Women have been at the forefront of photography from its earliest days. However, as this major new exhibition at the Met contends, not until the 1920s did they emerge as “a powerful expression of modernity, a global phenomenon that embodied an ideal of female empowerment based on real women making revolutionary changes in life and art.”
Whether one agrees or disagrees, it’s a theory that’s brought together a wonderful collection of images – 185 photographs, photo books and magazines, by 120 photographers from over 20 countries – some familiar — and many, especially from the Far East, unfamiliar. At a time when race and gender seem to be at the forefront of the arts, this exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a welcome reminder of the often-overlooked role of women in advancing modern photography between the 1920s and the 1950s, a period defined and shaped by the rise of Fascism, Communism, and two world wars.
The invention of small, light-weight cameras was a boon to women and allowed more of them to become street photographers, war photographers, documentarians, and visual ethnographers. They ventured more easily into spaces – public and private — previously unavailable to them.
Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange were among those women who were recognized and rewarded for their pioneering work. MBW’s image of Ft Peck Dam graced the first cover of Life Magazine, and she continued to contribute to its pages, making her the most famous female photographer of her era.
Dorothea Lange, whose work recently received a one-woman show at The Modern Museum, was a successful portrait photographer in San Francisco before turning her talent to social causes. Hired by the Farm Security Administration in 1935 to document the migration of agricultural workers, her stunning images of migrant families helped generate support for social assistance programs.
Though Mao Zedong is famous for saying, “Women hold up half the sky,” it’s still a surprise to see their heretofore unacknowledged work as photographers, especially at the front lines.
The New Woman Behind the Camera
Metropolitan Museum of Art
July 2 to October 3, 2021
Photos and Text by Eleanor Foa Dienstag