The Work of Women
by Mary Visser
Re:Framing the Past: Recent Work from Texas Women Photographers.
Curated by Jean Caslin, Executive Director, Houston Center for Photography for Women & Their Work Gallery, Austin. Texas, July 1-August 1, 1993. Galveston Art Center, March 3-April 24, 1994, Temple Art Center, June 1-July 1,1994.
In "Re:Framing the Past," nine women artists question the political, societal and cultural content that has been given value by the status quo. Each image contributes to the whole concept of what it means to be a woman in patriarchal culture. The exhibition presents women who work as artists in the photographic medium as individuals and as part of the concept of woman that is constantly being redefined and expanded. The work asks that the viewer reexamine their assumptions about the role of women in this society.
In selecting this body of work Caslin has presented two interconnecting issues. The first has to do with the expanding format of photography within the art world and the other has to do with how these women approach issues of gender and race through the photographic medium. I found the artwork to be not just an exhibition of the individual works of Texas women photographers but a rediscovery of women as producers of culture and meaning. The artists deconstruct the roles women have had superimposed upon them by a patriarchal society. The violence that women have suffered, the stereotyping of roles, the very definition of what it means to be a woman have been examined and reexamined by these artists.
Barbara DeGenevieve, a feminist photographer working to change oppressive representations of women and minorities in society, has written, “photographic images carry ideological messages which cumulatively shape the culture’s idea, vales, and attitudes. They are the bearers of cultural mythologies. If we see enough pictures of a certain type (women being brutalized by men, minorities as ghetto residents) we can conclude that such imagery is valuable to the culture. Especially, if certain aspects of society are not represented, it is most likely due to the fact that no importance is given to them that they have a negative value for culture (vulnerability in male sexuality, non-stereotypical images of women and people of color)."
In this exhibition the photographers question the images we have of women and of ourselves. The exhibition records society's need to revalue women and let women define their own lives. Each artist presents a view we women have been told is ours in such a way that we are confronted by the damage and limitations imposed upon our gender. Griselda Pollack and Deborah Cherry, both feminist art historians, make the following point about how women have been positioned in fine art, "Representing creativity as masculine and circulating woman as the beautiful image for the desiring male gaze. High Culture systematically denies knowledge of women as producers of culture and meaning."
Contemporary photography has become increasingly important as an avenue of artistic expression. Modernists once demanded that a work of art stand on its own "without relying on subject matter.” This tenet looked to form, rather than subjects as the important element. This modernist theme moved photography into a place of acceptance within the fine art world. Important examples of this work are seen in Edward Weston's finely-crafted nudes and formalistic images of vegetables such as the Pepper Series.
This approach to image making can be found in the work of Amy Blakemore who works in the straight style which is the basis for the modernist theme, but who places the content of the subject over a formal approach to structure. Blakemore uses the technique of isolating the subject front its environment by using extreme contrasts in tone development. This separation of the subject from is surroundings gives the subject visual priority. Her use of the inexpensive Diana camera allows the details and tonality of the image to be defined by the qualities inherent in the plastic lens.
Many modernist photographers used the technique of compressing tonalities to heighten the viewer's attention to the formal qualities of their images such as shape and form. But Blakemore uses it to focus the viewer's perception on the content to he found within the subjects. She understands that when capturing the image one must allow the subject to be in control of his or her own presence. The photographer observes and then selects the moment when the subject reveals that presence.
In the work Girl in Hedges, a young girl looks back over her shoulder as she runs into a rectangular opening between two large box hedges. You receive an impression of both delight and danger from this slightly blurted view of the moment Blakemore's photographs ate portraits of the subject's interaction with the environment and with the viewer's memory. It is up to the viewer to complete the content of the moment by bringing his or her own experience to the image. Blakemore visually isolates the subject in create an intimacy between the viewer and subject. The image is blurred and detail is obscured with purpose. The viewer must depend upon a sense of knowledge ofthe subject based upon interaction rather than observation.
