Museum  July 19, 2021  Caterina Bellinetti

The Met Presents: The New Woman Behind the Camera

Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. Ilse Bing Estate.

Ilse Bing (German, 1899–1998), Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931. Gelatin silver print. 10 1/2 x 12 in. (26.7 x 30.5 cm).

The exhibition The New Woman Behind the Camera, on show at the Met until October, presents the works of more than 120 women photographers from 20 different countries. With over 185 photographs, photo-books, and illustrated magazines, the exhibition highlights the advancements made by women behind the camera between the 1920s and the 1950s.

Max Hollein, who is Marina Kellen French Director of The Met, explained that, “though the New Woman is often regarded as a Western phenomenon, this exhibition proves otherwise […] The women featured are responsible for shifting the direction of modern photography, and it is exhilarating to witness the accomplishments of these extraordinary practitioners.”

Robert B. Menschel and the Vital Projects Fund and the R. K. Mellon Family Foundation

Madame d'Ora (Austrian, 1881–1963), Mariette Pachhofer, 1921. Gelatin silver print. Frame: 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The concept of the “new woman” emerged in the 1920s and was embraced in many places across the world. Although hard to define, she was an independent, educated, and autonomous woman who wanted to bring radical changes in her society. Her clothes reflected this attempt by becoming more practical and less restrictive. Corsets were abandoned in favor of trousers and more casual outfits that could be worn while running errands, cycling, or working.

Hair was cut in the shape of short bobs and pixie cuts, blurring the boundaries between feminine and masculine. Through literature, painting, and photography, women were subverting society’s expectations, challenging artistic conventions, and asserting themselves. The camera became one of the preferred tools through which women looked outwards, towards society and the world, and inwards at themselves.

Robert Koch Gallery.

Galina Sanko (Russian, 1904–1981), During an Attack, 1943, Printed ca. 1960s. Gelatin silver print, Image: 15.72 x 24.29 in.

Photographers such as Berenice Abbot, Ilse Bing, Tina Modotti, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Niu Weiyu, Gerda Taro, and Homai Vyarawalla recorded not only historical events—the Communist rule in China, the struggles of Holocaust survivors, the death of Gandhi, and the consequences of the atomic bomb in Japan—but also their own personal experiences.

These photographers embodied, through different subjects and various genres, the socio-political changes that occurred in the world from the beginning of WWI into the arduous years that followed the end of WWII. The result is a fascinating journey across events, self-portraits, avant-garde experimentations, fashion, advertising, and studio portraits.

The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Irene Bayer-Hecht (American, 1898–1991), Female Student with Beach Ball, ca. 1925. Gelatin silver print. Image: 4 1/8 x 3 1/16 in. (10.5 x 7.8 cm), Sheet: 4 7/16 x 3 5/16 in. (11.2 x 8.4 cm), Frame: 14 5/8 x 11 5/8 in. (37.2 x 29.5 cm).

Some of the images taken in commercial studios achieved an intimacy that could have been missed if the person behind the camera had been a man. One example is the photograph Three Women by the Palestinian Karimeh Abbud (1893-1940) where the youngest of the three is happily smiling at the camera. Abbud was one of the first professional woman photographers in the Arab world and proudly signed her photographs in Arab and English as ‘Karimeh Abbud, Lady Photographer,  كريمة عبود: مصورة شمس.’

While the American magazine Life celebrated Margaret Bourke-White’s work as a woman photographer with titles such as “Life’s Bourke-White Goes Bombing,” other professionals were not as flamboyantly celebrated but achieved fame and recognition for their work. One of them was the Chinese Hou Bo (1924-2017) who not only impressed on film the founding of the PRC in 1949 but also less formal moments of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong such as his swimming in the Yangtze River in 1956.

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965), Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California, March 1942. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/2 x 9 5/8 in (19 x 24.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Gift of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser.

Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965), Japanese-American owned grocery store, Oakland, California, March 1942. Gelatin silver print. 7 1/2 x 9 5/8 in (19 x 24.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Homai Vyarawalla (Indian, 1913–2012), The Victoria Terminus, Bombay, early 1940s. Inkjet print, printed later 11 9/16. 11 13/16 in. (29.3 x 30 cm). Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.
Courtesy HV Archive / The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Homai Vyarawalla (Indian, 1913–2012), The Victoria Terminus, Bombay, early 1940s. Inkjet print, printed later 11 9/16. 11 13/16 in. (29.3 x 30 cm). Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.

Lola lvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1903–1993), The Freeloaders, ca. 1955. Gelatin silver print. Image: 9 5/8 x 11 3/4 in (24.4 x 29.8 cm).
Collection of Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser.

Lola lvarez Bravo (Mexican, 1903–1993), The Freeloaders, ca. 1955. Gelatin silver print. Image: 9 5/8 x 11 3/4 in (24.4 x 29.8 cm).

Although for many of these photographers the camera was a gift or an inheritance from a man, usually a father or a husband, these women embraced the medium and made it their own. Their agency over the camera is clear. Ilse Bing’s Self-Portrait with Leica (1931) plays with mirrors, a traditional symbol of women’s vanity, and forces the viewer to focus on Bing as a photographer, not just as a woman. All these photographers, of different ages, countries, and cultures, looked at the world and themselves through a lens. They created an incredible body of work that still inspires us today. It is time to celebrate them.

40.7791655, -73.9629278

The New Woman Behind the Camera
Start Date:
July 2, 2021
End Date:
October 3, 2021
Venue:
The Met Fifth Avenue
About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Art 101: Impressionism
Considered one of the first major art movements of the modern era,…
Rarely Seen Ancient Mosaics on Show in Rome
Mosaics adorned the floors, walls, and ceilings of public and domestic…
A Brief History of Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Van Gogh's sister-in-law, van Gogh-Bonger, is largely responsible for his fame…
The Museum of Socialist Art: Bulgaria’s De-facto Museum of Communist History
Could the Exhibition of Socialist Monuments Offer Guidelines for Americans to…
The LA Art Show Returns: NFTs, Tradition, & the Impacts of COVID
For the first time at a major art fair, NFT’s, a phenomenon spurred on by COVID…