Photography: A Feminist History 03/2022, Camera Austria International

In her recently released book Photography: A Feminist History, Emma Lewis points to the difference between the concepts of “looking” and “seeing.” Whereas to look is defined as to “direct one’s gaze toward,” she writes, to see is “to perceive with eyes.” To “see” in this sense can be considered a practice and a substantial intervention into the politics of representation, one that challenges the patriarchal gaze embedded in the technology of photography.

Moving through the history of the medium since its invention in 1839, Lewis presents selected artists in thematic chapters, each introduced by a short essay. Lewis and her coauthor Emma Jones, who wrote some of the artist texts, present recognized female contributions to the history of photography next to overlooked ones, including a variety of seminal works by Black and Indigenous artists. Flipping through the pages, a British (and US American) perspective becomes apparent (Lewis is a curator at the Tate and the institution copublished the book), with a majority of the photographers working in the UK, the US, South Africa, and India.

While one wonders why a feminist history of photography comes so late—considering that the medium played an important role not only in early feminist movements but also in what Gabriele Schor has called the “feminist avant-garde” in art—at least it has come at a time of dissolving white narratives. After all, for understanding photographic practices within antipatriarchal struggles, it is crucial to consider intersectional experiences. As the Black-lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde, quoted by Lewis, aptly phrased it: “That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”

A pioneer in challenging the racial stereotypes with which African Americans were depicted in the early twentieth century, Florestine Collins, one of the first Black women to open her own studio in the United States, documented New Orleans’s middle-class African American community in portrait and family pictures. She is presented in the first chapter titled “In and Out of the Studio” that revisits photography’s quick economic growth, with portrait photography becoming a field of work in which women established themselves.

With the advent of photography, the reader learns, women not only used the medium to intervene in the politics of representation such as Collins did, but they already theorized its potential for women’s liberation. Frances Benjamin Johnston, for example, published the article “What a Woman Can Do with a Camera” as early as 1897 in Ladies’ Home Journal and later, together with the photographer Zaida Ben-Yusuf, organized a traveling exhibition featuring women photographers. Imogen Cunningham wrote the essay “Photography as a Profession for Women” in 1913, lobbying for female photographers.

After exploring women’s roles as photographers within the movements of the “Avant-Gardes” in the second chapter, such as the Dada artist Hannah Höch, whose fellow artists George Grosz and John Heartfield tried to exclude her from the First International Dada Fair in 1920 but didn’t succeed, or the Surrealist artist Dora Maar, who made a living by shooting advertisements and features for women’s magazines, the chapter “On the Street” goes on to trace women’s histories in early photojournalism—a difficult task, as many of them simply weren’t credited or their archives weren’t preserved.

Feminist projects proliferate with the advent of socially engaged photography, a field that is explored in the chapter “Communities.” Going far beyond “looking” at their subjects, women embed themselves in marginalized communities and, most importantly, invite individuals to actively cocreate their depiction. Examples include Paz Errázuriz’s committed portrayal of a group of cross-dressers and transgender sex workers leading a clandestine life in Chile during the 1980s; or Graciela Iturbide’s collaboratively created portrait of the matriarchal Zapotec culture in 1970s Mexico.

Intrinsic to the visually appealing Zapotec culture, “Performing Femininity,” discussed in the following chapter, becomes a key concept within the field of feminist photographic practice. Already explored by artists such as Martha Rosler or Cindy Sherman in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1990s saw the field expanding, after Judith Butler put the idea of performing gender on the theoretical map. Renee Cox, for example, set out to subvert the representation of the Black female body by creating empowering images with herself at the center, posing as a naked mother or a glary superhero.

Photography’s political potential is further explored in the chapter “Activism” with examples such as Donna Ferrato’s relentless lifelong engagement in documenting domestic violence or Poulomi Basu’s series on the Hindu practice of exiling women and girls while they are menstruating or experiencing postpartum bleeding.

Making visible tabooed or visually censored realities of women is the focus of a variety of works introduced in “Being Seen,” the chapter that also features the image shown on the book cover: two black women lying embraced on a meadow, eyes closed, heads turned toward each other. JEB (Joan E. Biren) took the picture “Priscilla and Regina” in 1979 at a New York picnic sponsored by a quarterly periodical for Black, Asian, Latina, and Native American lesbians. An active feminist and lesbian, JEB documented her own reality, published books, and toured the US with slide shows.

The chapter “Changing Landscapes” defies the common narration of the early history of the genre, in which women’s contributions such as Laura Gilpin’s have been erased. While her male peers compiled pictures of mountains and deserts in the US to support the idea of a wilderness destined to be populated by white settlers, Gilpin captured architectural ruins of Indigenous populations, showing that these landscapes had not been untouched for centuries.

Feminist interventions into the photographic archive are the subject of the chapter “Herstories.” Lebohang Kganye is presented here, having recreated snapshots of her mother by imposing pictures of herself on them to explore identity formation against the backdrop of South African history. Carmen Winant, in turn, compiles found images—specifically drawing on imagery from the height of the women’s liberation movement in the States—into vast tableaux and installations. “Seen en masse,” Lewis comments, “they also reveal the movement’s shortcomings, namely the narrow demographic whom it served.”

Within the new visual regimes of social media, Black and Indigenous feminist artists again face being upstaged by white artists who are being celebrated for performing body-positive imagery. In the final chapter “Networked Bodies,” Lewis also puts forward protagonists of another rising scene, such as Tabita Rezaire. Interested in decolonial healing as an artistic practice and in experiences of Black womxnhood, Rezaire stages herself in digital collages to criticize the ways in which digital communication technologies endorse patriarchal structures, colonialism, and racial bias.

While compiling inspiring perspectives on how to “see” rather than to “look,” crucial questions around photography as a feminist practice remain unanswered in the book, as theory is only touched upon here and there. Moreover, the publishing format itself, with its rigid structure and art-historical register, is rather didactic and conventional. It would have been interesting to practice unlearning as much in form as in content. Still, Lewis’s compendium is a crucial revision of the history of photography, much too often referenced through the male (and colonial) lens that feminist photography seeks to deconstruct.