Are we finally close to fixing the problem with photography’s gender balance?

Ballerina in Sink, 2004 (Mary McCartney)

In our visual-first culture, image is everything. Snapping, sharing, scrolling – our photographic appetite is gargantuan. But how literate are we when it comes to photography? And why does it matter? For one, research just released by the Mental Health Foundation underscores the universal, morbid, psychological effects of exposure to images of unattainable, commerce-driven body ideals. Beyond this, representation – or abundant lack thereof – is a vital, pressing concern for excluded and marginalised people. “You can’t be what you can’t see” – on repeat, till visual realms truly reflect us. In the words of vaunted champion of the female gaze, photographer Hannah Starkey: “Photography is king in terms of how we communicate.” Perhaps, it’d help if some queens shared that throne?

This week, the fifth and largest incarnation of Photo London, the nation’s biggest photographic fair, engulfs Somerset House to offer an extensive photographic showcase, stretching from the medium’s dawn to its bleeding-edge experimental futures, as exemplified by online curatorial platform, Artuner. And with 114 established galleries from 21 nations exhibiting to collectors, curators and photography fans; 23 young spaces comprising the progressive Discovery section, deftly curated by Tristan Lund, and 30 intrigue-piquing artist talks, including a conversation with Starkey – it’s the ideal place to appraise, interrogate, lovingly gape at or otherwise “read” world-class imagery. “We’re working towards the same goal, which is to increase our visual intelligence,” says Starkey of her fondness for, and association with, Photo London. “It’s brilliant how it opens up photography to a wider audience.”

For those reticent to pay for their ad hoc education, there’s a generous public programme featuring the UK’s premier presentation of work by enigmatic American street photography artist Vivian Maier; an expansive exhibit by this year’s Master of Photography, colour photography maestro Stephen Shore, and a social media-geared egg sculpture by Gavin Turk. Meanwhile, the Pavilion boasts a trio of commissions: A Room Their Own, a tender study of domestic abuse survivors by revered documentary photographer Susan Meiselas; Mary McCartney’s Off-Pointe, for which the photographer famed for intimate portraits captured Royal Ballet dancers after hours, freed of fairytale sheen; and Simulations, the culmination of a fear-enhanced, deep dive into hyperreality in Florida’s Palm Beach, by (relative) rising star Rachel Louise Brown.

“They’re independent projects but we’ve linked them in terms of how women view women, or enable themselves to see what it’s not easy for others to … Creating a platform for women artists has always been on our agenda,” says Fariba Farshad, cofounder of Photo London alongside Michael Benson, about devoting the courtyard to a celebration of women in photography. Her conviction is evidenced by the fact that half of 2019’s participating galleries are run by women, with 40 per cent of showing artists also women, besting the average participation rate of 27 per cent (as announced in the latest art market report by Art Basel/UBS).

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Published in INDEPENDENT on Wednesday 15 May 2019 written by Suze Olbrich