Presenting a balanced picture Photography: Exhibit focuses attention on the work of women, whose artistry in this field has been historically underrated.

February 23, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Old bias dies hard, and its effects linger long.

Take the case of women photographers. You might think that the increased visibility of women in the arts in recent decades indicates that the bias of centuries against women has at last been wiped away. Wrong.

In the book that accompanies the exhibit "A History of Women Photographers" at Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts, art historian Naomi Rosenblum cites evidence from recent years that women in the field are still vastly underrated. "In 'Masterpieces of Photography,' a 1986 compendium of highlights from the George Eastman House Collection, 8 of the 194 photographers are women," Rosenblum writes. "Four women are among the 96 individuals included in Mike Weaver's 'Art of Photography, 1839-1989' (1989); 16 women are included among the 202 named photographers whose works are illustrated in John Szarkowski's summation, 'Photography until Now' (1989)."

Moreover, Rosenblum adds, New York's Museum of Modern Art has had a photography department since 1940; by the mid-1990s it included works by 1,226 photographers, of whom only 72 were women.

And this marked preference of the art world establishment for work by men carries over to the contemporary marketplace. "Work by men yields about 50 to 60 percent more than that by women," writes Rosenblum.

"Women Photographers," both the book and the exhibit, were designed in part to help make up for those imbalances, to assure that women will be better represented and their work better preserved in the future.

"By focusing this amount of attention on women's contributions, we hope that more works will find their way into museums and be preserved," says Barbara Tannenbaum, chief curator of the Akron Art Museum in Akron, Ohio, and exhibit co-curator with Rosenblum. "There are 132 lenders to the show on four continents," Tannenbaum says. "That's an insane number of lenders, and it's because these women are not represented in any kind of comprehensive nature in major collections. Their works are more scattered among relatives and descendants."

The exhibit brings together the work of more than 200 photographers. Some of their names are well-known to those familiar with the history of photography -- Gertrude Kasebier, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott. But many, many more are little-known, including some remarkable figures.

There was Anna Atkins, who in 1843, just four years after the introduction of photography, began a study of algae and other plants using a photographic method called cyanotype. Eventually, she produced thousands of prints. "She was the first person to use photography for an extended scientific project," says Tannenbaum.

There was Jessie Tarbox Beals. "She was the first woman hired by the newspapers," says Tannenbaum. In 1902, she was hired by the Buffalo Inquirer and the Buffalo Courier. The following year, "During the sensational Edwin L. Burdick murder trial in Buffalo where no cameras were allowed in the courtroom," notes Rosenblum, "she scooped the nation by shooting [a] picture through the door transom." She subsequently moved to Greenwich Village, published work in various New York periodicals including Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and took documentary photographs of children living in New York's slums.

Frances Benjamin Johnstonwas another colorful and highly important figure. Born in West Virginia in 1864, she studied art in the early 1880s at Notre Dame Collegiate Institute, now the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

Subsequently, she studied in Paris and Washington. She became the first woman to document where people worked, from shoe factories to a coal mine and an iron range. She also documented the Hampton Institute, a vocational school for African-Americans.

She wrote a book on opportunities for women in photography, and organized an exhibit of 142 works by women photographers, which debuted in Paris at the time of the World's Fair of 1900, then toured to St. Petersburg and Moscow (but she couldn't get it shown in this country). Later she specialized in architectural photography for such eminent practitioners as Cass Gilbert and McKim, Mead and White, and in the 1930s she made a photographic survey of early Southern architecture. She died in New Orleans in 1952.

Thematic organization

"Women Photographers" explores the history of the field in both America and Europe, and from work of the 1840s down to such recent figures as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Crane and Diane Arbus. While the book's approach is chronological, the curators organized the exhibit thematically, which makes its sections more visually coherent and allows comparisons among artists working in similar ways in different periods.

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