Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

31 Under 31

Written by Julie Fishkin
Exhibitions solely about girls don’t tend to always resonate with me entirely because gender is not the qualifying factor of a brilliant artist. In fact, relegating an artist to a “female” artist negates the very tenets of innovative creativity that make art worth exploring. Someone did, however, recently decide to dedicate an entire month to women's achievements by commemorating Women's History Month this past March.

Exhibitions solely about girls don’t tend to always resonate with me entirely because gender is not the qualifying factor of a brilliant artist. In fact, relegating an artist to a “female” artist negates the very tenets of innovative creativity that make art worth exploring. Someone did, however, recently decide to dedicate an entire month to women's achievements by commemorating Women's History Month this past March. 

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Though personally, I find such dedications vast oversimplifications, an exhibition that brings together women to honor their accomplishments, especially during a time that is intrinsically set aside to do so, seems appropriate. 31 Under 31, curated by Lumi Tan and Jon Feinstein, is an exhibition that brings together thirty-one women photographers all under the age of thirty-one in an eclectic and visually stunning exhibition. While at no point capturing a universal female voice, as such an idea would be disingenuous at best, the exhibition unites thirty-one unique female voices working in different genres, visual trends and aesthetic dispositions.  Because the field of photography is often dominated by the other sex, Feinstein and Tan decided to give women, whose experience and exhibition histories are as varied as the work itself, the chance to show their work in one collective exhibition. Organized by the Humble Arts Foundation, a group devoted to promoting and exhibiting the work of emerging photographers, this exhibition is a cogent statement on the face of art photography today.  The fact that they are all women only serves to confirm that the lens through which they see the world can change thirty-one times in one encompassing presentation.   

Feinstein points out that, "The show was organized in celebration of young, lesser known female voices in contemporary photography. We were not necessarily interested in captivating a specifically "feminine" voice—as that in itself could be problematic—but we felt that, in an art world that is all too often male dominated (Jerry Saltz has written several articles on the subject), it was important to curate a show entirely of young female artists. As a foundation that seeks to gain attention for lesser known artists, we felt that these two issues went hand in hand." 

I decided to ask a few of the photographers directly about their views on photography today, the difficulties or nuances of being women photographers, and whether an exhibition this expansive can give a more succinct understanding of their individual pursuits.  I asked Rachael Dunville, Mary Mattingly, Dina Kantor, Tealia Ellis Ritter, Molly Landreth, and Sarah Sudhoff what’s what.

1. It is an interesting and distinguishing choice to position and categorize work based on the fact that one is a woman and under thirty-one.  Do you think these criteria figure in your work?

Dina Kantor: I absolutely believe that being a woman and being under 31 affects the way that I make images. However, so does everything else about me. I think any type of creating stems from one's past experiences, which are influenced by who you are. That said, I don't consciously make the images I do because I am a young woman.

Mary Mattingly: I looked at the show and its parameters as just one of many ways that curatorial groups use a set of rules to survey the dynamics of a certain time and place. I did read the show as more of a survey of contemporary work that would perhaps illuminate some trends or specific lineages between my generation and other generations of photographers.

Tealia Ellis Ritter: The criteria for the show seem a bit arbitrary at first but I think that upon further reflection, it is valid. I think that photography in general is still a male dominated field, and even if it wasn't, I believe that gender does influence perspective. To think that being a female has no influence on a photographer's interpretation of the world seems to be a bit naïve.  Art is always influenced by the events and periods of the artist's life and being a woman is just part of that. I think the way a female relates to a subject may be different [than the way a male might relate to a subject]. This is not to say that a viewer could look at a photograph and determine whether a man or a woman took it. I don't think there is any one specific thing that female photographers bring to the work that male photographers don't.

As for the under thirty-one thing...that just seems like a way of gathering together peers. I think each generation tends to have a visual language that builds on the past and contradicts it in some ways. By gathering together women of a particular generation, I think it helps to bring to light the common visual consciousness of the time, and it also points out the ways in which people are operating differently within a given period.

