The house housing Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art was built just 19 years before the birth of the medium of photography in 1839. In 1850 the house’s then owner Nicholas Longworth commissioned the celebrated African-American painter Robert S. Duncanson to produce eight landscape murals for the estate’s foyer. Six years earlier, in 1844, Duncanson and a photographer named Coates [first name as yet unidentified] collaborated on a series of “Chemical paintings… comprising four splendid views after the singular style of Daguerre” [the medium’s recognized inventor].1 By 1854, Duncanson was employed in the Cincinnati photography studio of another prominent African-American, James Presley Ball, hand-coloring and retouching photographs.
The house became a museum in 1932. Since 1986, the Taft Museum of Art has maintained an artist-in-residence program for contemporary African-American artists in honor of Duncanson, which has occasionally been awarded to photographers, and more often than not awarded to women. With the advent of Cincinnati’s FotoFocus Biennial, photography exhibitions have become increasingly familiar occurrences at the Taft.
The current exhibition at the Taft comprises 101 photographs made by 53 woman (and one man… more on that later) dating from 1904 to 2016, all drawn from the photography collection of the Bank of America. The collection traces its origin to 1967 when the National Exchange Bank of Chicago commissioned Beaumont and Nancy Newhall to curate a pioneering corporate photography collection. The Newhalls had been the founding curators of the Photography Department of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s. Nancy Newhall became the primary curator for the collection’s development, through 1972, and the collection closely reflected her vision. Over the years the Exchange Bank, with its photography collection, changed hands several times, finally being acquired by the Bank Of America in 2008, continuing the legacy of this historic partnership between art and business to the present day. Other collections were acquired via other legacy banks, expanding the bank’s holdings in photography and art generally.
The BoA has prepared numerous exhibitions from its photography collection in recent years, including exhibitions on the Group f.64, jazz greats, Mexican photography, 20th century portrait photography, and photography in the postmodern era. Through its Art in our Communities program the Bank makes these exhibitions available for “borrowing” at no cost “to provide museums and nonprofit galleries the opportunity to generate revenue while providing the public an opportunity to experience important works of art.” Since 2009 more than 170 exhibitions have been loaned worldwide. An exhibition looking at women photographers from the formative days of Modernism to the present seems a natural for a collection initiated and shepherded by a woman, and for a museum with such early connections to photography.
The Art in the Communities program allows for individual exhibiting institutions to exercise a certain amount of curatorial authority as to how the exhibition is presented – which pieces in which order, building relationships, etc. – within the overall selection of work provided and its general organization into six thematic sections: Modernist Innovators – Early twentieth-century artists; Documentary Photography and the New Deal – U.S. photographers during the Great Depression; The Photo League – members of this New York-based cooperative who advocated street photography as an important part of a progressive social agenda (this is one of the deepest dives of the exhibition); Modern Masters – post World War II and photography’s dramatic rise as an art form; Exploring the Environment – mostly contemporary artists and mostly landscapes; and The Global Contemporary Lens – a somewhat overlapping category with the previous two.
Earlier iterations of the exhibition at other museums also had an original audio tour written and narrated by Mary Street Alinder, renowned authority on mid-20th century photography (also Ansel Adams’ assistant and biographer, and wife of notable photographer Jim Alinder), but for some reason the Taft did not obtain/receive this.
The task of effectively designing/installing the exhibition at the Taft fell to curator Tamera Lenz Muente (whose name always strikes me as perfect for dealing with photography exhibitions, sounding in my mind like “Camera Lens” followed by a last name pronounced “Mint”). The 101 framed photographs as installed by Muente fill the gallery nicely, feeling intimate and expansive simultaneously. She also has augmented some of the accompanying wall labels by writing “More to the Story” texts about the photographs or their subjects.
