Presented by Scott Nichols Gallery, “Women” is a modest yet powerful photography collection of and by women, including Ruth Bernhard, Anne Brigman, Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater, Margo Davis, Monica Denevan, Katy Grannan, Niniane Kelley, Mona Kuhn, Dorothea Lange, Doris Ulmann and others.
Along with the portraits by female photographers which dominate most of the space in the exhibition, a small corner is reserved for photos of women taken by men, including works by photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Wynn Bullock, Jim Marshall, George Tice, Edward Weston, Joel-Peter Witkin and others.
A heterogeneous mix of vintage and contemporary photos that capture women adorn every wall of the small gallery in downtown San Francisco. Many of the vintage photos are original gelatin silver prints, including the easily recognizable works of Lange from the Great Depression, while some contemporary works by the likes of Kuhn play with warm lighting and exposure through the medium of archival pigment prints.
The photos in “Women” vary greatly in their subjects and composition. Many of them are medium-shot portraits, with women gazing directly at the camera. Others fill the frame with nude female bodies, or close-ups of body parts. Still others capture women involved in quotidian activities, in cities and in countrysides. However, the photos share the same muse: women, young and old, nude and clothed, singular and plural.
The female body has always been a favorite object of visual consumption, especially by male artists. The “Women” exhibition is interesting because it collapses this distinction between subjecthood and objecthood, as both the creators and subjects of these images are women. There is a sense of empowerment, in that women create their own configurations and articulations of the body and that they are both the producers of and performers in these images of femininity.
Although nude bodies are a common subject in the collection, there is a certain collusion between the erotic nature of the subjects themselves and the lack of eroticism that stems from a female authorship.
There is no implication of sensuality or aggression that adheres to the women’s bodies, but instead, they are solely a subject of artistic exploration, as can be seen by the artists’ consistent desire for light, glow and composition. Nude bodies become a battleground of interiority and specularity, as well as a disappropriation of the masculine prerogative as a whole.
“Women” puts an interesting twist on this perspective by introducing a small collection of photos of women by men. It is a direct juxtaposition of the male and female gaze, and the space becomes gendered along the photographic divide.
“It’s an interesting contrast between the women photographing women and the men photographing women. It’s not so subtle a difference,” said a press release from Scott Nichols Gallery.
In fact, the photos by men construct an entirely different kind of womanhood. Photos by Andre Kertesz and Weston stage female bodies in open contrapposto, which emphasizes their curves and invites visual consumption. In both of these photos, the women face away from the camera, and the viewer is given an excuse and an unlimited access to consume the body. Other photos with male authorship similarly capture women through an exclusively male gaze, endowing them with a sense of sensuality and eroticism that was lacking in the photos by women.
Through this divide, the collection establishes a distinction between nakedness and nudity, encouraging the viewer to experience womanhood through gendered gazes.
Photography as an indexical medium is believed to capture what is real — an emanation of what was actually there. “Women” reminds us, however, that photographs of the same subject can have different implications depending on the person behind the lens. After all, the viewers inevitably harness the gaze of the photographer when confronted with these photos. The photo collection celebrates womanhood in every form and opens up important dialogues about gender and authorship.
The “Women” exhibition will be running at Scott Nichols Gallery until Nov. 4.