I’m mad at Gerry Badger. It’s been a few months since I read most of The Pleasures of Good Photographs, mostly cover to cover. But if anything, my anger has grown with the passage of time.
It may be my expectations were too high. I was interested in reading it when I first heard about it, but when Joerg Colberg mentioned the essay “From Diane Arbus to Cindy Sherman,” shortly after my first gender post, I felt like I had to read it.
It’s a good book. I love reading critical analyses of photography, and Badger’s writing is great. His essay, “From Diane Arbus to Cindy Sherman: An Exhibition Proposal,” is smart and insightful. He gives a brief history of the significant contribution of women to photography, from the first published photobook (not William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature after all, but Anna Atkins’s Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions) to women who were at the forefront of photographic modernism (I don’t know whether to blame my ignorance or the great patriarchal eraser of art history for the fact that I haven’t heard of Germaine Krull or Florence Henri). Badger even argues that Imogen Cunningham’s nudes are better than Weston’s. The main focus of the essay is a more recent generation of American women photographers who worked from 1965 to 1985, which he describes as a lost generation, because they haven’t been given their proper due in the history of late twentieth-century photography. He names Judith Golden, Bea Nettles, Marcia Resnick, Joyce Neimanas, Susan Rankaitis, Eileen Cowin, Barbara Crane, Betty Hahn, Jo Ann Callis, Joan Lyons, Ellen Brooks, Barbara Kasten, Nancy Rexroth and Barbara Blondeau. Have you heard of any of them? I hadn’t.
Badger suggests that one of the reasons for their exclusion from the photographic canon lays at the feet of John Szrkowski, the director of the MOMA’s Department of Photography from 1962 to 1991, and his tremendous influence in the art photography world. He promoted straight, NYC-based street photography, and all the women above had more studio and darkroom-based practices elsewhere, often taking a more directorial approach. “Although male photographers, including Arthur Tress and Ralph Eugene Meatyard, for example, would arrange scenes to be photographed in the 1970s, this approach seems particularly suited to women photographers, partly because they had something specific to say – something metaphotographic, one might propose – and perhaps also because photographing outside on the street was not without its attendant dangers for a woman.”
(I just need to take a detour here and respond to Badger’s claim that photographing on the street is more dangerous for women than for men. This is flat-out wrong, and perpetuating this myth just contributes to rape culture. In fact, statistics show that men are the victims of violent crime in public far more often than women and girls. Most violence against women is perpetrated by people they know, in private spaces. Presumably Badger thinks street photography is more dangerous for women than men because our vaginas can be penetrated. But stranger rape is very rare. Unfortunately, sexual assault by friends, family and acquaintances is not. Sorry for the sidetrip but I just couldn’t let that fallacy pass without addressing it.)
Let’s look at what women had to say thirty to fifty years ago. I recently found a used copy of Michele Landsberg’s Women and Children First, which was published in 1982. It contains essays that bring together some of her feminist columns from the Toronto Star, which she started writing in 1978. The title comes from Landsberg’s argument that government programs for women and children are always the first to be cut (or not even started in the first place). The book provides a fascinating history of feminism in Canada, and imho should be required reading for all Canadians, men and women.
Thirty years ago, Canada’s Criminal Code did allow a maximum sentence of life in prison for rape, but only with proof of vaginal penetration. “And if proof of vaginal penetration can’t be found, the importance of the attack is so diminished in the eyes of the law that no matter what terror was experienced, no matter how prolonged or ugly the nature of the attack, from forced fellatio to jamming objects into the woman’s orifices, the maximum sentence under the law [was] five years. Of course, if the attack was committed against a man, the maximum sentence [was] ten years.” Landsberg writes about a case in the US where a man violently raped his estranged wife in 1978 (in the presence of their two-year-old daughter no less) and he was acquitted solely because he was her husband.
Thirty years ago, there was no pay equity legislation. In 1979, the average earned income of Canadian women who worked for the full year was 63 percent of the full-year earnings of men. (Today that figure is 71 percent.) Landsberg writes, “Consider: a man and a woman, both with the same experience, are working side by side at the same job. On the average in Canada, he will be earning two-fifths more than she will, despite the fact that she is, statistically, better educated and more reliable. What is the difference between them? Privilege, based on owning the right set of reproductive organs.” A 1979 survey, by Dr. Margrit Eichler of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, found that roughly half the male teachers interviewed thought that women should be fired first when there are job cutbacks.
