Berlin Gallery Weekend 2019 has just passed - and only 15 female artists were shown in the program. Compared to the 41 male artists, that’s just about 30 percent. Creating visibility is important, that’s why this article marks the start of a new mini-series, in which I’ll introduce 7 female artists each - starting off with photographers.
The following artworks offer a perspective that’s inclusive, unconventionally beautiful, strong, individual, and most importantly: de-centers the narrow, uniform way of looking at women and their art. These inspiring women have shaped the development of artistic photography in the past, and continue to bring new perspectives into the art form today - and diversify this still mainly male dominated field.
Vivian Maier (1926-2009)
Vivian Maier’s street photography is unapologetic, authentic and taken with a certain confidence, transforming spontaneous gestures into expressive pictures. In her photographs, she often portraits the poor, those who struggle to get by, with great understanding, empathy even. As close as she gets to who or what she is photographing, as much of a private and intensely guarded person she was said to be herself.
It was only after her death, that her work has been made public in exhibitions all around the globe, from the United States to Europe. Movies and documentaries about the life of the “nanny who happened to be a photographer” (or was it the other way around? Does that even matter?) have been produced. All trying to find out more about the woman who would obsessively take pictures, but never show them to anyone. Photography was her own private safe space. All this leaves us to think of her photography as more of a self-therapeutic tool rather then something meant for the public exposure it received lately.
Abisag Tüllmann (1935-1996)
In the 1960s, Abisag Tüllmann started working as a freelance photojournalist - amongst others for the infamous Magnum Magazine, Zeit or Spiegel. In the course of her journalistic work she traveled around the globe, and was committed to capturing current political and social developments of film, like the Middle East conflict or the liberation movement in Africa. Back home in Germany, the followed the student unrest with her camera as well as avant garde artists like Joseph Beuys. She later on found her passion in theater photography where she created an artistically autonomous imagery from various stagings by the great names in German theater like Claus Peymann. Due to this broad spectrum, the perfectionist photographer can’t be edited down to just one genre - and why should she?
Since 2013 a plaque at her former house in Frankfurt am Main pays tribute to the photographer and her work.
Annie Leibovitz (born 1949)
For over 40 years now, the iconic portrait photography of Annie Leibovitz is shaping the art world. She began her career as chief photographer at Rolling Stone Magazine in 1973, before she started focusing on a solo career. Her interest branches out into various subjects - as can be seen when looking at her landscape photographs on one hand, or her reportage from the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s on the other. But what she is probably best known for are her portraits of, amongst many others, John Lennon, Queen Elizabeth II or Miley Cyrus. Her photographs are intimate, iconic, diverse and yet unrecognisably from her hand, always capturing the correlative zeitgeist.
In A Photographer’s Life, an illustrated book from 2006, a more private side of the power woman can be seen. It shows both works from professional assignments as well as personal pictures from travels of her and her just recently passed partner Susan Sontag.
Sally Mann (born 1951)
Thinking of Sally Mann, one might think of her large-scale black-and-white photographs first. On a deeper level, it is something else that is memorable and unique about her work. It is the mixture of her serene technical brilliance and the way she is communicating her relation to whatever she is photographing - you can feel her connection with her subject that comes from nothing but a place of love. This can best be seen in a series she took of her children. They are intimate and personal, yet universal in the portrayal of growing up, seeking independence, and not being able to or even wanting to detach just yet.
The same sensitivity can be found in her later work: her photographs of landscapes never seem to lose the connection to the person behind the camera. This earned her a spot in the collection of major museums like Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Francesca Woodman (1958-1981)
When Francesca Woodman started taking pictures at only thirteen years young, she already had her own distinct aesthetic language, manifesting in a melancholic mood and a playful way in handling the genre of self-portraits as well as the medium of photography itself. In her portraits, she is never really there, but also not absent. In this, she asks the question, if the medium is even able to capture her as a whole complex person - it isn’t.
This quasi-abence also causes the potential fetischizing male gaze to diffuse, not being able to objectify her body that is not even fully there. And in this, she is deconstructing the principles of the male gaze.
Unfortunately, her work only was discovered by a larger audience after her suicide. Since then, a huge retrospective at Guggenheim Museum, New York in 2012 honored her work, and already in the 1980s her photographs started echoing in the feminist discourse.
Rinko Kawauchi (born 1972)
What makes Rinko Kawauchi’s work so special is actually its entanglement with the ordinary - or to be more precise: its details and its transience. In her photographs we can see her awareness for the little things, for gestures, for fleeting moments. Through nuanced colouring, her work is enchanting, giving the feeling of sleepwalking.
Kawauchi is one of these artists, who became practically famous overnight, after she received the Kimura-Ihei-Price, the most important price for young artists in Japan, in 2001. Shortly after, she was the first Japanese artist ever to publish three books in a row: Utatane, Hanabi and Hanako. In her more recent work, Kawauchi is capturing mainly natural phenomena and the landscapes of Japan, while still keeping her eye for the poetic, for the larger forces in play.
“If it doesn’t move my heart, it won’t move anyone else’s heart.”
Kanya Iwana (born 1995)
Kanya Iwana is a photographer, art director and visual designer, and performance artist. Due to that intersection of various art forms, her photographs are cinematically driven, capture singular moments or stretching those moments into fuller narratives revealing subtle surrealism. Her work has been published in Magazines like i-d, Vogue, W Magazine, The Fader, and Paper Magazine.
In an ever changing, quickly consuming world, Iwana wants to make art that lasts, that our memories come back to again and again. That’s why she is inspired by the authenticity of people and their emotions, their vulnerability and warmth. This translates into her portraits, showing women in an honest, fierce, but also gentle light.
When asked for the best advice she’d ever been given, the artist quoted the following: “Your highest is never as high as you think it is; so is your lowest.”
I always love to get to know new artists - so feel free to comment your favourite female artist, and let’s broaden our horizons together!
Text by Stefanie Regina Dietzel