Books

An Uncompromising Look at Photography and Gender

In Photography after Photography Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s overarching goal is to offer a feminist critique of the art world.

Photography after Photography: Gender, Genre, History (image courtesy Duke University Press)

Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s anthology, Photography after Photography: Gender, Genre, History (Duke University Press) — a follow-up to Photography at the Dock: essays on photographic history, institutions and practices (1991) — focuses on social, political, and ethical questions around the work of individual artists. While Solomon-Godeau’s overarching goal is to offer a feminist critique of the art world — particularly of critical discourse around art — in some of her essays she also discusses topics that fall outside this lens, such as the role of desire in photography and images of torture. In this sense, the anthology reflects the range of Solomon-Godeau’s practice and interest as an art critic and scholar.

Solomon-Godeau, an emeritus professor of art history at the University of California Santa Barbara and a former Guggenheim Fellow, laments the marginalization of feminist theory in art criticism. She takes a page from her contemporary, the feminist critic Laura Mulvey, stating, “work that does not contest, destabilize, subvert, or otherwise ‘ruin’ dominant regimes of representation can only represent the way things are and therefore forecloses even the imaginative or utopian possibility that things might happen otherwise.” For instance, she identifies a historicizing process through which photographers Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman have been discussed less in terms of the politics of gender as scholarship on their work has progressed since the 1980s. In the essay, “Body Double” (2014), Solomon-Godeau objects to art critics frequently comparing Woodman’s work to that of male Surrealist painters and photographers, while overlooking meaningful parallels with Woodman’s own female contemporaries. In the essay, “The Coming of Age: Cindy Sherman, Feminism and Art History” (2014), she argues that Sherman’s career also underwent a mutation: as her position rose in the art world, Sherman’s work became discussed less in feminist terms, and more in general, universal ones — an approach that underplays the most powerful aspects of Sherman’s oeuvre, dealing specifically with sexist representation of women in art and in popular culture.

In “Inventing Vivian Maier” (2013), Solomon-Godeau traces the posthumous rise of Maier, from a Chicago nanny who constantly snapped pictures to an art sensation. Solomon-Godeau draws attention to how gender accentuates Maier’s mystique as most acclaimed street photographers were male, passersby female. This mystique is bolstered by the perception (discredited by critics cited in the book, such as a photographer and lecturer at Northwestern University, Pamela Bannos) that Maier had no technical training, to engender a myth of elusive genius.

Throughout the book, Solomon-Godeau frames the art world’s key stakeholders, from curators and museums to collectors, as complicit in constructing narratives that perpetuate the myth of the Great (read: mostly male) Artist, while ignoring urgent social and political currents. For instance, while discussing two major 2014 Robert Mapplethorpe surveys in Paris, at Grand Palais and Musée Rodin (“Robert Mapplethorpe: Whitewashed and Polished,” 2014), Solomon-Godeau notes how critical discourse around the exhibits conspires to “cranking up of the apparatuses of canon formation.” This is achieved by emphasizing Mapplethorpe’s absorption of classical Greek sculpture in his work and downplaying the artist’s “appallingly racist comments about black men’s minds and bodies, his obsession with black men’s genitalia.” This approach, Solomon-Godeau argues, depoliticizes the work, casting it in benign aesthetic terms.

However, it is in a subtle discussion of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark, in the essay, “Inside/Out” (1995), that Solomon-Godeau proves she is a brilliant debunker. Reminding us of how vehemently Susan Sontag criticized Diane Arbus’s voyeurism, Solomon-Godeau asks whether we should accept the frequent critical judgment that Arbus photographed from “outside” her subjects’ worlds while Larry Clark and Nan Goldin photograph them from “inside.” What does it mean to portray an artist as an insider? And what is “inside” a photographic image? In relation to Goldin’s photographs of transvestites and drag queens, Solomon-Godeau questions if an image can capture a performance of gender from within, as some art critics claim. In the essay “Teenage Lust,” centered on Clark, she asks if the photographer — an adult photographing male teenage lust — can claim any insider status. “Inside” thus emerges as a slippery term, often used by artists and art critics to confer a charged, superior value to a work. By shifting the critical focus from the artist in the moment of creation to the artwork’s reception by an audience, Solomon-Godeau casts doubt on the notion of “insider” art — in other words, she doubts that viewers presented with an image can really tell what’s “inner” versus “outer” about it. One might argue that Solomon-Godeau underplays the role of context that Sontag came to stress in her later works. On the other hand, what interests Solomon-Godeau are the limitations of an artwork’s ability to speak for itself.

Conceptually thinner are the two essays that treat photographs as symptoms — of quintessential American anxiety in The Family of Man exhibition mounted at MoMA in 1955 and reprised in France in 1993 (in “Refurbishing Humanism for a Postmodern Age,” 2004), and of repressed homosexual desires in a chapter on torture at Abu Ghraib (“Torture in Abu Ghraib: In and Out of the Media,” 2007). More persuasive are analyses that posit genres such as landscape painting and photography, street photography, and nude as historical processes. For example, in the essays, “Framing Landscape Photography” (2010) and “Harry Callahan: Gender, Genre and Street Photography” (2007), Solomon-Godeau observes the critical shifts that took place when images of nature were first labeled as landscapes, or when snapshots of streets became a photographic genre. By retracing these historicizing processes, she conveys a powerful sense that any codification is necessarily informed by the sociopolitical context in which it emerged and cannot be considered as neutral, or so-called pure aesthetic.

Given the power of Solomon-Godeau’s feminist critique — and the fact that the cutoff date for her anthology is 2014 — one can only wonder what she makes of this particular historical moment, in which movements such as #MeToo have once again put the prevailing gender inequality in art and elsewhere, and with it, the feminist agenda, front and center. Perhaps this is precisely the moment that Solomon-Godeau’s passionate, uncompromising writing foretells, when we can again take up in earnest the feminist lens in art critical discourse? Those interested in doing so will find in Solomon-Godeau’s historicizing method an engaging framework to rethink how aesthetics and sociopolitical aspects of art connect.

Photography after Photography: Gender, Genre, History (2017) by Abigail Solomon-Godeau is published by Duke University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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