Although select women artists have long been recognized as playing integral roles in many of photography’s dominant histories, the number of women whose work remains underappreciated (or even unknown outside of niche circles) remains disproportionately high when compared to their male colleagues. The five women artists whose photographs are highlighted in this post work in a variety of modes—still life, portraiture, street photography—to make images that, despite being wildly diverse, are, I believe, of the highest quality and worthy of more widespread recognition.
Barbara Crane (American, b. 1928). Bus People, 1975. Gelatin silver print, printed ca. 1982. Purchase with funds from the Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation. © Barbara Crane.
Barbara Crane is a versatile artist who, over the course of a career that has spanned well over half a century and has yielded more than 60 separate projects, constantly reinvents her approach to photography. Years ago, when I first encountered a print of Bus People in the museum’s vaults, I was amazed to learn that it was by the same Barbara Crane whose series Private Views—close-up color Polaroids of summer festival goers—I admired. While the photographs that comprise Private Views fully utilize photography’s documentary capabilities, Bus People (and, as I was quick to learn, much of Crane’s other work) explores the medium’s malleability and some of its other creative possibilities. Originally conceived of in 1975 for an Illinois-based pharmaceutical company’s employee cafeteria, Bus People features an array travel-related photographs that are arranged into a complex mosaic that form a dizzying patterns and open-ended narrative possibilities.
Lalla Essaydi (Moroccan, b. 1956). Les Femmes du Maroc #45, 2006. Chromogenic development print, printed 2008. Purchase with funds from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. © Lalla Essaydi.
I admire the ways in which Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi’s photographs force me question my own assumptions and prejudices. Essaydi is best known for her arduously constructed portraits that explore the complexities of female identity in the Arab world and beyond. In series such as Les Femmes du Moroc, Essaydi situates her subjects in isolated interior spaces and uses henna to cover them in hand-applied Arabic calligraphy. Her subjects’ poses are often borrowed from nineteenth-century Orientalist art, which frequently depicted Arab women as alluring, sexualized figures. In contrast to these earlier representations, however, Essaydi poses her subjects to meet the viewer’s gaze. When combined with the calligraphy that covers their bodies, clothing, and surroundings, this technique gives them a voice and sense of agency that is notably missing from familiar historical imagery.
Marion Faller (American, 1941–2014). Hey Baby, Take My Picture, 1972–1975. Gelatin silver print. Gift of the photographer. © Estate of Marion Faller.
While roaming the streets of New York City with her camera during the early 1970s, Marion Faller began making street portraits of the boys and men who would heckle her and ask to be photographed. Taking each catcaller up on their request, Faller found that, once confronted, only about half would agree to have their picture taken—and only one asked for a print. The resulting photographs, which comprise the series Hey, Baby, Take My Picture, speak to the camera’s ability to objectify its subjects and disrupt ordinary power dynamics, especially, as Faller demonstrates, between men and women in public spaces.
Groover (American, 1943–2012). Untitled, 1978. Chromogenic development print. Purchase with funds from the Margaret T. Morris Foundation Fund in memory of Dr. Wesley T. "Bunny" Hansen;
with National Endowment for the Arts Funds. © Estate of Jan Groover, Courtesy Janet Borden, Inc., New York.
When Jan Groover began creating her meticulously composed still life photographs of ordinary domestic objects in the late 1970s, they were met with numerous interpretations. Were they, as some critics wondered, feminist commentary on the dominance of white, male Modernist photographers in the art-photography market? For Groover, the still lifes were exercises that explored, among other issues, the camera’s ability to manipulate space and form. Photographs such as Groover’s Untitled, 1978, transform modest, everyday objects—kitchen utensils, fruits reminiscent of those used in the work of Weston and Steichen—into visually compelling, formally elegant images.
Karin Apollonia Müller (German, b. 1963). Private Moment, December 1998. Chromogenic development print. Purchase. © Karin Apollonia Müller, courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.
Los Angeles is one of the most photographed cities on earth, and whether one’s mental image of it evokes palm trees silhouetted by sunsets or post-apocalyptic mayhem reminiscent of thrillers such as Escape from L.A., it occupies a distinct spot in our imaginations. Karin Apollonia Müller’s vision of the city, chronicled in her series Angels in Fall, shows it brimming with anxiety, choked by smog, and on the brink of catastrophe. Müller, who was born in Heidelberg, Germany, began the series shortly after moving to the United States in 1995. Her photographs reflect her own sense of isolation and frequently show the city from elevated viewpoints, as if taking a step back to emphasize the scale of its urban sprawl, the building-size advertisements that dwarf its citizens, and its coexistence with the natural world, which often seems tenuous at best.
Assistant Curator, Department of Photography