In Sister and Brother, Blakemore uses Diane Arbus's confrontational mode of image making. However, there is a subtle but important difference when Blakemore uses this mode. In this work the subjects the viewer not the photographer. In Arbus's work one is always aware that the subject is being photographed. The photographer’s presence creates a voyeuristic feeling in the images, and the viewer is made to fed an intruder. In Blakemore's image there is no such feeling of intrusion. You feel that sister and brother are responding directly to your gaze. The choice ofvantage point is important to Blakemore. Vantage point allows the artist to declare a personal way of seeing which prevails even in the most complicated field of view. In Three Girls,Blakemore uses the camera low, placing the young girl central to the visual data surrounding her relaxed, but commanding presence. Blakemore's compositions may be formalistic, but her intent is to deliver the content with impact and enough ambiguity to force an interaction based upon the viewer's experiences. As a straight photographer she has been true to the formalistic structure of defining an image, but as a postmodernist she has given content priority. We are more aware of the subject of the moment and what we bring to the image than of the formal structure of these images.
Walker Evans stated that, "We sense nothing in isolation, that we sense this for what it is only by reference to another thing." K. Johnson Bowles with her post-Catholic relics of mixed media assemblages, calls into question the tenets of a patriarchal culture that imposes upon its female members a role that denies the reality of women’s lives. In her work Post Catholic Relic #2, we are faced with a pair of red stiletto heels as an icon for the suffering women undergo to become accepted within this society’s definition of female. The nails leave no question that the wearing of these shoes is torture. Bowles examines the absurdity of this construct by making a relic out of this well known signifier of femininity. Its importance is acknowledged by the fact that women continue to submit to small and large forms of body pain to be attractive. Bowles uses her Catholic heritage to deconstruct issues of sexuality and identity. Within the context of a relic she gives these issues an importance and value not yet accepted within society. She deals with issues of self-esteem based upon a stereotype of beauty that is unreal while focusing on issues of guilt and original sin that have been laid at the feet of women for centuries. If the patriarchal culture demands an artificial face and behavior that is so important that women are judged and valued by how well they adhere to the ideal, then that ideal should be held sacred sheargues.But we are made acutely aware of the absurdity of these values when the relics of such policies arc on view.
Cara Catherine DeBusk takes on issues of violence against women as apersonal event and general issue. Inuntitled (Daddy) completed in 1992, the image is composed of parallel images. On the left is a sepia-toned photo of a family scene coupled on the right with a photocopied image of a young woman’s face expressing pain, anguish, and anger.The family scene appears calm except for the underlying tone of danger or threat. The threat appears to come from the father figure, which his been repined with a white silhouette. Two small girls are standing in the background and the empty silhouette of the father holds something in his hand in a stabbing gesture. The little girls expressions appear strange and tense rather than comfortable in the presence of this ominous figure. The accompanying photocopied image in the right shows a young woman’s face twisting across the page with intense contortions of pain. The same coupling of painful individual memory versus the innocuous calm of a snapshot image appears in the photograph titled untitled (Me). In this image the face has been cut out leaving a black gaping hole. The accompanying image is a photocopy of a young woman with her hands tearing at her hair and her mouth contorted in a silent scream. The contrats between the two images reconstructs the reality of the snapshot memory. DeBusk forces the viewer to reconstruct the lives of these little girls that is far different from what the snapshot conveys.
Like Blakemore, Robin Dru Germany asks the viewer to complete the story from his or her own personal experiences and memories. The image The Story of the Earth is Long is a mixed-media collage based upon images of individuals known or unknown to the artist. In the center is a photo booth strip shot showing a woman of the 1940s in four different poses. This strip is surrounded by images of planes dropping bombs and other wartime imagery. Germany’s photo collage tells of a war time Madonna waiting for her man. In the mixed media work titled Second View, Germany has placed the image of a young girl on the li of a hanging box surrounded by stereotypes of women and their body parts. When the lid is opened a dissected view of the internal reproductive organs along with a side view of the pubic region is juxtaposed with a glamour photo of a woman’s profile. What must the viewer make of this collaboration of images? Germany states in the catalog that in telling these stories she expresses her “own concerns about her identity as a woman, as artist: a person with one set of futures who ended up in another.”