Sarah Sudhoff: On one hand, I find it arbitrary to be grouped in such a category and I wonder, ‘Can’t my work stand up with the boys?’ And then I think how too often the work in galleries and museums is male dominant. Is it really better, more relatable, or more easily understood? Why shouldn’t there be a female dominated or even specific show? It certainly is inspiring. Many of the artists I seek ideas from or reference in my own work are women. It was not something I sought after intentionally but I found specific artists who were working with some of the same themes I wanted to explore, and they just happened to be women.

However, in regards to the topic of my work included in the exhibition, my age and gender do play a role. My series titled, Repository, stems from my personal experience undergoing treatment for cervical cancer at the age of twenty-six. [For obvious reasons], I don’t believe a man could have conceived of this series nor gotten the access I did at a hospital. I think because of my personal experience with this specific illness I was more warmly received and given access to the “behind the scenes” in the hospital and pathology labs where I took photographs. At the same time I underwent surgery, a friend had a full hysterectomy at the age of twenty-four. Her story has been a great inspiration and fueled several of my recent images.

Rachael Dunville: While I have never connected my age to my art, I do believe, without a doubt, that being a woman does factor into the work I make.  My stereotypical feminine qualities are always available to help shape the tenor of the images I am making with another person. Additionally, I believe people—strangers and friends alike—are more apt to develop an immediate trusting rapport [with me] simply because I am female.  That being said, a fascinatingly large percentage of people who see my work for the first time without my name attached assume I am a male photographer and are truly shocked to find out otherwise!

Molly Landreth: Yes, definitely.  My work is totally informed by the way I’ve experienced the world up to this point, as well as by how people feel with me during a shoot—gender and age factor into that for better or worse. I especially think that my age, more than my gender, plays a roll in the direction of my current project, Embodiment.  The queer community [which is what my work focuses on] is changing so fast, as are perceptions of it. I know for a fact that the tone of the work would be different if I was much older...or even much younger.

2. Is there such a thing as a woman photographer, I mean, besides the obvious facts?  Does this come with any sensibilities?

Dina Kantor: You know, at the opening reception a guy came up to me and said he thought the show was great, but he was surprised the images were not more emotional, since they were all created by women artists. I told him that maybe he should investigate why he had such a stereotypical preconception of what art created by women should be!

Mary Mattingly: I don't think so.  I think that given the history of feminism and where we are now in that dialogue, there is such a thing as a feminist dialogue within photography that deals with gender, but there is not a distinct look or sensibility of a photographer that is also a woman. 

Tealia Ellis Ritter: I do identify myself as a female photographer. It comes with some challenges and some benefits. When I approach other women, especially strangers, to discuss taking their portrait, I believe many [women often] feel less threatened by me, and are therefore more likely to agree  [to being photographed] than they would be if a man approached them. As far as sensibilities, there is no one thing that a man wouldn’t be capable of doing, understanding, or recognizing visually [that only a woman would]. I specifically feel that my being a woman helps me to engage in quite intimate and sensitive discussions with my subjects in a brief amount of time; maybe this has to do with the subjects being more comfortable discussing such things with a woman, or perhaps I'm just easy to talk to and it has little to do with my gender. I'm not sure.

Sarah Sudhoff: In most cases, it is difficult to distinguish between a male and female photographer’s eye. I have several female friends, either commercial photographers or artists whose work is very raw and physically challenging to is these same women who explore issues or places foreign to most of us. On the flip side, I know male photographers who make extremely sensitive, quiet, and subtle work. In either case, I think the work reflects the person and not their gender, though because of a photographer’s gender, certain subject matter becomes [more or less] prevalent.

