Exhibition Review: "Photo, femmes, féminisme" in Paris

Now on view at the Galerie des bibliothèques in Paris, the exhibition Photo, femmes, féminisme (through March 13, 2011) offers a wide-ranging visual survey of women’s accomplishments in the arts and politics. The 200-some photographs, culled from the collection of the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand—an institution dedicated to women’s history—trace the major feminist icons and landmarks of the 19th and 20th centuries.

A disclaimer: a few works by men have managed to sneak into the show. In a section dedicated to portraits of famous women, including artists, activists, and actresses, the subject—not the portraitist—is what matters to the curator. This digression would be less troubling if it was more clearly acknowledged. Whether a woman is being photographed by a man or a fellow woman matters; the storied male gaze deeply affects the final product. Consider, for example, Josephine Baker’s portrait by Lucien Walery. The highly eroticized image, taken against a bare background that strips her of the tools of the theatrical craft, reduces Baker to a series of curves and suggestive costumes. What the viewer sees, then, is not the barrier-breaking woman who used her talent to challenge Western cultural norms, but instead a dancer who exists for (male) consumption. Not surprisingly, this process is repeated over and over again in the other portraits of theater personalities. Actresses like Sarah Bernhardt become frozen in male-produced iconography that emphasizes either femme fatale sexuality or saintly innocence.

Lucien Walery, Josephine Baker, 1927

But the exhibition is expansive enough that this disappointment fails to overshadow its successes. Particularly exciting is the opportunity to discover lesser known women photographers. Sabine Weiss is one such find. Her compositions, full of flat, empty space, dramatically demonstrate urban isolation, while the effects of soft light humanize these lonely figures. “For me, photography is a ‘trialogue’ between the subject, the camera and myself,” the artist said in an interview published in the catalogue Sabine Weiss: See and Feel. “And all this must merge together.” The examples of her work featured here attest to the success of that philosophy.

Sabine Weiss, Homme dans le brouillard à Paris, 1950

The exhibition segment “Métiers féminins, territoires masculins?” is another highlight. The documentary photos explore the various realms that working women have occupied over the years. An image like Laure Albin Guillot’s Alger, femmes au lavoir (1930) preserves the memory of women’s rough labor while also rendering beautiful the work that comes from her hands. In his book Laure Albin Guillot ou La Volonté d’art, Christian Bouqueret described the artist’s career as “a transitional figure between pictorialism and the Nouvelle Vision movement.” These twin influences emerge in Alger, femmes au lavoir, allowing the photograph to function both as an aesthetic tour de force and as a celebration of the often difficult reality women have faced—and overcome—for centuries. At its strongest, Photo, femmes, féminisme exposes this duality in the work of women artists and their fellow travelers.

–Rebecca Park is a freelance writer and educator based in Paris.