Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum
On ViewThe Museum Of Modern Art
April 16–October 10, 2022
Photographs can be slippery. We regard them as exact encapsulations of reality. We forget about the person holding the camera, choosing what to include (or not include) in the frame. With a bit of thought, this medium, so mimetic of our collective visual experience, can be used as a form of resistance, a means of creating—or perhaps recreating—a vision of the world as the artist alone sees it, or as the artist wishes it could be. Use of the photo image in reworking narratives lies at the heart of Our Selves, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of ninety photographs made by women artists. Organized by senior curator of photography Roxana Marcoci with assistant curators Dana Ostraner and Caitlin Ryan, the show draws from the collection of Helen Kornblum and features one hundred years of work that links the radical act of taking a photograph with feminism, civil rights, and the complicated parsing of identity continuously at play in women’s lives.
Near the entrance to the exhibition, Alma Lavenson’s duotone Self-Portrait (1932) shows the artist’s hands reaching around the front of the camera, twisting a lens into focus. In a simple play of light and shadows, the power of image-making and all it yields is literally placed in the hands of a woman who defines herself as much by her camera as her own body. Amanda Ross-Ho plays with coverage and layering in the two large panels that make up Invisible Ink (2010). In 2000, the artist applied temporary tattoos all over her body and made life-sized photos of herself. Unable to pay for professional archiving of the images, she sewed up a pair of translucent fabric cases to protect them. In 2009, she returned to the slip-cased images, cut holes out for the eyes, and re-photographed them. The resulting images give misty, veiled glimpses of the artist, who is further camouflaged by her tattoo adornments.
Shifting the camera’s view outwards, Inge Morath finds a woman hidden in plain sight. In Siesta of a Lottery Ticket Vendor, Plaza Mayor, Madrid (1955), she documents a woman dressed in black leaning against the corner of a building, the pages of a newspaper shielding her head and hands from the midday sun. As her paper disguise completes her anonymity, it also buys her a moment of privacy during which she can rest. Ilse Bing captures a similar moment in Christa on Edge of Bathtub (1934). The photograph shows a girl perched on the rim of her bath, feet immersed in a few inches of water. Her prepubescent body is bare, but a washcloth covers her face. She is too old for peek-a-boo, but my hope is that she is also too young to be hiding her face in shame over her nudity. Perhaps Bing preferred that the child’s face be concealed in order to protect her from (or to at least point out) the predaceous world into which photo and child will be received.
The subjects do not hide in a photograph by Carrie Mae Weems from her “Kitchen Table Series”; Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Makeup) (1990) features the artist and a little girl seated in front of tabletop mirrors, each applying lipstick. Amid the tenderness of this domestic scene, questions arise about who holds power and what it means to make one’s self up in order to be seen in the (male) world. Perhaps the answers lie in Ruth Orkin’s chilling American Girl in Florence, Italy (1951), in which a young woman walks, eyes cast downwards, through a street crowded with leering men.
For Cara Romero, visibility requires the breaking down of stereotypes that surround Indigenous people. Wakeah (2018), from her “First American Girl” series, features ledger artist and dancer Wakeah Jhane dressed in a traditional Southern Buckskin dress, standing in a doll box surrounded by handcrafted accoutrements. Alluding to dolls which inaccurately depict Native Americans, the image pushes back against careless representations that reinforce colonial narratives of powerlessness and disappearance.
Documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, and Mary Ellen Mark are well-represented, as are the forgotten women who appear in their work. Susan Meiselas, one of the only American photojournalists to investigate the socialist revolt in 1970s Nicaragua, expresses both the turmoil and the hope inherent in the resistance movement in vibrant color prints.
An especially moving series of photographs, Lorna Simpson’s Details (1996) was for me the high point of the show. In twenty-one small, framed photographs, Simpson zooms in on details of Black hands taken from archival sources, each captioned with an enigmatic label such as “desired” or “reckless” or “acted in self-defense.” Hands hold telephones or flowers, neatly folded in laps or hanging stiffly at sides; the intimacy expressed in each gesture activates a sense connection between viewer and subject. In framing out the rest of the body, Simpson offers us the merest glimpse of identity, clues that left me wondering about the lives intentionally left out of view.