May 26, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Pictures OF Women

From left: Claude Cahun. Untitled. c. 1921. Gelatin silver print. Thomas Walther Collection. Purchase; Ilse Bing. Self Portrait in Mirrors. 1931. Gelatin silver print. Joseph G. Mayer Fund. © 2010 The Ilse Bing Estate/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery; Berenice Abbott. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman. Negative c. 1930/Distortion c. 1950. Gelatin silver print. Frances Keech Fund in honor of Monroe Wheeler. © 2010 Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics, Ltd., New York. All works in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art

In each gallery of the recently opened Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, you will encounter a wall of photographs (sometimes two) with only pictures of women. This is not because women focused their cameras primarily on their female peers—there are plenty of exceptional landscapes and photographs of other subjects in the Museum’s collection, and a select smattering of these are now on view—but rather because I, along with my colleagues and co-curators Eva Respini and Roxana Marcoci, were fascinated by how these groups of pictures of women and by women suggest, in their diversity, the plasticity of both photography and female identity.

The recurrence of self-portraits and portraits of women allowed us to put pictures that might not “belong” together in dialogue with one another—works made by American, German, French, British, and Japanese artists, ranging in date from the 1920s to the 1950s, and made with handheld cameras, large-format cameras, and found photographic reproductions. Eight of these photographs and collages (now on view in the second of The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries on the third floor of the Museum) hint at the emergence of a more radicalized sense of female identity that anticipates work made later in the twentieth century.

Hannah Höch. Indian Dancer: From an Ethnographic Museum. 1930. Cut-and-pasted printed paper and metallic foil on paper. The Museum of Modern Art. Frances Keech Fund. © 2010 Hannah Höch/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Germany

Whereas in the first gallery the wall of photographs of women includes a traditional range of female types (daughters, mothers, lovers), the female subjects in this second gallery resist easy categorization. The self-portraits alone convey this sea change: Claude Cahun, who adopted this sexually ambiguous pseudonym, appears dressed in men’s formal attire. Berenice Abbott has distorted her own image almost beyond recognition, in stark contrast to her precisely delineated photographs of New York on view in the next gallery. And Ilse Bing uses the camera as object and tool, to both obstruct and complete her Self-Portrait in Mirrors.

And I’ll conclude with my tip of the day as a reward for anyone who reads blogs through to the end: the fabulous Hannah Höch collage on this wall must come down in August because of its sensitivity to light, so catch it while you can!