It seems to be the goal, with a lot of the contemporary artists at least,
to create work that speaks to people on a very personal level and makes them feel seen.
The need to ‘feel seen’ is not narcissistic. It is necessary. And it is far more than just observation. It is understanding, acknowledgement, recognition. Affirmation, even. Women have fought for all these things throughout the history of feminism. Many events have taken place that have, if not propelled the cause, been an enabler for acts and activities that might not have been possible otherwise.
It is to the backdrop of these events that Emma Lewis’s book, Photography – A Feminist History, has been able to bring together an orchestra of female and non-binary photographers from all over the world across the near 200 years that photography has been in society. As a curator of photography at London’s Tate Modern, she has spent several years researching practitioners and bringing their work to the public through displays, talks and acquisitions for what is one of the world’s most famous and prestigious galleries. In her book she has created powerful accounts of the ways in which women are ‘seen’, how they view themselves and how they understand the world around them via the lens. Lockdown gave Emma the time and space to bring her knowledge to the page, but also to learn. “I had a lot of time on my hands to research other photographers whose work I didn’t know, so there are loads of surprises for me in there as well,” she explains. It is a book that is engaging in its clarity and passion, as it does not, as Emma explains, “take the history of photography as we know it and insert women” but considers how gender and feminism have shaped the work of photographers, or indeed inspired new ones.
However, there are points in history that have been critical and pivotal to the direction of travel (both literally and figuratively) for female and non-binary photographers. “I think what became clear to me when writing the book is that wherever there are moments of historic crisis or uprising, whether that’s on a broad political level or within women’s rights – or both – that’s where I personally think you see the most interesting, radical, avant-garde work being made,” says Emma. “Because you see that photographers are taking photography and using it as a tool, as a weapon sometimes, to assert their position, their identity and to question gender rights and roles.”
As Emma explains in her book “What we know about women photographers active during this period is patchy. Not all were properly credited, not all of their archives survived”. Yet, we do know that a huge shift took place in the way that society operated simply because the men were all called up to fight and work for women became available that might have been unthinkable before. “I wouldn’t generalise across the world because the opportunities for women were so different from country to country, but broadly speaking you can see where there were big leaps forward in women’s rights,” she says. “During wartime, the opportunities [in photography] opened up for women just as they did across many different fields.” Women were deployed as war photographers, although relatively few are well known today. “In the book I use the example of Lee Miller,” Emma says. “An incredible, singular photographer, but there are many other women war photographers whose names should be on the tip of our tongues, as well.” Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller’s unusual path to photojournalism may have been responsible for this. An ex-model, she trained under the surrealist Man Ray and focused entirely on art and fashion. But upon the outbreak of the Second World War, American Vogue accredited her as a war correspondent. In June 1945, Vogue ran Miller’s story (words and images) depicting the horrors discovered when she accompanied the Allied Forces as they liberated Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps.
At the end of the 1970s, and what would be the tail end of feminism’s second wave, some shifts occurred in both the way photography could be practiced and how it was perceived. It might even be argued that this was the period that birthed visual storytelling as we currently know it. Women felt empowered to turn the camera on themselves and the way they lived their lives, but also able to take advantage of the advent of budget airlines and travel to join and document other communities. “I think that it is such a rich and fertile field of photography for women working in many different environments across the world, where they are immersing themselves in communities to then be able to portray that community from the inside,” says Emma. “That becomes a really key moment because it’s not reportage, but is coinciding with beginning to think about photography as a fine art. So, you start to see artistic approaches to documentary and real women’s real lives, as told by women, which is incredibly powerful.” Whether they are shining a light on the way women work together, telling the tales of marginalised communities (such as Paz Errázuriz or Toyoko Tokiwa), or documenting the unseen roles that women hold in society, such as caring for elderly relatives, these stories are more than entertainment or education. They reflect a wider history of a gender that has no choice but to take matters into their own hands. “It was something that women of all classes have seemed to embrace,” notes Emma. “It was a democratic medium in the sense that they were lots of ways that women of all classes could engage with photography and harness it to assert their identity.”
Technological advances and the social revolution
“Photographic images have always, since the inception of photography had the potential to be transgressive and radical – and, I would argue, have a unique power to speak to the contemporary moment.” Emma references the French/Senegalese artist Mame-Diarra Niang who, when confined to her home during lockdown, took to Google Street View to ‘travel’ the world, using their distorted stills to convey her sense of personal dislocation during a time when she had to stay put. Even as this work is so new, it already feels ahead of its time, as the world starts its understanding of the metaverse, Niang is already creating art in it. Certainly, what we are seeing today is what happens when the desire to push boundaries collides with a means to do so at a global scale. “Instagram, of course, is a major influence on how we understand what it means to look and be looked at as a woman or as a gender non-confirming person,” she explains. The classic rituals of girlhood (experimenting with make-up, for example, or simply hanging out together) no longer take place behind closed doors or in Blu-tacked photographs on bedroom walls, instead these scenes play out across Instagram. However, it also changes the narrative and very meaning of these lived experiences. “This generation of photographers have come of age with an acute and at times uncomfortable understanding of what it means to be looked at (via social media) that is unprecedented. That is something we’re all navigating, and if we want to learn about how women and other marginalised identities are navigating that terrain, we would do well to look to the work of some of the recent work by a generation of photographers who are harnessing the power of Instagram, Tik Tok and the rest to tell their own stories in their own terms.”
As the world shifts and changes, this much is true: the stories and messages that women and non-binary people feel compelled to share through their photography are increasingly important, not less so. In the knowledge that, at least historically, this photography has not been anywhere near as mainstream as their male counterparts, Emma’s book is an absolutely necessary read for photographers and non-photographers alike. It’s a jumping off point for exploration of the past and a solid reminder to pay attention right now. There may be a lot of catching up to do, but there is by no means a lack of ground to cover.
Photography – A Feminist History by Emma Lewis is co-published by Hachette and Tate Publishing. It features over 140 photographers, with ten thematic essays, and extended profiles on 75 key practitioners, many informed by conversations with the author.