Women of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Photographs

Photography
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Editorial Review

Two Takes on What a Woman Is

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008

It couldn't have worked out better if it were planned. Two unrelated shows at two unrelated museums just happen to be all over a single issue, only from slightly different angles.

That issue? Women. Or, more specifically, in the words of one of them, feminine identity.

"Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography," at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, includes work by Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Cindy Sherman and other women artists whose pictures explicitly wrestle with the notion of female power and powerlessness. The National Portrait Gallery's "Women of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Photographs" bumps into the same topic, but only accidentally.

Let's start with that one.

"Women of Our Time" showcases 90 notable female achievers of the 20th century. With a few exceptions, the photographers are men. Originally organized as a traveling show while the portrait gallery was being renovated, it includes a range of women, from sex symbol Marilyn Monroe entertaining American troops in 1954 Korea, to Virginia Apgar delivering a baby in 1966. Although few will recognize the latter woman's face, anyone who's had a baby knows her name. She's the physician who devised a widely used system of evaluating a newborn's health.

Here's something you may not notice about the show. The Marilyn Monroes outnumber the Virginia Apgars, by a significant margin.

Not literally, of course. What I mean is that women who made their name in the arts and entertainment, or in such traditionally feminine fields as fashion (magazine editor Diana Vreeland, for instance) are represented in greater numbers than women known for their contributions to sports, politics, science or other traditionally masculine fields. You'll see a few from these last groups here -- athlete "Babe" Didrikson, political theorist Hannah Arendt, anthropologist Margaret Mead -- but not many. Those who made it big in business, such as Helena Rubinstein, tend to have done so by selling cosmetics or clothing.

Now some of this can be attributed to the limited career opportunities available to women in the early 20th century. But only some. It doesn't explain the consistent imbalance on view in a gallery of subjects from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Architect Maya Lin, feminist activist Kate Millet, politician Bella Abzug and physicist Rosalyn Yalow are there, but they share space with 11 other figures from the visual and performing arts, fashion and cooking, among them singer Janis Joplin, dancer Suzanne Farrell, designer Pauline Trigère and chef Julia Child.

You've come a long way, baby? Maybe.

This restrictive idea of what it means to be a women -- ballerina, okay; rocket scientist, not so much -- is front and center in "Role Models." It isn't the only theme, to be sure, but it's one that the richly rewarding show picks apart with greatest relish.

Sherman is probably the best example of this. Her work, in which the artist photographs herself in the guise of movie characters both real and from her own imagination, explores the powerful role pop culture plays in determining acceptable gender roles. Mary Ellen Mark's "Tiny in Her Halloween Costume," from the photojournalist's documentation of teenage street children, fits into the same category. It shows an adolescent prostitute in an elegant black dress and pillbox hat -- the girl's notion, in her own words, of "a French whore."

But the show isn't content to simply look at what women do. It also asks questions about what a woman is. (And yes, the drag queens of Goldin's "Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC" are part of that discussion.) What does it mean to be a mother? A daughter? To be defined by looks, with men typically doing the looking? Catherine Opie's portraits of her life in the lesbian community challenge assumptions about family and the desire for domesticity.

There are probably more questions than answers in "Role Models" -- as it should be with a smart show. But the real question at the heart of this conversation -- one involving women looking at women -- is simplicity itself: Who am I?

It's one where the first step in answering it is taking back the camera from the guys.