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MFA widens the angle on women photographers

Adriana Lestido's "Mother and Daughter from Mothers of Plaza de Mayo," 1982.
Adriana Lestido's "Mother and Daughter from Mothers of Plaza de Mayo," 1982.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Women Take the Floor,” the Museum of Fine Arts’s necessary and colossal penance for neglecting women artists for 150 years, has now welcomed photographers into the fold.

A new installation, “Personal and Political: Women Photographers, 1965-1985” distills a period of sea change when photography was finally fully embraced as art. Photo galleries opened; collecting began in earnest. Women picked up cameras hoping the newly legitimized medium would provide better art-world traction than, say, painting.

In a show full of warmth and riddled with violence, anger, and introspection, Karen Haas, the museum’s senior curator of photographs, has organized an intimate, idiosyncratic array of photographs around four themes: portraiture, landscape, domestic life, and street photography.


Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still #14," 1978.
Cindy Sherman's "Untitled Film Still #14," 1978.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Artists once resisted being cordoned off into women’s shows; some still do. Attention was meager, and they jockeyed for it. Painter Joan Mitchell, something of a brawler, once called colleague — or rival — Helen Frankenthaler “that tampon painter.”

But over the years, the game has changed. This show, which starts in 1965 — after Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” and before Ms. Magazine was founded — syncs with the beginning of that change.

Feminist scholars such as Linda Nochlin, who wrote the pivotal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” in 1971, expanded notions of institutional blindness, the male gaze, subjectivity, and identity. Since then, feminist studies have given way to gender studies. Today, artists in Master of Fine Arts programs grapple with the scope of colonialism’s ignorance and privilege, and the vicious costs of objectification. Inclusivity is baked into the curriculum.

Annie Leibovitz's "Patti Smith, New Orleans," from 1978.
Annie Leibovitz's "Patti Smith, New Orleans," from 1978.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

All that was just beginning to come into focus in the 1970s and 1980s, giving women artists tools to think more critically about their place in art and the world. In photography, artists who became known as the Pictures Generation used the camera to critique the way the media shaped identity. Cindy Sherman starred in and staged her pictures, drawing attention to the narrow roles women filled in cultural storytelling. Here, in “Untitled Film Still #14,” Sherman appears as a troubled beauty, on the alert alone in a dining room.


Sherman, Annie Leibovitz, fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville, and Diane Arbus, each in her own way, refined their subjects to a crystalline essence, like archetypes. Some of those hold strong today, like Leibovitz’s renegade “Patti Smith, New Orleans.”

Diane Arbus's "Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, 1938 Debutante of the Year, at home, 
Boston, Mass.," taken in 1966.
Diane Arbus's "Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, 1938 Debutante of the Year, at home, 
Boston, Mass.," taken in 1966.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Other archetypes read more like fossils. In Arbus’s “Brenda Diana Duff Frazier, 1938 Debutante of the Year, at home, Boston, Massachusetts,” the subject, another of the artist’s pained, offbeat characters, poses still fluffed and feathered nearly 30 years after her debut.

All the artists in “Personal and Political” contend with oppression and identity whether they want to or not. Even the landscape and nature photos seem to consider it. Notably, there are no majestic vistas here. Environmentalism was on the rise and landscape art was becoming more critical. Still, this selection suggests women had a different take than men — one less interested in claiming ownership.

Barbara P. Norfleet's "Gray Horse and Car Radio Antenna," 1985.
Barbara P. Norfleet's "Gray Horse and Car Radio Antenna," 1985.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Instead, we have Mimi Plumb — an artist only recently gaining acclaim — shooting “Highway 74.” It’s a vista, all right, but also a perilous stretch of California road sullied by litter. Barbara Norfleet, for years based at Harvard, gives us the unsettling, eerily lit collision of nature and culture, “Gray Horse and Car Radio Antenna.”

There’s plenty of angst in the show, but it’s matched by joy and connection. Another artist with local ties, Wendy Snyder MacNeil, depicts three young women in a soft, familial knot in shallow water in “Stephanie and her Sisters.” Mikki Ferrill, a Black photographer, spent a decade documenting a Chicago dance club, the Garage, an auto repair shop by day. Her “Untitled, Chicago,” shows a sweet society of primping partiers in a ladies’ room mirror.


Mikki Ferrill's "Untitled, Chicago," from about 1970.
Mikki Ferrill's "Untitled, Chicago," from about 1970.Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Magazines were once photography’s principal domain, and several artists here, like Ferrill, are photojournalists who immersed themselves in very particular worlds.

Susan Meiselas went to the carnival and studied strippers. A male photographer in the 1970s might have shined a bright light on the feminine forms of those performers, but Meiselas photographed everything in their lives — including the males gazing at them. In “Before the Show, Tunbridge, Vermont,” guys gawk up a dancer’s bare leg. A young boy stands at the center, mesmerized.

After Argentine journalist Adriana Lestido’s husband went missing under the brutal regime of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, she started documenting the women who rallied outside the presidential palace every week to demand information about vanished loved ones.

In Lestido’s brilliant, wrenching image “Mother and Daughter,” a young girl mirrors her mother, fist raised, brow furrowed, mouth open. Both cry for justice.

Mounting women’s shows has, at times, been politically expedient. I suppose it still is. But in this moment, this show and “Women Take the Floor” fulfill a larger purpose. After decades of critically dissecting how women have been shaped and squelched, it finally feels OK to relax and explore their authentic, nuanced voices and visions. Right now, anyway, it doesn’t feel like a fight.



At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Nov. 28. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.