Open Your Eyes: Women in Photography at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art
They were quiet tears, not meant to be heard. A simple sniff or a lightly moistened cheek were the only outward signs that someone was crying. The emotions behind them, though, were clear: what I’m seeing speaks to me.
The tears were on the faces of three different people who were viewing the Women in Photography exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. The three were not connected; I saw each of them on different visits. Each was standing alone, contemplating a different photo in the show. It was their own private moment that I furtively observed.
Only one of the three noticed that I was watching them instead of the art. She looked at me and in an almost whisper said, “She knows.” Then she walked away.
I spent the next ten minutes studying the same photo. It’s a Marsha Burns Polaroid of a young woman covered in jewelry, with her palms held out as if to show she has nothing to hide. There’s no artifice here, just an absolute human claiming an absolute space. It’s her stare, though, that burns its way into your soul. Captured in an instant, it’s an image that reflects a lifetime of fighting to show the world who you are inside. I can see why tears might be the only true response.
Burns’ portrait is only one of many exquisite images in the Women in Photography show, but it’s not any one photograph or even one artist that makes this exhibit remarkable. This is a show that places the definition of “curating” under a magnifying glass and examines every fractal edge. It blends boundaries, highlights diversities, and celebrates a coherence that is both figurative and real.
What strikes me most about this show is that it draws you seamlessly from the art of the individuals to the profusion of a larger whole that goes beyond the gallery walls. The co-curators (Linda Wolf, an internationally known Bainbridge Island photographer; Greg Robinson, Chief Curator at the museum; and Amy Sawyer, Curatorial Associate at the museum), have worked a special magic to showcase varied styles, techniques, media, and messages.
Tim Greyhavens: Why is this a co-curated show?
Greg Robinson: The idea for this show started with Linda Wolf. She approached me when we were still planning to build the museum and inquired about our interest in photography. I told her to bear with us, and she did. Like a lot of people, she was pretty sure that we’d soon have our first female president in this country, and she thought it would be a fine time to showcase women in photography. I give Linda credit for steering us in this direction, to a place where we were ready to make our first photography show something that would stand out.
Linda Wolf: I have a long history of helping advance the status of women photographers. In 1981 I was one of the founders of Women in Photography International, which was the first organization intentionally created to promote the careers of women in photography. Back then we had to fight for every scrap of recognition we could get, and in some ways things haven’t changed that much. I had this idea of an all-women show in mind when I first approached Greg, but when we started I had no idea how relevant both the exhibition concept and the broader issue of women in our society would be.
Amy Sawyer: As a student of Greg's and someone still learning to be a curator, I came at it from a different point of view. I know Instagram really well and use it daily, but exploring how artists are using it was really enlightening. I learned a lot, and I think our artists learned a lot as well by seeing how other women are using new technologies.
Part of the curators’ magic involves fusing the show into the museum space in a way that captures a visitor’s eye before they even step into the building. Meghann Riepenhoff’s enormous one-of-a-kind scrolls hang behind the windows that help define the museum’s façade, challenging passers-by to wonder what else they might find within these walls. Once inside, visitors are greeted at the entry desk with two of Weiss’ transcendental prints from her series notes from a silent conversation and Wolf’s beguiling portrait Amande. Looking around, more of Riepenhoff’s prints stream down from the walls and ceiling above.
After ascending the staircase to the upper landing, visitors see several of Riepenhoff’s smaller images, discretely placed one on each wall. Anyone expecting to see textbook examples of photographs may be puzzled by her art, which uses one of photography’s earliest processes, the cyanotype, to create one-of-a-kind images that appear both vaguely familiar and yet distinctly unusual.
She creates her images by coating paper with basic photographic chemicals, then laying the paper on seashores to let waves wash over it. This process initiates a chemical reaction that she has chosen to let go unabated. Each print continues to develop and evolve over time, ultimately ending with prints that look very different from when they were created. She sometimes photographs the evolution of each print as it changes and creates a new photo series on the progression of each image.
I watched as people glanced at them as they arrived on the landing, passed by, then turned and looked again. It was an exercise I saw many times throughout the exhibit, facilitated by an artful layout that invites viewers to circle back to see the same prints from a new angle.
Inside the main gallery, the exhibit bursts into full view. And what a view it is: nearly 100 physical prints of all shapes and sizes, three Instagram feeds, and two video pieces. It may sound overwhelming, but there is a solidarity to the whole that invites one to linger and revel in its intricacies.
