Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2011
Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography College Art Association, 2011.
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 7, 2010–April 18, 2011
Carrie Mae Weems. From Here I Saw What Happened (1995). Chromogenic color print with sand-blasted text on glass. 43 1/2 x 33 1/2" (110.5 x 85.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift on behalf of The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art.

In the summer 2010 issue of Artforum, dedicated to “the museum revisited,” Kathy Halbreich, associate director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, shared the new standards she has brought to the museum’s program, prominent among them a desire to engage actively with “the issues that shape [their visitors’] lives,” enriching the viewer’s experience with “newly relevant” systems of “distribution and display” (Artforum 48, no. 10 [Summer 2010]: 278). Apparently her worthy mandate has not yet penetrated to the Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, where the exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, organized by Roxana Marcoci, Sarah Meister, and Eva Respini, was recently on display. The length of the show’s run (nearly a year), the real estate that was dedicated to it (more than 250 works filled all 5 of MoMA’s photo galleries), and the crowds visiting those rooms certainly attest to the importance of assessing the role of women artists in shaping the history of photography as well as that project’s relevance to MoMA’s audience; and the museum is to be commended both for its insight and its acknowledgment of the need for alternative histories of photography. But the baffling lack of any explanatory wall text within the galleries to guide the visitor through the gaps, productive differences, and power relations that have determined women’s engagement with photography—text that would function alongside the images to open that rich history to its viewers—ensured that Pictures by Women amounted not only to a missed opportunity to write that history but also to carry forward the progressive program that Halbreich hopes to pursue for the museum.

Of all exhibitions, a show of photographs by women demands wall text, if only to draw attention to the historical conditions under which women have been excluded from art institutions both pedagogical and museal—conditions responsible in great part for the large numbers of women taking up photographic practices after the turn of the twentieth century (see Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers, New York: Abbeville Press, 2010). The story MoMA failed to tell fascinates not only for the central role of photography in shaping the cultural history of women in the arts, but also for the way women, precisely by their exclusion from the other fine arts, were crucial to the production of the very category “art photography,” which was constructed as much out of economic and political necessity as from an ideology of aesthetics. Instead, the introductory text at the entrance to the galleries made a claim it cannot possibly fill: to present “a comprehensive history of photography through pictures made exclusively by women artists”—and drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection (emphasis added).

The term “history” here is so abused by the modifier “comprehensive” as to render what remains of that short paragraph meaningless. Need we rehearse the hubris of conflating the “comprehensive history of photography” or even the history of art photography (as if there were only one) with MoMA’s history of photography? This kind of blindness to historiography in general and institutional ideology in particular has long been demonstrated bankrupt, and it is precisely the attitude of self-certainty on the part of the museum that Halbreich claims to want to challenge. The assumption is even more egregious as it is made in the context of MoMA’s recent, specifically funded initiative to “rethink the consensus of art history” in the light of artistic contributions by women: the five-year, cross-departmental “Modern Women’s Project” of which Pictures by Women is a part.

The “centerpiece” of this project is the appropriately weighty catalogue Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, edited by Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, both curators in the department of drawing (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010). Paging through this impressive volume packed with essays by forty-eight authors (mostly, but not exclusively, women), one is delighted by the sheer variety of voices and objects—the format effectively underscores the radical heterogeneity of the body of work that is its topic. But the excellence of the catalogue only served to make the absence of explanatory text in the photography galleries even more puzzling, since the catalogue essays by Carol Armstrong, Sarah Hermanson Meister, and Sally Stein effectively supply the necessary critical and historical context missing from the exhibition.

Stein’s essay on interwar photographers in the United States is particularly memorable. With characteristic verve and empathy, she recounts the way women affirmed the ghettoization of photography as an “effeminate” practice, even as they gained access to it by virtue of its own marginality to the arts; she describes the attitude and objects of women photographers in their distinctions from the Stieglitz paradigm of autonomous mastery; she politicizes the preponderance of portraiture in the work of women photographers, describing how women were encouraged toward the genre as it required the “tact” and “intuition” that were deemed natural to their sex; and she brilliantly (certainly with tact, if not intuition) weaves in an account of MoMA’s own history of photo collecting as historically determined. As a bonus, even though her brief was to address the interwar period alone, at the end of her essay Stein quickly sketches the terms of her own reception of the women/photography relation in the 1970s with a rundown of the apposite literature on the subject as it emerged.

