Coming in 2021: Works by Women Photographers

With the re-closure of most museums in November, the Washington arts scene — along with everyone and everything else — has suffered another crippling blow at the hands of the pandemic. Any other year, the fall arts season would be coming to a crescendo right now, with galas and parties, major exhibition openings, fundraisers, gallery walks and the like, all of which now sound like surreal vestiges of a distant homeland.

It fills me with tremendous longing, while at the same time inducing a sort of disgusted disbelief that life could ever have been that stupidly simple that I attributed such value and virtue to such trivial currents of economy and culture. To say it another way, I miss it terribly, but I’ll never be able to forget how fragile it all is.

One artistic medium that seems to be doing all right through the pandemic is photography. It has been showing us footage from beyond the walls of our semi-quarantined life, while also allowing us to project ourselves out into the world to our friends and families.

Photography has something of a special gift for transcending all sorts of boundaries. It can skate extraordinarily fine lines between otherwise dichotomous arenas of professional, cultural, physical and philosophical space. Photography exists in fine art and journalism. It can clarify as well as obscure information. It can bolster facts or conspire in deception and manipulation. It can also reveal areas of the world that are otherwise not given their due, both in what is in front of the camera and what is behind it.

Two exhibitions I hope to visit in the winter (should the CDC allow it) feature women photographers in the 20th century. In the early part of the century, photography perhaps allowed some women to reveal their genius without the burden of gender inequity.

The first exhibition, slated to open in January at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is a retrospective of Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015). Mark was an icon in modern photography, whose mission was to document the otherwise unknown or forgotten people of the world. From street children in Seattle to circus performers in India, Mark captured the lives and stories of individuals with empathy, humor and candor. “Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood” presents approximately 30 images from throughout the photographer’s career depicting girls and young women. The NMWA is still open for visitors, so go if you can.

“Beautiful Emine Posing, Trabzon, Turkey,” 1965. Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy NMWA.

Due to open at the National Gallery of Art in February — though the museum is currently closed until further notice — “The New Woman Behind the Camera” will explore how women emerged as a driving force in modern photography from the 1920s to the 1950s. In particular, the exhibition will examine the New Woman of the 1920s, a powerful expression of modernity and a global phenomenon that embodied an ideal of female empowerment based on real women making revolutionary changes.

Featuring more than 120 photographers from over 20 countries, this exhibition aims to showcase how early women photographers brought their own perspectives to artistic experimentation, studio portraiture, fashion and advertising work, scenes of urban life, ethnography and photojournalism.

The signature image for the National Gallery’s exhibition, “Self-Portrait with Leica” of 1931, by German photographer Ilse Bing (1899-1998), is a masterpiece — a work of haunting psychological portraiture and formal genius. It left me thinking that a fascinating outcome of the smartphone era, particularly in quarantine, is the obscuring of the perspective between the photographer and their subject. The conceit of photography used to be fairly straightforward: someone behind the camera photographs something within their field of vision. In a single photo, all that really used to be there is a visual transcription of something that had existed momentarily in front of a photographer’s eyes.

This really isn’t the case anymore. Smartphone photographers probably spend as much time photographing themselves as anything else. The camera points back at the photographer; the lens is even built now to face the photographer, so they can compose the pictures they take of themselves the same way you would behind the lens looking out. It’s a record of us looking at a machine looking back at us.

In recent years, photography has become less a tool for exhibiting our views of the outside world and more a tool for exhibiting ourselves within the world. This last sentence could also be used to describe Bing’s claustrophobic self-portrait. It is a kind of a fragmenting of her identity and interior world through a filter of technology and mirrors. The only difference between this and a smartphone selfie might just be that Bing knew it — and was a hell of a lot better at it than any of us.


“Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood”

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Jan. 16 to April 18, 2021

Currently open: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.


“The New Woman Behind the Camera”

National Gallery of Art

Feb. 14 to May 31, 2021

Currently closed


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