Women's Camera Work: Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture

Women's Camera Work: Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture

by Judith Fryer Davidov

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Women’s Camera Work explores how photographs have been and are used to construct versions of history and examines how photographic representations of otherness often tell stories about the self. In the process, Judith Fryer Davidov focuses on the lives and work of a particular network of artists linked by time, interaction, influence, and friendship—one that included Gertrude Käsebier, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, and Laura Gilpin.

Women’s Camera Work
ranges from American women’s photographic practices during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to a study of landscape photography. Using contemporary cultural studies discourse to critique influential male-centered historiography and the male-dominated art world, Davidov exhibits the work of these women; tells their absorbing stories; and discusses representations of North American Indians, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the migrant poor. Evaluating these photographers’ distinct contributions to constructions of Americanness and otherness, she helps us to discover the power of reading images closely, and to learn to see through these women’s eyes.

In presenting one of the most important strands of American photography, this richly illustrated book will interest students of American visual culture, women’s studies, and general readers alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398998
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/25/1998
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 512
File size: 13 MB
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About the Author

Judith Fryer Davidov is Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is the author of The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel and Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Constructions of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.

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Women's Camera Work

Self/Body/Other in American Visual Culture

By Judith Fryer Davidov

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9899-8


Histories: Versions and Subversions

Stereotypes are a crude set of mental representations of the world. They are palimpsests on which the initial bipolar representations are still vaguely legible. They perpetuate a needed sense of difference between the "self" and the "object," which becomes the "Other"—Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology

The simplest cultural accounts are intentional creations.... [I]nterpreters constantly construct themselves through the others they study. —James Clifford, introduction to Writing Culture


It is the entrance to a flea market.... Sloppy crowds. Vulpine, larking. Why enter? What do you expect to see? I'm seeing. I'm checking on what's in the world. What's left. What's discarded. What's no longer cherished. What had to be sacrificed. What's someone thought might interest someone else. But ... it's already been sifted through. But there may be something valuable, there ... something I would want.... Something that speaks to me. To my longings. —Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

History pictures. History pictures. Rulers and priests, scholars, madonnas, and courtesans. Symbols of power and eminence—reproduced, re-presented by the artful assemblage of wigs and costumes, masks and makeup, false noses and breasts. Performances. A spectacle. A series of life-size tableaux vivants photographed and hung in gold and silver frames: Cindy Sherman's History Portraits.

And, through the looking glass, our history, Carl de Keyzer wryly suggests with his photograph of the exhibit. A woman is looking at a photograph. Young, blond, dressed in jeans and turtleneck, her head in profile, her body arrested in the forward stride of her right leg as she turns away from us, hands clasped in front of her crotch, she mimics the posture of the object of her gaze: a framed portrait of a woman with an enigmatic smile, her body turned slightly away, hands folded in her lap, her gaze averted (fig. 1.1). To be a spectator at this History Portraits exhibit must have seemed like being in a funhouse of distorted mirrors. Within the multiply framed gold borders of Sherman's "Mona Lisa," de Keyzer catches the ghostly reflected presences of a "man" in another portrait and of the young woman standing before this one. Because of the camera's position to the left, "Mona Lisa" here is off center, hanging on an angled wall, so that the viewer is the other gazer, completing a triangle in which each looks at the other who does not return her gaze.

Living in Rome at the time (a sort of postmodern Henry James New-woman, come to make over Europe in her own image), Cindy Sherman went Shopping in Old World flea markets for the props—silk garters, lace curtains patterned with angels, tiaras, tapestries, lengths of satin fabric, collars, books, dolls, and an assortment of false body parts—that (like Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country) she would play with in front of her mirror, making up (herself) and making up (stories). These are gawky simulations of the teasingly familiar: the Virgin with One Bare Breast, a balloonlike protrusion stuck on to the middle of her chest or a falsie attached loosely to her dress (fig. 1.2); Renaissance profiles with tremendously elongated noses. Which is which, however, is not always so easy to tell: it becomes difficult to distinguish virgin from courtesan, or even male from female (some of the subjects seem to be in drag) when what commands attention are the exaggerated and prominent body parts. Indeed, the wit and brilliance of the details—the tinny cast to the pearls, the hair covering of fishnet or tartan scarf, the voluptuous pregnant torso clipped on at the shoulders, the drop of blood running along the seamed nose or of milk at the end of the fake breast, the red locket that matches the nipples of attached breasts like some Cyclopean eye, the richly patterned and textured tapestry that figures in more than one portrait—have the cumulative effect of flattening the individual portraits. The overwhelming impression is of a collection of parts, of props, of pomp and artifice.

The thirty-five portraits in the exhibit, identified only by number (they come from a much larger collection), follow a chronological sequence from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. There are also visual and iconographic sequences: a carnival of prominent body parts features grotesque breasts or noses; the placement of hands calls attention to symbols of power and knowledge (objets d'art, crosses, jewels, eyeglasses, books) or to genitalia, bellies, and death heads; details of costume or setting (wigs, head coverings, jewelry, draperies) form patterns, as do poses (the Renaissance profile, the downcast introspection of the Virgin, the almost frontal gaze of the Mona Lisa) and themes (female alternating with male, holy with secular or profane). These patterns do not add up to a reassuring narrative, however; to the contrary, the bits and pieces are combined and recombined in a most disorderly parody.