Tim Greyhavens: Let’s talk about identity as a context for the photos in the show. You’ve chosen some artists who have been working a long time and some who started fairly recently. What were you looking to represent in this exhibit?
Linda Wolf: It was really important to me to uplift a whole new flock of women photographers and to make a statement that we have a perspective. Is it a woman's perspective or is it a photographer's perspective? How can you separate that? One of the real values of this show is it has this dynamic balance between different styles, different backgrounds, and different techniques, and still there’s a coherence to it. Is that because they’re all women? I’d like to think so.
Greg Robinson: We chose photographers who consciously reflected the times in which they worked. Those who started working in the 20th century were very clear about having been part of the world that was dominated by men even more so than it is now, and for most of them it was important to create a message in their work that countered that dominance. On the other end the younger women, for the most part, want to be known first as an artist regardless of their subject matter.
Amy Sawyer: I really love Megumi Shauna Arai's work because she shows this more feminine side in her images that embody women of real form. There's a conversation that’s central to women in photography that comes from women being told that it’s important to remove signs of their gender from their work. Women are told “You just need to show your skill, you just need to be able to get out there and take a good photo, and that's it.” I think this show really raises the bar in considering whether that’s always a legitimate viewpoint.
The ten women in the show are all from the Puget Sound area, and each has found a way to claim a personal vision for what it means to live here. C. Davida Ingram’s performance video Procession presents white-clothed African-American women making their way through Seattle’s King Street Station, starting and ending with one or more figures looking at the world from the building’s upper-most reaches. There is no narrative to the video, but the message seems to be “We’ve walked in a world where whiteness surrounds us, but we move gracefully through it on our way to the top.” Four prints from her Lexical Tutor series reinforce the idea of African Americans creating their own space, starting with a lone black woman on an isolated rocky beach that she transforms into a place of her own.
On the opposite side of the entry way are Megumi Shauna Arai’s eye-catching photos/ink painting series. Partially created by inviting visitors to use large sumi ink brushes to paint over her photographs, the works assault our normal concepts of photography by making us inspect what we’re experiencing. The ink paintings go far beyond that simple inquiry because they’ve unmistakably been created in a gallery space (recreated here), with ink purposefully splashed and dripped on the walls. Arai demands that we step in, squint, tilt your head, step back, then look around. The black squares are in stark contrast to Ingram’s identity video, but both pieces seem to be investigating the same concept: what makes us who we are?
Mary Randlett and Janet Neuhauser turn seemingly simple scenes of classic beauty into ethereal theaters of light and darkness. Randlett is known for her quintessential black-and-white landscapes of the Northwest, but here she presents a more painterly side with prints that resemble ink wash paintings. They’re a perfect contrast to Arai’s bold ink black-outs, but both have a common ancestry rooted in ancient artistry.
Neuhauser provides yet another reminder of photography’s history with softly focused pinhole landscapes that are at once Northwest-specific and every place. There’s something about the long exposures that she needed to create these images that produce a timeless quality―blurred waters, indefinite edges, vistas emptied of people or other signs of civilization. These are silent images that draw a viewer closer not to see what is there but to bask in the quiet they exude.
Tim Greyhavens: This is an exhibit that goes beyond what many people might look for when they think of traditional photography. Was that something you wanted to push from the beginning?
Amy Sawyer: There’s a piece by Ashley Armitage that highlights this particular issue really well. It’s called After the Surgery, and when we first saw it, we were just like, “What are we looking at. What is she wanting us to see or experience?”
Greg Robinson: Because she's Instagram based, we were looking at fairly small scale photos online, and I remember saying to Amy that I never thought I'd get to this point in my career but I'm not really sure what I'm looking at. Is this male, female? Does it matter? Is it supposed to matter? The color palette―the lavenders and the pinks―and the body, the curve, the youthful skin tells you something that you just can't register specifically. I think it's a successful photograph because of that ambiguity, but it’s one of those that pushes that question.
Linda Wolf: By not completely fixing her prints, Meghann Riepenhoff allows them to transform over time as they continue to be exposed to light. She started thinking about the earliest Cyanotypes that were made by Anna Atkins, who was one the first female photographers. Meghann decided to take the same photo sensitive material Atkins had been working with―Cyanotypes― but also to have the shore and the landscape be both the subject matter and the process of the work. Some might say her work is not traditional, but by using one of the earliest photographic processes she’s calling on the tradition to create a new kind of vision.
