else.

I’ve been working rather hard with the help of a lot of people; to find a ritual that could be undertaken, say on a woman’s fiftieth birthday. To metaphorically mourn the possibility of this change. For one thing I think the woman needs to take a new name. She should rename herself.

Then she should decide, make a list and write it down, of everything she wants out of her life and everything she wants in it. Now I don’t just mean walking the dog I mean dinner parties, luncheons, with no meaning to them, dry cleaning, perhaps one’s whole life and ask again what one wants in it. To ask herself what went wrong here?

One of the things we need more of in this country is reaching out of hands betweens generations of women. We have very little of that. We have teachers and we have students… I think I can tell you what will happen… this young woman will come back in five or ten years and say you don’t remember me. “You know I thought you were terrible when I took your classes, but you were right.” And that’s what happens when you teach feminism.

Our job as feminist teachers is not to be loved and when you grow up in this world it’s very hard to learn not to be loved. When they (students) meet marriage, children, jobs and aging and so they’ll not think, “My God, something must be wrong with me” then they’ll remember they’ve heard it before. That’s what we’re there for.

“Women’s irrational fear that if the use traditional male power they’d risk becoming men. At a time when many women are learning to use power a threat is posed to our psychological comfort. If women were familiar with the delights of men’s privileges and powers they’d fight against giving them up just as men do.” – quoting Naomi Wolfe.

The hardest thing about power is its personal cost. And that is something we all have to learn about power. We all grew up thinking if we’re nice they’ll love us. If we’re good they’ll love us. When you get into any institution (academic, religious, government) they don’t love you and power is not a source of love, it’s a use of love.

When there are women [in power] in the army, navy and all military bodies in great numbers we’ll have fewer wars. Many men go to war to get away from women.I don’t go to weddings much anymore. I’ve read too much feminism and I know what weddings are about. Even when they redo them, the sight of some woman who’s been living with a man for ten years in a white gown always disturbs me a little. I believe very much in rituals but we must keep asking ourselves what they mean.