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The Compassionate Eye: Women Behind the Lens

Shortly after the development of photography in the mid 19th century, women became early practitioners of the medium and expanded its range by experimenting with its every aspect and playing a pivotal role in its reception. Their lasting impact on photography is historically documented, but within the early stages of its development as a means of artistic expression, it often was women’s enthusiastic engagement in image making that can be attributed to the medium’s strength as a vehicle for story telling, the re-creation of personal dramas as well as the experimentation with printing out techniques. Photography easily lends itself to introspection, exploring identity and sexuality, and distancing oneself from traditional domestic roles. Although pigeonholing a photographer as a woman photographer can seem reductive, creativity cannot be said to be neutral in terms of gender and cultural experience. The unique abilities and capacities for women to express their distinctive visions and their contributions to photography’s formation should be explored and celebrated. Traditionally, the aspects that women were more apt to externalize in bringing to their images are certain levels of compassion, unique sensitivities for their subjects, and presentation of people with dignity and empathy. Perhaps the female gaze offers a highly intuitive and poetic outlook of the world.

By the end of the 1930s legendary photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White had proven women could go to the same lengths as men and beyond creating unique testimonies to the industrial and historical development of the twentieth century. During the same period in New York City, Berenice Abbott was documenting the transformations of an American city with its rising skyscrapers leaving behind an important record of the past. Dorothea Lange changed the course of documentary photography with her poignant images of the social as well as economic consequences of the American Great Depression. Also as innovators with modernist photography, women such as Imogen Cunningham created iconic works in still life, nature studies, and portraiture under the Group f/64. Another member of the famous modernist group, Ruth Bernhard created distinctly refined images of the female nude that revitalized a classical standard of beauty offering a unique viewpoint on the genre away from the male gaze and that of the art historical portrayal of the feminine.

Today, Flor Garduño brings her own intimate style to the genre influenced by her formative years in Mexico capturing the delicate and primal beauty of her subjects imbuing them with emotional strength and poetic metaphor. Joyce Tenneson’s ethereal portraits go beyond a surface recording of her subject’s likeness and move beyond the façade revealing a more spiritual side of the inner person, while Barbara Luisi’s interest in classical music is expressed through her melodic explorations of the human body. Also expanding the genre of staged contemporary photography, two leading artists Dianne Blell and Sandy Skoglund create detailed mise en scènes using the camera to capture these uncanny worlds they have deftly created. Providing an overview of the critical contributions that women have made to medium of photography, “The Compassionate Eye: Woman Behind the Lens” celebrates each of the unique ways women have utilized the camera from the early twentieth century and beyond.

by Kyle Harris