NEW YORK — Culturally, photography spent many of its formative decades trying to embrace tradition. Invented in 1839, this strange new process — “medium” would be too grand a word — was part technology, part documentation, part … art? Aesthetically ambitious photographers sought to associate their work with such fine arts as etching and easel painting.
Socially, photography ignored tradition. Status and heritage weren’t relevant to its practice. To work as a photographer, one didn’t need to have attended an academy or apprenticed with a professional. Buy a camera — make a camera — and you were a photographer.
This ad hoc aspect meant that women could have a prominence unusual in other visual arts. In both absolute and relative terms, there were notably more female photographers than female painters in the half century or so before World War I. Among them were Anna Atkins, Julia Margaret Cameron, Gertrude Käsebier, Anne Brigman, Frances Benjamin Johnston.
“The New Woman Behind the Camera,” an excitingly extensive exhibition which runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Oct. 3, shows how the number of prominent women photographers took off during the ‘20s and beyond, as well as how far-reaching their impact was.
On display are the work of 120 photographers, from six continents, with works ranging in date from 1921 to 1960. There are very familiar names here (Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange), some who are less familiar but still well known (Lola Álvarez Bravo, Ilse Bing, Lee Miller, Lisette Model), and others whose obscurity is in no way commensurate with the quality of their work (Galina Sanko, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Homai Vyarawalla). Any good photography show, and “New Woman” is very good, offers memorable images to look at. “New Woman” offers something much rarer: a real sense of discovery.
“New Woman,” a term that originated in Britain in 1894, came into its own in the ‘20s. From female suffrage in the United States and Britain to new, less confining styles of dress throughout the West, women enjoyed an unprecedented degree of liberation. Madame d’Ora’s “Mariette Pachhofer,” from 1921, isn’t really a portrait (note how the subject’s hat conceals her eyes and she’s partially looking away from the camera). Instead, it’s identity as stance and self-assertion rather than appearance, right down to Pachhofer’s stylishly androgynous attire.
Self-assertion can exist on both sides of the camera. It even has its own genre: the self-portrait. There are 14 of them in “New Woman.” The best known is Bing’s, from 1931. The intentness of her double gaze is startling. Just as the image is a self-portrait twice over, so is it a self-portrait and a portrait of something else. The importance of the something else is indicated by its sharing the title: “Self-Portrait With Leica.”
Along with the many social and cultural changes that followed in the wake of World War I, which did so much to affect the place of women, there was a crucial change in technology, which did so much to affect the place of women photographers. The development of high-quality handheld 35mm cameras like the Leica transformed photography for all serious practitioners, but especially for women.
In addition to being a piece of technology and an aesthetic tool, the camera was now also capable of being a declaration of independence. Imagine a portrait of the Wright brothers from two decades earlier alongside one of their first flyers. With the Bing picture, there’s a comparable sense of taking off and newly available possibility. That same sense is there in Abbott’s reply when a well-meaning man (of course) was alarmed to hear that someone he considered to be a “nice girl” was going to one of Manhattan’s seedier neighborhoods, the Bowery. “I’m not a nice girl. I’m a photographer. I go anywhere.”
Abbott was far from alone in this willingness to go anywhere. Bourke-White famously took her camera atop the Chrysler Building. Sanko’s World War II combat photography required a different kind of fearlessness. Lange’s refusal to condone the shamefulness of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II required another. Miller photographed the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. Hou Bo, who couldn’t swim, risked drowning as well as possibly offending her subject when she took what is likely the most recognizable image in the show: Mao Zedong swimming in the Yangtze in 1956.
“Anywhere” could also mean formal innovation, fostering new techniques, transforming the use of the camera in ethnography, bringing a more nuanced approach to social documentary, or flouting social convention. “The New Woman Behind the Camera” conveys just how various going anywhere could be, and that’s no small part of the satisfaction this revelatory show provides.
“New Woman” and “Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946-1964″ have just one photographer in common, Dulce Carneiro. The latter runs through Sept. 26 at the Museum of Modern Art. The limited overlap makes sense. Where the Met show looks at photography as a global enterprise, “Fotoclubismo” is much narrower.
Narrowness is not the same as limitation. “Fotoclubismo” is about, yes, an amateur photo club, the Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante, of São Paulo. The interest of the show, and it’s considerable, is twofold: as a case study in the impact of High Modernism and in the consistently high quality of the work of the 19 photographers here.
In the years after World War II, Brazil might be thought of as a cultural byway, far from the New York-Paris axis of Modernism. But Brasilia was built during these years; and its chief architect, Oscar Niemeyer, was at the height of his powers. In their frequent reliance on high contrast, strong preference for form over content, and occasional flirtation with abstraction, the images in “Fotoclubismo” have a strikingly avant-garde thrust. The poet André Carneiro’s “Rails (Trilhos),” from 1951, has the Constructivist verve of Aleksandr Rodchenko (André was Dulce Carneiro’s brother).
Yet just as “New Woman” very much speaks to the interplay between photography and society — the ultimate relationship between form and content — so, too, does “Fotoclubismo.” Why those particular dates in the subtitle? Brazil got a new constitution in 1946, and the military seized power in 1964. When not swimming in the Yangtze, Mao was known to say that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. Formalism ends there.
THE NEW WOMAN BEHIND THE CAMERA
At Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, through Oct. 3. 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org
FOTOCLUBISMO: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946-1964
At Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, through Sept. 26. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.