By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST December, 2019
As a beginner magazine writer, back in the Golden Age of Magazines - and, yes, I want those caps! – I got to know some terrific photographers and Eve Arnold was one of them. Arnold, an American in London with hair swept back into a no nonsense look, was with Magnum, which was a photographer’s sect as much as a major agency, and she once shared memories of working conditions during the austere post-war years, such as a big shoot for Life magazine, who allotted her just six rolls of film. Is it a false memory that the subject was Marilyn Monroe? Arnold did indeed shoot the filming of the John Huston movie, The Misfits, bonded with the actress and produced a book. Just why did this show prompt these memories? Because Arnold made it clear that she had an advantage on such a shoot, a situation which involved both chance and intimacy, a single word: Trust.
So to The Female Lens, the show of photographs of women by woman photographers at New York City's Richard Taittinger Gallery, the very name of which will be likely to bring to mind its polar opposite, The Male Gaze. This phrase was coined some four decades plus ago by Laura Mulvey, a British film theorist, as part of her description of the way a man is likely to look at an attractive woman unknown to him, and it remains in widespread use today, suggesting both the eye of the connoisseur, the would-be collector of beautiful objects, as also the instinctual eye of the hunter, checking out prey. Which seems spot on to me.
So I went to The Female Lens expecting a counter-attack, an alternative narrative of reproof. Did I find one? I didn’t discern such a narrative but what I did find was like a well-mixed box of chocolates, a selection of images, differing greatly, both in content and approach. Some were provocative, with a twist, such as Zackary Drucker’s shot of a slender honey-blonde lying on her back on a cement floor, apparently in a basement - there are household appliances and paper bags of stuff around - and she is seemingly naked beneath a plastic apron. Broad silver tape has shut her mouth but her eyes are open and unafraid. Then there’s Pandemonia by Maryam Eisler, a shot of what looks like a woman in a skintight candy-pink wetsuit, a swimming-pool ring of the same color on her head, and she is wearing dark glasses. She is also wearing a cucumber-green wig, apparently made of rubber, and pointing a camera at the viewer.
Assuming that Pandemonia was a performance artist who had escaped my attention I did my due diligence – hello, Google! – and learned that she was “a multi-media conceptual art project” created from symbols and archetypes by “an anonymous London artist” in the 70s.
Shirin Neshat is present by way of a straightforward shot of a redoubtable looking woman in black, not a babe, with folded arms and Diane Arbus, Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C., 1968.
Yagazi Emezi, the Liberia-based Nigerian photographer, has four pictures on view, omitting her subject’s head in one to focus on the powerful image she is wearing on her belly, and Rania Matar has eight pictures of pre-adolescent girls, looking at the camera, standing alone, either in domestic settings or gardens, so they are what you might take to be perfectly normal family shots, except that almost invariably in such a shot the child will be acting up, smiling, being goofy or posey, but these girls are unsmiling. They don’t look sad, not even particularly serious, they’re just not transmitting.
Other images are frontal, quite literally. Frances Goodman has five shots on view, showing women photographed from immediately above the belly button to just above the knee, their pubes shaved and richly embroidered, presumably with stick-on beads, and two of them are inscribed with the same words: I DO. Well, thanks for the info but I think that only a fairly unusual man would have his heart sent into palpitations by that.
Which was not the case with a handful of other shots in The Female Lens that seemed wholly designed to gladden any Male Gazer. Such as the shot by Charlotte Abramow of a woman showing her rear end in white knickers. But you can’t miss the notice above, cautioning: THIS IS NOT CONSENT. And then there’s a shot by Arvida Bystrom, entitled Uppskirt. This features a woman in high heels who has assumed a kind of touch-your-toes posture which thrusts her comely, barely knickered butt right in the viewer’s face. But then you spot that the gal is armed with a smartphone. Hey! She is photographing us. So there is a narrative here after all. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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