Confronting the absent.
Largely absent from Parissien museums are works and faces of photographic pioneers who have become invisible; so, curator Fannie Escoulen is inviting visitors to walk across the city and confront it.
“The history of photography has been written, in general, by men,” said Fannie Escoulen.
A provocation, not an exhibition.
On November 8, the French capital will host an exhibition dedicated to photography as part of what will be the largest international art fair, which is an annual event known as a parcours organized by its curator. These pictures, taken by women photographers, have been left out by many galleries, according to the curator Escoulen, they likely number as many as men, these women who have picked up a camera to document their discoveries will have their work shown to visitors of Escoulen’s project entitled Elles x Paris Photo.
“It’s not an exhibition, it’s a provocation,” says Escoulen. “I don’t know exactly why women, little by little, disappeared.” She went on to describe the exhibition as a journey of discovery, rather than a lecture, and will take the form of a walk around the city.
The tour will take visitors through a cross-section of the city’s art institutions, including the Champs-Élysées central hub of Parissien photography, the glass vaulted halls of the Grand Palais. The exhibition will also feature other locations housing an imposing collection at the fashion house Fondation Cartier, as well as Jeu de Paume and Photo Saint Germain, which will feature the work of photographic specialists, and also the Petit Palais, the historic sister gallery of the Grand Palais, as visitors make their stops along the route. The aim of the event is to make the works by the women photographers better known by the public in order that they should be rediscovered, which is something the curators have said they are keen to promote.
Lucia Moholy, the Czech wife of Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy Nagy, whos husband’s fame often casts a shadow over her remarkable personal and architectural photography, as well as one of the first women commercial photographers, Scottish-Canadian Margaret Watkins, who are examples of photographic pioneers from the early 20th century, will be the feature of the project as it showcases such works that follow a chronological path. The exhibition will also feature work from contemporary artists who are under-recognized, as well as the still life shots of Jan Groover, which are said to have influenced a generation including Wolfgang Tillmans, and work from Japanese experimental photographer Kunie Sugiura, as the exhibition aims to chart the work of radical feminists from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The Female Pioneers of Photography.
Escoulen explains the origin of the particular movement towards recognising female photographers as beginning in 1839, when the first commercially viable photographic process was created in Paris by Louis Daguerre, a male counterpart who worked side-by-side with female photographers who built their practice largely through being self-motivated.
“Photography was a medium that was very simple and very accessible to anyone who wanted to explore it,” she says. “Women photographers were probably many when the medium was created – then they had to deal with being a professional photographer.”
At a time when chemical and optical expertise were required to handle volatile film stocks and cameras were clunky, most female photographers during the medium’s early days were prevented from maintaining their careers due to their requirement to raise families; and so, such practical complexities paled in comparison to these hurdles of social expectation.
Whether it was documenting the early Soviet Union as a travel photographer or pioneering advertising images of domestic scenes for Macy’s department stores, the 1920s photography of Margaret Watkins came out of persistence to the work despite these social barriers.
Working From Isolation.
Isolation was often the modus operandi of those early female pioneers of the early 20th century, a trend that Escoulen identifies as a global phenomenon, since men occupied most roles as documentary or war photographers. A generation of 21st century photographic artists would later begin to be characterized by themes of self-representation, tenderness, domesticity, and intimacy, themes that were surprisingly contemporary as these interests are depicted in countless photographs in the exhibition by these little known women of their day.
Men would validate their work through exhibitions and other men would find support from museums and magazines as they rose to prominent positions; photography’s early days, male acclaim was self-reinforcing, says Escoulen.
For these reasons, and a myriad more, many women simply gave up on the camera as they were not heralded by institutions leading much of the female talent to fall by the wayside. Caring for her elderly aunts in Edinburgh, Watkins spent much of her life skirting the limelight despite earning early exhibitions in the US. Museums only began to celebrate her work when her negatives were rediscovered but this would come decades later, still virtually unknown at the time of her death in 1969.
However, masculine norms were beginning to become explicitly challenged as feminist movements swept across the arts in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea that photos should be objective or universal was a prevailing belief that American photographer Joan Lyons fought back against as she detailed her own experiences through the production of introspective images. Inseparable from her experience, Lyons aimed to create personal images, using alternative methods such as Xerox machines or Polaroid instead.
Even today, however, women succeeding in photography is met by institutional resistance that remains worldwide, even despite self-publishing platforms like Instagram providing the tools for everyone to participate. “I would say most of them suffer a lack of visibility,” she says.
Escoulen goes on to say that platforms for female photographers at the institutional level are met by a gallery’s bias and says that some countries have been slower to tackle this issue, making it a global problem that has contributed to the erasure of female photographers.
Exhibition programming in some areas does attempt to consciously maintain gender parity such as Jeu de Paume in Paris. But the exception is greater than the rule. For example, Escoulen describes the situation of one of her friends, the photographer Lise Sarfati,who left the French capital for the US, because she felt that there “the question of being either a woman or a man simply is not there.”
“I think the problem is not only in Paris,” Escoulen says. “It is in France but also in Spain and probably in Italy. They are also south (European) countries, so maybe still more misogene (sexist) maybe more machiste (chauvinist).”
Elles x Paris Photo is part of Paris Photo, at the Grand Palais, from Nov. 8 until Nov. 11, 2018.
Words by Elijah (Content Marketer).