In assembling the segments of her history, Sherman draws upon traditions from both high and popular culture. Piecing together forms of the ideal has been a technique practiced by artists from Phidias, who used the face of one model, the mouth of another, the nose of a third to create a beauty that transcended its models, to Albrecht Dürer, who in his sixteenth-century Treatise on Measurement advocated a similar construction of an ideal nude, to Charles Dana Gibson, who at the beginning of this century printed "bits and pieces of the pretty girls he saw ... like snapshots in his memory," later to be combined at will in the creation of his famous Gibson Girl.

Sherman also draws on theatrical traditions—the trying on and display of clothes, which Peter Stallybrass has identified as the source of the formation and dissolution of identity in the Renaissance theater—particularly tableaux vivants, which were offen grandiose presentations with large casts, exotic themes, and elaborate scenery and costumes especially popular with nineteenth-century theater audiences in Paris and London. Contemporary with the Gibson Girl, tableaux vivants were staged in New York at society balls, such as the one depicted in Wharton's The House of Mirth, and in turn-of-the-century (as well as earlier) photographs. These living pictures depended for their effect on verisimilitude—that is, how accurately the live representation of a painting duplicated the appearance of an original—and upon the audience's ability to recognize the works represented. Sherman (like Wharton) re-presents historical portraits with which we are immediately familiar—by Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, La Tour, Fouquet—and some with which we are teasingly familiar (fig. 1.3). We seem to recognize these pictures by pose and gesture, backdrop and costume. But upon close inspection, the very details we identify—the band on the arm of Raphael's mistress turns out to be a garter found at the flea market—become the clues to sacrilege. The pictures invoke History—its authority and power—only to question it: History as a fertile fleld for parody by the scavenger, the wit, the reprobate performer.

In Sherman's spectacular and subversive history, the "real thing" is masked, or is only a mask; the real subject is in flux, or is the masked photographer, her self. If Wharton offers her readers a kind of safety net in creating distance between her fictional viewers, who are disturbed by Lily Bart's presentation of her self in her representation of Joshua Reynolds's Mrs. Lloyd, and us, a more sawy audience aligned with the author, in History Portraits Sherman does no such thing. Her representations unsettle—even as they amuse—us at a deeper level by disrupting the categories upon which we depend to order our world: the connectedness of history, the collaboration between author and viewer, the distinctions between fiction and reality, between high and popular art. Neither can we take solace in the distance between these likenesses of the rich and famous, of the religious and the secular, from quattrocento Florence to nineteenth-century Paris and our own times. History Portraits only seems to depict a world more remote from viewers than that of Sherman's earlier film stills. Because the subject of the pictures this time is not the private fantasies of women watching soaps, but the public foundations of power that Sherman's educated and affluent audience (vaguely) recognizes and understands, the fit between subject and audience is closer. As Arthur Danto suggests in his introduction to the published volume, History Pictures, in "draining the old masters and their subjects at once of a certain power by showing the artifice, the convention, the transparent fakeness of the worlds they believed were solid and unshakable and real," Sherman's images also undermine the foundations upon which her audience's world rests.

That power is what masterpieces of art are all about can be ascertained by a walk through any museum of high culture; what such institutions preserve and exhibit are representations of privilege, influence, and authority—religious, political, financial, sexual. Sherman is doing something more in History Portraits, however, than exposing as fraudulent the power of those pillars and foundations of an ordered world in which we once believed. She is also playing with our memories, making us question what we remember and, therefore, the very truth of our perceptions. History is not what we thought we knew. The space she penetrates is "the space between what we perceive and the images of recollection," Danto writes, and these pictures are about the "warping processes of memory," about "the distance between memory and truth, ... the play between remembering and disremembering." Like the earlier film stills, which referred to movie narratives that were familiar but not precisely identifiable, these historical portraits are part of our common "cultural literacy' but in this case, not even art historians can identify with certainty more than a few of the sources for these portraits. Sherman herself seems not to have seen the originals. She apparently did not go to the Palazzo Barberini in Rome where La Fornarina (the portrait of Raphael's mistress) hangs, for example, but chose to work from books of French and Italian portraits—working, that is, from reproductions of works of art to re-produce works of art as photographs, which we in turn see in a book of reproductions of her photographs.

That these are photographs is the punchline. Photographs purport to tell the truth; but these photographs, as some wickedly perverse version of truth, expose the lie that Art is. Like the earlier film stills, History Portraits draws us into a similarly plausible but not exactly identifiable world of representation that is only partly clear, only partly anchored in experience, half shadowy and fantastical rather than lit by the true and steady illumination of (Art) History. Using the technology of the camera, Sherman's project makes visible Donna Haraway's contention that "late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed." By our time, "a mythic time," she writes, "we are all chimeras." Like Haraway, Sherman points to the "tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other" and posits "an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries."