The apparent presentational strategy of usually providing at least multiple pieces by each photographer allows a dialogue between and among the photographs, exploring their familial connections, something like siblings getting together to talk about growing up with mom. The 53 photographers selected in no way proposes a comprehensive survey of deserving woman photographers from the 20th century and beyond. Indeed many more names come to mind upon viewing those included. The 1970s alone produced enough notable female photographers to double the numbers of the entire exhibition – for example the Ohio photographer in whose archive the Cincinnati Art Museum has invested, Nancy Rexroth, or two other photographers whose work the CAM purchased just this past year (two pieces each): Bea Nettles and Melissa Shook. Photography has been a medium women eagerly embraced from the beginning. It would be nice to see a future, complimentary exhibition of work by women photographers from the 60 years prior to those represented at the Taft. Certainly we’ll see some of that work next summer when another BoA Art in the Communities exhibition arrives at the Taft, Moments in Time: A Legacy of Photographs, which offers 117 photographic works dating back to an 1843 William Henry Fox Talbot paper-negative print. But the historical research may still have some catching up to do to identify all the women in the early period, although it’s likely they were there.
One of the pleasures of Modern Women/Modern Visions is the number of photographers encountered who still have not found a particularly celebrated place in the medium’s history, names such as Eva Besnyö, Sonia Handelman Meyer, Rebecca Lepkoff, Mariana Yampolsky, Tomoko Sawada, Alejandra Laviada, DoDo Jin Ming, Mette Tronvoll, Karina Juárez, Elspeth Diederix, Céline van Balen, Carol Espíndola and Liza May Post (also a filmmaker) – fully a quarter of the exhibitors. Viewing this exhibition is ongoing history – encountering their work and learning their names.
The opening photograph in the exhibition, and the one used for all the Museum’s publicity, is a large Sandy Skoglund 1981 print of Revenge of the Goldfish, a surreal photographed installation of an entirely blue bedroom invaded by overlarge orange fish. Muente gave the photograph its own presentational wall, painted a deep slate blue, complimenting and setting off the photograph amidst the majority of the exhibition’s middle grey painted walls. (When Cincinnati’s Carl Solway Gallery memorably mounted a Skoglund exhibition at its street level W. 4th Street space back in the 1980s, it exhibited not only photographs but filled the front of the gallery with a Skoglund installation. Radioactive Cats depicted a grey room with a solitary man besieged by swarming green felines, which opened presentationally to the viewers on the sidewalk via large picture windows, but was also viewable from inside the gallery via a window in the rear of the installation – as though viewing a 3-D photograph from within it).
That first photograph on the long grey wall of the exhibition is by one of those lesser know names, Eva Besnyö, and introduces yet another unfamiliar name, as it is a 1936 portrait of Dutch photographer Violette Cornelius, looking out of a skylight window in the tile roof of a house in Amsterdam. Besnyö had immigrated to Berlin from Hungary in 1930 where she became affiliated with the Bauhaus, whose Modernist design principals are evident in the picture’s construction. The ascending and repeating roof tiles are disrupted by the open attic window out of which Cornelius’s upper torso leans, her head looking left (in the photo), employed in the exhibition to send attendees’ gaze down the line of photographs of the exhibition’s opening section, “Modernist Innovators.” The house pictured is on the Keizersgracht, just one canal away from the house in whose hidden annex Anne Frank and her family would be hiding a just six years later. I couldn’t help thinking of the attic window Frank could never risk opening and leaning out. Cornelius would become a member of the artists’ resistance, then, surviving the war, an architectural photographer. With that information in mind, the photograph almost seems to presage the coming Nazi occupation.
Further along the opening wall, and just into the “Modernist Innovators,” is a 1905 Gertrude Käsebier portrait of the American actress Minnie Ashley. Käsebier is actually pre-Modernist, working in the soft and mannered Pictorialist style, but the portrait exudes confidence and character, feeling less artificial than many pictorialist portraits of the period. Käsebier characterized her own work as creating “likenesses that are biographies” and was one of the first American women to craft a successful career as a photographer. A quote of Käsebier’s surmounts the section and reads “I earnestly advise women of artistic tastes to train for the unworked field of modern photography. It seems especially adapted to them, and the few who have entered it are meeting a gratifying and profitable success.” It was the turn of the 20th century and photography was indeed the modern medium, while Pictorialism was the artistic genre felt to particularly suit the modern woman. Muente adds an informative wall text about Käsebier’s sitter, Miss Ashley.
Although the exhibition represents Käsebier with this portrait of a contemporary Broadway star (by 1999, photography’s reigning figure, Alfred Steiglitz, already considered Käsebier “beyond dispute, the leading artistic portrait photographer of the day”), she is equally known historically for her less commercial portraits of Lakota native Americans traveling with Buffalo BIll’s Wild West troupe and tender scenes depicting motherhood and family. Her success professionally and allegiance to Pictorialism eventually led to a bitter split with Steiglitz. In 1916 she joined Ohio photographer Clarence H. White to found the group Pictorial Photographers of America (a direct challenge to Steiglitz’s Photo-Secession group). Käsebier inspired many American women to themselves take up careers in photography.
