When asked if I could name five women artists, my immediate reaction was, “of course I can name five women artists,” and the long list began rolling in my mind. When asked to write a blog about five women artists my thought was, “but which five should I highlight?” I tossed around several ideas: women and the hand-made object; queer women; five women our collection would be incomplete without, or even five women our collection lacks!
I kept coming back to five portraits. Each one with a story to tell, drawing me in. As a photographic staple, portraiture is something with which we are all familiar. In modern society, we begin sitting for our picture the day we are born. We use portraits to identify ourselves on legal documents, our faces each unique to some detectable degree. We use portraits to remember our loved ones when they are not near. In the following instances, each of these photographers use the medium to image themselves or other artists, calling into question ideas of femininity, creating surreal worlds, and memorializing other women.
Claude Cahun (French, 1894–1954). M. R. M., plate V from the book Aveux Non Avenus (Paris: Éditions du Carrefour, 1930). Photogravure. George Eastman Museum, museum accession.
The first portrait comes from the book Aveux non Avenus, roughly translated to “Canceled Confessions” or “Disavowals.” While often attributed solely to Claude Cahun (the cover of the book bears only Cahun’s name), it is now often discussed as a collaboration between her and Marcel Moore (a.k.a. Suzanne Malherbe), her partner in life and art. For their art, the two women took on purposefully androgynous pseudonyms, calling into question our reliance on names to determine gender and to make assumptions about people based on their gender. Throughout the book, Cahun systematically evaluates her own visage through a series of poems and photographic collages that grapple with otherness and her desire to have a more fluid identity, one that lies between male and female. In this work, M. R. M., the collage shows varying portraits of Cahun, some focusing on feminine forms (lips) and others on masculine qualities (neatly parted short hair), but all the while portraying herself as both executioner and victim.
Imogen Cunningham (American, 1883–1976). Ruth Asawa 2, 1957. Gelatin silver print.
George Eastman Museum, purchase. © Imogen Cunningham Trust All Rights Reserved (www.ImogenCunningham.com)
Known primarily for her studies of plant life, Imogen Cunningham was a dominant force in American West Coast photography movements, specifically Group f/64. She made a series of portraits of Ruth Asawa, an American artist known for her wire sculptures inspired by forms found in nature. While this portrait shows her at work on a sculpture in her studio, others in the series show her formally posed with her sculptures or surrounded by her children as she continues her work. As the mother of three boys, Cunningham was familiar with the struggle to continue making art while also being the primary care-giver. In fact, the floral studies for which she has become so well-known grew out of her need to make art near to her home.
Bea Nettles (American, b. 1946). Evenin..., August 1970. Collage with gelatin silver prints, stitching, and applied color.
George Eastman Museum, purchase. © Bea Nettles, 1970
Many of Bea Nettles’s series have portrayed female protagonists in diverse roles, including the lady of the lake, nymphs, mother, daughter and even a sexualized “dish” that plays on the children’s rhyme Hey, Diddle, Diddle. In this self-portrait, the skirt of Nettles’s dress forms a horizon line and starry night sky, casting her as evening. The photographic collage is stitched and hand-colored, techniques typically associated with women that would become key elements in many works created not only by Nettles, but also other female photographers of this era.
Michiko Kon, Japanese, b. 1955. Self-portrait, 1990. Gelatin silver print.
George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from the Ford Motor Company Fund. © Michiko Kon, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery
In her photographs Michiko Kon transforms objects into something completely different. An octopus becomes a melon, a cuttlefish becomes a shoe, or a school of sardines become an apron. In this image, the tough exteriors of crabs become a men (kendo helmet). A modern form of martial arts practiced in Japan and with qualities similar to fencing, the men is key to protecting not only the face and head but also the throat and shoulders. In this self-portrait Kon peers at her viewer from behind the mask, appearing both sheltered from the outer world and menacing as a force within it.
Mickalene Thomas (American, b. 1971). Sandra: She's a Beauty Standing, 2012. Chromogenic development print.
George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. © Mickalene Thomas
This final portrait is one of many photographs Mickalene Thomas made of her mother, Sandra “Mama” Bush. A former model, Bush exudes self-confidence and radiant beauty. Their portrait sessions began as a way for Thomas to become better acquainted with her mother, who had struggled with addiction during Thomas’s adolescence. Ultimately their collaboration served to rebuild their relationship and the resulting works grew to include not only photographs but paintings and the film Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother.
Jamie M. Allen, associate curator, Department of Photography