Putting Women In A Light Box

by Dish Staff


Alex Heimbach suggests that books such as Women Photographers: From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman perpetuate a “gender ghetto”:

The book collects the work of 55 practitioners, from pioneers of the form to contemporary photojournalists. [Author Boris] Friedwald also includes short bios of each artist as part of his goal to present “the variety and diversity of women who took – and take – photographs. Their life stories, their way of looking at things, and their pictures.” Sounds admirable enough. Yet it’s impossible to imagine an equivalent book titled Men Photographers: From Eugène Atget to Jeff Wall. Male photographers, like male painters, male writers, and male politicians, are the default. The implication, intentional or not, is that no matter how talented, female photographers are women first and artists second.

Ideally, endeavors like Friedwald’s serve to illuminate lesser-known artists, who may have been discounted because of their gender (or race or sexual orientation or class). But more often such exercises become a form of de facto segregation, whether it’s a BuzzFeed quiz on how many of the “Greatest Books by Women” you’ve read or a Wikipedia editor isolating female novelists in their own category. These projects are often undertaken in a spirit of celebration, but their thoughtlessness generally renders them pointless at best and misogynistic at worst.

(Photo: Julia Jackson by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867, via Wikimedia Commons) Update from a reader:

Lovely post.  What your readers may not know is that Julia Jackson was the mother of Virginia Woolf, one of four children from her second marriage.  Julia died in 1895 at the age of 49, when Woolf was 13, precipitating the first of Woolf’s terrible battles with what was probably a severe a bipolar disorder.  Before she became the perfect “angel in the house” Victorian wife to two husbands and the mother of seven, Julia was famous for her beauty and frequently photographed by her illustrious and pioneering aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron.  Needless to say, Woolf, author of A Room of One’s Own, would have been the first to object to relegating the work of women to a separate (but equal?) category.