The New Woman Behind the Camera by Andrea Nelson

IIse Bing, Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931, Gelatin silver print, 267 x 305 mm. Courtesy: Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg

Life without photographs is no longer imaginable. They pass before our eyes and awaken our interest; they pass through the atmosphere, unseen and unheard…They are in our lives, as our lives are in them. – Lucia Moholy

In her book A Hundred Years of Photography, 1839-1939, photographer and historian Lucia Moholy examined the social impact of medium’s first 100 years.[1] Her analysis focused less on artistic concerns with quality and originality and more on the conditions of photographic production and reception. A position informed by her own marginalisation from the growing discourse surrounding the Bauhaus, a German avant-garde school where her husband, László Moholy-Nagy taught and her labour as a photographer and theorist was too often disregarded.[2] Moholy ends her history with the statement, “Life without photographs is no longer imaginable”, a situation aided by improved rotogravure technologies and the transmission of pictures by wire which had spurred the reproduction of all kinds of photographic images during the first half of the 20th century.

As the circulation and mass appeal of photographs increased after World War I, photography more effectively signified key aspects of modernity, including the iconic figure of the New Woman. Independent and confident, the New Woman was easy to recognise but hard to define. With a short haircut, fashionable clothes, and confident stride she embodied a range of female identities that emerged globally as women transgressed boundaries and sought to expand their rights.[3] The New Woman was, however, more than a marketable image seen splashed across the pages of magazines and projected on the silver screen. She was an inspirational model that evolved alongside major developments in photography. A symbol that intertwines gender with photography, she is a compelling lens through which to view the work of women photographers like Moholy. Although women participated in photography from its inception, it was not until the 1920s, that they entered the field in force. With the rise of mass communications, better access to training, and growing acceptance of their presence in the workplace, women across the globe made an indelible mark on the medium.

The New Woman Behind the Camera – an exhibition I curated that was on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 2 July to 3 October 2021, and is currently installed at the National Gallery in Washington, DC from 31 October 2021 to 30 January 2022 – examines the work of a diverse group of more than 120 women who made significant advances in modern photography from the 1920s to the 1950s. This production reflects not only their personal experiences, but also the extraordinary social and political transformations of the first half of the 20th century – including two world wars, a global economic depression, struggles for decolonisation, and the rise of fascism and communism. The pioneering efforts of these photographers to gain creative agency and self-representation were part of the broader ongoing struggle to achieve gender equity. Often overlooked, their contributions are key to a more inclusive history of photography.

By Andrea Nelson

From Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

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