Woman With A Camera: An Underwhelming Exhibition of Women Photographers

I’m swamped with schoolwork, which lucky for you means more writing that should be available soon, but also means I’ve been busy. For now I’m publishing an exhibition review written in September 2017 for my History of Photography class. 

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The title wall for Woman With a Camera at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Author’s photo. Text reads: “Each artist featured in this exhibition turns her incisive eye toward politics, history, or identity. The artists all share two things: they are all women, and they all work in the medium of photography. Nevertheless, they come from diverse backgrounds and multiple generations, and have made work across continents and decades. Through different approaches and subject matter, their works reveal some of the ways a photograph can render the human figure, capture public or private space, or comment on our media-saturated culture. The works entered the MCA collection through the generosity of Jack and Sandra Guthman. Their major gift of fifty photographs – a selection of which is shown here – honors the museum’s 50th anniversary and our commitment to collecting works by women artists. The breadth of work by the women in this collection demonstrates that the camera can be a tool for expression of all kinds.”

Woman With A Camera is an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, which includes fourteen women photographers born in the mid 20th century and later.  The work shown spans from 1991 to 2012, so a short time frame in which the artists have been working. All of the works come from the personal collection of Jack and Sandra Guthman who gifted it to the MCA. The oldest photographer is Marina Abramović, born in 1946, and the youngest are Michele Abeles, Leslie Hewitt, and Melanie Schiff, all born in 1977, so all photographers are established and at least 40 years of age. Of the photographers shown, ten are American (one born in Palestine) and one each Serbian, French, British, and Swedish. The diversity is limited to the one of Palestinian ancestry and four Black Americans. The singular unifying factor is that they are, as the title states, all women photographers. Unfortunately, the exhibition design further marginalizes women photographers more than it celebrates them.

The exhibition in presented on the second floor of the museum in a singular small room easily accessed from the staircase or elevator. The Guthman collection includes 50 photos, but only 20 are shown (some of these are multiple photos by one photographer that function as a singular “piece”, such as Carrie Mae Weems’ triptych, but the museum counted them out separate.[1])  It is difficult to understand why the museum would choose to show only a portion of what is, in fact, a small collection to begin with, or why they felt compelled to offer only one gallery room to the exhibit. It is also difficult to understand why, in such a small show, contextual information was only provided for a handful of the photos. With only 14 photographers shown, it would have been nice to see a more expansive amount of information offered for each item beyond just the basic identification label, and this also could have been one way to draw connections between the various photographers and photos selected. Instead, it was difficult to understand or contextualize several photos, and even harder to find any theme whatsoever to the show as a whole other than that the photographers share a gender.

The gallery has three full walls and two small bits of wall on either side of the wide entrance. When entering, I walked to the right where Emily Jacir’s (American, born in Palestine) photo Mahmoud from her 2002-03 series Where We Come From was displayed. Jacir asked Palestinians what she could do for them anywhere in Palestine, and Mahmoud told her of his difficulty getting his phone bill paid because it requires going to the Jerusalem post office. The photo shows a line at the post office, which Mahmoud is forbidden to go to himself. The first long wall begins with Sophie Calle’s Self-Portrait by Rembrandt (1991) where she depicts the absence of his portrait after it was stolen in 1990 from a Boston museum.[2] Below and to the left of Calle’s piece is Weems’ triptych, Congo Ibo Mandingo Togo (1995) which features a photo from the outside view and another from the inside view of Gorée Island, Senegal, followed by the text of the title in the third frame. The wall moves on to Michele Abeles and others. On the central wall is Xaviera Simmons’ 2011 photo On Sculpture #1, which looks more like a mixed media piece because of the texture of the background wood and the open magazine with pages standing up. On the third and final full wall is a Mickalene Thomas black and white print followed by others including Melanie Schiff and two images, hung one above the other, by Laurie Simmons. The wall ends with a rather large print of Marina Abramović’s self-portrait with her back to the camera. The work throughout the gallery is hung at varying levels so that the eyes work up and down the walls as they also work across them.

The question of the “truthfulness” of photography is one way to relate to this exhibition. While Jacir’s photo appears to show a straightforward truth – people waiting in line at the Jerusalem post office – Laurie Simmons’ photos are fantastical images; one in which a small white-like-marble body dangles by the waist out of a small globe, and the other in which only legs lay out from the middle of a book. Melanie Schiff’s photo shows an empty skate park with a single figure lying on one of the curved walls of a ramp, so it seems “true” enough, but likely was staged. Eve Sussman’s photo appears to be a fairly realistic portrait of a 1960s era woman, but was in fact taken in 2005 and is a still from her own video performance of a retelling of Rape of the Sabine Women that she updated and set in the 1960s to discuss sexism across cultures and centuries.[3] Michele Abeles’ archival pigment print looks like a collage and is quite abstract rather than truthful in any conventional sense. Carrie Mae Weems attempts to recreate a historic scene and emotional connection in a location that continues to exist in contemporary times, though seemingly unchanged, and Mickalene Thomas poses contemporary women in a 1970s-drenched scene.

The various photographs seem to have no significant connection to each other at all, but I was drawn to the, perhaps accidental, way Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems were placed on opposite walls from each other. Although they are not quite directly across from one another, and they are at different levels, the moment I stepped in front of Thomas’ photo I felt something tugging me back to Weems’ photo as well. I could imagine a thread running between them, a type of Sankofa (“Go back and get it,” a Twi phrase that refers to looking back to the culture, values, and lessons of the past to carry into the future) whereby the women of the Thomas photograph who represent the present (and arguably, the future) were looking back to Goreé Island in Weems’ photos and deciding what of that past to carry forward. I do not know if Thomas and Weems have any sort of relationship with one another, but I imagine Weems, a Black woman photographer born in 1953, as a living mentor and inspiration of sorts for Thomas, a Black woman born in 1971. Certainly, Weems is a respected photographer whose efforts helped to open doors that Thomas has since benefitted from. The Weems photos differ from her usual reclamation of portraits and slave daguerreotypes, tapping instead into a sense of place but continuing to explore ancestry and how contemporary Black Americans relate to a traumatic past.