But it is not just a progressive history of women making photographs that MoMA had under its nose all the while. The catalogue also contains an effective blueprint for an exhibition motivated by that history in the penultimate essay, “How to Install Art as a Feminist.” Here, Helen Molesworth rejects as inadequate the mere reinsertion of women artists into “rooms that have been structured by their very absence.” “What would it mean,” she asks, “to take this absence as the very historical condition under which the work of women artists is both produced and understood? Might feminism allow us to imagine different genealogies and hence different versions of how we tell the history of art made by women, as well as art made under the influence of feminism?” (504)

So what would a critical show of pictures by women look like? Well, it would not be a “comprehensive history” of photography, by MoMA’s or anyone’s standards, because this would be impossible. For one thing, the first room would be empty. Not because women were not engaged from the moment of photography’s invention (Henry Fox Talbot’s wife Constance shot and printed alongside him), and not necessarily because their work was excluded from MoMA’s canon, but because women, for well-rehearsed reasons, were long denied access to the knowledge, social freedom, and economic resources necessary for effective training in photographic processes. If there was a female Talbot or Édouard Baldus or Eugène Atget, history has not acknowledged her. In fact the treatment of nineteenth-century photography in general is an excellent case in point, where differences in photographic production fall out along class lines as much as those of gender, as only women with the free time (read: household servants) and economic means to purchase materials could indulge in so expensive an activity, while for men the expense would shortly be considered a reasonable career investment. But the difference is measured even at photography’s earliest moments in the stark contrast between, for example, the treatment of Anna Atkins’s privately published, domestically produced book of botanical cyanotypes (one of her images of ferns, dated 1850–54, is the earliest photo in the MoMA show), and the calotypes Talbot commercially published as the book, The Pencil of Nature (1844), a publication that staked its worldly claims with its two opening images: Queens College, Oxford and The Boulevards of Paris. Talbot, of course, would be lauded as the inventor of photography and his book as “seminal,” even though Atkins’s long neglected Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843) preceded his publication by nearly a year.

So often at MoMA, the staggering richness of its collection seduces the viewer away from identifying the museum’s curatorial shortcomings, and Pictures by Women was no exception. The photographs were stunning, and the visitor soon forgot that the images have been left to “speak for themselves” in the modernist spirit that was long the museum’s default mode. Deservedly famous works were here by the best-known photographers—Berenice Abbot, Tina Modotti, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman—but also fascinating and little-known finds worthy of doctoral dissertations: Frances Benjamin Johnston’s images from her Hampton Album (1899–1900); a Grete Stern photomontage for Madi magazine (1947); a Yayoi Kusama grid of photographed “net” paintings (1962); and, in the adjacent Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery (where the contemporary photographs will rotate), Roni Horn’s anti-mythology of water, Still River (The River Thames, for Example) (1999). The images were hung chronologically, but only loosely so (to obscure historical gaps?), and with occasional thematic digressions that made sly historical references—but unfortunately only to the knowledgeable viewer. The unusual photomontage In Love (1953) by Toshiko Okanoue, here hung in the context of the overtly politicized work of the 1920s, suddenly evoked Aleksander Rodchenko’s Pro Eto of 1923. Similarly, Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits, placed near Judith Joy Ross’s images of a decade prior, recalled both of their projects’ relation to their predecessor August Sander, productively opening all three bodies of work to critical interpretation. These motivated arrangements were perhaps an attempt to bring this exhibition closer to Halbreich’s brief, a call that was answered much more effectively upstairs in another photo exhibition on view at MoMA that partially overlapped in its exhibition schedule with Pictures by Women. The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today (August 1–November 1, 2010), also organized by Marcoci, contained smart, accessible wall text that made the curatorial point of view both clear and persuasive. The show’s excellent use of explanatory text revealed the absence of such guidance for Pictures by Women as that much more glaring, not to mention inexplicable.

Susan Laxton
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of California, Riverside