Positioning her altered self at the center of her reconstructed versions of iconographical subjects, the photographer thus invites us to view institutions of patriarchal power—History, Truth, Art—as social and historical constructions open to revision. Understanding this, we are at liberty to imagine other stories—sub-versions—that might be recovered. This is not to suggest that History Portraits, in its disruption of the seamless whole of History, stages some sort of unified view from the shore by the colonized of the colonizer. In this production, Sherman herself plays every part and directs the wit of her constructions toward a sophisticated, museum-going audience, who may or may not share in her view of a "disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self." Technology, in her version, shows us the impurity of intermixtures; history, in her version, is "multisubjective, power-laden, and incongruent," a carnivalesque world of ruptures and fissures.


The idea is not to find outside the work of ort some rock onto which interpretation can be securely chained but rather to situate the work in relation to other representational practices operative in the culture at a given moment in both its history and our own. —Stephen Greenblatt, "Resonance and Wonder"

Readers who like closure might look here for a kind of affinity between Cindy Sherman's tableaux vivants and those of a century earlier—between Sherman's masquerades and some of Imogen Cunningham's projects. But for this viewer and writer, History Portraits not only opens the way to questions about history and history making, power and influence, mimesis and alterity; the project, in showing master narratives to be social and historical constructions, allows other, less tidy and differently configured versions to surface.

"Untidiness"—as in Cunningham's The Unmade Bed (see fig. E.6)—often has to do with blurring the boundaries between one's life and one's work in a way that master narratives eschew, between what we know for certain and what we imagine, as in the variety of responses to Migrant Mother, and even between past and present as an ordering narrative principle—for example, Lange's grouping of images, personal and social, to tell particular stories. As we shall see, impurity is the very ground for patrolling the peripheries of photographic mastery, a basis for inclusion in or exclusion from inner circles, for patronage and support in terms of exhibition and publication.

Most of us are uncomfortable with disjunction. As Danto suggests, viewers of History Portraits, like listeners to rap music, "fuse into integral wholes what we may unavailingly know are alien parts [because we] ... cannot help but perceive them, for deep aesthetic reasons, as unities." Such "unity," or coherence, is the goal of most history making, not only on aesthetic grounds, but for intellectual, political, and psychological reasons. Photographic histories are no exception: their writers have tended to findcoherence in a male line of descent, beginning with Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce or Louis Daguerre, and in the United States with Mathew Brady. In the case of Alan Trachtenberg's Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, the "unity" that matters is "the making of America." I deal with his book at some length here not to single it out as an especially pertinacious myth-making text in American Studies, but rather because it is the best representative example of its kind in reading, as its subtitle suggests, the way in which visual images are used to reveal and construct history.

Trachtenberg frames his penetrating analysis of photographs as cultural documents with two photographic collections—Mathew Brady's Gallery of Illustrious Americans and Walker Evans's American Photographs—in order to establish a linear history of the first hundred years of photography marked by these two masters of the medium. Brady's Gallery, published in 1850, portrays "representative" Americans in specific categories of eminence: Senators, generals, an artist, a historian, a minister, a poet. Like earlier engraved portraits of leading citizens—and, one might add, like one contemporary collection of essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson's Representative Men—Brady's history of representative men presents the underlying theme of individual heroes' triumph over adversity. The Gallery as a work thus claims a civic function for American photographs: "Image and word together constitute a ... political text reflecting a patrician concern about values and symbols at the basis of nationhood."

In his own search for "the basis of nationhood" Trachtenberg takes great pains to use an egalitarian range of images as the basis for bis narrative. His materials for constructing a history of America are not only well-known images by Stieglitz, O'Sullivan, and Evans, but also daguerreotypes of African slaves commissioned by Harvard's Louis Agassiz for a "scientific" study of race, medical photographs of wounds inflicted in the Civil War, and reform photographer Lewis Hine's pictures of social welfare concerns. Not surprisingly, the possibility of representing a truly democratic culture is located in the person and project of Walt Whitman, whose photographic image fronts the first edition of Leaves of Grass and concludes Trachtenberg's chapter on "Illustrious Americans" (fig. 1.4). This 1855 daguerreotype displays the creator of the "great poem" of the United States—a project that Evans would take as inspiration for his American Photographs—"the stalwart and wellshaped heir," the "goodshaped and wellhung man" who presents his self with "egalitarian 'ecstasy.'"


Excerpted from Women's Camera Work by Judith Fryer Davidov. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Prologue Chapter I. Histories: Versions and Subversions Chapter II. The Geometry of Bodies: Gender and Genre in Pictorialist Photography Chapter III. "Always the Navajo Took the Picture" Chapter IV. Containment and Excess: Representing African Americans Chapter V. "The Only Gentile among the Jews": Dorothea Lange's Documentary Photography Chapter VI. The Body's Geography: Female Versions of Landscape Epilogue Notes Index

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