Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman [Review]
“I didn’t want to be a ‘woman photographer.’ That would limit me. I wanted to be a photographer who was a woman, with all the world open to my camera.” – Eve Arnold
Before we begin, I’d like to ask you to do something. Grab a pen or a pencil and a sheet of paper and write down the names of the first five female photographers that come to mind. If you don’t have access to pencil and paper, just make a mental list. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Well? How did you do? Could you name five? How many of you started with Annie Leibovitz? Or maybe Mary Ellen Mark? Depending on how long you’ve been into photography, you may have chosen Dorothea Lange or even Imogen Cunningham. Even if you got to five, chances are it would be a lot more difficult for you to get to ten. The point of this little exercise was to illustrate how many terrific female photographers have simply gotten lost under the lens of history.
Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman, published by Prestel, is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it is a terrific compendium of 55 women, both past and present, who have helped to shape, challenge, and extend the art and craft of photography. On the other, there is really nothing in the way of a compelling narrative or context (chronological or otherwise) that bind the group together, other than the fact that they are all women. The book features names you may already know (simply listed alphabetically), like Eve Arnold or one of my favorite photographers, female or not, Sally Mann. What I found most interesting about the book was the number of talented women presented who I had simply never heard of before receiving a copy from the publisher. One example is Carrie Mae Weems, who knew from the age of fourteen that she wanted to be an artist and has used her photography as a vehicle to explore the boundaries of racism and gender relations. Sarah Moon, a former model turned photographer, was the first female to shoot the prestigious Pirelli Calendar and went on to shoot for Harper’s, Elle, Marie Claire and Vogue and says that her photos are different than those of a male photographer due to the more “intimate dialogue [that] arises from woman to woman.”
Photography has traditionally been a male dominated profession, with names like Avedon and Penn far more recognizable than any female, with the exception of perhaps Annie Leibovitz (who is suspiciously absent from this book). However, the gap has been steadily closing, with women comprising nearly 43% of the professional market, according to the most recent data from the NEA – and many estimate the numbers for amateurs/hobbyists to be even higher.
I wish that author Boris Friedwald would have provided some sort of narrative to this collection, beyond the brief foreword, which feels more like a random smattering of quotes than a proper introduction to not only the who in the collection, but why they are considered important, both individually and as a curated group. Another oddity is the cover of the book itself, which features a photograph of a women, rather than by a women (the photo was taken by Oscar Graubner). I suppose I understand the thought process behind it, but it ends up feeling a tad forced (“See, here’s a woman with a camera.”).
The layout of the book is fairly straightforward – a portrait and a brief biography of each photographer are presented alongside a gallery of their photographs. The design is somewhat utilitarian – not bad, per se, though it does make the book feel more like a survey or reference volume, rather than a coffee table art book. It’s just a little sparse, especially when compared to a previous Prestel title I reviewed, the superb Capa In Color. That said, the actual content is terrific – especially as a jumping off point to go deeper into individual photographers. This could easily have been expanded to either a larger single volume, or even a two-volume set, with “golden age” photographers in one and modern shooters in the other, though either of these suggestions would likely increase the price substantially.
As I mentioned previously, I think I understand what Friedwald was trying to do with Women Photographers, I just think he missed an opportunity to go deeper and give the reader something more substantial to connect with.