She-Bop-A-Lula: A bird's eye view of fame and fortune

Can female photographers offer new insights into the lives of Kylie, Lily and co? A new exhibition provides the answers.

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The Independent Culture

When Dede Millar was assembling her exhibition of photographs of female musicians by women, she was struck by how few female music photographers there were in the 1960s and 1970s. You only have to speak to the relatively small pool that did exist to find out the reasons why.

"Walking into the office of Melody Maker, the men would turn around and jeer and boo – because I was a woman", says artist Caroline Coon, who started as a music photographer in the 1970s. "There was a gender apartheid."

Coon is known in the industry as one of the earliest photographers of the punk movement; she was taking pictures of the punk scene before editors of the music press believed anything was happening. "I knew there was something developing so I bought a pukka Nikon. When the music press realised there was a movement, I had all my pictures ready." One of her earliest photos, of The Clash, was used on their "White Riot" single cover in 1976. It features the band members with their hands above their heads, mirroring the political situation of the time when black youths were routinely stopped and searched on the street.

By the mid 1970s, a second wave of feminism was fighting to enable women to be accepted as professionals in the work place. Coon was at the centre of it: "There was a ferocious backlash against that. For me, as a young woman working in photography, we certainly had to be very ambitious and focused on our work otherwise we were not going to be allowed to partake in the profession."

Even today, female photographers complain of being elbowed out the way at gigs by their male counterparts. "It's a man's game," states Amelia Troubridge, who's photographed Anna Calvi, Lily Allen and Christina Aguilera. Still, the fact there are so many more female music photographers today, many of whom are displayed in this exhibition, is, Coon says, "because of the groundbreaking work that young women photographers in the 1970s pioneered".

She-Bop-A-Lula is a celebration of female photography. Showcasing the work of 47 photographers, it's the first time that so many female snappers have been exhibited in London. So what can a female photographer bring to the image? It's not as though you can look at a photo and be able to tell instantly whether a man or woman took it. However, talking to the photographers displayed, many highlight the sensitivity that a woman can bring to the job, resulting in more complex images. On display, there's Marianne Faithfull looking sad and contemplative; Aguilera with her eyes downcast appearing surprisingly vulnerable; Laura Marling looking fragile and forlorn; Allen looking wide-eyed, young, and wary.

Christie Goodwin, whose images of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Kylie Minogue and Jessie J feature in the exhibition, has been a professional music photographer for 20 years, but has been sneaking into gigs with a camera long before. She insists that women bring empathy and sensitivity to their work.

"Men think more logically; everything will be perfectly positioned. What they lack is the feeling and the emotions. They might see a female performer as sexy, but I will capture her vulnerability and her emotions. I've heard of female artists who don't like to be photographed by women because they won't make them look sexy. But it's not true. I can find a female performer very sexy, therefore the picture will be sexy. But sometimes I can see a little picture of vulnerability and I will jump on that. We have more sensitivity than men."

Goodwin recalls an assignment when she went on tour with Katy Perry. "A part of her is the happy, fun girl, and at times she does these really sexy moves, and somewhere in between is this very vulnerable child. You can see that she relives her childhood on stage. I combined the playfulness with the sexiness and she fell in love with it, so it must have been that I touched something," she says. "With women it's more complicated – there are so many facets that you can bring into the picture, and if you don't feel all those things you shouldn't be doing it."

Troubridge also feels there's a difference between male and female music photographers. "Male photographers are all about bimbo-ing them up a bit. When I'm photographing a woman, I want to show strength and power." But it's not always an advantage. She finds photographing women more of a challenge, because, unlike her male counterparts, she hasn't got that extra tool of flirting to help win over her female subjects. "Women are much tougher subjects for me than men. Allen and Aguilera, especially – you're dealing with difficult women because women [photographers] haven't got that edge of charming them and flirting with them. It takes more to get their trust on a shoot than a man. Someone like Lily is going to be much more suited to a male photographer so you've got to do a lot more work. She was arrogant; you've got to get through that in two minutes. [They've] got their money, fame, everything they dreamed of – it goes to anyone's head."

In addition, image is so important within the pop industry that there is ever more make-up and set design to contend with. "There are so many smoke screens put in front of you with music photography. The imagery of these pop stars is so controlled, it's gone mad. I take all that away. Where's the musician? That's what I'm interested in, as little smoke and mirrors as possible. You tap in much more to their spirit and what they're about – we strip the glamour and get to their soul."

She-Bop-A-Lula, Strand Gallery, London WC2 (020 7839 4942; shebopalula.co.uk) to 31 March

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