The oldest picture on display in "Recollections: Ten Women of Photography," which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is Nell Dorr's portrait of young Lillian Gish, made in 1908. The newest is Ruth Bernhard's still life of a dented teapot from 1976. Because the artists represented are in their seventies and eighties -- and because photography is really not much older -- their touching exhibition is more than just a picture show. It is a window on the past.
Strong, familiar faces -- James Joyce's and Euge ne Atget's, Colette's and Cocteau's, Albert Einstein's, Winston Churchill's -- stare out from the walls. The photographs portray the costumes of our century as well as its affectations, industries, cities and sophisticates, its paupers and its wars.
Strong women made these pictures, and in many, if not all, we sense that as we see them. Something surely feminine is apparent in their fashion shots, in their dealings with tradition, in the formal, unerotic coolness of their nudes, in the open, trusting glances of the children they portray. Though photography may know no sex, though art may know no gender, this is not a sexless show.
Its pedigree connects us to photography's beginnings. There is a reason that this show is titled "Recollections." "My great-grandfather met Daguerre around 1840 on a trip to Paris," writes Lotte Jacobi. "My great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father were photographers. My father's brothers were, too." Jacobi grew up in the darkroom. So did Toni Frissell and Nell Dorr, whose works are in this show. Laura Gilpin, who was born in Colorado 80 years ago, was photographed at age 14 by the great Gertrude Ka sebier. "My father," Gilpin writes, "was a friend of the great landscape photographer William Henry Jackson. The first series that Jackson made on a western cattle ranch was on my father's ranch." Berenice Abbott, the most tenaciously serious of the artists represented, was a good friend of Atget's.
Margaretta K. Mitchell, in the handsome book that serves this exhibit as a catalog, describes these 10 artists as "true pioneers": "Each woman," she continues, "remembers her young self as independent, rebelling against convention, or encouraged by parents to become self-reliant . . . Each one began her life work during a period in which the cultural atmosphere was still subtly antipathetic to women."
These 10 photographers, of course, are not the only females who have struggled for their art. One thinks of the idealized, Victorian portraits made in England by Julia Margaret Cameron, of Ka sebier's innovations, of the great Dorothea Lange and journalism's Margaret Bourke-White, of spooky Diane Arbus and of many more. One remembers, too, the half-romantic myth of the spunky and good-looking "inquiring photographer" Jacqueline Bouvier, for example. Anti-feminists may argue that female photographers hide behind the camera, that photography is, after all, an intimate, responsive, partly passive art. But there is no doubt that women have given greatly to photography. One sees that in this show.
The artists represented are Berenice Abbott, Ruth Bernhard, Carlotta M. Corpron, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Nell Dorr, Toni Frissell, Laura Gilpin, Lotte Jacobi, Consuelo Kanaga and Barbara Morgan.
Abbott is perhaps the strictest and the toughest. Few cityscapes are finer than her portraits of New York in the 1930s. Dorr's works are sweeter, more old-fashioned. Something dreamy and romantic, and probably Victorian, persists in her images of lovely musing ladies, of mothers with their babies, and naked children climbing trees. Of the artists in this show, Toni Frissell seems the spunkiest. She worked for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and one of her striking fashion pictures here was taken underwater; she photographed the Blitz, she amused Winston Churchill, and while covering a fox hunt for Sports Illustrated scared the horses with her helicopter (and also saved the fox).
Though she photographed the poor, and the Greek temple at Paestum, Louise Dahl-Wolfe is, perhaps, best known for her fashion photography; it was she who made for Bazaar the "discovery" cover picture of young Lauren Bacall. Laura Gilpin's pictures here recall Ansel Adams' work. The photographs she made when young were, like those of Adams, painterly, Victorian; her later, better pictures are sharply focused landscapes of the American Southwest. Jacobi's pictures, from the start, were original and daring. Her 1931 self-portrait with a camera and her 1930 image of a woman in a white fur coat, riding in a car with a large black dog, still seem fresh and strong. Consuelo Kanaga's work brings to mind the socially conscious art of Lange and Lewis Hine, Russell Lee and Walker Evans. She is represented here by one extraordinary shot of a downtown New York street made in 1924, and her pictures of the poor -- particularly the one she calls "She Is a Tree of Life to Them" (1950) -- are not easily forgotten.
This show, despite its strengths, is not free of pretension. Barbara Morgan's photographs of the dancing Martha Graham are classics of a sort, but her hokey photomontages do not quite come off. Corpron's experimental photographs of curved mirrors, seashells, eggs, though mired in the dated esthetic of the '40s, are a little better. Better still, though also filled with artifice, are Bernhard's arty pictures of Lifesavers, shells and flowers; Bernhard's nudes are fine.
The Corcoran's showing of "Recollections" was partly paid for by the White House Conference on Aging. The touring show, organized by Margaretta K. Mitchell for the International Center of Photography, New York, and circulated by International Exhibitions Foundation, closes Dec. 27.