The photograph just preceding Käsebier’s on the wall is by one of these women Käsebier inspired and could be considered a bridge image, linking the gentle soft light and feeling of some pictorial imagery with the exactitude of a botanical image, peering into the sensuous center of a magnolia blossom. Cunningham, at the turn of the century, had scandalously broken barriers by making nude photographs of her husband, Roi Partridge, in the natural landscape (she also did nude self-portraits). Unlike Käsebier, she would not continue with Pictorialism. In the early 1930s she joined the Group f/64 of West Coast Modernist photographers with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams (so named as representing the smallest regularly available aperture setting for a lens, the use of which would produce sharply focused pictures throughout the focal range, a hallmark of what would come to be called “straight” photography). “We were for reality… not being phony, you know,” she once explained. By the later 1960s and early ’70s she was still going strong, teaching in the photography department founded by Adams, Weston and Minor White at the San Fransisco Art Institute (at which she was one of this author’s teachers).
One photograph further, in the same thematic section, is an image of an actual bridge: Bernice Abbott’s powerfully stated ode to the modern, industrial world – a 1936, upwardly thrusting view of the steel supports for the George Washington Bridge in New York City. Soft focus had been largely banished from serious photography in favor of sharpness and precision, evoking the power that only actuality could provide, often with viewpoint replacing artiness to provide expression. It was a style that would come to be called (somewhat erroneously, historically) “documentary;” and the title of the following thematic section, in which the Abbott photograph also could have been at home.
The thematic sections often overlap and meld together. The artistic period known as Modernism persisted and prevailed in photography into the 1980s and encompassed much of the work in succeeding sections of the exhibition. The first section continued with three more photographs by Abbott, all of New York City in the 1930s and all superb, then two of Barbara Morgan’s 1935 work with Martha Graham’s dance company, and three of Margaret Bourke-White’s Moscow photographs in 1931. As though to confirm the thematic overlap, the second section titled “Documentary Photography and the New Deal” begins with a quote by Bernice Abbott: “Photography is a method of education, for acquainting people of all ages and conditions with the truth about life today.”
The Documentary section opens with three photographs Dorothea Lange made during her time working for the government’s Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration in the late 1930s, including her best known image of the unnamed Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 and this later photograph from Washington state, equally imbued with the sense of despairing resignation the FSA often wanted its photographers to convey (on-line I found an almost identical Lange photo of the same scene, only with the child shyly smiling for the camera).
As illustration, compare the following two photographs made eight years apart, one from the “Modernist Innovation” section and the other from the Documentary section. The Bourke-White photograph depicts dancers from the Moscow Ballet School in 1931 representing a chain belt from the Machine Dance, while in 1939 Marion Post Wolcott depicts migrant workers lined up behind a truck waiting to be paid (which could as readily depict a Dust Bowl image or 1931 Depression era breadline). Both show lined up people, but while Bourke-White’s emphasizes an artistic choreography with dramatic angle and lighting, the dance referencing the regimentation of the Machine Age (although Bourke-White is instead highlighting the differing identities and personalities of the dancers) – Wolcott’s intentionally omits faces as evident individuality is compressed into visual and economic regimentation, the drama here being drawn from individuals compelled into a sameness of their actual, emotive circumstance.
The next section of the exhibition focuses on the Photo League in New York City., which “played a vital role in the development of documentary and street photography” in the US through classes, darkrooms, exhibitions spaces and fellowships. Politically progressive, it was composed largely of young, working class, often first-generation Jewish Americans, about a third of whom were women (significant at a time when many camera clubs and organizations still denied access to women). In some ways it served as the urban counterpart to the FSA, although continuing into the 1950s. By the 1930s the 35-mm Leica and other relatively small, lightweight cameras were becoming readily available, increasing the ability and willingness of women to take up photography, often working less obtrusively and intimidatingly. The photographers represented are Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin, Sonia Handelman Meyer, Rebecca Lepkoff and Esther Bubley. Orkin and Bubley were probably the more commercially successful of the five, with Levitt the most artistically celebrated for her street life depictions of children (particularly after 1959 when she began working in color, for which she received two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships and years later a slide show at the Museum of Modern Art; Nancy Newhall curated Levitt’s first solo exhibition, also at MoMA, in 1943).