Thomas’ 2006 photo is a black and white print of two women sitting in Thomas’ signature riot of patterns. Appearing to be an interior scene, the wall is covered by what looks like a wooden trellis in a loose woven design that creates a diamond pattern in the open spaces. In the far right corner is an indoor ficus tree of the sort frequently found in both offices and homes. A leopard print rug of both light and dark colored stripes covers the floor. In front of the wall is a sofa covered with a tapestry of large embroidered flowers, on which a dark Black woman with an unshaped Afro hairstyle sits in a v-neck fit-and-flare knee length dress. Her dress is a mix of a light colored fish print and solid black. She sits with one leg drawn up and bent at the knee so her foot disappears under the other leg that is bare with that foot planted flat on the floor. There is a bouquet of roses across her lap, and one arm is laid across the back of the sofa to her left. She looks directly at the camera, without smiling, her lips slightly turned down. The second woman sits on a light colored square sofa cushion on the floor in front of the empty portion of the sofa. She is a lighter skinned Black woman and also wears a v-neck knee length fit-and-flare dress, but in a large floral pattern on a dark background. She rests one elbow on the sofa and the other arm on her bent knee, her legs open and the other bent knee resting on the cushion. She wears a shaped Afro hairstyle, hoop earrings, and dark lipstick. Her head is barely tilted to her right, but her eyes cut harder in that direction with an annoyed expression.

The photo’s title, A Moment’s Pleasure, represents Thomas’ characteristic play on song lyrics in which the classic Will You Love Me Tomorrow is referenced. Originally released by Black girl group The Shirelles in 1961, the song was re-recorded by white jazz singer Carole King in Thomas’ year of birth (1971) and re-popularized by white jazz-influenced superstar Amy Winehouse in 2004. The song is a lament in which the singer wonders if the lover is offering a “lasting treasure” when they become intimate, or if the night together is “just a moment’s pleasure.”[4] The photograph suggests two lovers and their feelings upon realizing what they have may be temporary and short-lived. Thomas, a queer woman herself, explores the friendships and more intimate and sexual partnerships between Black women throughout much of her work. Like Weems, Thomas also traffics in a sense of nostalgia, utilizing the clothing, furnishings, hairstyles, and other aesthetics of her 1970s childhood and pressing family, friends, and lovers into modeling for her. Her practice of titles derived from song titles or lines almost exclusively draws from her childhood as well, and may link to her formative memories and emotional terrain. The photo exhibited from Weems speaks her relationship to the past, but Thomas speaks to where Black women are in the present and where they are going in the future. Understanding Thomas’ narrative requires acknowledging that of Weems as well, the history that has led to the point in which Thomas’ models reside.

This interpretive link between Weems and Thomas was the only significant connection I felt between any of the photos in the exhibition. None of the other photos, except possibly Abramović’s felt remotely as personal as these two.  It was only upon finishing looking at every photo, ending with the Abramović self-portrait, that I realized I should have begun by moving to the left upon entering the gallery, as that small wall served as the title wall. The statement utilized a font that made it difficult to read, especially the smaller letters of the statement in comparison to the title. The font letters break apart and though looking quite modern, they were a distraction from the words as well. In fact, as inaccessible as the font made the statement, it was also one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition. The statement claims the photographers turn their “incisive eyes towards politics, history, or identity”[5], but it could be argued those are inherent in almost any sort of photography. While making much of the fact that all of the photographers come from “diverse backgrounds and multiple generations,”[6] the tiny size of the show precludes any significant diversity, and the 20 year span of the images made by women all born within 30 years of each other is also unremarkable. This history of photography is not much represented because of the tight timeframe of the selected photos, though the younger generations incorporate more overt references to and critiques of contemporary media saturation.

The statement goes on to mention the exhibition features only a selection of the 50 images available in the collection[7] but gives no hint as to why these particular photos were selected versus the others. Without any cohesive theme beyond the essentialist sharing of being female among the photographers, the show is underwhelming. If one is local to it, it doesn’t hurt to see it and have the opportunity to view the work of several respected contemporary photographers, but there is little value in going out of one’s way to see it. Perhaps the MCA will consider a more robust exhibition in which all 50 works are shown and a curator is able to draw more meaningful relationships between the photos than the simplistic and further marginalization of noting they were all taken by women and crammed into one small gallery as if insufficient space could be found to celebrate all of the photos, and all of the photographers, equally and respectfully.



[1] “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2017. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2017/Woman-With-A-Camera

[2] Exhibition Label, Self-Portrait by Rembrandt by Sophie Calle. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

[3] Exhibition Label, Themes and the Island, from Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

[4] Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. 1960.

[5] Title Wall Text. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Viewed in person September 8, 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Works Cited:

“Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Accessed September 9, 2017. https://mcachicago.org/Exhibitions/2017/Woman-With-A-Camera

Woman With A Camera. Title Wall Text. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago – Exhibitions. July 08, 2017. Viewed in person September 8, 2017.

Self-Portrait by Rembrandt by Sophie Calle. Exhibition Label. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

Themes and the Island, from Rape of the Sabine Women by Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation. Exhibition Label. “Woman With A Camera.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Viewed in person September 08, 2017.

Goffin, Gerry, and Carole King. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. 1960.