Women and Documents
By Jan Z. Grover
When I look at photographs as an historian, I look at them as cultural artifacts, as expressions of value and interest arising out of - and moving into — specific discourses. Such artifacts have ways of being looked at, thought about, acted upon that presuppose some agreement on the nature and/or function(s) of photographs among a particular group of viewers. These discourses are always bound by social and cultural determinants like race, class, nationality, education, occupation, and gender. The show I've recently curated for The Houston Center for Photography, NewWomen: New Documents, is about a distinctive difference I see in the way some women photographers today are structuring their image-making within the larger art/academia/museum world of art discourse.
Though this larger world generally prizes the uniqueness, the aura, if you will, of the fine print - the solitary print as an object of meditation and desire, a world unto itself - these women's work ignores thesedonnéesof art photographic practice in favor of an approach that instead stresses the continuity between their art-making and the worlds that they/ their viewers inhabit. Rather than make their art from materials far removed from everyday life, these photographers have in fact made the persona] political, have invested the personal with the high seriousness usually reserved for less mundane subject matter, instead of a solipsistic retreat from engagement with their daily lives, or an equally hubristic attempt to move Their inquiries beyond "mere" female subject matter, they attempt to describe and know the world closest to them - that of family, of social relationships, where lies the delicate, miscible line between the Self and Other.
That these four women photographers - Judith Crawley, Connie Hatch, Cynthia Gano Lewis, and Sandra Semchuk - all deal with family and relationships in their work, and that they do so in the particular ways that they do, strikes me as hardly fortuitous. In fact, the more that we learn about women's emotional development, the more I think we will be able to see The pure insistent note in many women artists' work in youth to mid-life, telling us, as I feel this work does, how primary relationships are to women.1
Carol Gilligan's important work of the past decade, made broadly available two years ago in In A Different Voice — Psychological Theory and Women's Development, 2 posits a view of women's development that runs counter to that of Theorists from Freud through Erikson and Kohlberg, all of whom argued for women's emotional immaturity in adulthood, based on our lack of absolutist, idealist, rationalist ways of dealing with posed moral dilemmas. For them, women remained so many Noras, forever chained inside their ethical doll-houses.
Gilligan's research proposes an alternate way of seeing women's moral development: in our relativist, commonsensical, deeply contextualized approach to moral problem-solving, she argues, there lies an equally valid, ethically valid, ethically very humane, and mature form of behavior. Women, she believes, see things differently from men because our moral trajectory from youth to maturity is so different from men’s.
… the prevalence of violence in men's fantasies, denoting a world where danger is everywhere seen, signifies a problem in making connection, causing relationships to erupt and turning separation into a dangerous isolation . . [it indicates] a problem with connection [for men] that leads relationships to become dangerous and safety to appear in separation. [Thus] rule-bound competition achievement situations, which for women threaten the web of connection, for men provide a mode of connection that establishes clear boundaries and limits aggression, and thus appears comparatively safe.
There certainly isn't space here to go into Professor Gilligan's argument, but if we accept even provisionally her thesis, then I think certain things that all of us as artists, teachers, and parents observe about photographs, students, and children become a bit more explicable, I'm not arguing for a gender imperative here, but I do believe that Gilligan's work on the different trajectories of moral development in men and women accounts to a great extent for the difference we see in student work and in much of the women's photographs now emerging.
Women students and mature photographers photograph people more than men do. They photograph people intimately - not as fleeting grab shots on a busy city street, but as people with whom they seek connection. On the other hand, more of my male photo students tend to photograph abstractly: they photograph their ideas, they photograph objects. They take real pleasure in the isolating and instrumental phases of photography — the sexy equipment — while my female students tend to be initially a bit intimidated by technique and equipment. On the other hand, women students' photographs, in my experience, more frequently demand an emotional response, whereas many of my most adept and confident male students create work whose brilliant surfaces arc all but impossible to penetrate except formally. (I bring this up because it was in observing student work that it first occurred to me to try applying Gilligan's theory to the distinct differences I was already perceiving, as a way of at least partially explaining them.)
In the work of the four women photographers who contributed to New Women: New Documents, the concern for relationship extends beyond the subject matter each woman chooses to her method of presentation itself. Each of the photographers here works in series, but these are series that weave the "web of connection" that Gilligan speaks of rather than offering us a number of individually startling images linked only by subject matter or formal treatment. These series consist of images that may indeed sacrifice individual clout for a more seamless positioning inside the body as a whole. Like so many siblings, their images are not meant to be prized out of their contexts as statement of isolated sensibility or vision; rather, they form their meaning as a family does, by being seen as an entirety. Many of their images appear more as bridges to an overall meaning than as repositories of isolated significance. In the ordering, too, of the series, the contextualizing. non-hierarchial way of handling experience that Gilligan ascribes to women is very evident: Crawley's grids, Hatch's mirrorings, Semchuk's seamless strips and stacks suggest The wide variety of ways in which their images can be read.
It takes a certain amount of reordering in one's thinking to appreciate the values of this quiet work alongside the flashier claims of much photography encountered in the discourse field of art/academia/museums. But as I mentioned before, my chief attraction to photography is to its value as a cultural artifact - as something that tells us about the kinds of values, beliefs, traditions that have been lived. For me, these photographs tell me about things that have not been much discussed visually, either within the discourse of art or within a broader cultural framework: what Tillic Olscn termed "how life is, for most of humanity."
Most pointedly. I look at this work's scrupulous attempts at uncovering and healing feelings about rape, sexual objecthood, and motherhood, and I sec in it the shaping of experience that needs to be seen and to be spoken. Adrienne Rich put it most eloquently: Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is misnamed as something else, made difficult to come by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapses of meaning under an inadequate or lying language, this will become not merely unspoken, but unspeakable. My hope is that more women photographers will attend more closely to the voices within them that have been so long unheard or stilled and produce an effulgence of work that expands the discourse of art photography into areas beyond its present formalist concerns. Perhaps then, like Gilligan, we can expect to find art engaging broad human concerns:
. . . In the different voice of women lies the truth of an ethic of care, the tie between relationship and responsibility, and the origins of aggression in the failure of connection. The failure to see the different reality of women's lives and to hear the differences in their voices stems in pan from the assumptions that there is a single mode of social experience and interpretation. By positing instead two different modes, we arrive at a more complex rendition of human experience . . ; /through which/ we can begin to envision a change understanding of human development and a more generative view of human life4Footnotes:
1. This isn't to say that many women wont successfully mask these issues, resolve them outside their art, or opt to suppress them if favor of more mtde-orienied and saleable work. But as more is understood and made known about women's very different development, we may also expect to find mar? women choosing to explore material close to home without apology, as has already happened in the past fifteen years in women's writing and painting.
2Gilligan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
3. Rich, It Is the Lesbian In Us . . ." On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 19661978 (New York; W. W. Norton, 1979), p. 199.
4. Gilligan. pp. I73-I74.U