The only photographer thus far represented by a single photograph (since that initial Eva Besnyö) is Rebecca Lepkoff, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who grew up on Lower East Side of Manhattan, which would become her principal subject matter in the 1940s and ‘50s. A dancer who took up photography in 1939 at the age of 23, she joined the Photo League in 1947 – the year it was condemned as a subversive organization (i.e. “Communist”) and blacklisted, an early victim of Cold War McCarthyism – and remained a member until it disbanded in 1951. My initial awareness of her was photographs she made of utopian communities in Vermont, first in the 1950 then revisited in the 1970s as hippie communes, work rediscovered in the ’90s. She died in 2014 at the age of 98. [I was unable to locate an image of the 1948 photo in the exhibition; the photograph below is from 1947 and is not included in the exhibition, but a great example of the more modernist vision.]
One photographer I hoped to find here was Consuelo Kanaga, who remarkably had been associated with both the f/64 Group in San Francisco and the Photo League in New York City. In NYC and throughout the rest of her life she was devoted to photographing portraits and documenting the lives and struggles of African Americans. Despite its urban working-class orientation, the League had a paucity of black photographers. Wisconsin-born (to Russian Jewish immigrants) Ester Bubley scarcely fills the gap for her inclusiveness of black Americans in her documentation of long-distance bus travel in the Midwest and South. Reflecting on this peculiarity I thought about Ming Smith and the groundbreaking photo collective Kamoinge, an African American nephew of the Photo League, a generation and a few miles apart, uptown in Harlem. In 1972, nine years after the group’s founding, Smith (who’d grown up in Columbus, Ohio) became Kamoinge’s lone female member. Two years later she would be the first African American female photographer to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (by MoMA curator Susan Kismaric). When non-white photographers eventually make an appearance later in Modern Women/Modern Vision, unfortunately, Smith would not be among them (however, in 2022, following its Kamoinge Workshop exhibition, the Cincinnati Art Museum added Ming Smith’s work to its collection).
The next section of the exhibition is titled “Modern Masters” and is accompanied by a Diane Arbus quote “I really believe that there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them,” referencing the increasing subjectivity of the medium. Arbus is represented by seven prints, all made in the decade of the 1960s and all from her “A box of ten photographs” (and all labeled 1970, but printed in 1973 by Neil Selkirk; this is the same portfolio exhibited in its entirety in the Columbus Museum of Art’s concurrent Arbus, Sherman, Woodman exhibition ). Arbus’ frank and powerful individual and group portraits, often of people marginalized by conventional society, revealed a personal attraction and respect for their difference which was frequently misunderstood and censured as mockery. Arbus’ work was exhibited in the 1967 New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art with that of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand; her solo retrospective there the year after her death was the most highly attended exhibition in MoMA’s history to that point. As MoMA’s Szarkowski explained, these new documentary photographers’ intention was less to reform life than to know it.
The “Modern Masters” section begins with a lovely, black and white, almost painterly, 1961 photograph by Marie Cosindas, and one of the exhibition’s many delightful surprises for me, made shortly before her pioneering and extensive career involvement with Polaroid color photography.
There are also two photographs by Lisette Model (Viennese-born Elsie Stern) who also was a member of the Photo League in New York City, but whose photographic style deviated toward what might be called humanistic expressionism, tightly and dramatically filling the square frame of her medium-format Rolleiflex camera. Model turned to teaching when the League’s blacklisting affected former League members’ ability to earn their living photographing, was hired initially by Ansel Adams at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, then was back in New York teaching at the New School for Social Research, where Bernice Abbott also was teaching. Among Model’s early students was Diane Arbus, and the influence is palpable.
The decade after Arbus reveals a startling leap in photographic practice, with the performative portrayals of Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, from which only one example (#50, 1979) is included. Not actually self-portraits, Sherman employs herself in staged moments which evoke mostly B-movies or independent and foreign films and serve to comment on the representation of women through roles/types in contemporary cinema. This is the first work encountered which is essentially conceptual, and it still feels quite contemporary. Additionally Sherman herself continues to be a significant artist, regarded as more an artist working in photography than a fine-art photographer. It’s worth noting that Sherman’s work begins near the end of second-wave feminism in the US.
