December 5, 2023

Sometime in the 1930s, the Hungarian photographer Anna Barna photographed “Onlooker”, a picture of a boy who is standing on a chair and looking over a palisade from behind.

While his shadow stretches over the planks that block his path, he takes on the form of a bearded profile that can be read in the recording as the second “spectator”. A little further away is a third “eye-catcher”, which, although quite invisible in the picture, was very present in the mind of every prewar viewer who saw the picture credits: Anna Barna, a woman who dared to do it, is this eye-catcher Record the camera that would normally have been held by a man. Like all camera-swinging women of her day, Barna’s bold move gave her a strong cultural presence.

This presence can be seen in “The New Woman Behind the Camera”, an inspiring and inspiring exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from July 2nd to October 2nd. 3. At the end of October, the National Gallery of Art in Washington will move to. The show, curated by Andrea Nelson of the NGA, was installed at the Met by Mia Fineman.

The more than 200 exhibited pictures from the 1920s to 50s allow us to see how women everywhere become photo professionals. I guess some of her pictures might have been taken by men, but female authorship shaped the importance of these pictures to her contemporaries. It shapes what we need to make of them now as we understand the challenges their manufacturers face.

The Met shows women photographing everything from factories to battles to the oppressed, but also clothes and children and other traditionally “feminine” subjects. Sometimes the goal is direct documentation: personalities like Dorothea Lange in the USA and Galina Sanko in the Soviet Union recorded the worlds through which they moved, often at the request of their governments. But many of her sisters prefer the aggressive perspectives and radical illuminations of the New Vision of the time, as they were developed at the Bauhaus and other hotspots of the modern style. It was possible to see what jazz should sound like.

That made the New Vision perfect for the New Woman, a term spread around the world in the early 20th century to describe all of the many women who took on roles and responsibilities – new personalities and even new powers – that they seldom had before had. When a New Woman started photography, she often focused her New Vision on herself as one of the most eye-catching creations in the modern world.

A self-portrait by American photographer Alma Lavenson leaves out everything but her hands and the camera they are holding; The only thing we need to know is that Lavenson is in control of this machine and therefore the vision it captures.

The German photographer Ilse Bing shoots into the hinged mirror of a vanity and gives us both profile and frontal views of her face and the Leica, which it almost hides. Since ancient times the mirror has been a symbol of women and their vanities; Bing claims this old symbol for itself and creates a new image from it.

The mirror by the German-Argentine photographer Annemarie Heinrich is a silver-plated sphere; She traps herself and her sister in it, portraying the fun house pleasures and distortions of being a woman who has been made new.

Heinrich’s European colleagues sometimes go further when they disturb their self-portrayal. In “Masked Self-Portrait (No. 16)” Gertrud Arndt reveals her face twice or maybe even three times, as if she wanted to express her troubled identity as a woman who dares to take photos. (Multiple exposure is almost a trademark of New Woman photographers; that should perhaps not surprise us.) In a collage entitled “IOU (Self-Pride)”, French photographer Claude Cahun presents himself as 11 different masked faces surrounded by the Words “Under this mask another mask. I’ll never be done with taking off all these faces. “

It’s like the act of getting behind a camera turns every new woman into an ancestor and avatar of Cindy Sherman, trying on all sorts of models for the sex.

If there is one problem with this show, it is that it is mostly women who have managed to achieve supreme excellence, which hardly suggests the much larger number of women prevented from doing so by the rampant sexism of their time were able to achieve their creative goals: talented women whose places in a photography school were instead given to men, or who were streamed into the lowest or “most feminine” levels of the profession – retouching or cheap child portraits – or who were never promoted through a studio assistant . It’s a problem that taints all attempts to regain the lost art of the disadvantaged: if you tell the same success stories that you do with white men, you risk creating the appearance of giving others an equal chance to rise.

What it really meant for the New Woman to take up photography can best be illustrated by a very clear shot by Chinese photojournalist Niu Weiyu. As recorded by her colleague Shu Ye, Niu is standing with her camera on the edge of a cliff. Every photographer took this daring pose, at least culturally, by simply clicking a shutter button.

Some of the women featured at the Met actually took over studios originally run by husbands or fathers. In the Middle East and Asia, this gave them access to a reality that men could not document: Taken in Palestine in the 1930s, a photo of a businesswoman who describes herself as “Karimeh Abbud, Lady Photographer” shows three women who standing completely in front of the camera self-confidence – the youngest smile broadly into the lens – in a relaxed shot that a man would hardly be able to capture.

For women in the West, gender was almost as important. If taking a camera was labeled “male”, many new women in Europe were happy to be dissuaded from it: Again and again they portray themselves with the shortest bobs, sometimes so short that they are read as male hairstyles. Cahun, who at times had almost been shortened, once wrote “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me. “

Margaret Bourke-White, a true celebrity American photographer, photographs herself in a bob long enough to cover her ears, but this almost girly style is more than offset by masculine wool pants. (In the 1850s, Rosa Bonheur had to get a police license to wear pants when she was drawing The Horse Breakers of Paris. In 1972, my grandmother, who was born the New Woman’s age, was boasting of the courage she recently had teamed up to wear pants at work.)

A new woman who clicks the shutter button seems to see almost as much as any other subject in front of her lens. Bourke-White’s photo of Fort Peck Dam featured on the cover of the first modern issue of Life magazine in 1936. and it got this game because it was shot by her: The editors tell of this “surprising” fact, how they introduce their new magazine, and how they “couldn’t prevent Bourke-White from running away with their first nine” . Pages.”

If a subject is actually a different woman, Sagittarius and Sitter can collapse into one. Lola Álvarez Bravo, the great Mexican photographer, once photographed a woman with shadows on her face, entitled “In her own prison”. As a photographic everywoman, Álvarez Bravo gets along like in the same prison.

To capture the plight of women in Catholic Spain, Kati Horna illuminated the barred windows next to a cathedral with the face of a girl; It’s hard not to see the huge eye looking at us behind these bars as belonging to Horna herself, looking through the viewfinder.

For centuries, before women became new, women had been objectified and observed in a way that probably few men are. The recording of the camera did not distract the gaze from a new woman; it could bring them even more clearly into focus. But thanks to photography, she was able to begin to look back with strength at the world around her.

The new woman behind the camera

Until October 3, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710;