Part of the new generation of reality photographers, Ashley Armitage has almost 53,000 followers on her Instagram account mockingly named @Ladyist. She sees her mission as taking “the hyper-feminine, take the cliché and things that would typically be used against us, and reclaim it and maybe subvert it.” Many of her photos are of her friends, who become knowing partners in her art by allowing their lives and their bodies to be shown without the filters of commercial society. Her work honestly portrays the female form outside of the glamor beauty standard that hides body hair, rolls of flesh, stretch marks, and other features common to tens of millions of women and girls.
Scrolling through her live feed at the exhibit, I quickly saw why she’s so popular. Her photos are unrelentingly honest without being clever. Two large prints of her work, Ankober on the Phone and Jahni in Her Bedroom, show that her images translate well to traditional media, and the inclusion of both her Instagram feed and these museum-quality prints is yet another way the curators have invited viewers to think about what photography looks like in 2017.
Marilyn Montufar’s portraits are often extensions of her life―lovers, friends, fellow travelers―but also of life writ large. Her work explores human nature and the lives of communities that were once on the edges of society. She says she wants to tell stories that are “different from the patriarchal norm”, and her photos depict seemingly ordinary people with an authenticity that renders them in a distinctly personal way. Her portrait of a lover, Tony in Bed, balances intimacy with the tension of raw masculinity. Her five prints in the show are accompanied by her live Instagram feed where you learn more about her relationships in communities she’s visited.
Some of the most arresting images in the show are Heather Boose Weiss’ large, square prints in which mystical lights of unknown sources emanate from otherwise darkened lands and skies. It’s hard to tell if she just happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness these lighting events or if she was able to create some of them by design, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Weiss has imbued her images with what Minor White called equivalence―something that acts as a metaphor beyond what is being shown.
The duality of the bright lights against pure black backgrounds is the embodiment of the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, connecting contrary elements that must be seen in the context of each other to be understood. It’s easy to get lost in her photos for this very reason. I saw several people stand transfixed for long moments as they contemplated what they were seeing and perhaps feeling. Weiss deserves much more attention than she’s received recently, especially in Seattle, and it’s great to see her being celebrated in this particular show.
Featured throughout the exhibit are photos of two matriarchs of Puget Sound photography, Marsha Burns, and Linda Wolf. Burns is a long-time master of stylized portraits and portrait-like images, and in spite of her longevity she’s sadly under-recognized except by those who follow art photography. At this point there’s still no monograph of her work, so finding nearly a dozen of her photos in a single show is especially rewarding.
Many of her prints shown here are small―8” x 10” or so―and to see them well it’s necessary to come close to the framed work. The intimacy of this relationship between the viewer and the photographer accentuates Burns’ ability to transform people she's placed in various postures into ambiguous emblems of society. A viewer at once becomes familiar with a subject and yet the subject remains inaccessible because they are both suspended in time and timeless.
Co-curator Wolf has rightfully salted the exhibit with her own works, and we’re the better for it. Best known for her photos of musicians, she’s chosen to show here the remarkable breadth and depth of her work. At different times she’s been a street photographer, as seen in her Algerian Immigrant or Girl with the Reed, a portrait artist (Old Woman of Avignon or Amande), a creative director (Girl in the Reeds), and an activist (Pussy Hat). There a consistency throughout all of her aspects, though: a clear and tenacious vision.
It’s been said that she captures “the human in humanness and vice versa”, and her photos embody that viewpoint. When walking around the exhibit, there’s something comforting about coming upon one of her prints―not that she shies away from life’s provocations but that there’s an intelligence in her vision that obliges us to first appreciate the good in the world around us.
If there’s a weaker point in the show, it’s the artificial construct of a “Viewer Discretion” area. Here a dozen or so soft-R-rated images hang behind walls, unfortunately separated from any larger context within the show. The museum gets a lot of school tours in which parents aren’t around to decide what they’d like their children to see, so I can understand why this might be a politically necessary restriction in our socially conflicted country. Still, given Instagram’s built-in censorship filters, sequestering Ashley Armitage’s online feed in this area seems a bit much.
Women in Photography is on exhibit through October 1, 2017, and admission to the museum is free seven days a week. This is one of the top museum shows of the year―be sure to see it before it's gone.