THE WOMAN'S EYE aims to provoke an awareness of the feminine contribution to photography. Such an effort has been a long time coming and it's a good idea: not only because there are strikingly female approaches to the art, but because women in the field have generally been ignored. The names of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Lee Friedlander are familiar to many people, and one will note they are all men. Now, when was the last time someone mentioned Doris Ulmann, Berenice Abbott or Gertrude Kasebier? Men control the publication of most books and magazines, write about photography's history and determine, according to the exposure they've been willing to give certain artists, who'll be hailed as a master and what makes a masterpiece. Beaumont Newhall's important History of Photography includes the names of only ten women.
Anne Tucker's excellent introduction to The Women's Eye grapples with the popular question of a woman's place in society. She discusses the idea that women crave marriage and a family and don't need a professional life. When an ambitious woman rejects domesticity so she'll have time to explore her creativity and pursue her art, one doesn't have to wait long before people begin whispering that she's ugly, bitchy or sexually frustrated. As Tucker points out, traditionally, men are encouraged to be daring and ambitious while women don't compete or take risks--it's allright for them to be passive, all they have to worry about is a smile of approval.
Too many women these days--Claudia Dreifus, Elizabeth Gould Davis--are obsessed with the need for righteous feminist indignation not to mention that it seems to sell well. So they diligently lace their writing with feminine wrath. But Tucker doesn't use sex as a ploy to draw attention to the book. In this way The Woman's Eye is a refreshing contrast to the usual collection of photographs. There are no glamor portraits, sex symbols or Earth Mothers ("Nude women have floated in still ponds, been massaged by rushing waters, prayed at the base of phallic trees, and danced in grassy fields with the wind in their (long, blond) hair . . ."). Yet each artist represented reveals an intensely personal style that escapes stereotyping. These people are comfortable with their womanhood and can fill their art with what Virginia Woolf called "that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself."
The photographers are arranged chronologically, beginning with Gertrude Kasebier, born 1852, in Iowa. In Kasebier's day artificial control of props and rigid poses was favored, so her impressionistic approach was frowned on at first. Her pictures avoid clean lines that trace intricate detail and fuse broad patches of light and shade. They don't intend to document, just coax an emotional response. She did a series on motherhood, in which titles were appended as interpretations. For example, "Blessed Art Thou Among Women," and "The War Widow." The latter depicts a lank, forlorn woman with a child raised against her shoulder, her flat white gown leaping from deep shadow.
In sharp contrast are the images of Frances Benjamin Johnston. She was an aggressive, energetic woman with a journalistic bent. Her photographs are exacting records of late 19th century American life, and her method--detached observation--refutes the notion that feminine perception is intuitive and spiritual instead of rational. Contemporaries were rather taken aback because she "drank beer, smoked and daringly showed her ankles"--a spirited soul indeed.
PERHAPS THE MOST celebrated of all these women was Margaret Bourke-White, a photographer for Life magazine who died in 1971. She was on assignment in Russia after the Revolution, at Buchenwald when General Patton liberated it, and nearby when Gandhi was assasinated. Unlike almost every other woman photographer, she does not focus primarily on people. A whole series depicts powerful, moving machines. Her portraits all seem calculated to swallow you with merciless eyes that don't see and make you shudder in pain . . . "The living dead of Buchenwald;" "Gold miners, Nos. 1139 & 5122, Johannesburg."
Alisa Wells and Judy Dater are among those women represented who are still working. Wells is metaphorical and autobiographical. She makes the most extensive use of technical manipulation. Some of her images are altered by overexposure, superimposed frames, and silver print for effect. Judy Dater is interesting because she emphasizes women and their bodies. Her results clash resoundingly with the aura men produce from similar models. These aren't demurring women about to extend or accept an invitation, they confront you with their sexuality. Some are beautiful, yet that's not what attracts attention. These women are provocative because their individuality and intellectuality aren't stifled by unctuous idealization. The photographs are precisely detailed, untouched, and of theatrical intensity. One, called "Twinka," is confusing. A frail, attractive girl wearing a diaphanous dress crouches at the base of a gnarled redwood, one arm spanning her breast to clutch a low branch. But her uncanny expression could never be elicited or tolerated by a male photographer: her eyes bore straight out, wide and threatening.
Like Twinka's eyes, the photographer's gaze clutches at objects in view. Because it can transfix a scene with minute detail, people expect photography to reflect the world for future reference in a rational way, of course. Film doesn't have texture like oil paint, dimension like sculpture. One can't avoid or escape reality on film, only distort it, so still pictures make dubious art by some people. Maybe this book will change their minds. It lets one see some beauty in a frame house where the wood slats are like ribs against skin. It lets one share a view that urges more than the registration of a frozen image, because the photo wasn't snapped just for the record, and because there's something curious about knowing it's a woman's eye.