A pause for reflection
I started my project on the female gaze in photography back in January as a New Year's intention to get a qualification with the RPS through research. I have wallowed in the work of two female photographers so far, Florence Henri and Uta Barth, as well as dipping into the ideas of many others, such as Vivian Maier and Dorothea Lange (two of only 6 women on the list of the 50 greatest photographers ever seen!). I have also loved learning so much more about abstract expressionist art along the way, and it continues to inspire me.
Now, time to pause for breath. Reflect on what I have learnt and plot the journey ahead. Sit in the garden, watch the grass in the sunlight and mull over ideas. Always tricky for me, I want to race on, eager for the new. But that could mean I miss out on the path less traveled.
So, the key learning points so far which have been unexpected, unanticipated. The first is that I have been able to do the play and experimentation in my home and garden. I have not needed to travel, go on expensive photo-tours, buy lots of new equipment, to learn new creative approaches. For example, using the work of Florence and Uta as a springboard, I have played with capturing light as it moves through the house during the day, incorporating basic household objects, such as bottles and vases, to add shape and form. And this has meant that I could (and can) easily revisit a concept that has intrigued me and have another play. Sometimes on a short stay somewhere exotic, I have found myself grabbing at shots, not being deliberate enough, scared of missing the moment, and the consequence of this is that it has lead to disappointment, and the 'if only I had stopped, stared, taken a bit more time...... ' regrets that many of you may be familiar with. So, using my home as a resource has been revelatory.
The second point is that I am still unsure what constitutes a 'female gaze'. Where is the evidence? I found an article from Lensculture from 2016 extolling the work of 30+ contemporary women photographers and analsyed what they turned their attention to. The results revealed that Self-portraits (8), Portraits (7 ) and Daily life/home (6) dominated, with Family/relationships (4) and Female issues (3), while Landscape/nature (2) and Architecture (1) were mentioned the least.
I looked too at the Shotkit list of the 15 most famous female photographers in history and found that Portraits (6) again dominated, mostly of famous people (no self-portraits), Documentary (8), Photojournalism 2, Fashion 3. Family was the main focus of Sally Mann, but it is not mentioned otherwise. Only Imogen Cunningham is noted for her photos of architecture, along with her nudes. The key change seems to be that women are turning the camera more on to themselves.
I then wondered what the balance would have been if I had looked at a similar list for male photographers and analysed the above-mentioned list of greatest photographers in history. Some of the men had more than one area of expertise, but overall Documentary at 17 was the most prevalent; Portraits (12) were usually linked with Fashion (6); Photojournalism including war photography (8) were also a key focus. Fine Art (4), Nature/Wildlife (3), Still life (3) were on the margins. So, there does seem to be a difference between the male and female gaze and it is an area to explore further.
Another interesting thing to note is that the Shotkit list comprises of 10 women from USA and 5 from Europe. Where is the recognition for female photographers from the rest of the world? I followed this thread of curiosity and found many pioneering women, such as those discussed by Ethel-Ruth Tawe (2021) and Petra Dragasevic (2023), which I will research at a later date. I also noted that the men in the list of the 50 greatest photographers are also from US (22) and Europe (20). Yousuf Karsh (Canadian) and Sebastião Salgado (Brazilian) are the only two not. We in the Global North are clearly missing out on learning from talent from across the world.
This week, on the 7th anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, I have to mention Ya-Haddy Sisi Saye, Khadija (1992 -2017). A Gambian-British photographer, celebrated for her extraordinary photographs, died at the age of just 24 in the fire in 2017. A review of her creations notes: "Through the work, Khadija questions her mixed-faith heritage, Christian and Muslim, exploring – in her words – ‘the deep-rooted urge to find solace in a higher power. Her chosen medium for this collection was the Victorian tintype, in black-and-white, using a wet metal plate and collodion solution. Khadija combined this method with inspiration taken from fifteenth century portraiture, investigating how the sitter’s ‘piety, virtue, soul, and prosperity’ could be evidenced." What wonders she would have created given more time.
The third key learning point is not so unexpected. I am currently enrolled on a course with a leading creative artist Charlotte Bellamy with a group of really creative female photographers, all pursuing a 'project' of some kind. All very different, very personal to our own interests and fascinations. I have found that this is sustaining me on my journey, having to check in with updates, pushes me to getting products out of the process. I am learning so much from giving and receiving feedback on our efforts, which is being done in such a generous an honest way. No element of competition or negative critical judgement. I thank you all for your ongoing enthusiasm and encouragement.
And the next step? Finding another inspirational female photographer. I recognise that so far my focus has been on Europe and the USA, and I considered going next to African
given my links with Ethiopia in particular. But once I started the research into female black photographers I became uncomfortable with potential cultural appropriation, so until I have resolved my dilemmas (or not) I will keep my focus on the Global North.