My own mom, a registered nurse, told me about her own experience in 1966 when the pay of (female) public health nurses was reviewed and compared to the pay of (male) health inspectors. While registered nurses need four years of post-secondary education, health inspectors take a six-month course. In the end, it was decided that health inspectors should be paid more than nurses because they have families to support. This despite the fact that most of the nurses my mom worked with were single mothers (of course, back then, there was no maternity leave so women quit when they got pregnant – so it makes sense that the only working women with children would be the sole earners for their families). “Affirmative action for women is another topic of furious debate. I have often heard men sneer at affirmative action as the most contemptible of reverse discriminations. ‘Wouldn’t you be ashamed to have it said that you only got your job because of special discrimination?’ they often say to [Landsberg]. Why, I wonder, do these men never feel ashamed that they almost certainly enjoy their jobs, status, and income because of the overwhelming special privilege given to men?”
Thirty years ago, two-thirds of people living in poverty were women. Landsberg blames this fact on the mythology that women’s primary task is wifedom and motherhood, and that task comes without material reward in our economic system: “Why aren’t women rewarded then, for the housewifery and motherhood that are so sentimentally exalted in the mythology of ‘the little woman’? Why is poverty the mostly likely lot in life for women who have devoted themselves solely to these sanctified tasks? The answer is simple. Her worth is defined only in relation to man. The whole world beams upon her devoted motherhood until her husband leaves her. Then what avails her secret brownie recipe, her gleaming floor? She has no skills worth selling in the outside world and so must become that most despised and impoverished of all humans in Canada, the welfare mother. Now her motherhood has something tainted about it; intimations of filth and degradation surround her. The shudder we once reserved for illegitimacy is now awarded to the women unlucky enough to have children but no longer any man to serve.”
Thirty years ago, the (female) editor of Roget’s Thesaurus neutralized a number of gendered terms, like changing mankind to humankind. “The Globe and Mail was outraged. ‘Neutered!’ exclaimed the headline of its editorial — a Freudian slip if there ever was one, since the Globe has always argued that ‘man’ words like ‘mankind’ were neuter, not masculine, to begin with.” If you think these language changes are not important, Landsberg suggests you “imagine a small boy growing up in a fictional Amazonia, where phrases like womankind, she, chairwoman, God created woman in her own image, all women are created equal, womanhood, and all of woman’s history, are the dominant norm, and everything male is a kind of subvariant, afterthought or abnormality. Would you expect little George to grow up and apply for jobs as chairwoman of the board, or even waitress, actress, or alderwoman?”
(It might be tempting to say we’ve come a long way since then, but I’m not convinced. We may have stronger penalties for rape and a broader definition of sexual assault, but something like 60 or 70 percent of rapes still go unreported. We may have pay equity legislation but somehow we still don’t have pay equity. There remains a 21 percent income gap between men and women – not much better than the 10 to 25 percent Landsberg cited thirty years ago. We may have paid maternity leave in Canada, but we still don’t have enough affordable childcare and the work culture still doesn’t help dual-income families balance work and family. Women remain among the poorest of the poor in Canada. Almost one-quarter (24 percent) of Canadian women raising children on their own are poor and 14 percent of single older women are poor.)
Now, I’m not saying that the women photographers listed by Badger all dealt with these issues directly in their work. I’m not familiar enough with their work to know. I’m just saying that thirty to fifty years ago, women had a lot to say.
So why am I mad at Badger? Here’s a man who gets it. He understands the complications of what feminists are trying to dismantle. Before his essay, it hadn’t quite occurred to me that my general preference for ’straight’ photography might be the result of sexist conditioning. Obviously, as my first post on gender shows, I was approaching the idea that our visual tastes might be shaped by sexist preferences. But I didn’t think as far as Badger does. When I first saw Cindy Sherman’s work — I remember pulling the book down from my university library’s shelf — I hated it on sight. In fact, I often find that my first response to a lot of women artists’ who work along the alternative or directorial themes Badger sees is that I just don’t like it. Give me Edward Weston and Stephen Shore and all the rest of the photographers Szarkowski promoted any day. As Michele Landsberg points out, “the more we talk about the ways in which women are victimized and oppressed, the more we alienate the many young women who very naturally scorn to identify themselves as underdogs. [...] The very individuals whose wrongs are to be exposed and sufferings relieved would much rather see themselves, thank you very much, as winners, not losers. Happily deluded that they themselves are invulnerable, they reject the critique along with the sackcloth and ashes.” That is how I felt when I first saw Cindy Sherman’s work.