The “Modern Masters” category skips forward again another decade to a large number of photographers’ work shortly before and after 1990 (leaving the previous nearly 20-year period sparsely represented). These include the staged, aristocrat portraits of Tina Barney, somewhat inaccurately described as the “directorial mode” (a term coined by critic A.D. Colman to differentiate from the responsive mode of photojournalism, street photography etc.) and the carefully assembled and lit still-life abstractions of Jan Grover – from 1996 and 1988 respectively, both working in color. There is also another deep blue-black painted wall, with a suite of nine of Barbara Kruger’s iconic image/text screen prints, employing found photographs from mass media sources each containing a word of the title We will no longer be seen and not heard, 1985. Kruger’s influential work helped herald the third-wave of feminism in the 1990s. Like Sherman, Kruger, now 79, is still active, her work receiving an installation at MoMA just last year (co-organized with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Adjacent to the Kruger wall are four large color portraits of a single French Foreign Legion soldier, photographed over four summers (2000-2003). These are from a suite of seven by the Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra, tracking Olivier Silva’s time in the service, from recruitment through training and tours of duty in Africa. They are part of the final section “The Global Contemporary Lens,” a point in the exhibition at which the two sections meet and pass one another, a few feet and a decade apart – the boy-becoming-man observing the Kruger protestations.
It is with the Modern Masters section that the exhibition becomes markedly international, including work by photographers from Mexico, Japan, Israel and Germany. Among the Germans are three photographs by the photojournalist Barbara Klemm made in the months surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989-90), two large-format, color architectural interiors by Candida Höfer, and a very large, unique silver print by Vera Lutter, for which a room-sized camera obscura pinhole camera was used to produce a direct negative image of a Brooklyn dockland scene.
The first of the Mexicans encountered is Graciela Iturbide, with two prints from her decade-long involvement (1979-88) with an indigenous Zapotec village in Juchitán, Mexico. A less well-known Mexican photographer, Mariana Yampolsky, was also drawn to indigenous rituals and festivals, but one of her two photographs here is a simple portrait of a girl carrying a large water bottle. American born of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, she was raised in the US and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1944. The following year she visited Mexico, with which she fell in love and where she decided to stay, becoming a Mexican citizen in 1958. Initially a printmaker, she studied photography with Lola and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, whose influence is visible in the portrait. Through the 1990s she received solo exhibitions in the Netherlands, UK and Mexico and also worked as a curator organizing exhibition of Mexican art in Mexico, France, Sweden and Japan. The noticeable absence of the U.S. among these countries may have been because of her leftist political orientation (my speculation). Perhaps this also accounts for the absence of Tina Modotti from the exhibition (and perhaps the collection; again speculating). In all there are six Mexican photographers represented in the exhibition, the largest group after Americans, with Dutch the next largest representation at five.
The Japanese representative is Tomoko Sawada, with ID400 (#1–100), 1998, a large mounting of 100 Photo Booth ID pictures for which she changes her visual identity daily via clothing, expressions, make-up, hairstyles and wigs, echoing Cindy Sherman’s transformations. The Israeli photographer is Michal Rovner whose piece obscures identity completely, beginning with a distant photograph of a model floating in the Dead Sea, enlarged and colored into an almost mystical representation of a human figure, with echos of the Christ figure (or perhaps just a body in the water separating Israel and Jordan). Rovner is one of the most celebrated artists in the exhibition with solo exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, the Louvre and Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and just months ago was awarded the Israel Prize in the plastic arts.
The penultimate section in the exhibition is titled “Exploring the Environment,” the earliest in which is a suite of four of Bernd (that lone male) and Hilla Becher’s ultra-neutral, black and white 1975 recordings of industrial buildings in England, France, Germany and the U.S. (Pit Head, Joliett, Pennsylvania, USA, No.7). To avoid any expressive or dramatic elements the Becher’s made their photographs under overcast skies “in the right season, without leafy trees and bushes getting in the way” (learned from the wall text).
