I attended my first symposium on photography last week and found it extremely interesting as well as inspiring. It was held at Tate Modern and organised by people from various organisations including Tate Modern, University of the Arts, University for the Creative Arts and the Photography Archive Research Centre. The opening introduction was given by Liz Wells whose book Photography was one of the very first I began to look at when I started studying with OCA. Following that there were plenty of women who I have either heard of and read about speaking and being spoken about. So all in all it was a great opportunity to have photography and all it’s possibilities made into more of a reality for me.
The two days were absolutely crammed with with information so I will focus on just a very few practitioners who stood out in particular for me.
Eva Klasson was introduced amongst others by Anna Hellgren, PhD, Curator of Photography and Research leader at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. I was particularly taken by the work discussed here and the story of the photographer who was exploring and making images during what sounded like a dark time for her. She worked in the 70s taking close ups of her body and making a book called Le Troisieme Angle (The Third Angle). I was drawn to this work and reminded of my own attempts to photograph shapes and patterns made by the body for the second TAOP assignment we did. In the end I made shapes using blur and movement but I would have certainly been very interested to see Klasson’s work at the time. The thing about this work for me is the depth and feeling that is communicated by Klasson. Parts of the body are contorted and many of the images look uncomfortable or even painful. There is a sense of rage for me about the vulnerability of a human body, and in particular a women’s body. The photographs are either presented in pairs, or in portrait orientated frames with rice paper the same size and shape below each image. The rice paper has a delicate drawing on it which relates in an abstract way to the image. When the book was published these pieces of paper acted as interleaves between the pages. I was really struck by the graphic strength, the emotional punch, and the concept of presenting the photographs with the rice paper which were so much part of the book too.
Next Russet Lederman, a writer and photobook collector from NYC, spoke about 3 Japanese photographers all of whose work I was really overawed by. Isiuchi Miyako, Ishikawa Mao and Nishimura Tamiko. All of these women produced work that is compelling, striking and charged. In particular Ishikawa Mao who worked in a bar frequented by American GIs really impressed me. The images I saw were incredibly emotive and revealing of an era in American and Japanese history, and all taken by someone who would have had very little traditional support either financially or emotionally due to her situation. She later went to America and documented her time in Philadelphia with people she had met whilst they were stationed on Japan. The work had a similar style and aesthetic to the more famous male Japanese photographers whose work I have seen but it was certainly carried her own voice. As I write I have looked each women up again and I can’t say which of them I like more or less. All the work is so profound and powerful. It was really wonderful to find out about these three women and I will be looking at their work again and again for inspiration.
Zofia Rydett’s work which was introduced by Sabina Jaskot-Gill, a lecturer from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, was one of the most fascinating presentations about a truly fantastic photographer in every sense. I think we were told that Rydett took up photography at the age of 67 although have not been able to confirm that. Nevertheless, Rydett felt she had to keep photographing her subject – the changing and disappearing old social landscape of Poland as it was replaced with a modernity. Her work was described as ‘Sanderesque’ as she records all the different types of people and rooms she comes across in a changing Poland as it goes through immense sociological changes in the 60s and 70s. All of Rydett’s photographs are taken from a similar position, with an apparent simplicty that belies the complexity of the overall project which lasted for more than 20 years. There are a variety of Polish ‘types’ in her inventory and what was so fascinating were the rooms in which all of these people were photographed. Usually taken in the subjects own front rooms we get to see a massive social shift from spaces that look positively historical at times; to the more modern, urban, homogenised look that was promoted by the state – there is even a painted advert on a large city wall advertising modernity and it’s relationship to state control in one of the photographs we see. I will definitely be looking out for a book by Rydett if it is possible to get one, since her work, and her own story is truly fascinating. According to Jaskot-Gill, Rydett spoke of the moment that a photograph captures – which lasts forever, as opposed to the photographer and the subject who will both die. Rydett was a self confessed obsessive who said she had little time for ‘women’s duties’ as she had far too many photographs to take.
There were many, many more photographers I loved hearing about such as the women photographers at the seaside in a presentation by Karen Sheperdson and the fascinating story told by Sara Davidmann who has used a family archive about her late transgender uncle and his wife, about how they managed their secret in the 50s and 60s. I absolutely loved what Davidmann had finally done with some of the original photographs, rephotographing and developing digitally and in the dark room, rendering a new story and person.
However, in the interest of managing my time I will only concentrate on two more presentations here: and then just briefly as there are no notes online yet and the programme notes are scant. The first was by Christine Eyene who talked about her time curating women’s work in various galleries. I was of course drawn to this presentation as there was a lot about South African artists and I grew up there. Some of the older male work Eyene presented was of course fascinating but I was really struck by the more up to date work that she had curated. I have always been really quite repulsed by images that celebrate and promote the male gaze as acceptable, and there are a lot of them about, some in very modern work too. So it was really interesting for me to see work by women that subverts this. I would like to know more about the work Eyene presented so will do some research on this and come back with a more comprehensive write up.
Again the same with Qiana Mestrich who talked of several women artists, one of whom was in the audience. Again the conference notes do not include the names of these artists and I will need to do further research. However, the photographer who was in the audience created work by making her front room into a dark room and created beautiful, dynamic shapes with her body by lying on the photographic paper and exposing it for a moment while she moved. There were 9 or 12 panels I think which she developed individually and presents these large pictograms in panels. They were extraordinary and absolutely inspiring. I can’t wait to find out more.
Overall the conference was extremely interesting and packed full with amazing work. I learned a great deal attending. It was inspiring because we could all see that women have been making fantastic photographs since the dawn of photography and that much of this work is just as good as work by the big male names that dominate photography history. We could also see towards the end of the conference especially some amazing work that is going on now, and that was just a tiny, tiny example of what’s out there. But even though there were plenty of comments about the issue of women’s voices being silenced by history, I felt there was very little about what might be done about it. Maybe that is because short of just continuing to get on with it, and having such conferences there is very little to be done about it – the problem is just so deep and far reaching. Archiving was talked about a lot as one solution. However, only one academic suggested that this problem is a societal one. At times I got the impression that people felt that photography was the only place where this problem exists which of course we all know is not true. Misogyny and paternalistic attitudes dominate everything. The way in which our society is structured, some deeply embedded conditioning, and the subsequent ongoing fight to overcome all of that in all walks of life is a struggle for all of us, and one that likely has many, many years left. Someone asked the question at the beginning of the conference, was this sort of thing necessary? And I was glad to hear ‘yes’ being the reply. I was really pleased to have attended.