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An Exploration of Embodiment, Gender, and Identity
As Western culture shifted after the Civil Rights era, the work of female photographers was increasingly recognized as both culturally and artistically significant. The revolutionary work of these artists, which often included use of the artist’s own body, frequently explored themes of female identity and the tensions of gendered embodiment. However, over 50-years later, contemporary female photographers are still exploring strikingly similar content through self-portraiture. Three notable examples are: Claude Cahun’s Self-Portrait (1920), Birgit Jürgenssen’s Everyone Has His Own Point of View (1975), and Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993). While exploring different themes of gendered embodiment and identity, each artist uses her own back of body to present the viewer with her perspective on: limitations on identity expression, the confinements of prescribed gender roles, or the option of domestic desire in the LGBTQ community. When framed in the context of the question, “Are We There Yet?” another question surfaces: How far have we come if contemporary female photographers continue telling thematically similar narratives through their work as did their predecessors?
This paper considers several possibilities: a possible minimal impact of female photographers’ work in the art world; Western culture’s malabsorption of female photographers’ voices and work; and finally, through an examination of three strikingly similar works created generations apart, this paper looks at the female photographer’s repeated response through self-portraiture to push out against repeated cultural constrictions placed on the female person in contemporary Western society. A closing consideration is offered in the conclusion for those asking the question, “Are we there yet?” can move ever closer to responding with an affirmative “yes!”
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POSSIBLE MINIMAL IMPACT OF FEMALE PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK IN THE ART WORLD
Women have been making art at least as long as men. However, it has taken longer for the seriousness and professionalism of women artists to take hold in the art academy. From the “genius” stereotype of the male artist, to blatant sexism, women have only been given semi-equal consideration in the same significant publications as male artists since around the second wave of feminism. Linda Nochlin’s essay, “Why have there been No Great Women Artists?” explores this idea.
But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class, and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education … The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.
Female photographers had an additional hurdle to cross, given that the medium of photography was fighting its own battle to be recognized as a fine art form. However, recognized photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and others insisted photography was a fine art form and slowly it was accepted into the artistic canon as a fine art medium. As photography was solidifying its presence in the art world, slowly but increasingly the work of female photographers like Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman, and later Carrie Mae Weems followed that of their male counterparts and emerged from obscurity into public awareness. So although photography by women is still, comparatively, emerging, it has a verified history in the art world long before some of the newer and perhaps more challenging, albeit verified, fine art forms such as graffiti art, video art, and others.
With both women as artists and photography as a fine art form verified in the art world, it seems another, perhaps deeper, matter is at hand when examining the question of why female photographers return to similar narratives of embodiment, gender, and identity in their work. This paper now turns to a related but distinct consideration that perhaps it is Western culture at large, rather than the institution of art, that overlooks the stories female photographers are telling.
WESTERN CULTURE’S REJECTION OF FEMALE VOICES
Another consideration as to why female photographers continue to make work on themes of embodiment, identity, and gender is Western culture’s pattern of consistent slowness in acknowledging and responding positively to women who speak up in response to matters that affect them. Nearly 100-years after the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced, to date, only 37 of the 50 states in America have ratified the amendment. This is not due to a historical lack of speaking up amongst a majority of women; if anything the contrary is true. One need only look as far back as the 2016 presidential election to see the urgency in the way many women responded: the day after the inauguration the largest women’s march took place, and a host of other public discourses around abuse and everyday sexism quickly followed. And yet tangible change for women is yet to be seen; since 2016 challenges to the rights of women have substantially increased.
While to some it may appear that the Civil Rights era is merely repeating itself, the fight for women’s rights began much earlier. The history of feminism in America began with the suffragette movement, advocating for women’s voting rights beginning in 1903. The second wave of feminism in the 60s to the early 80s addressed equality issues. This wave linked the personal and the political. Out of this era came a wave of female photographers, including Nan Goldin, and many more, including those mentioned above. In the early 90s a third wave of feminism arose and took a close look at sexual politics and inclusivity. Some scholars identify a fourth wave of feminism beginning 15-years later that addresses “everyday sexism” and its normalization in Western culture.
At the beginning of the third wave, on the heels of the “year of the woman” in 1992, a cultural regression back to so-called “conservative values” began. Women were achieving more and more professional and personal success, and yet a shift in culture, primarily through media communications, was often denigrating these women for their accomplishments. Young women and girls were offered the corporate driven “Girl Power” movement that subtly encouraged them to hold on to their youth and to embrace their sexuality as the seat of their power. This cultural reversal in how women were presented in widespread media and news communications impacted not only how women’s work was assessed and credited, but how widely it was integrated into society at large as normative. Female photographers, like Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, and others, responded to this cultural shift by challenging these societal ideals for women and rewriting gender ideals and expectations. Three specific images that communicate this progression, both in their development and in their similarities are considered next.
