Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography
By Susan Fisher Stering and Kathryn A. Wat
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
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.
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 and 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 '60s‑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.
Below: Sally Mann, Lithe and the Birthday Cake, 19B3‑B5; Gelatin silver print; B x 10 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery, New York
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. 1951) 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), 1999, 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 African, 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.
Above: Detail: Carrie Mae Weems, From Here I Saw What Happened and
I Cried(House/Field/Yard/Kitchen), 1995‑96; Four monochromatic chromogenic prints with sandblasted text on glass; 26 ½ x 22 ¾ in. each.; Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Left: 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