by Carla Scarano D’Antonio
The exhibition welcomes visitors with a portrait of Thuraya Hamad Al Zaabi (2011) by Gabriella Sancisi. Her broad smile and bright hijab symbolise the resilience and eventual success of women photographers. They were pioneers who worked in a male-dominated world at a time where professional photographers were all men. Fast Forward Women in Photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham collaborated in the realisation of the display.
A map guides the viewer through the chronological exhibit from the first attempts of amateur women photographers of the middle 19th century, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Christina Broom and Alice Hughes, to successful professionals such as Grace Robertson, awarded an OBE in 1999, Emma Barton and other women whose work became popular and appreciated in exhibitions and magazines.
One significant supporter of this art was Queen Alexandra (1844-1925), the wife of King Edward VII, who promoted photography and was herself an amateur photographer. She had several Kodak cameras and took photos of family and friends. The exhibition displays an exquisite porcelain tea service with transfer printed photos taken by the queen.
Among the first women photographers, Cameron was inspired by great masters in her compositions, which have a symbolic narrative quality. In ‘Paul and Virginie’, from the novel Paul et Virginie by JH Bernardin de Saint Pierre, she illustrates the scene where the two protagonists are in a storm, creating a visual representation of the passage. Emma Barton was very successful; she exhibited her work at the Royal Photographic Society as well as abroad. She came from a working-class family and supported the Arts and Crafts movement. Her work, as well as the other women photographers’ pictures, was displayed less often than that of men. Nevertheless, their gaze, which paid attention to the domestic and familiar, as well as highlighting the extraordinary in the ordinary, obtained a certain amount of recognition.
A true pioneer was Olive Edis, born in London, who owned her own studio and patented her own designs. She was also the first woman war photographer. Lee Miller witnessed war atrocities as well. In ‘Believe it’ her series of pictures of concentration camps combine horror and art with images of dead bodies arranged in artistic compositions.
After the second world war, some photographers such as Edith Tudor-Hart focused on documentary photography, using images of working people to promote reforms. In a similar way, Shirley Baker’s pictures aim to catch moments of working class history.
Other photographers from the 1970s onwards challenged stereotypical gender roles, exposing abuse and discrimination against women, such as Anna Fox and Sarah Lucas. Fox’s ‘Country Girls’ refers to Fanny Adams, murdered in Alton, Hampshire. Her picture shows a woman in a sparkling gold dress bending forward near a bush, a debased modern depiction of Little Red Riding Hood’s story. Lucas’ ‘Got a Salmon’ depicts an ordinary woman wearing gender-neutral clothes. She holds a large salmon, symbol of male authority, over her shoulder in a rebellious, mocking attitude.
A subtler criticism comes within the works of Sonia Boyce, Maud Sulter, Frances Kearney and Suki Dhanda. Sulter and Boyce are pioneers in improving the conditions of black women. Boyce explores ironically the representation of her identity from the point of view of white society in photobooth portraits. Sulter pictures powerful women that personify the nine muses of mythology. Urania, the muse of astrology, is represented in an engaging portrait of a black woman in a dignified posture holding astrolabes.
Kearney defines the domestic setting, traditionally considered the woman’s place, as a place of ‘lost time’, depression and boredom. ‘Woman with a cigarette by the bath’ (1998) from the series ‘Five People Thinking the Same’, shows a woman from behind in an ordinary bathroom holding a cigarette in her right hand. Her posture is reminiscent of Ingres’ ‘The Valpinçon Bather’, but Kearney underlines the irony in the image of the ageing housewife wearing a white vest and a drab blue skirt. The triangular shape of her right arm holding her head and the obstinate turned position reveal her isolation and desperate determination.
Suki Dhanda’s ‘Untitled’ (2003) is from a series of spontaneous pictures of an Asian woman growing up in east London. She looks out of the window and the lace curtain covers her head like a hijab. The protagonist’s wish to experience the outside world and her attachment to her cultural heritage seem in contrast, or they might be on the verge of merging symbolically.
Continuing on the route of the exhibition, the viewer encounters the almost surreal exploration of interiors and exteriors in the works of Helen Shear, Anne Hardy and Clare Strand. They create a fictional setting transforming the ordinary in extraordinary through symbols, lights and shadows and allusions to the magic and supernatural.
In this extraordinary exhibition, two women photographers stand out for their originality: Bettina von Zwehl and Mitra Tabrizian. Von Zwehl’s ‘Diptych #1’ refers to and opposes the famous Piero della Francesca’s double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. In contrast to the Renaissance painting, the sitters could be anyone, and their relationship is a mystery. Mitra Tabrizian’s ‘Teheran 2006’ has a political perspective, portraying the displacement and isolation of local people in a decaying urban residential area. The scene reflects the tension between ideology and everyday life.
The exhibition also presents a video on the ground floor for over-18s only, ‘Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry You Will Be in Disguise’ (1994). The video is about constructing identity, a self-image that defies stereotypical roles, explores the possibility of a more credible self and suggests alternatives.
This is a thought-provoking exhibition that succeeds in highlighting the importance of women photographers. It displays a wide range of engrossing pictures that testify the commitment and expertise of women in this art, both in technical and creative achievements.
Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers; The Lightbox, Woking; 30 January – 2 June 2019