Delayed exposure: Feminist issues take a backseat to eye-catching images in 'Signals', a nationwide celebration of women's photography. Jane Richards reports

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The Independent Culture
If the idea of a festival devoted to women photographers fills you with dread - all strident feminist ideology and questionable exclusivity - the nationwide event 'Signals', coming your way soon, promises to be a pleasant surprise.

Far from being a diatribe against male-domination - both in the photographic field and life in general - this is a programme of great optimism, imagination and variety. Already underway with the National Portrait Gallery's 'Edwardian Women Photographers' and the Barbican's 'Who's Looking at the Family?', the festival climaxes this month with 300 exhibitions and events around the country.

Val Williams, the historian and curator, conceived the idea of the festival two years ago, not to try and raise the profile of women's photography - 'women are now leading the way in photography', she says - but to 'consolidate current achievements, to celebrate the present and the past, to encourage debate about photography and inspire women not only to believe in their own potential, but to learn how to seize opportunities and to use the structures which already exist for the furtherance of their work.'

And it's not before time. As she points out, 'Women are accustomed to exclusion . . . and yet they have always been major protagonists in photography. Julia Margaret Cameron broke new ground with her bleak, intense portraits and Lady Elizabeth Eastlake wrote one of the most cogent overviews of the new medium of her time. Only in the last 10 years has their contribution begun to be acknowledged.'

While the list of established artists involved in this year's opening festival is impressive - from Mari Mahr to Helen Chadwick and Cindy Sherman - there is also a wealth of new talent. And women from all over Europe are showing work in a wide range of venues. Big names like the National Portrait Gallery and the ICA in London, the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, the Watershed, Bristol and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, stand alongside smaller exhibition spaces such as the Yorkshire Dance Centre, the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon and Herne Bay Library.

And from Anna Maksymluk's 'Visualising Angela Carter' (Birmingham Central Library) to Wendy Aldiss's 'Stockyard' (a behind-the- scenes record of Banbury livestock market) at Banbury Museum, the subject-matter is intriguing. Jennifer Heath's 'Russia 1990-93' (BAC, London) documents the development of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk as it changed from a 'closed city' to one that eventually welcomed her as a photographer. Anne Colvin's 'Dancing the Freedom of Women' at the Battersea District Library Gallery, comprises a series of large-scale expressionistic photographs (right) capturing the energy, passion and sensuality of flamenco dance.

A retrospective of Jo Spence's work (left), is at the Royal Festival Hall. Spence died in 1993 following a long struggle against cancer and 'Matters of Concern: Collaborative Images, 1982-1992' looks at the issues - health, relationships and class - that dominated her life.

Her imagery is highly provocative: in one memorable full-length, nude self-portrait she displays the scars of a recent mastectomy. She used photography to confront her own deep- rooted fears and anger about the effect her cancer was having on both her sexuality and personality. It's powerful, poignant and unmissable - an example of women's photography at its best.

Further info from 'Signals', Interchange Studios, Dalby Street, London NW5 (071- 267 7531)

(Photograph omitted)