Two large, gently printed black and white gelatin silver prints by Lynn Davis are juxtaposed – ancient ruins in Palmyra, Syria and a melting iceberg in Disko Bay, Alaska – monumental meditations on impermanence. Unfortunately two large color prints (color coupler prints, or “C prints”) by Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee, made in 1988 and 1995, are already showing the signs of fading and color shifting endemic to the aging process. The photographs depict Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon, with bathers in the foreground of a huge geothermal water pumping station, and California’s Mono Lake radically receding to meet Los Angeles’ drinking water needs.
Untroubled by color shift is Chinese photographer’s DoDo Jin Ming’s large gelatin silver print Free Element Plate V, 2001 of a fiercely roiling sea. The wall text informs that “To capture ocean surfaces from dramatic angles, the intrepid artist sometimes straps herself to rocks or hangs by a rope.” The dramatic movement of the water, clouds and light recall Turner’s paintings, and Muente’s wall text expands the association by reminding us that similarly “Turner lashed himself to a ship’s mast to experience a tempest at sea.” Another secret to the work’s power is that Ming builds the image (and experience) by combining several negatives.
All this “Environment” work is compressed powerfully in its own room. My favorite photograph there is atypical, neither sublime nor uninflected; framed in its large size it feels like a picture made through a home’s “picture window”. It’s a color Iris print (a fine art, digital inkjet print) and looks as vividly colorful as I imagine it looked when printed in 2003. The artist is British photographer Neeta Madahar and the picture is an apparently simple shot of budding branches, bird feeders and birds. Behind this front plane near the camera is an open field, and at the back a line of trees, white clouds and blue sky. Easy peazy, eh. But the effect is somewhat disconcerting. There are effectively just the two picture planes, a foreground and a background, with virtually no middle ground information, reminiscent of natural history museum vitrine displays. The colors are so perfect as to almost feel artificial. The motionless birds add to this impression, as though attached specimens. It’s an unassuming discourse on artificial and real, the natural and human-altered environment, and what coexistence means – taken (the text informs us) from the photographer’s apartment balcony.
From here the exhibition enters its home stretch, “The Global Contemporary Lens,” beginning with the Dijkstra portraits discussed earlier, followed by Canadian Laura Letinsky’s pastel still-life of rotting, uneaten peaches from her turn-of-the-century Hardly More than Ever series, followed by two of the most recently made photographs in the exhibition: Karina Juarez’s color self-portrait from her “Actions to remember” series arising, she tells us, “from a need to remember a violent act I lived in childhood,” and fellow Mexican photographer Ana Casas Broda’s meditation on motherhood made nearly 20 years earlier, from a body of work often inspired by (and including) her own children – both photographs staged tableau employing the photographers’ own, unclothed bodies (American photographer Francesca Woodman’s work from the 1970s could well have found a place here too).
Compare the Juárez photo to another Mexican photographer’s staged tableau, again using herself: Ana Casas Broda’s meditation on motherhood, Videogame, from a body of work often inspired by (and including) her own children.
By the arrival of the 21st century the documentary-reportage mode would seem to have nearly completely given way to staged/directed imagery. The few exceptions found in this final section confusingly were actually made 20 years earlier than the rest of the work, one being by Flor Garduño in 1988, like Graciella Iturbide, attracted to indigenous populations. Another is Meridel Rubenstein’s 1980 New Mexican lowrider portrait; 18 years later, Korean Nikkli Lee’s investigation of Hispanic neighborhoods is accomplished through performative interactions, adopting her subjects’ style and mannerisms.
One large, more recent photograph in the final section proposes a found situation but could as easily been posed (which turns out to be the case, as the text informs that Dutch photographer and filmmaker Lisa May Post “creates sets, choreographs scenes, and directs actors for films, from which she produces still photographs.”) That the photograph persuades as being a real, seen moment allows the viewer a similar relationship to the photograph.
The second to last artist represented in the final section of Modern Women/Modern Vision also focuses on children and finally introduces us to an African-American photographer, and likely the most celebrated such, Carrie Mae Weems. She is represented by two photographs. One is from her most often reproduced work, the Kitchen Table series of twenty vignettes representing the human domestic drama, in which “people of color stand for the human multitudes.” It’s a staged image looking almost like a stage set. In a bare room, lit only by a hanging overhead lamp illuminating a wooden table and chairs, a mother (Weems) and young daughter have been working together at the table. The mother, standing, leans over the table where her writing pad and a drink sit, and looks directly at the daughter, standing across the table at its corner, looking down at her hands and presumably her own homework. Between them a large, thick book (perhaps a dictionary) is opened at its middle. The picture resonates with parental responsibility, expectation, dedication, discipline, disappointment, dynamics known to most families but made weightier by the family being black and their barriers and stakes being higher.