Yet both men and women have photographed childbirth and children, war, illness, and devastation. Both have done so in their own ways, using their sensibilities as a photographer first, with gender being secondary. No matter the subject, both genders bring to the situation their own stories, their experience and their baggage. This can influence their choice of subject matter, framing and editing of the final product. Is this based more on gender identity or life experiences? I’m not entirely sure.

Rachael Dunville: I think the sensibility you're talking about is a unique recipe in the spirit and emotional antenna of each woman and is therefore difficult to delineate. That's part of what makes it so exciting!

Molly Landreth: Gender-schmender.  I don't think so…I really don't.  Everyone perceives their photography, art and gender so completely differently, that I think it would be way over simplifying to say that there is any one way to be a woman or a woman photographer and that it would come with a certain set of sensibilities.

3. When did you first pick up a camera to start shooting? Is that the best way to observe your world, or the world?

Dina Kantor: In fourth grade. I didn't really get serious about it until college though. At this point, I use the medium of photography because it works to convey the ideas I am thinking about and would like to express.

Mary Mattingly: My father remembers teaching me on his Pentax K1000 when I was eight years old. We would go to a lake near the house I grew up in and shoot photographs of the water. Photography is an amazing way to see the world.  Every moment can be isolated, saved, reviewed, written and rewritten, changed and created.

Tealia Ellis Ritter: I first picked up a camera around the age of six. My dad was an avid photographer and he gave me his old single lens reflex camera as a gift. I started posing my sister, doing her makeup and hair, and directing her movements [so I could photograph her].

I don't know if photography is the best way to observe the world, but I do know that I love it. Photography gets me to slow down and actually see things. So much of the time people are just moving through life oblivious to what’s around them. When I am engaged in a project, I feel more attentive to life. Like when I was photographing construction debris and trash in my studio as still lifes, I would notice every piece of trash I passed. I really began to appreciate the beauty and delicacy of waste. Now that I am photographing people, I find at least one person I would like to photograph everywhere I go and I have really begun to internalize the complexities and odd beauty of people's faces and expressions. The sad thing about photography—and I guess the great thing as well—is that it's like trying to stop time. It always reminds you that time is passing.

Sarah Sudhoff: I had a point-and-shoot as a child. I think I got it in middle school. I remember thinking I should photograph my school friends because I often moved after only three months in one location and I wanted to have memories of my school and my friends. It wasn’t until my second semester of college that I used my first SLR camera, developed my first roll of film, and printed in the darkroom. I originally went to college to pursue a degree in astronomy but quickly decided it didn’t suite my personality, and I enrolled in the communications department with a focus in photojournalism. It allowed me to be myself, meet people, work off hours and explore my curiosities and obsessions.

The camera was a ticket in some cases. Oddly enough because of the camera, I was given access when I wouldn’t have been granted access otherwise. Having a camera was not only a way for to me to explore, but also to record feelings, emotions, memories, friends, places I had gone, and the things I did.

Rachael Dunville: I have been using a camera since pre-kindergarten. My folks made photo albums of my young backyard observations and permitted me unlimited use of film, which fueled the obsessive shooting through my teens (a roll a day at least)!  It wasn't until college that I learned, or even questioned, exactly how a photograph came to be.  Now, as a professional photographer, I am truly in love with the process in which I use to make photographs. Film is magical and so is the encounter of making photos of another person.  I don't know if it's the best way for me to see the world, but it is certainly my favorite way to approach and experience another person!

Molly Landreth: I started shooting in high school and totally loved it but I didn't really sink my teeth in until college when I became inspired by photographers like Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Catherine Opie, Nan Goldin, Marcel Duchamp, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and on and on.  They opened up a whole new world for me, and that's when I really starting loving it.

Taking photographs is actually not the best way for me to observe the world on a daily basis; I much prefer snooping and sniffing and just looking around. However, it IS the best way for me to dig deeper into very particular moments and really come to an understanding about what that experience means to me, or speculate on what it means to someone else.


Images courtesy of Humble Arts Foundation

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