SELF-PORTRAITURE AS A REPEATED RESPONSE
Self-portraits in the canon of photography function differently than traditional portraiture, where the photographer seeks to understand something and present something of the sitter for contemplation by the viewer. In self-portraiture the photographer turns the camera on herself, and offers the viewer a version of her own perspective for consideration. Through self-portraiture Claude Cahun, Birgit Jürgenssen, and Catherine Opie offer strikingly similar works, even though they were created across several generations. The notable differences in these works is considered next.
Photographer Cahun’s de-gendered self-portrait was made at the end of the suffragette movement in 1929 when Cahun was around 35-years-old. Without having Cahun’s own words on the specific timing of this image, it is notable that this photograph was created not long after women were increasingly granted the ability to use their voice in voting both throughout Europe, but not France (until 1945) where Cahun was from, and in America. Cahun uses her visual voice in this and other works to challenge identity norms of the time. While some have called her the first transgender artist, Cahun appeared to present herself more androgynously than trans-sexual: changing her name to the gender neutral Claude, and often appearing genderless in her photographic work.
In this particular self-portrait, Cahun poses, back to the camera, with face turned slightly forward, and with a shaved head. This posture presents as both defiant and vulnerable; both knowing and naive; feminine and masculine. BBC reviewer Aindrea Emelife writes:
In her Self Portrait from around 1920, Cahun with shaved head and near-death gauntness, is angled to look frail and ill, like a premonition of an Auschwitz survivor. She gazes ahead with furious lips, and not at the viewer, so as not to be consumed as the object. She is not gendered and she is definitely not sexed.
This de-sexing of gender identity in Cahun’s work is not accidental, or the by-product of being an accidental “manish-woman” as in the early colonial days observed of certain indigenous groups. It is one of the earliest examples of a biological female challenging the male gaze and consumption, of a female holding her own autonomy.
While it may be tempting to write off an uncomfortably “eccentric” artist like Cahun, it is perhaps all the more important to gaze with them into their exploration. It is also interesting to note that Cahun’s work was not acknowledged until only recently as art scholars are re-examining the historical works of female artists and artists of color. As this paper turns to examine Birgit Jürgenssen’s self-portrait next, it becomes apparent that public discourse is, in part, what these artists being explored here are seeking.
The photographic work of Birgit Jürgenssen first appears in the middle of feminism’s second wave. She made her photograph, “Jeder hat seine eigene Ansicht / Everyone Has His Own Point of View,” in 1975 around the age of 26. Although drawing was her first medium, she began autodidactically exploring photography in 1972. Her photographs often depict the invisible pain familiar to women, and challenge the gender performance expected of women in this era.
This particular image features the back of Jürgenssen’s body with the words (in German), “Everyone has his own point of view” across her mid and lower back, written in lipstick. Jürgenssen’s face is turned away from, and slightly down from the camera that observes her, with the shadow of her face visible on the plain wall that acts as her backdrop. Lena Fritsch unpacks the meaning the artist embedded in this work:
The photograph juxtaposes word and image, ironically confronting the viewer with an image of the artist’s back while presenting the term, ‘An-sicht’, usually associated with the ‘front-view’. The artist’s viewpoint differs from the observer’s as they cannot see what she sees, nor can they properly see her. Jürgenssen emphasizes the multitude of viewpoints while suggesting that socio-cultural circumstances literally write different viewpoints onto our bodies.
Of her own work Jürgenssen said, “Women certainly deal with the question of identity in a more interpretive way, simply because they are more often obliged to play roles … Self-portraits by female artists usually describe associative circumstances and reflect the external viewpoint.” Putting the viewer’s experience on display, Jürgenssen brings attention to the performative nature of these “different viewpoints” on women’s bodies.
The mingling of identity with the performativity of gender roles is expressed through embodiment in Jürgenssen’s work, and correlates to the seeking of equality in this era of feminism. It seems fitting, then, that she uses her own body to send a message about the politics of inequitable gender dynamics in society. Not only is Jürgenssen sending this message, she is also framing for the viewer, as was Cahun, the reality that the embodied identity is not the final authority on one’s own identity when implicit social gender constrictions are at work.
Around the third wave of feminism, which took a closer look at sexual politics and inclusivity, Catherine Opie began exploring inclusion and normalization through the lens of identity. Her own journey to find community led her through various groups commonly seen as outcast. Within these communities she said she found connection and relationship. Out of her experiences of connection and familiality, she began photographing the members in her LGBT community to bring visibility and representation to those who were so often ignored or overlooked in mainstream society. Her work began to take a more personal turn in the early 90s.
