Women with Wall Space

If there is one thing that will make me emotional, it is being disappointed in a museum. Sound extreme? You obviously didn’t grow up across the mountain in Luray.

My small hometown is lacking in just about everything but charm and caverns. The only place to shop is Wal-Mart. There are four traffic lights, one of which is only two years old. As for art, one is hard-pressed to find anything that wasn’t created by P. Buckley Moss; who, despite being a very talented local legend, didn’t have much to offer that I couldn’t see from my own front porch. See?


by P. Buckley Moss

                                         Baylors Mill, P. Buckley Moss, 2005 

 It was always with great anticipation that I looked forward to trips with my mom to D.C., or better yet, vacations to Manhattan to spend time with my bio-dad. Seeing art was always at the top of my list, but it didn’t always work out the way I hoped. My brothers and sisters got tired easily and we had to leave; the MET closed early because it was Thanksgiving break; my dad had already seen the show and wasn’t interested; my friends wanted to get beers instead of explore the ENTIRE Smithsonian.

The worst experience I ever had was in 2008 at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. I had just finished the History of Photography at JMU, and was pumped to see all the amazing female photographers whose work had touched me over the semester. Imagine my surprise when, save for one Cindy Sherman piece, not one of them had work on display. All there was was room after room of work by men. Men’s pictures of women, men’s pictures of men, men’s pictures of the entire human experience, and an almost complete lack of female voice. How rude.

So when I went to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC over Christmas Break and saw this sign, I braced myself for dissapointment.


 What I found was unlike any art show I had ever been to before. Inside the rooms and rooms of photographs were 200 pieces by 120 artists, all of them female. I hadn’t seen that much art by women since the Annie Lebowitz exhibition I saw as a teenager – which was admittedly by one artist and focused around main stream subjects like celebrities and politicians.

This work was different – from the 1840’s botanical prints to innovative 2010 pieces, there was a sense throughout the show that more was being captured than the image within the camera’s frame. The result of these women artists was a rare version of history shown by persons of my own gender. Their chronologically arranged work offers a glimpse of what it has meant in the past and present to be a women. Some works are obscure and mundane, others emotional and recognized, but all represent a world rarely seen by the public eye.

Unfortunately, the show (which should be turned into a museum!) closed on January 10. I picked some of my favorites to share – hopefully it will translate a sense of the importance of maintaining a feminist perspective in the arts, as well as the reverence that the end product demands.

3. I love to imagine what it would have been like to be this woman.

                                        Untitled, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867

As one the earliest female photographers, I wonder if she faced any hostility from male artists. Her style, which is often described as soft, luminous, and warm, has always seemed uniquely feminie to me. It is art with a ‘woman’s touch.”



Stairway of the Treasurer’s Residence: Students at Work, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899

Johnston is known as America’s first female photojournalist, whose work often centered around government officials; however, her photo commentary on race has remained one of the most memorable aspects of her work.


                                                   Worker’s Parade, Tina Modotti, 1926

I wonder what she was standing on when she took this picture? Although the subject may seem dull, it is actually a commentary on labor. The men are going off to work, and the picture is taken by a woman left standing behind.


                                    Self-Portrait in Mirrors, Ilse Bing, 1931

Bing seems determined to show that there is woman behind the lens – one with skill, as evidenced here in her self-portrait.

7. No matter how many times I see this, it always provokes an emotional response.

                                       Migrant Mother, Dorthea Lange, 1936

Aside from the obvious pain and struggle written on her face, there are subtle messages within the photo that speak of  the strength of the mother. For example, her boys have perfect haircuts. She is doing everything within her power to take care of them, and it may not be enough. Who is taking care of her?

8. This is quite possibly my favorite picture EVER.

                                         Death of Patriarchy, Mary Beth Edelson, 1976

The collage is a play on 17th century paintings depitcing men and the scientific revolution. In the middle, a man labeled simply as “the patriarch,” is poked and prodded by famous feminists. How can you not love that?



                           One Month After Being Battered, Nan Goldin, 1984

Goldin is most well known for her intimate look into queer/drag life in New York City in the 1980’s, but the artist says she took this self-portrait to never forget the damage her boyfriend caused her. The remaining harm, one month after the abuse, is shocking.


                                                Walking House, Laurie Simmons, 1989

A walking house? Could it be commentary on the two-fold role of women as domestic caretakers and sexual objects? I think so!


                                             The Stewart Sisters, Judith Joy Ross, 1992

I included these girls just for fun. How I could I not? With their big hair, tucked in tees, designer sneakers, and drum set, they truely are the epitomy of 1992 tween coolness. But why do they look so sad in their middle class privileged white status? Maybe it is the mixed pressure to conform and perform.


                                        Irreconcilable Difference, Amanda Ross-Ho, 2002

A child dominates the foreground in this social commentary on divorce, gender roles, and modern family.


                                                               Susie and Friends, Alex Prager, 2010

This scene feels all to familiar to me! Consumerism, sex, female desire, and pleasure combine in a medium that feels both realistic and dreamy. The same is true of the piece below by the same artist.


                                                  Despair – Film Still # 1, Alex Prager, 2010

This one almost scared me when I saw it live. Women’s emotions are something we are conditioned to see as undesirable and weak, but Prager manages to make teary eyes both her subject and message.

I guess I was a little emotional after all that day when I left the MOMA, not out of dissapointment this time, but because I was so touched and impressed by the work I saw that day. It reminded me to appreciate the strength and determination of these women, but also to harness my own. After all, just look at what can be accomplished.

Images Cited:

1. http://www.virginia.org/site/description.asp?attrid=31655 2. http://artofviewingart.com/2011/01/25/week-number-one-for-thurs-feb-3-see-pictures-by-women-a-history-of-modern-photography-at-museum-of-modern-art/ 3. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/playing-around/three-museums-focus-on-women 4. http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3ADE%3AI%3A4%7CG%3AHO%3AE%3A1&page_number=4&template_id=1&sort_order=1 5. http://rathbonegallery.wordpress.com/ 6. http://idiommag.com/2010/06/a-history-of-excellence-women-photographers-at-moma/ 7. http://katylouisemedia.blog.com/2009/11/10/capture-research/ 8. http://www.marybethedelson.com/posters.html 9. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/playing-around/three-museums-focus-on-.10. 10http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=G%3AOV%3AE3A1&page_number=148&template_id=1&sort_order=211.http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=5123312. http://www.we-find-wildness.com/2011/01/amanda-ross-ho/  13 & 14. http://evewithoutadam.net/blog/my-news/moma-new-photography-2010

2 thoughts on “Women with Wall Space

  1. Great review.

    Julia Margaret Cameron faced some critical ridicule, not so much because of her gender as because of her style: the intimacy and soft focus, as well as her developing processes, were unconventional. She started late in life and as an amateur, she didn’t strive for the same ideals as some of her contemporaries. She was much admired by artists and writers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, who sat for her portraits.

    I’ve often noticed the perfect bowl cuts of “Migrant Mother,” thinking “Is it right to call that ‘Depression Chic?'” But I never saw it as evidence of her care until you pointed it out. Thanks for enriching the portrait for me!

    I once interviewed Nan Goldin and was told in advance by her assistant to avoid asking about the abuse photos, as she doesn’t like to talk about them or that relationship. She gave us the images, though, and that’s powerful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s