National Museum of women in the arts
role models

In our image-conscious world, photography is one of the most powerful mediators of our sense of self; it is a truism of contemporary life that we view ourselves through the camera’s eye. Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography explores the ways in which female identity is constructed through the art of photography. The exhibition features seventy works by eighteen artists from two generations whose portraiture, self-portraiture, and narrative photographs have indelibly inflected our understanding of gender and identity over the past twenty-five years.

Fall 2008
Susan Fisher Sterling and Kathryn A. Wat


300E-012-22A
Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny in Her Halloween Costume, Seattle, 1983; Gelatin silver print; 11 X 14 in.; Courtesy of the artist and the Mary Ellen Mark Library/Studio

The First Generation

In the 1980s, American photography experienced a remarkable sea change as women such as postmodern artist Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and documentary photographer Nan Goldin (b. 1953) re-envisioned how identity and gender could be defined by the camera. In her Untitled Film Stills of 1977-80, Sherman simulated feminine roles as expressed through magazines, television, and film. She worked in a performative mode, serving as her own model and using makeup and props to develop a number of identities.
 
Goldin was intent on closely documenting her own life's story. Her photographs of friends, lovers, and herself in the intimate spaces of their homes and hangouts are gritty and unsparing. The images from Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1981-96, are so relentlessly personal that they have both a decadence and an allure that confounds their journalistic premise. Sherman's and Goldin's photographs established a new and much larger arena for women's self-representation in contemporary photography. As complementary approaches, their work stands at the center of Role Models. The first-generation artists in the exhibition amplified photography's ability to weave a story and express truth, often simultaneously.
 
In the 1980s many women artists and photographers realized that they could be the creator and the subject of their work. Liberated by the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1970s, the first-generation photographers in Role Models avidly explored how gender and identity reflected the changing social order. They took on roles and acted out a feminine masquerade for the camera, using staged setups, stand-ins, and synecdoche. Documentary photography also was being recalibrated as artists drew upon the special bond of kinship or friendship to create photographs of arid about children, families, acquaintances, and/or themselves. They regularly depicted the varied roles that girls and young women "tried on" as part of the internal, subjective struggle to find a gendered identity that fit.
 
Like Sherman, Laurie Simmons (b. 1949) critiqued women's roles in modern society in her photographs. She centered on the narrow ideals of 1950s- and '6os-style feminine domesticity by photographing dolls in tiny kitchens, living rooms, and yards that she had constructed. Simmons's images are frankly staged and sometimes eerie, but their humble content also makes
them comfortingly familiar. Her art is about the seductive quality of memories and stereotypes.
 
Conceptual artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) documented her performances exploring the mutability of female identity in photographs and videos. In the late 1970s, Antin assumed the roles of the “King" of a beach in southern California, a ballerina, and a nurse. She felt that the mythologies that defined historical characters such as Florence Nightingale fueled the outsider status of women in the twentieth century. To more fully inhabit-and transform-these characters, Antin dressed in historically accurate costumes and even printed her photographs in period formats.
 
Lorna Simpson's (b. 1960) evocative imagery-often paired with allusive texts-makes powerful reference to a history of racial and sexual oppression. She created carefully posed photographs in which her black female models' faces are covered, cropped out of the frame of vision, or turned away from the viewer. Some models are dressed in plain white shifts, others in men's suits.
 
Other first-generation photographers sought the immediacy of documentary-style photography to explore the complicated state of contemporary womanhood. Mary Ellen Mark (b. 1940) preferred a quirkiness and on-the-run style of shooting that give her images a distinctly raw quality that exposes the plight of the disenfranchised. In the 1980S, Mark photographed female prostitutes, women confined in a hospital for the mentally ill, and, with a commission in 1983 from Life magazine, street children in Seattle. Her images of "Tiny" drinking, despairing over a boyfriend, fighting with her mother, and bathing her children-paint the picture of a life that is fraught, complex, and unresolved. Similarly, in her expansive body of work depicting children, Sally Mann (b. '95') recorded the wildly varied identities that her models expressed for her. Her preteen sitters are alternately worldly and disinterested, or ladylike and ingratiating.
 
Tina Barney (b. 1945) shared Mark's goal of revealing a world (on the opposite end of the economic spectrum) that is foreign to most of us: affluent subjects ensconced in lavish interiors that signify their identity as much as their clothing, posture, or expression. At Barney's direction, the women stand in doorways and at windows, perch on beds, and repeat unconscious gestures that allude to underlying emotional discomfiture. Barney acknowledges the tension in her photographs between what seems real and spontaneous and what appears to be fictional and affected.
 
In Untitled (Kitchen Table Series), 1990, Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) combined fictional texts and staged photographs (in which she herself is the central figure) to tell the story of a woman's relationship to her man, their child, and her friends within a domestic setting. In 1995-96, she represented nineteenth-century ethnographic daguerreotypes of enslaved Africans and African Americans, printing them on a large scale and overlaying them with text that alludes to their original degrading purpose. Weems's works expose the abuses of "straight" photography while expanding on its capacity for deeper meaning, demonstrating how often and powerfully political ideologies shape our notions and visions of truth.

