British photographic history

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Exhibition Review by Janine Freeston ARPS: Who is afraid of Women Photographers?

Who is afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945 Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie 14 October 2015-24 January 2016. The first of its type in France it pulls together histories of photography that, re-evaluated the contribution women made to the medium's development. It displays the singular and progressive relationship between women and photography, in historical and sociocultural contexts.

The first part of the exhibition, curated by Thomas Galifot, covers 1839-1919 and is housed in Musée de l’Orangerie. This substantial exhibition is cleverly organised and exquisitely hung bringing together known and unknown masterpieces by the female practitioners in the Anglo-Saxon sphere. Starting with Constance Talbot, and Anna Atkins, and including the photojournalism of Frances Benjamin Johnston and the artistry of those like Julia Margaret Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier. The work of the 75 women included in this location shows how liberated, adventurous and creative they were unconstrained by conventional traditions including to films from 1896 and 1906. The works range from amateur’s personal albums and studio practitioners to pioneers who influenced art, commerce and international politics. Finally, the exhibition ends with pioneers in documentary photography and photojournalism who questioned social and ethnic minorities, education, work, women suffrage, in the representation of the events on the very front of the First World War.

The exhibition assembles French and internationally sourced images many of which are familiar, however, a considerable number are works are not and their presence adds considerably to the range of women photographers. Each area of the exhibition is introduced impartially to allow viewers to draw their conclusions to their contents and this is complemented by insightful essays in the weighty catalogue by Museum staff, Abigail Solomon Godeau, Patrizia di Bello and Sandrine Chene, which will hopefully be published in English.

The second part of the exhibition 1918-1945 is curated by Marie Robert and is situated across the river in the Musée d’Orsay, opens with a collection of bold, colourful portraits by Madam Yevonde setting a very different attitude reflecting the emergence of the ‘new woman’ in the aftermath of World War 1. The hang is full of variances that create an edgier tone, veering away from traditionally assigned genres of portraiture, botany and cherished scenes its focus is on those subverting and transgressing artistic and social codes with work from Imogen Cunningham, Aenne Biermann and Helen Levitt. This section is followed by perspectives on relationships between the sexes, their identities and gendered bodies, illustrated by photographers such as Claude Cahun, Elisabeth Hase, and Ilse Bing. Finally, the evolving modernist photographic practices are illustrated by Germaine Krull, Margaret Bourke-White, Tina Modotti, Barbara Morgan, Gerda Taro, Dorothea Lange, Lola Alvarez-Bravo, etc., who became embedded in the emerging broadcast markets of reporting and journalism, illustrating, fashion and advertising in the first half of the 20th century. The moving images from World War 2 are a testament to their unfettered access as photographers to previously inaccessible locations and events. Once again each category is complemented by essays from specialists in the catalogue.

Although this is an exhibition of two very distinct parts in location, style and atmosphere, their differences add to the illustration of the evolution of photography’s applications socially, technologically and aesthetically. They are both stunning in their way and well worth several hours of consideration each. Open until January 2016 I can highly recommend the experience there is so much to appreciate and discover.

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