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Power of Role Play Examined in National Museum for Women in the Arts Original Exhibition
Laurie Simmons, Blonde/Red Dress/Kitchen, 1978. Cibachrome print 3 ½ x 5 in. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography explores how role playing has been central to the art, meaning and social function of contemporary photography. On view through January 25, 2009, the exhibition breaks new ground by bringing two generations together to show how this practice has evolved. Role Models features 70 works by 18 artists whose portraiture, self-portraiture, and narrative photographs have influenced our understanding of gender and identity.

“In today’s image-conscious world, photography is one of the most powerful mediators of our sense of self and for more than two generations, photography has also proved a perfect medium for provocative new approaches to femininity,” commented NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling, who conceived of the exhibition and is its co-curator.

The First Generation
Many women artists and photographers in the 1980s realized that they could be the creator and the subject of their work. Liberated by the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1970s, the first-generation photographers in Role Models explored how gender and identity reflected the changing social order. They took on roles and acted out a feminine masquerade for the camera. Documentary photography also was being recalibrated as artists drew upon the special bond of kinship or friendship to create photographs of and about children, families, acquaintances and/or themselves.

In the 1980s, Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and documentary photographer Nan Goldin (b. 1953) re-envisioned how identity and gender could be defined by the camera. In her Untitled Film Stills of 1977–80, Sherman simulated feminine roles as expressed through magazines, television, and film. She worked in a performative mode, serving as her own model and using makeup and props to develop a number of identities. Goldin closely documents her own life’s story. Her photographs of friends, lovers and herself in the intimate spaces of their homes and hangouts are gritty and unsparing, including Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1981–96.

Like Sherman, Laurie Simmons (b. 1949) critiqued women’s roles in modern society in her photographs. She centered on the narrow ideals of 1950s- and ’60s-style feminine domesticity by photographing dolls in tiny kitchens, living rooms, and yards that she had constructed. Her art is about the seductive quality of memories and stereotypes.

In the late 1970s, conceptual artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) felt that the mythologies that defined historical characters such as Florence Nightingale fueled the outsider status of women in the 20th century. To more fully inhabit—and transform—these characters, Antin dressed in historically accurate costumes and even printed her photographs in period formats.

Lorna Simpson’s (b. 1960) evocative imagery—often paired with allusive texts—makes powerful reference to a history of racial and sexual oppression. She created carefully posed photographs in which her black female models’ faces are covered, cropped out of the frame of vision, or turned away from the viewer. Some models are dressed in plain white shifts, others in men’s suits.

Other first-generation photographers used documentary-style photography to explore the complicated state of contemporary womanhood. Mary Ellen Mark (b. 1940) used on-the-run style of shooting that give her images a distinctly raw quality that exposes the plight of the disenfranchised. In the 1980s, Mark photographed female prostitutes, women confined in a hospital for the mentally ill and street children.

Similarly, in her expansive body of work depicting children, Sally Mann (b. 1951) recorded the wildly varied identities that her models expressed for her. Her preteen sitters are alternately worldly and disinterested, or ladylike and ingratiating. Mann’s images of her own young daughters show them choosing their roles.

Tina Barney (b. 1945) shared Mark’s goal of revealing a world (on the opposite end of the economic spectrum) that is foreign to most of us: affluent subjects ensconced in lavish interiors that signify their identity as much as their clothing, posture, or expression. At Barney’s direction, the women stand in doorways and at windows, perch on beds, and repeat unconscious gestures that allude to underlying emotional discomfiture.

In Untitled (Kitchen Table Series), 1990, Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) combined fictional texts and staged photographs to tell the story of a woman’s relationship to her man, their child and her friends. In 1995–96, she re-presented 19th century ethnographic daguerreotypes of enslaved Africans and African Americans, printing them on a large scale and overlaying them with text that alludes to their original purpose. Weems’ works expose the abuses of “straight” photography while demonstrating how powerfully political ideologies shape our notions and visions of truth.

The Second Generation
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the second-generation artists collapsed the old boundaries between conceptual and documentary photography. Some artists focus their attention on staging performances and preconceived episodes, creating male-free worlds that are metaphorical equivalents of contemporary “girl culture.”

Anna Gaskell (b. 1969) plays off the hallucinatory qualities of tales by the Brothers Grimm and stories in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by showing multiple manifestations of the same body, casting her scenes in dramatic light, or staging them in otherworldly settings. Her costumed figures have an eerie grandeur reminiscent of 19th-century portrait photography.

Justine Kurland (b. 1969) photographs a matricentric world in which women and their children live in harmony with the land and with one another. Young girls cluster silently on rocky beaches, and nude women wade through lush woodlands or tuck themselves into the crevasses of waterfalls. The models’ beauty and the settings’ splendor reinforce the notion that at some level they are allegories or fantasies.

Sharon Lockhart (b. 1964), who is also a filmmaker, takes some of her cues for her still photographs from cinema. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she created stop-action-style photographs of girls engaged in traditional boys’ activities. Her figures form friezes across the foreground of the images; the resulting monumentality is reminiscent of ancient relief sculptures or Renaissance altarpieces.

Collier Schorr (b. 1963) is more overt than Lockhart in her explication of gender distinction. In Jens F./Helga, 1999–2002, Jens, an adolescent boy, re-creates the female attitudes of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures. Schorr’s choice to depict a male from a feminine point of reference was intended to provoke a response from the viewer and from Jens himself.

Works from the haunting Left Behind series, 2003–05, by Angela Strassheim (b. 1969) express ambivalence about the mainstream, girly-girl brand of contemporary American femininity. Distanced from the fundamentalist religious beliefs of her family, Strassheim incorporates flowers, butterflies, beams of light, and cruciform poses in her images of young girls in domestic spaces. Each girl enacts her preferred role as mother, princess, or beauty queen.

German-born Barbara Probst (b. 1964) eschews detailed narratives, shooting attractive, smartly clad young women in pristine photography studios or against the open skies above New York City’s rooftops. Her photographs capture the essence of East Coast style glamour, but from an outsider position. Probst’s images suggest that her subjects are suspended somewhere between the “real world” and the imaginative realms of photo shoots and movie-making.

Other photographers of this new generation have worked in a deliberately objective vein to represent themselves and others. Catherine Opie (b. 1961) focuses on codes of gender representation as she documents her life in gay, lesbian and S&M friendship circles. Yet a stylish polish sets her photographs apart from the realities of her imagery. She uses lighting, color and scale to dramatize her images.

Korean-born Nikki S. Lee (b. 1970) seeks to become an insider by adopting the gestures and appearances of people from diverse American subcultures (Hispanic, hip-hop, skateboarding, or exotic dancing). She selects the activities that she wants to be photographed, but she hands off her camera to whoever is standing nearby to ensure a kind of artlessness in her images. In some photographs, Lee does not register distinctly from other figures; in others, her Asian identity stands in high contrast to those around her.

Katy Grannan (b. 1969) uses a photographic process that replicates the conditions of a detached observer—at least initially. She places ads in small-town newspapers to photograph people she does not know and asks her subjects to choose how they will pose. Grannan’s sitters seem to anticipate and respond to social expectations about beauty, femininity, and sexuality, selecting their stances and degree of undress accordingly.

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