The other Weems photograph also focuses on children while referencing art history and photography’s history by employing a circular image (popular in the 19th century) and the look of a sepia toned black and white photograph, carrying the title After Manet. Specifically it refers to Manet’s two most notoriously controversial paintings, Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia. In one, fully clothed bohemian white men casually picnic on grass accompanied by naked white women (one meets the viewer’s eye unconcernedly); the other shows a naked, reclining white courtesan quite unashamedly looking back at her viewers, while being attended to by her black servant. The four African-American girls in Weem’s photograph are fully dressed, one echoing Olympia’s pose, three also staring directly back at the viewer, this time almost reproachfully, in this context, reflecting their absence in art history and difference in consideration. At this point one also can reflect upon the earliest photograph in the exhibition, Gertrude Käsebier’s 1905 portrait of Minnie Ashley, whose gaze also meets the viewer’s with unflinching intentionality.
The last works in the exhibition are by yet another Dutch photographer mining art history to borrow something of the look of Northern Renaissance portraits while mixing in modern ID “head shots.” The artist, Céline van Balen, rides the fence in 1998 providing an up-close line-up of three Muslim girls, immigrants to the Netherlands. She employs photography’s intrinsic identificational accuracy to confront the viewer with these three faces (once more meeting our gaze) and two names, confronting us with our own 2023 responses (sympathy, awareness, prejudice?). It’s a fitting final presentation for the exhibition, drawing on both photography’s pre-history and perhaps its post-history, as in 1998 we hardly wondered whether the photographs may have been digitally altered while in 2023 we may wonder whether they are photographs at all, or generated entirely by AI. Then, letting go of those suspicions, we wonder who are the women these girls have become now 25 years further on.
Believe it or not we have discussed here fewer than a third of the works in Modern Women/Modern Vision. There are so many other interesting photographs to see and contemplate (like Carole Espindola’s 2016 take on Botticelli’s 15th-century Birth of Venus or Bernice Abbott’s 1936 almost abstract expressionist Court of the First Model Tenements in New York City, 361-365 East 71st Street) that you’ll just have to come down to the Taft to see for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of riches from 110 years of the medium’s history, whether or not you consider it has been created by members of a single sex; but when you do, it will enrich your experience all the more meaningfully.
Modern Women/Modern Vision: Photography from the Bank of America Collection remains in Cincinnati’s Taft Museum of Art’s Fifth Third Gallery through September 10. Admission is free for Taft members, military, and youth (18 and under); $12 for adults; $10 for seniors. Non-members can save $2 by purchasing tickets online. Sundays are free. General admission includes access to the museum’s permanent collect galleries located in the Taft historic house and all current special exhibitions. For further information and exhibition viewing times contact the Taft Museum of Art at 513-241-0343 or [email protected].
1. These “may have been dioramas [something Daguerre excelled at]. The pair created scenes on light-sensitive, chemically treated surfaces that developed in a gradually illuminated auditorium, causing thrilling lighting effects. For a quarter, viewers could see images of the Hagia Sophia, the Last Supper, the destruction of Nineveh, and Belshazzar’s feast, all with musical accompaniment.“ – Theresa Leininger-Miller, “New Discovery: Robert S. Duncanson’s Ruins of Carthage (1845),” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 7, no. 1 (Spring 2021)
“I thought both of your recent AEQAI reviews were excellent.… The Taft show [Modern Women/Modern Vision] review is even more impressive, a deep dive into a lot of interesting work. That show includes all sorts of people & images with whom & which I am unfamiliar, & am glad to be aware of. You offer a great many trenchant observations & make good use of your extensive expertise & experience. Your reference to the Solway/Skoglund show was a typical & good example, but the piece is packed with gems, including your concluding reflections on “photography’s pre-history and perhaps its post-history”. I don’t know if I’ll get down to see the show, in spite of its obvious excellence, but I feel I’ve been given a superb intro to it.” – Sean Wilkinson, former chair of University of Dayton Art Department, September 2023