In 1993 at 32-years-old she created, “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” in which she had a friend etch a child-like domestic sketch of two women, a house, and a sun in the sky into her skin and photograph her from behind. The backdrop is ornate fabric, intended to reference 18th century historical portraiture, which Opie says by using this formal photographic format implies the subject is important. About this photograph Opie said,
I wanted it to have a certain kind of apprehension. I wanted there to be a nervousness about her breaking into my skin. It’s really a very simplistic drawing that I kept making for a year after my first domestic relationship broke up … It was this longing I had for domesticity, for this idea of home, for this relationship to the extreme kind of homophobia within our culture and country, and wanting to make something that’s as simple as a kindergarten drawing. And what does that mean? … It is about: How do we create language? … And within language then we create history. And it’s really kind of that simple.
When members of a stereotyped community begin using language not typically available to them -- for example, domestic bliss, as Opie does through visual language with the etching in her back and photographing it -- she is normalizing and claiming something not assumed of the LGBT community: domestic desire. In this work Opie pushes out against the limitations outlined not only for the lesbian person, but more broadly the female person, to hold desire outside of prescribed gender roles and to normalize that desire. Speaking up to cultural prescriptions, or assumptions, was at the time of this self-portrait, a risky move.
When looking at the cultural context of Opie’s 1993 self-portrait, the climate was particularly hostile to women according to author Allison Yarrow in her book 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality. Essentially, in the 90s, “[we] internalized the idea that gender transcended shared humanity, that women were a subspecies.” Adult women who asserted themselves, like Opie did through this self-portrait, were often ridiculed, humiliated, or ignored. Even in an era that said it made space for women,
By the end of the [90s], however, the promise of equality for women was revealed to be something between a false hope and a cruel hoax. Parity, it turned out, was a paradox: The more women assumed power, the more power was taken from them through a noxious popular culture that celebrated outright hostility toward women and commercialized their sexuality and insecurity.
In spite of this frequently dehumanizing time for women, Opie still pushed back against cultural norms to claim space and dignity for women on a full spectrum of gender performance.
Implications of Similarity and Repetition in Cahun, Jürgenssen, and Opie
What can be seen from the above examination of the self-portraits of Cahun, Jürgenssen, and Opie, Wassily Kandinsky wrote about in 1910 (19-years before Cahun’s self-portrait): each era has its own contributions to art in form and content, and oftentimes a return to earlier modes of working results in a “soulless” outcome. Yet, Kandinsky makes room for exceptions, like the powerful works considered in this paper,
There is, however, in art another kind of external similarity which is founded on a fundamental truth. When there is a similarity of inner tendency in the whole moral and spiritual atmosphere, a similarity of ideals, at first closely pursued but later lost to sight, a similarity in the inner feeling of any one period to that of another, the logical result will be a revival of the external forms which served to express those inner feelings in an earlier age.
In other words, it is not surprising that female photographers would return to similar modes of working on themes of gender, identity, and embodiment given repeated external restrictions on their gender, identity, and embodiment. Although the external restrictions manifested differently throughout the near century examined here, the underlying feeling the limitations evoked is a similar one of restriction, limitation, and dehumanization based on gendered embodiment and identity expression. As women photographers have pushed back (quite literally with their backs in the works considered here), the desired outcome appears to be an acknowledgement of the equality of their shared humanity.
In considering why female photographers have continued to tell thematically similar narratives through their work as their predecessors did, this paper explored several possibilities. First, while female artists (photographers in particular) had a longer journey to recognition in the art world, and while it may have contributed to women repeating narratives, that in itself was not the driving force behind the similar themes of embodiment, gender, and identity in women’s photography throughout the twentieth century. Next, exploring Western culture’s receptivity to female photographer’s work was also considered. Although resistance to full gender equality continues, the waves of feminism outlined here reveal a sort of progression that shows that the voices of female artists in America, while still frequently minimized, are not completely disregarded altogether. Finally, this paper considered the work of three significant female photographers and their strikingly similar self-portraits made generations apart from one another, both as validation to the question at hand, and to discover the conceptual root underneath the formal similarities in these works.
Female photographers are using self-portraiture to push back against the limitations placed on their bodies, their identities, and their gender performance by Western culture. And this repeated push back by female photographers is, in itself, communicating a systemic problem: in spite of all of the equality and autonomy women have achieved, a pervasive control around the female person -- how she lives out her identity, embodiment, and gender -- continues to exist. Female photographers have returned over and over to self-portraiture as one means of protesting this dehumanization.
In closing, priest and author Richard Rohr wrote: “You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class. Why, oh why, do Christians allow these temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called the ‘false self,’ to pass for the substantial self, which is always ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3)? It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel.” The invitation at hand for all, particularly those of faith, then is to acknowledge the difference between cultural expectations around gender performance and the true self; to listen well when people express feelings of discomfort or dehumanization; and to acknowledge our own preferences, comforts, and biases around gender performance and embodied living. Then, as artists and others alike speak the truth of their experience and are heard, all can participate in the freeing work of Christ on earth, as in heaven.
CHRISTINE LEE SMITH • ARTIST & SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.