Photographs by women: Capturing a point of view

A major exhibition of work by female photographers examining women’s contribution to the medium opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art today. The 200 photographs by around 120 women will be displayed in the museum’s capacious Edward Steichen Photography Galleries.

The work on display will span much of photography’s 170-year history. It includes examples of Anna Atkins’ cyantype pictures of plant specimens taken in the medium’s nascent 1850s; examples by early commercial photographer Gertrude Kasebier; and portraits of African Americans by Frances Benjamin Johnson circa 1900 also feature.

The exhibit explores the rise of photographic modernism in the 1920s and 1930s. Claude Cahun’s radical self portraits (with closely shaved head and dressed in men’s clothes) point, among other things, to the defeminisation of women postwar. While the confrontational pose and heavy make-up of Lucia Moholy’s portrait of Florence Henri (right) suggests a modernity which is surprising when you realise that, at the time (1927), women in Britain didn’t have equal voting rights with men.

Click on the image to see a preview of the exhibition

Ilse Bing’s ‘Self Portrait in Mirrors’ (1931) is another of the exhibition’s gems. It is a complex, staged self-portrait showing the artist reflected twice – once in the mirror and once in the camera’s eye- so it appears that she is both looking at and away from you.

The retrospective explores the changing portrayal of women in the 20th Century through advertising, photojournalism, glossy magazine covers and family portraits. It includes work by Yoko Ono, Carrie Mae Weems and Helen Levitt to name a few.

Cindy Sherman’s 1981 ‘Centerfolds’ series, a staged saccharine parody of magazine photographs and familiar modern media poses, strike a complete contrast to the gritty realism of Nan Goldin’s portraits, taken in a drug-fuelled downtown New York community in the 1980s. ‘Nan One Month After Being Battered’(1984) which features the artist with a bloodshot eye and bruised sockets staring nonchalantly into the camera, is particularly powerful.

Pictures by women: A History of Modern Photography opens on May 7th at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA and runs until 30th August 2010.