Helen Kornblum collects pictures of women. Elderly society women, defiant young women, women holding babies, famous women like Frida Kahlo, even women dressed as men. All of these images play a part in her large photography collection, a portion of which is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the exhibit "Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century."
Kornblum seeks out images of women by women. "Women live a different experience in the world and . . . their visions will be different," she says. "We will enhance all art when women's visions and voices have been included--and they haven't been."
Kornblum, a St. Louis psychotherapist, never planned on becoming a serious collector. But in searching for the perfect gift for her father's 80th birthday nearly 20 years ago, she hit upon the idea of donating a photograph to the St. Louis Art Museum. It seemed a natural fit, for her parents had owned a photographic supply business. Kornblum bought two Henri Cartier-Bresson images, one for the museum and one for herself. Now her walls at home are crowded with works by well-known artists such as Mary Ellen Mark and Cindy Sherman as well as relative newcomers like Marta Maria Perez Bravo and Catherine Opie.
Kornblum won't reveal how many works are in her collection--she says she doesn't want to "quantify" the art--but a recent article in Art News put the number at several hundred. She has never sold a photograph, but most years the St. Louis Art Museum receives one as a gift.
Kornblum's vision has evolved since she bought that Cartier-Bresson. "Early on I was gender-neutral," she says. She recently narrowed her focus to living artists. "I want to give attention to unknown women artists," she says. "Women artists, like women as individuals, have suffered for being undervalued." She doesn't collect many nudes or children, for she feels those images are mostly exploitative. Landscapes don't appeal to her much either. Instead, Kornblum likes expressive faces.
When Margaret Bourke-White's 1936 image "Woman, Locket, Georgia" is not traveling in the current show, it occupies a prominent spot in Kornblum's house. The stark portrait shows the deeply lined face of a mature woman as she squints slightly at the camera with a resigned expression. Kornblum recalls that when she bought the image at an auction, a dealer friend voiced surprise that she wanted to live with that work. But the portrait stirred something in her. "Her face stood for strength and courage in the face of adversity," says Kornblum.
Hannah Wilke's self-portrait makes a different statement. With her hair done up in curlers, the artist glances warily over her shoulder at the camera. Pieces of chewing gum shaped like female genitalia dot her face. The 1974 work was part of her "Starification Object Series," where Wilke explored the manipulation of women's beauty by society. A pioneer in body-conscious feminist art, Wilke never gained much fame during her lifetime. She died of breast cancer at age 52.
The Wilke photograph ranks among the most controversial in Kornblum's collection, even though the shape of the chewing gum may not be immediately obvious. "My taste runs to the harmonious rather than harsh," says Kornblum. "My family must love me an awful lot to live with all this work."
Kornblum, 61, travels to New York at least twice a year to visit galleries and also makes occasional trips to Sante Fe and Chicago. She says that in a way, collecting complements her family therapy work. Both activities, she says, represent a "convergence of interest in the human condition and the ways people find to express themselves."
"She's very unique as a collector in that it's not really an ego trip," says Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, a curator from the St. Louis Art Museum who selected the 80-odd works for the show, which started in St. Louis and traveled to six cities. "It's a mission to bring women to the fore. She very much has a social agenda."
Kathleen Ewing, who owns a Dupont Circle photography gallery, says that the exhibit is "confirmation that she had a vision and insights into what was good."
Kornblum says she wrestled with attaching her name to the show, but eventually, she decided she wanted in. "If my mission here was to bring women artists forth, what kind of a statement does that make to hide behind them?" she says. Ewing thinks this was smart, for it sets "Defining Eye" apart from other survey shows. "It's refreshing to see a show of images that come from a personal point of view," she says.
After the show closes in Washington next month, the works will return to Kornblum's home of crowded walls. But lack of wall space does not deter her from searching for new treasures. "One thing I never say is, 'Where is it going to go on the wall?' " she says.
Defining Eye: Women Photographers of the 20th Century will be at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW, until Jan. 9. Call 202-783-5000.