In the 1930s, Hungarian photographer Anna Barna took “Onlooker,” a photo of a boy standing on a chair seen from behind as he gazes over a fence.
As his shadow stretches across the planks blocking his path, it takes the form of a bearded profile that reads like a second “spectator” in the shot. A little further on stands a third “spectator” who, although invisible in the image, was very present in the mind of any pre-war spectator who has seen the photo credit of the photograph: this spectator is Anna Barna, a woman who dared to take the camera that would normally have been held by a man. Like all camera-wielding women of her day, Barna’s daring gesture gave her a powerful cultural presence.
This presence is on display in “The New Woman Behind the Camera,” an inspired and inspiring exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from July 2 to October 2. 3. At the end of October, he moved to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Hosted by Andrea Nelson of the NGA, the show was set up at the Met by Mia Fineman.
The more than 200 photos on display, taken from the 1920s to the 1950s, allow us to see women around the world become photo pros. I guess some of their photos could have been taken by men, but female fatherhood shaped what these images meant to their contemporaries. It shapes what we need to do with them now, as we grasp the challenges their creators faced.
The Met shows women photographing everything from factories to battles to the oppressed, but also dresses and children and other traditionally “female” subjects. Sometimes the goal is simple documentation: Figures like Dorothea Lange in the United States and Galina Sanko in the Soviet Union have recorded the worlds in which they have moved, often at the behest of their governments. But many of their sisters prefer the aggressive views and sweeping lightings of what was then called the New Vision, as it was developed at the Bauhaus and other modern style hotspots. It was to sight what jazz was to sound.
This made the New Vision a perfect fit for the New Woman, a term that went global in the early part of the 20th century to describe all of the many women who have taken on roles and responsibilities – new personalities and even new powers. – which they rarely had before. When a new woman started photographing, she often turned her new vision on herself, as one of the most striking creations in the modern world.
A self-portrait by American photographer Alma Lavenson leaves out everything except her hands and the camera they hold; the only thing we need to know is that Lavenson is in control of this machine, and therefore of the vision it captures.
German photographer Ilse Bing takes pictures in the hinged mirrors of a vanity unit, giving us both side and front views of her face and the Leica that almost hides it. Since antiquity, the mirror has been a symbol of woman and her vanities; Bing claims this ancient symbol for herself, which gives her a new image.
The mirror deployed by the Argentinian German photographer Annemarie Heinrich is a silver sphere; capturing herself and her sister in it, she portrays the fun pleasures and distortions of being a new woman.
Heinrich’s European peers sometimes go further by disrupting their self-presentation. In “Masked Self-Portrait (No. 16)” Gertrud Arndt doubles or perhaps triples her face, as if to express the troubled identity she has given herself as a woman who dares to photograph. (Multiple exposure is almost a hallmark of New Woman photographers; perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us.) In a collage titled “IOU (Self-Pride),” French photographer Claude Cahun comes in the form of 11 different masked faces, surrounded by the words “Under this mask, another mask. I’ll never finish lifting all those faces.
It’s like stepping behind a camera makes any new woman an ancestor and avatar of Cindy Sherman, trying out all kinds of role models for the genre.
If there’s one problem with this show, it’s that it mostly gives us women who have managed to achieve the highest levels of excellence, barely hinting at the much larger number of women who have been barred. to achieve their creative goals through the endemic sexism of their time: talented women whose places in a photography school were given to men instead, or who were integrated into the lowest or most “feminine” levels Of the profession – cheap retouching or child portraits – or who have never been promoted above the studio assistant. This is a problem that disrupts all attempts to salvage lost art from the underprivileged: by telling the same success stories you do with white men, you risk making it look like others have had the same. chance to rise.
A fairly straightforward shot from Chinese photojournalist Niu Weiyu can better capture what it really meant for the new woman to start taking photos. As photographed by her colleague Shu Ye, Niu is perched with her camera on the edge of a cliff. Every female photographer has adopted this daredevil pose, at least in cultural terms, just by clicking a shutter button.
Several of the women featured at the Met have in fact taken over studios originally run by husbands or fathers. In the Middle East and Asia, this gave them access to a reality that men could not document: taken in 1930s Palestine, a photo of an entrepreneur who called herself “Karimeh Abbud, Lady Photographer” shows three women standing in front of the camera with self-confidence – the younger one grins broadly into the lens – in a relaxed photo that a man would be unlikely to capture.
The genre was almost as powerful at play for women in the West. If taking a camera was billed as “human,” many new women in Europe were happy to go with this billing: over and over again they show up styled with the shortest bob, sometimes so short they read like male styles. Cahun, who was at times almost cut off by the buzz, once wrote “Male? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neutral is the only genre that still works for me.
Margaret Bourke-White, an American photographer who has achieved true stardom, pulls herself into a bob long enough to cover just about her ears, but this almost feminine style is more than offset by manly wool pants. (In the 1850s, Rosa Bonheur had to obtain a police permit to wear trousers when she was going to draw the horse-breakers of Paris. Until 1972, my grandmother, born at the age of the New Woman, boasted of the courage she had recently gathered to start wearing pants at work.)
A new woman clicking the shutter can appear almost as visible as any subject in front of her lens. Bourke-White’s photo of the Fort Peck Dam featured on the cover of the first modern issue of Life magazine, in 1936, and she got this piece in part because it was shot by her: the editors speak of this “surprising” fact when they present their new magazine, and how they were “unable to prevent Bourke-White to run away with their first nine pages.
When a subject is in fact another woman, the shooter and the sitter may become one. Lola Álvarez Bravo, the great Mexican photographer, once took a photo of a woman with shadows running through her face, titling it “In Her Own Prison”. As a photographic Everywoman, Álvarez Bravo presents herself as in this same prison.
To capture the plight of women in Catholic Spain, Kati Horna has doubly exposed a girl’s face on barred windows next to a cathedral; it’s hard not to see the huge eye staring at us from behind these bars as belonging to Horna herself, looking through the viewfinder.
For centuries before becoming New, women had been objectified and observed as few men were likely to be. Taking the camera didn’t look away from a new woman; this could bring it all the more clearly to the fore. But thanks to photography, she was able to begin to look back, with force, at the world around her.
The new woman behind the camera
Until October 3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org. 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.