The influence of place and culture on personal identity is the subject of Kathy Lovas’ work. Past and present are brought together by perceptions and associations with images and objects. In One of Two, a lace handkerchief imprinted with the image of a young girl is wrapped in paper taken from a textbook. The print is clearly visible and describes in academic tones the expected behavior of an older girl child when a new baby is brought into the home. Here the individual is reduced to a stereotyped role of generalities of expected behaviors. The question is —are women’s individualities being observed or is this study merely prescriptive for expected behaviors? Who makes these observations? How objective are these observations? How are they used? As we continue to open the package, the role for young girls becomes more and more limiting. Just like the old nursery rhyme, “What are little girls made of? Sugar and Spice and everything nice.”
Susan Kae Grant’s chromogenic Technicolor prints are autobiographical dramas. Sometimes the narratives are ambiguous, but in others the meanings are Technicolor sharp. For example in Faith, Grant photographs a young woman praying against a blue background that has been divided at the horizon line by a thin shelf overburdened with religious statuary. This young woman is being choked from behind by very large male hands. As a light shines on her profile, it becomes evident that she is so lost in prayer she is unaware of his chocking grip. The multiple meanings are very clear in this image and the issues are many. Similar issues are brought up again in the image Expectations. Wall clocks float around a young woman sitting in a white dress who appears to have shot herself with a handgun. How long did the bride wait for a groom who never showed? Society perpetuates this myth of salvation through marriage. The artist does not allow us to ignore the obvious issues. She asks us t review our own blind vision, our own acceptance of the status quo by holding a light up to the various situations that constraint or define who we are.
Who we are is often predetermined by the perceptions of others. Scottie Stapleton is well awareas an African-American woman that stereotypes are perpetuated by this culture are damaging. Stapleton’s work causes the viewer to recognize the absurdity of such stereotypes. In the image Six to Six her character’s separation from her role is just as evident by the crossed arms as it is by the use of color to separate the subject from its background. Stapleton creates a visual interruption of the expected meaning of the image by coloring only the figure. Presence is very important to Stapleton’s working method. She uses the visual elements of the image to establish the inner presence of these women. And in using her own image as the model in each photograph we were forced to examine how limiting the use of stereotypes are in informing us about individuals.
Janice Rubin’s work from the series In Season presents us with yet another view of how women in our society are inculcated with roles that have been defined for them. Rubin documents through the photographic image the social rituals created by families and communities. These rituals connect individuals to their peers and their past, but these traditions are also define the identity and role of that women must play. Rubin’s images challenge the viewer to examine these traditions in the glaring sharp-edged light of the camera. Isolated and detailed these images make the viewer aware of the shallowness of our perceptions.
Struggle, survival, and developing new definitions of our own identities are things that women have been doing for some time now. Many woman have been awakened by the voice of others, but more often than not that call for change came from an internal struggle. Maggie Olvey’s work is part of her struggle for survival. The assemblages present metaphors of hr experiences while coping with difficult diagnosis and potent treatments. In Recollections, Olvey stretches the photographic format beyond the traditional photographic print to photoscultpure as she reinterprets her lived experience with near death. Her self-portrait Fallout redefines her interior image as she focuses on the magnetic resonating images of her disease.
Caslin has brought together a variety of works that show a broad range of photographically-based styles from personal documentary in black-and-white to mixed-media photosculpture. Although the images are diverse, the threads holding the exhibition together are neatly woven into an intricate pattern revealing the complexities of women’s lived experience.
Mary Visser is associate professor of Art & associate chair of Women’s Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX.