‘Modern Women: talking with curators Marta Gili, Julie Jones & Roxana Marcoci’
Aperture magazine n. 225: On Feminism, 2016
‘Modern Women: David Campany, Marta Gili, Julie Jones and Roxana Marcoci on the women who dominated photography between the wars’. Aperture magazine n. 225: On Feminism, 2016 (10 pages)
Marta Gili is Director of the Jeu de Paume, Paris
Julie Jones is Assistant Curator in the Photo Department at the Centre Pompidou, Paris
Roxana Marcoci is Senior Curator in the Department of Photography at MoMA, New York
David Campany: You have all been involved with exhibitions and publications dedicated to women photographers who began their working lives between the wars. The 1920s and 1930s, particularly in Europe, still loom large in any history of photography because of the flowering of various modernisms and avant-gardes, and, of course, the expansion of the illustrated mass media and the photographic book. Perhaps less discussed is the rich crossover between these fields. Photographers moved easily right across visual culture. And it’s notable how many of the most dynamic figures were women: Germaine Krull, Laure Albin-Guillot, Florence Henri, Grete Stern, and many others. Why was this? Was the medium open to them the way the other arts were not? Was it to do with photography at that point being a medium without boundaries and categories?
Julie Jones: In the 1920s and 1930s, women were indeed particularly present in the photography world. I think it’s worth remembering that it is, at first sight, not particularly clear why a woman would have chosen this profession: photography required strong physical qualities; it implied rough negotiations; and it demanded operating in the public sphere, which was still largely reserved for men. But unlike painting, sculpture, or other traditional arts, photography was still considered at that time as minor, in part, but not only, due to its lack of tradition. In the photography circles, amateur and professional alike, women were free of the restrictions they had to face in other art branches. The same applied to the publications and exhibitions they participated in. Also, being a professional photographer did not, for a long time, and especially then, bring specific social prestige. Moreover, this profession didn’t require any official apprenticeship or education degree. This alone could explain a lot, as education and legal rights of women were still awfully limited. The French situation was particularly depressing: Women couldn’t vote before the end of World War II. They were not given access to secondary education equivalent to that of men until 1924. And, married women could not register for university without spousal authorization until 1938. They also had to ask their husbands for permission to be able to work! Working as a photographer gave women the possibility to run their own businesses and make a living that was equivalent to that of a male photographer, while enabling them to liberate themselves from conservative, bourgeois mores and lifestyles.
Roxana Marcoci: When we speak of the interwar period, we speak in fact of a photophilic revolution, which generated the emergence of new critical theories and a more porous context for the production and distribution of photographic imagery. In the 1920s, lens-based media gained expressive and economic potential for many women as they pushed the cultural boundaries and began to make the transition from the heavy, fixed camera to the portable, lightweight 35mm camera, working at higher film speeds and experimenting with montage, seriality, and dynamic modes of media production. The new culture of illustrated magazines (many devoted to women, fashion, and the domestic interior) enlisted more women photographers to contribute pictures for advertisements and graphic design in mass media.
DC: Did photographic education also play a part in this shift?
RM: Yes, this is also a moment of historical transformation in educational institutions when women began to play a critical role. When the Bauhaus opened in 1919 in Weimar as a school of fine and applied arts, with a thoroughly progressive approach through its cross-disciplinary program, there were more women applicants to enroll than men. Gertrud Arndt, Florence Henri, Grete Stern, Elsa Thiemann-Franke, and others who studied photography at the Bauhaus were also exposed to the program in typography and advertising design then being led by Joost Schmidt. In 1922, Lucia Moholy jointly wrote with her husband, artist and Bauhaus theorist László Moholy-Nagy, a short manifesto “Produktion-Reproduktion” (Production-Reproduction), which precisely explored the crossover between photography, film, and sound recording. Although Lucia was not officially part of the Bauhaus faculty (she would be appointed at the Reimann Schule in 1930, where she taught until 1933), she shared her expertise in photography and played an inestimable influence on photographers such as Florence Henri, who in 1927 attended a summer course at the Bauhaus.
Marta Gili: Roxana, you are completely right in pointing out the important role of the Bauhaus school in the emancipation of these women artists. In fact, the concept of the Neue Frau (New Woman) was possible because under the Weimar Republic, and probably due to the complexity of the social and politic situation, painting, photography, film, literature, theater, and the world of the ideas were flourishing—some would say chaotic and tense—but nonetheless cosmopolitan and open-minded. The emancipation of women was, I think, a kind of consequence of this spirit.
DC: But as the postwar histories of photography were put together, we overlooked the work of many of the women who had emerged from the Bauhaus.
MG: Indeed. We should not forget that it was Ute Eskildsen, head of the photography department at Museum Folkwang in Essen (until last year) who staged, in 1995, the most remarkable exhibition to give them visibility. Women Photographers of the Weimar Republic presented an astonishing range of more than fifty photographers who were active in commercial or artistic photography in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Her research was amazing. In my personal case, this exhibition was a kind of revelation and a strong motivation in my career, since I have committed myself, as director of the Jeu de Paume in Paris, to giving visibility to artistic work of men and women on an equal basis.
Nevertheless, this period between the two worlds was also exciting not only in Berlin or Dessau, but also in Paris, Budapest, Amsterdam, Mexico, Buenos Aires, and New York, just to name a few centers.
JJ: In addition to the importance of the Bauhaus for women, I think it is worth mentioning that some women also held strategic positions as heads of institutions. I’m thinking here particularly about Gertrude Fehr and her photography school Publi-Phot. The advertisements for the school show that this institution hoped to bring in young women, especially, as students.
DC: And after this new education?
RM: Many of the women photographers we are talking about went on to open pioneering commercial studios, further pushing the bounds of cross-cultural freedoms. The social model of the Neue Frau enfranchised not just Stern, Henri, and Arndt, but also other professional artists such as Ellen Auerbach, Marianne Brandt, Lotte Jacobi, Germaine Krull, and Elli Marcus to experiment creatively with photography, vote, enjoy sexual independence, and operate their own studios. Henri moved to Paris in 1929, where she set up a photographic studio that would rival Man Ray’s in popularity, as well as a school where Lisette Model and Gisèle Freund, among others, enrolled. Ilse Bing contributed pictures to Das Illustrierte Blatt, a monthly supplement of the illustrated magazine Frankfurter Illustrierte. In 1930, she moved to Paris, where her circle of acquaintances included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, and Brassaï, and where she came to be known as “Queen of the Leica” for her skill with the handheld camera.
DC: Stern and Auerbach joined forces.
RM: Yes, embracing both commercial and avant-garde work. In 1930, they established ringl + pit, a feminist commercial studio in Berlin (it was named for their childhood nicknames: Ringl for Stern, Pit for Auerbach). They coauthored their production, fostering a groundbreaking artistic alliance that subverted the clichéd cult of the master, and which led to several productive commissions. Their foto-reklamen defied the stiff-upper-lip style that had become the norm for German advertising photography in the early 1920s.
DC: Germaine Krull was one of the most widely published photographers of this period. One can hardly pick up a journal from that time, be it mainstream or avant-garde, without coming across her photographs. Plus, she was publishing all manner of photographically illustrated books.
RM: Krull made her breakthrough in 1928 when she was hired as a staff photographer at the nascent Paris-based weekly magazine VU, which would eventually publish 281 of her pictures in seventy issues. Along with André Kertész and Eli Lotar, she took radically modernist pictures that formed a new kind of photojournalism, one rooted in freedom of expression and closeness to her subjects—all facilitated by her small-format Icarette camera. During this period she also published Métal (1928), a series of sixty-four images of modernist industrial architecture and engineering, shot in muscular close-up and from vertiginous angles, and took her signature portraits including one of the cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who praised Krull for her radical visual aesthetics, aligning her with New Objectivity photographers such as Karl Blossfeldt and August Sander.
DC: Marta, at the Jeu de Paume you have presented major shows of the work of Florence Henri, Germaine Krull, and Laure Albin-Guillot. Of those three Albin-Guillot was probably the least known by contemporary audiences. Her oeuvre is a personal favorite of mine. Like Krull, she wass truly prodigious but the variety of her work is extraordinary. Advertising, industrial photography, nudes, portraiture, architectural photography, scientific photography, image-text experiments. There’s no signature style at all, and no signature images for which she’s known. I get the impression that until recently historians have had a difficult time making sense of the breadth of her achievements.
MG: Albin-Guillot is a very special case. She started making photographs when she was almost forty years old, but quickly achieved a great recognition in Paris with, as you say, portraiture, advertising, illustration, experimentation, design, and by publishing many books. Her renown came in 1931 with her stupefying album Micrographie Décorative, photographs of abstract microscopic preparations, printed on colored metallic papers.
JJ: One important thing to bear in mind, while thinking about this period for women photographers, is that the proliferation of images in the 1920s and 1930s fully contributed to the advent of new forms of consumption and encouraged the cultivation of the cult of appearance. Women were then omnipresent as models (objects) in this image-world. Professional women photographers didn’t appear to want to change this type of objectification. When we study their pictures, it is very clear that searching for any sort of specifically feminine gaze, technique, or subject matter is completely futile. Rather, they definitely used the same tools, moved through the same networks, and reached out to the same public as their male counterparts, without playing on differences.
DC: So there is little that is explicitly feminist being expressed by this work. Rather, is there is an implicit feminism in the sheer fact that so many of those women were playing such a dynamic and active part in that new photophilic visual culture?
RM: I think Julie is making a perceptive observation here. The whole question of agency and reception (who were these women photographers speaking to) is critical. In most cases, I would agree that a feminist agency was not explicit, and it’s shocking to recall that women in France did not have voting rights until 1944.
But, I’d like to make a counterargument. In 2010, I cocurated, with two other colleagues at MoMA, Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography. It was an exhibition drawn completely from the museum’s collection and presented the history of the medium from the dawn of the modern period to the present with more than two hundred works by 120 artists. It filled the entire third floor of the photography galleries. A particular aspect of the installation was striking: self-portraits and representations of women by a variety of women practitioners was a recurring motif. By “seizing the gaze,” women were representing themselves in a performative way and not just as “models (objects) in this image-world,” as Julie aptly put it. These certainly added to the proliferation of images (the entropic rule of photography), but not simply, not always, to encourage new forms of consumption, or the cult of appearance.
MG: In a completely different aesthetic and political approach, we cannot forget the great Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob), using her own body as a material to challenge the clichés of feminine and masculine identity. Her self-portraits have aroused great interest among theoreticians of contemporary culture.
RM: Claude Cahun was also a writer, an actress in small vanguard theater productions, and an outspoken member of the lesbian community of Paris between the wars. She and her stepsister, Suzanne Malherbe, became partners in life and art, and took the ambiguously gendered pseudonyms of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore for their collaborative theatrical and photographic works. A witty observer of the multifaceted and conflicting sociopolitical conditions of the interwar period, Cahun understood the importance of cross-dressing and masks in constructing identity. “Under this mask, another mask,” she wrote. “I will never finish removing all these faces.” Cahun jotted these words on one of the photomontages in her 1930 book Aveux non avenus (Disavowals), which outlines her interest in role playing, masking, and doubling. She shaved her head and posed in a variety of male costumes, ranging from a stylish dandy to a conventionally suited civil servant, but she also fashioned a feminine, puppet-like persona using the artifice of dress, makeup, and masks.
DC: Roxana your 2015 exhibition From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola hinted at Stern working in ways similar to Cahun.
RM: In a proto-feminist scrapbook titled Ringlpitis that Ellen Auerbach offered to Grete Stern on her birthday in 1931, the two photographed each other in full masquerade, through makeup, cross-dressing, and gender-bending poses. They put on roles and took them off at will, enacting androgyny and dandyism in the transgressive tradition of actionist work, and they explored the edgy, masculinized identity of the Weimar Neue Frau, considered a global icon of modernity, a close cousin of the French garçonne or hommesse and the American flapper. Like Hannah Höch, the sole female member of the Berlin Dada group, whose provocative montages of Weimar women with cutout pictures of tribal masks challenged European gender definitions and racist and colonialist ideas, ringl + pit explored alternative models of the feminine that had emerged out of the sociopolitical upheavals of the Weimar Republic through their construction of humorous masquerades. These entailed mixing sartorial props to lampoon generational differences regarding sexuality; playing with mirror reflections to fragment the seamless image of femininity; and using montage to expose the stereotypical view of woman as commodity. The theatricality of these new forms of portraiture and self-portraiture would pave the way for the feminist performances of the early 1970s when the women’s liberation movement took central stage. Through performance, the concept of woman could be debated, an idea complicated by class, ethnicity, sexual inclination, and other facets of identity.
JJ: Roxana’s right. Major examples of this type of emancipation are to be found in several women’s photographs produced in the artistic milieu. The lack of an apparent feminist claim seems to appear more clearly in the commercial work of professional women photographers. I am thinking especially about the portrait studio, advertising, reportage, or nude photography. This can probably be explained by the fact that they wished to answer the professional imperatives of the trade, meeting the requirements and tastes of publishers, clients, and the general public. This non-feminist vision may also have been encouraged by the editors of publications: most of the time, images by woman professional photographers were published side by side with those made and credited by men, in a same article. Their feminine authorship was not especially pointed out to readers.
MG: I definitely think that using the term feminism is not accurate in this context, since it is always misinterpreted. It is essential today to distinguish a female artist from a feminist artist. In the 1920s and 1930s, the concept of feminism, as we know it in the later decades of the twentieth century, had not yet been invented. For me, feminism, as a Western construction coming from the political struggles from the 1960s, is mainly a political term. It is our contemporary reception of the work of these women from the1920s and 1930s that could give us the possibility of analyzing some of their work from feminist perspectives, as Roxana suggested looking at some performative works of Cahun, Henri, and others. I agree with what Abigail Solomon-Godeau once said: “any work of culture is susceptible to feminist reading and feminist analysis.” As curators and art historians, we are adding to the artists’ work many different layers of meaning. Audiences are doing exactly the same, too. What is for me essential, is that everybody should consider themselves feminist, but still today the exhibition programs of the biggest museums in the world include only between 10 percent and 20 percent of works by female artists.
DC: The expanded Tate Modern in London has just reopened with a mandate for fifty-fifty balance between men and women artists, set within much more global narratives of culture and modernity.
It seems from the writing of photographic history (and I stress seems) that there are so-called moments when the work of women photographers has been exceptionally significant: the 1850s–1870s, the 1920s–1930s, and the 1960s–1970s. Three very different moments. One would certainly get this impression from recent histories, such as at the survey exhibition Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? presented at the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie in Paris last year (although that show stopped at 1945). Is this idea of moments of intensity just a form of art historical shorthand? Or is there something more substantial at stake?
RM: In a schematic way, the 1850s–1870s photography offered access to a “new vision,” along with a technical apparatus for image making that displaced male virtuosity and manual skill as the exclusive measures of artistic identity. The experimentation that took place at the fringes of modernism in the 1920s–1930s ultimately defined the period as much, if not more, than the activities taking place at its center. In the 1960s–1970s, the advent of gender theory and feminist performance meant that the concept of “woman” began to be debated and complicated by class, ethnicity, sexual inclination, and other facets of identity politics.
JJ: It is difficult to give a satisfying answer in a few words. These three moments are definitely highlighted by recent histories of photography, when considering women’s production does seem to be largely a historical shorthand. I see this process as a logical consequence: the gradual rediscovery of female photographers tends to follow a general tendency in photographic studies that shows a major interest for nineteenth-century primitive photography (1850s–1870s), the experimental avant-gardes (1920s–1930s), and early postmodernism (1960s–1970s). These three moments have been, and still are, of great interest to women’s studies. But this approach also seems too reductive.
MG: I totally agree with Julie. We have to be careful. From my point of view, women artists and women photographers have always been active. Our contemporary interest in women in the history of photography, and the arts in general, could be related also to the contributions of gender studies (with their contradictions and complexities) that, to my understanding, have revolutionized important issues such as identity, work, family, democracy, social conflict, and more.
DC: We’ve talked a lot about how current attitudes shape our understanding of the past. Can you each say a little about how this has shaped your research and presentation of the work of some of these photographers?
RM: The idea of visibility and re-visioning is critical. At MoMA there is a Modern Women’s group, consisting of curators and affiliated colleagues, that thinks a lot about these questions: How do we go about unsettling established art historical narratives? Activating new readings? Unfixing the canon? Researching counterhistories? Expressing transnational synchronicities? Constructing resistance? Opening to alternative models of solidarity? Envisioning oppositional practices? Proposing unexpected linkages? Investigating why particular lacunae subsist? Critiquing from inside the institutions in which we work? Envisioning the political extent of our scholarly jobs? All this translates in our continuous ability to respond (“response-ability”).
Ten years ago, in Japan, I came across the little-known work of Japanese artist Toshiko Okanoue, whose short production from 1951 to 1956 is remarkable. In Love from 1953, which is now in MoMA’s collection, is a rather poignant example of the kind of exclusions that can occur at the core of the feminist project. We often think of gender issues in terms of women artists from the Western Hemisphere, but here was an artist whose work In Love—a surreal collage, cannibalizing images from American magazines such as Life and Vogue, which were available to her at a used bookstore in the immediate postwar years in Japan—represented a young Japanese woman’s perception of the Western way of life. Recalibrating history is a delicate act of empathy and emphasis.
MG: In my case, Jeu de Paume, at the heart of Paris on Place de la Concorde, has become a symbolic and precious instrument for generating exhibitions and public/educational programs that make gender parity an ordinary, legitimate, and democratic contemporary gesture. I think that the message has been received—it is not complicated, it is not more expensive, it maintains large audiences. We have become an institution of reference for curators and scholars who believe what the famous Spanish poet Antonio Machado, wrote: “Walker, there is no road, /the road is made by walking.”
JJ: I recently curated an exhibition, with Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, on women professional photographers from the 1920s and the 1930s for the Centre Pompidou Málaga. We focused on artists from the Pompidou collection. More than 90 percent of them happened to be from the Christian Bouqueret collection, acquired by the Pompidou in 2012 (about 7,500 works). What struck me was the number of relatively unknown female practitioners in this important collection.
The problem appears to me to be very different when we consider more contemporary artists. Maybe it’s because of the fact that contemporary practices of photography seem to be less restricted to the photographic field and are more linked to the art world in its larger sense. I’m not saying that we don’t find the same problem within the other mediums, but it certainly broadens things. This summer, I curated Il y a de l’autre / Where the Other Rests for the Rencontres de la Photographie, in Arles, France, with the artist Agnès Geoffray. The exhibition presents as many female as male artists. We didn’t look consciously to do this. I’m happy that it naturally happened. And I hope that this could happen more often, consciously or not, in the work of male and female curators alike.