The Second Generation
  
The first generation's provocative inquiries into identity-via gender, race, and sexuality-inspired a new generation of photographers beginning in the mid-1990s. The second generation artists have effectively collapsed the old boundaries between postmodern and documentary photography and deal with the formation of feminine identity in adolescence or young adulthood,
but without the outright critique of the status quo found in the first generation's work. No matter how fantastic some of their photographs may be, these artists, like those of the first generation, present images that feel authentic/true.
 
Some artists focus their attention on staging performances and preconceived episodes, creating male-free worlds that are metaphorical equivalents of contemporary "girl culture." Anna Gaskell (b. 1969) plays off the hallucinatory qualities of tales by the Brothers Grimm and stories in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by showing multiple manifestations of the same body, casting her scenes in dramatic light, or staging them in otherworldly settings. Her costumed female figures have an eerie grandeur and stillness reminiscent of nineteenth-century portrait photography.
 
Justine Kurland (b. 1969) photographs a matricentric world in which women and their children live in harmony-more or less-with the land and with one another. Young girls cluster silently on rocky beaches, and nude women wade through lush woodlands or tuck themselves into the crevasses of waterfalls. The models' beauty and the splendor of the settings reinforce the narrative quality of the works and the notion that at some level they are allegories or fantasies.
 
Sharon Lockhart (b. 1964), who is also a filmmaker, takes some of her cues for her still photographs from cinema. In the late 19905 and early 2000S, she created stop-action-style photographs of girls engaged in traditional boys' activities. Her figures form friezes across the foreground of the images; the resulting monumentality is reminiscent of ancient relief sculptures or Renaissance altarpieces. The quietude of Lockhart's images and her engagement with art history draw the focus of her photographs toward an understanding of the essential grace of humanity.
 
Collier Schorr (b. 1963) is more overt than Lockhart in her explication of gender distinction. In Jens F./Helga, 1999-2002, Jells, an adolescent boy, re-creates the female attitudes of Andrew Wyeth's Helga pictures. Schorr's choice to depict a male from a feminine point of reference was intended to provoke a response from the viewer and from Jens himself. She noted Jens's extreme self-consciousness: "The only way he can pose in certain poses is to know that everyone else knows he is playing her, that it's not really him. But you see moments where he forgets. And they're...the poses that he feels women perform for men."
 
Works from the haunting Left Behind series, 2003-05, by Angela Strassheim (b. 1969) express ambivalence about the mainstream, girly-girl brand of contemporary American femininity. Distanced from the fundamentalist religious beliefs of her family, Strassheim nonetheless incorporates flowers, butterflies, beams of light, and cruciform poses in her images of young girls in domestic spaces. Each girl enacts her preferred role as mother, princess, or beauty queen.
 
German-born Barbara Probst (b. 1964) eschews detailed narratives, shooting attractive, smartly clad young women in pristine photography studios or against the open skies above New York City's rooftops. Her photographs capture the essence of East Coast-style glamour, but from an outsider position. Probst's images suggest that her subjects-and perhaps all of us in the early twenty-first century-are suspended somewhere between the "real world" and the imaginative realms of photo shoots and movie-making.
 
Other photographers of this new generation have worked in a deliberately objective vein to represent themselves and others. Catherine Opie (b. 1961) focuses on codes of gender representation as she documents her life in gay, lesbian, and S&M friendship circles. Yet a stylish polish sets her photographs apart from the realities of her imagery. She uses lighting, color, and scale to dramatize her images. Some, such as those presenting her self-mutilated body, are difficult to view. Opie observes: "1 feel like I am going around picking things apart, forcing people to look at places and communities that they really don't want to look at."
 
Korean-born Nikki S. Lee (b. 1970) seeks to become an insider by adopting the gestures and appearances of people from diverse American subcultures (Hispanic, hip-hop, skateboarding, or exotic dancing) that she experiences over a period of weeks or months. She selects the activities that she wants to be photographed, but she hands off her camera to whoever is standing nearby to ensure a kind of artlessness in her images. In some photographs, Lee does not register distinctly from other figures; in others, her Asian identity stands in high contrast to those around her and foregrounds her outsider status. Lee's willful pursuit of multiple personae exposes the fluidity of identity formation in contemporary American culture.
 
Katy Grannan (b. 1969) uses a photographic process that replicates the conditions of a detached observer-at least initially. She places ads in small-town newspapers to photograph people she does not know and asks her subjects to choose how they will pose. Grannan's sitters seem to anticipate and respond to social expectations about beauty, femininity, and sexuality, selecting their stances and degree of undress accordingly. Gazing straight out of the compositions, the young women seem to dare us to critique the identities they have shaped.
 
Whatever direction these young photographers take, they all recognize that they are speaking with a constructed voice, mediated by internal needs and external demands along an axis between a realized and an idealized self. As Role Models makes clear, understanding one's role and its mutability in the face of the world at large-a significant aspect of identity formation has been central to the art and social function of contemporary American photography from the 1980s to the present day.

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