Well, I’m mad for a few reasons. For one, he only shares these insights after most of his book focuses on white male photographers, all practitioners of the ’straight’ photograph, all pretty well-known already: Walker Evans, Eugene Atget, Richard Avedon, Martin Parr, John Gossage and Robert Adams. Of the essays in the second part of the book, two focus on the work of one woman photographer each: Susan Lipper and Anna Fox. Other than the essay I’m discussing here, the rest are mostly about men. Badger does use one of Eileen Cowin’s images for the cover, but it feels like too little too late. And he starts the essay with a long excuse about why he’s focused on men, even though he’s well aware of the bias:
“I am sure that the kind of photography I particularly like is made primarily by male photographers. The reason why I like it is probably because I am male, and have been conditioned to like it, and so on and so forth. [...] As a critic, I have not written as much about women as I have about men, but then again, I haven’t been asked as much. Critics tend to write about certain things because they are asked, and I think that many women photographers quite naturally ask fellow women to introduce their monographs or review their shows.”
Don’t critics have a responsibility to bring good work to the public’s attention? You could argue he’s trying to do just that by writing the essay, but giving women photographers an essay or exhibition of their own just doesn’t cut it for me. Badger offers “a suggestion for an exhibition that would rectify this state of affairs, or at least illuminate a corner of recent photographic history that has been somewhat neglected.” But one exhibition is not going to rectify this state of affairs at all. If women and minorities are only represented exclusively in the context of women and minorities, their work remains outside the canon, an alternative to it. It doesn’t do anything to get at the root of the problem: privilege. And that’s just not acceptable.
As Landsberg points out, “Indoctrination is an amazing process. We take the male literature course absolutely for granted. It’s ‘normal’. But [...] picture a high school course in which every novel, play, and poem just happened to be written by a woman and featured a woman. Wouldn’t that seem ‘biased’? Can’t you just hear the indignant howls for more ‘balance?” And later in the same essay*, she says, “maleness is the stamp of excellence[.] Researchers keep proving it. In one classic study, university students consistently gave higher marks to an essay signed with a male name, and lower marks to the same essay signed by a woman. At the University of Manitoba, researchers showed that even mildly sexist language (the use of the pronoun ‘he’ in a career description of a psychologist) triggered, in students, a bias against women in that profession.”
That said, you have to start somewhere. And an exhibition is as good a place as any. My biggest beef with Badger, though, is that he makes the suggestion, but it seems like he wants someone else to act on it. Maybe I’m not being fair, but I didn’t get any sense of urgency or agency from the essay. I don’t think he’s actually interested in making this exhibition a reality. He just wants to point out the gap and have someone else make it happen. No doubt he thinks it’s a job more suitable for a woman, since it’s really a woman’s issue. Joerg Colberg, not usually one to step down from a contentious discussion, did the same thing when he said, “I hope that especially ‘From Diane Arbus to Cindy Sherman’ will not only be read and discussed widely, but that it will also result in the exhibition (and re-evaluation!) of overlooked female photographers Badger proposes.” He’s not going to discuss it beyond that sentence, but he sure hopes someone else will.
It seems to me this is a major part of the problem. There are good, smart men of influence who understand the issues that feminism is fighting, but they don’t see it as their place to take up the fight. Badger says, “I can lay my hand on my heart and say that I never consciously consider the gender of a photographer when looking at work.” But maybe it’s time that he did. How else to combat unconscious bias but with conscious thought and action? If not him, then who?
* The first essay in Women and Children First, “Drink Up Your Shrinking-Potion” is positively brilliant. So brilliant and so out-of-print that I’m seriously considering breaking copyright and retyping the whole thing, just so more people can read it.