A Female Perspective - Women Behind the Lens
A Female Perspective - Women Behind the Lens
In a world so heavily saturated with images, whether it’s in a magazine, online or just simply walking down the street, it would seem difficult to separate photography as a distinguishable art. From the invention of the Polaroid camera to digital cameras, photography has always been advertised as a leisurely activity for anyone to pick up. Its instantaneous quality has always overshadowed the possibility of subversion with which careful composition and the click of a button can promise. Three female artists who rose to prominence in the late 20th century understood this possibility and in doing so, were able to create images which sought to powerfully distort the way in which we look at the world.
All falling into the category of conceptual art, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing began to produce pieces which would invite observers to carefully examine themes surrounding voyeurism, intimacy, disguise and popular culture. Although they did not collaborate with one another, it is worth recognising the visible link between their shared gender and the subjects or themes with which they chose to focus on in their work. In subverting traditional photography, not only were they able to present provocative and disturbing imagery, but they also captured visions which pose questions of femininity and what a female gaze can be.
A decidedly humanistic approach to photography, Nan Goldin’s work takes the spectator into her private life and that of her subjects. Presented in the form of snapshots, Goldin’s work appears to fit the pages of a photo album as opposed to the walls of a gallery. Concerned with slideshows and the political agency of photographs, as well as their potency for recording memories, Goldin is an artist who uses her medium as a way of harshly exposing realities which society tends to obscure and ostracise.
Her images are fascinated with people and the environments in which they chose to inhabit. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981) particularly stands out as a project which openly paints New York life as a melting pot of violence, drugs and raw sexuality – its prominent gay subculture in particular. This was Goldin’s world – one she very much wanted to preserve and to transport us all to. A city which had a very vibrant and accepting underground community before the widespread effect of AIDS came; reminding us that Goldin’s images capture a temporal moment that will forever be engrained in the city’s history.
The empathy which runs strongly through Goldin’s images can also be compared to the work of British artist, Gillian Wearing. One of Wearing’s most famous series of photos, Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1992-93), radically overthrows traditional portraiture by providing the subjects with a platform to voice their innermost thoughts and feelings. The series’ title itself sheds light on the bittersweet honesty of individuals Wearing portrayed.
In a society where we are met with signs telling us where to go and what to do (or not to do in most cases), Wearing poignantly uses the power of the sign to capture the confessions of regular passers-by. From a moustachioed man with facial tattoos declaring himself as having ‘been certified as mildly insane!’ to a smartly dressed businessman holding a sign saying ‘I’m desperate’, the series gives us an unusual insight into the lives of others and sparks curiosity regarding those around us.
Considering the contrast between public and private which both Goldin and Wearing examine, Cindy Sherman is also another prominent artist who played around with the concept of interior and exterior. Treating her artwork like a dress-up box, Sherman is perhaps the most playful of all the photographers, as well as the one who makes most commentary on the presentations of women in the media. Emerging onto the American art scene in the late 70s, Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1978) portray Sherman herself in various different disguises and personas. Like Goldin, we are invited into the personal realm of self-portraiture, however Sherman’s version turns the form on to its head and unnerves the spectator. Her chameleon-like quality for transformation raises interesting questions regarding one’s identity, in particular that of a woman, and the vulnerability of being in front of a lens. The fact that Sherman is not just the puppeteer but also the puppet itself proposes a powerful and assertive state of being completely in control of one’s own image – all before the spread of the selfie.
This pastiche of advertising and its presentation of women not only comments on the complexity of gender roles, but also exposes the false sense of security which photography can be approached. It is an intense and complex form which has the ability to reflect reality, but also to massively parody and warp our perception of things. Sherman’s work is not the only one which plays on people’s expectations: Goldin unsettles with her brash voyeurism and Wearing holds up a lens to public life in a way which exposes its darkest secrets.
Together, their contributions to photography radically present a shift in the possibilities that the medium can provide. Whether a particular female voice permeates their work is up to the observer to decide, but it cannot be overlooked that their work shares a certain desire to undermine tradition and linear narratives. At a time where women were still struggling to find their voices within the home and the workplace, no wonder these artists were fascinated with portraying conflicting identities within both.
Words: Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell
All images courtesy of Tate.org