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A Gendered Lens—Literal and Metaphoric

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Photography exhibits on both coasts—one massive, the other showcasing one artist's vision—both reveal the quality of women's insights that shed light on our times.

As a teacher of women’s studies I often talk about “the gender lens”—the notion of adopting metaphorical spectacles to view the world so that you start seeing things through a special filter and with a special light. That light shines upon women’s realities, needs and perceptions; at the same time, it reveals the realities, needs and perceptions of men in a new way too. One’s vision becomes refined and more acute when donning these spectacles; often it is more compassionate and humanistic as well.

The work of women photographers, presented in two current exhibits, one on each coast, reveals what it's like to see the world through the literal lens of gender. The Los Angeles show, opening this weekend, focuses on one woman's vision. Close to the end of its long New York run, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art presents a historical sweep of 20th Century photographers.

In Los Angeles, the Gallery Luisotti offers Catherine Wagner's view of life as it is altered by the human footprint. Her newest photography exhibition, “Raparations,” opening March 19, “addresses ideas of reparation and repair through the metaphor-rich object of the splint [which] references both injury and health; harm and healing. It is a response to the perpetual presence of images of war,” says a gallery spokesperson. “The work speaks to both changing means of coping and our remarkable resilience as humans and as a society.”

“Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography,” which opened last year at the MoMA and runs through April 4, showcases more than 200 works by such notable women photographers as Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Tina Modotti, alongside lesser known but no less significant visual artists. The exhibit is presented in conjunction with Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art (Eds. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, MoMA, June 2010).

Looking at the world through a gender-sensitive lens allowed Jean Kilbourne, for example, to shine a light on the world of advertising in a way that no one had done before her. She demonstrated through her writing and classic video series “Killing Us Softly” that women were being trivialized, objectified, and grossly sexualized by corporate advertising that seemed clever and remained subliminal until the gender lens revealed how alarming and often sexual or violent it really was (and still is).

Through the gender lens found on the other side of the camera, social-realist photographers like Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White reveal an aesthetic that Henry James referred to in literature as “an air of reality.” Lange, in particular, dedicated herself to the “show-don’t-tell” reality of such historically important times as the Dust Bowl, Depression-era days. Committed to revealing the hardships visited upon poor migrants, she unfailingly afforded her subjects dignity and respect. Further, as her biographer Linda Gordon points out in Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Lange and her contemporary Esther Bubley refused to accept myths like the one holding that the nuclear family was the only “normal” family form and muscular man the quintessential worker. In photographing migrant farm workers, Lange showed that “family” had many forms. Women’s strength was made clear: Lange and Bubley observed that men were usually more fragile emotionally than their counterparts.

By offering us a literal gender lens, Lange and Bubley were able to provide true insight into the impact of economic insecurity and its trauma on both women and men. With respect for everyone affected by poverty, they showed us what it looks like to be frightened, unbearably fatigued, and marginal. While documenting the reality of everyday struggle, they went beyond visible surfaces to explore the complexities, context, and unconscious desires of the characters in their visual narratives.

Lange further uncovered inequalities in American life by documenting strikes, breadlines, and Japanese-American relocation camps. Her photographs revealing the effects of Japanese-American policy were so damning the Army impounded them during the war. Her work in the Dust Bowl was also censored.

Margaret Bourke-White gave us something else with her iconic imagery of industrial America. She made us feel both proud and punished by a technological future. Among the first of a new breed called photojournalists, she exposed 1930s Russia, World War II, death camps, and Depression-era America as no one else had. Often the first woman to gain entry into conflict zones and other venues, her book You Have Seen Their Faces remains a haunting record of the Great Depression.

These women, along with others such as the 19th century pioneering portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron, paved the way for contemporary women photographic artists. Among them was the late Japanese-American Masumi Hayashi, noted for panoramic photo collages and for works focusing on uncomfortable spaces such as prisons. Marion Palfi worked to combine her art form with social research. One of her iconic images is the 1940s picture “Wife of a Lynch Victim,” which appears in her book Invisible in America. Palfi also shed light on the treatment of delinquent children and the problems of the inner-city elderly.

Among other contemporary women photographers of note is social documentarian Mary Ellen Mark, whose work explores homelessness, addiction, mental illness and teenage pregnancy. Mark’s images are up-close and personal: She observes from the inside. In 1976, for example, she spent 36 days in the women’s maximum security section of an Oregon mental institution.

Diane Arbus once said “a photograph is a secret about a secret.” She also believed “there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.” She was right on both counts.

Thankfully, she and talented women like her, have shared their secrets and taken their pictures. We would know so much less of the world without their gendered lenses.

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