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The Woman and the Machine

Installation view, main floor, photo by Stephan Goettlicher.

Re-Framing the Feminine: Contemporary Photography by Women from the Collection of Francie Bishop Good + David Horvitz, the current exhibition on view at Girls’ Club, an alternative exhibition space in downtown Fort Lauderdale, explores the varying narratives and complex relationships between female photographers and their subjects. Curated by Dina Mitrani, whose Wynwood gallery specializes in contemporary photography. Mitrani’s background lends one of the strengths of the exhibition that demonstrates a careful consideration of the medium and it’s variances in deployment and development from the 1950s to the present.

Tina Barney, The Grandaughter, 2004, chromogenic print.

The exhibition seeks to explore a uniquely feminine approach to photography – that is capturing subjects both figural and psychological that reflect a woman’s view of the world and what matters most to us as women.  A view that is as subjective as it is generalized in the selection of the works in Re-Framing the Feminine. While feminism as a topic is not new nor cutting-edge in discussions in modern and contemporary art, what is intriguing about this small survey is the polemical underlying psychology interplay of feminine notions of narcissism and vanity. Even in the face of extreme poverty as in Maria Michelogianni’s  Barbie in Athens where even in the direst of states, a little girl still holds a Barbie up as an emblem; or the exuberant wealth of Tina Barney’s New York socialite world, the primal need to explore and represent women as both strong and now sexual is shuffling its way into debates on contemporary feminism. Whether subconsciously hinted at or boldly stated, these issues are at the core of neo-feminist discussions like Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, a controversial defense of a kind of reverse misogyny that seems to be taking hold of contemporary society and pop culture.

Isn’t Cindy Sherman exploiting the sexual nature of female archetypes in her Film Stills to the benefit of her artistic innovation? What of Kristine Potter whose The Gray Line series feminizes trainees at West Point Academy? It points to a trend of women artists using technology along with conceptions of beauty, vanity and hyper-self awareness to achieve a certain level of control over their subjects. In the case of Sherman, it can be viewed as an act of aggression against the preset notions of femininity and art, while in Potter it can be understood as a means of injecting a bit of feminine vulnerability to a world of typically staunch masculine stoicism. For Untitled #7, she masks the face of a male soldier with the floral pattern of a military camo net.

Gismo – Aye!, 2006, C-print.

One of my favorite works was Miami collaborative GisMO’s Aye!, primarily because it resonated with my own Miami upbringing. The image of an aging “chonga” applying mascara to the point of discomfort was a particularly poignant reflection of the feminine preoccupation with outward appearances. A reflection that is mirrored by Delia Brown’s Some of My Clothes, a series of 98 4×6 photographs that show the artist blankly modeling the contents of her closet.

Obsession with appearance and the self is not limited to adult womanhood. Many of the works in the exhibition explore of the controversial subject of the sexual disposition of young girls. Sally Mann’s photography has widely been mined for it’s ambiguous approach to her child subjects (her own children).  Virginia at 3 is a particularly complex example of Mann’s work that straddles the realms of sexuality and innocence, two concepts that are commonly associated within negative terms. The young Virginia leans against a bed where her sibling lies resting, her little hand on her hip and the other on her breast, suggests an early determination of the power of her femininity and her body. Through the lens of neo-feminist discourse, this kind of imagery empowers her young subject with the potential knowledge of her own future sexual prowess. It isn’t a bad thing, but the idea of children exploring their sexual identity, as innocently and naturally as it is, is not a topic that makes people comfortable.

Sally Mann - Virginia at 3, 1998, gelatin silver print.

In other works, youthful sexual exploration isn’t as benign. Colby Katz, whose work explores the raw artificiality of children’s beauty pageants is represented in the exhibition by Rayne-Lin, Little Miss Firecracker, LA. The photograph shows the tiny figure of a somber little girl dwarfed by the trophy she clutches and enormous crown on her head. Emotionally void, the little girl’s face falls downward, the opposite of the self-assured Virgina in Mann’s portrait.

Photography is the most deceptive medium in that it suggests realty in the way no other art form does. This deception is what good photographers have capitalized on for years to manipulate stories and raise issues through their work. For women, it has been an enormously popular outlet exploring notions of gender and identity. In a way, Re-Framing the Feminine suggests that female photographers seem to turn the camera on themselves even when they are not. Even the psychological spaces favored by artists like Ania Moussawel and Candida Höfer, reflect the stereotypical concepts of fragility, delicacy and beauty associated with femininity.

Installation view, mezzanine, photo by Stephan Goettlicher.

At its inception, photography was a product of male relationships with machinery. ‘The man and the machine’: a symbolical pairing long associated in Western societies with progress, power, and linked to colossally masculine concepts like Fordism. Yet, at some point, perhaps around the chronological starting point of this exhibition, female photographers began to rise to prominence. With leading figures like Diane Arbus, Sherman and Nan Goldin (who are all represented in the exhibition), photography seems to be  the medium in which women have managed to gain the boldest presence. It appears that the female relationship to the camera – the woman and the machine – deserves a little historical revision and scholarly attention in light of the shifting voices of feminism. Re-Framing the Feminine is a concise survey of such a dialogue that deserves further exploration.  It’s exemplary of the power of a simple survey exhibition to raise questions rather than offer watered down answers to monumental questions. However, instead of “re-framing,” it would be nice to see forthcoming explorations go beyond the frame, and back to the machine and how women command it both in front of and behind the lens[.]

Re-Framing the Feminine is currently on view through September 30, 2012 at The Girl’s Club. A catalogue for the exhibition is slated for release in the spring with an essay written by the prolific photography historian and critic, Vicki Goldberg. Re-Framing the Feminine will also the thematic backdrop for the upcoming installment of Artists in Action!,  a series of behind-the-scenes lectures and demonstrations by artists at the Girls’ Club.

This post was contributed by Melissa Diaz.


  • Gizelle de Beer

    This picture of the lil girl worries me.
    So many perverts would love it!… pictures like that should be banned from online use. as innocent as it may seem. It should not be so easy to access.
    Please Please Please remove it. i can just imagine how many people “get off” with that pic……

    Thank you,

    Gizelle :)

  • Urid

    Gizelle, chill. That photo is a work by Sally Mann, and the debate ended 10 years ago.

  • James

    Funny. If a man took that photograph he’d be thrown in prison and gang-raped for it. But women don’t abuse children (supposedly), so no one bats an eye.

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The Woman and the Machine