Berenice Abbott, a photographer with 50 years’ experience, claims that photography can never grow up if it imitates another medium.
Looking at original works by seven women participating in the current show 14 New England Photographers at the Museum of Fine Arts, the state of the art seems to be on the verge of adulthood, developing but still formless - without a distinct character. The show itself is polite, modest and undemanding - a lovely teenager.
The show presents a wide spectrum of women’ s talent, from Germany’ s Lotte Jacobi to Elsa Dorfman, the photo-vendor of Harvard Square.
Wendy McNeil’ s images are heavyweight champions of snapshots. Her photos are meant for remembrance. “ My Grandmother’ s Hand, with Stocking” is a striking evocation in platinum on translucent paper that memorializes wizened and veiled fingers that once-upon-a-time stroked a grandchild’ s hair. MacNeil is also fascinated by facial resemblances in families (like Clarisssa in “ The Women’ s Room” ) but she’ s less successful in other attempts, such as a line-up of I.D. cards and album snapshots.
The most delicate photographs, the oldest and most classic, are those of Lotte Jacobi who has been performing miracles with her cameras for fifty years. Her exquisite portraits convey deep sympathy and pain; a pensive Einstein in a leather jacket; the blurred and sad impressions of Kathe Kollwitz which almost question whether her face could bear such sharp scrutiny. “ Head of a Dancer,” with the performer’ s blank stare deep set in the black frame of a hat-brim, is a masterpiece in ovals, a triumph of shape, rhythm, and design. In her “ Photogenic” series, photographs made without a lens, she enticed light beams onto photosensitive paper to communicate in mindful abstractions. photogenics are artistic delights, and exactly what we need today.
A mighty imagination is the key you need to unlock the secrets of Olivia Parker’ s work. Her single large-negative contact-prints coated with selenium seem to glisten with metallic luminosity. She manipulates small objects like newel posts in “ Untitled,” arranging them into an at tentive formation of comic shapes. Her ideas are elaborate and her results charming and marvelous; “ Mask” provides a memory of O’ Keeeffe’ s cow skulls bleached by the sun, a delicious “ Bosc” appears wrapped in shiny tin, and “ Vicksburg Feather” dazzles with intricacy.
There are also works by the well-known Elaine Mayes who patiently looks out over the countryside and always captures something unnoticed far off beyond the expressways, behind the abandoned buildings. Irene Schwachman’ s photographs are subdued studies, mostly interiors - desolate trains, corners of vacant/uninhabitable rooms, the reflections of a staircase and banister shimmering in a mirror. Karen Smiley’ s pairs of airport laborers side-by-side with their heads missing to confuse their identities don’ t turn out well at all. Wendy McNeil emphasizes faces in her work, Lotte Jacobi discovers biographies in faces, but Karen Smiley merely makes faces at faces.
Finally, 7 out of 14 New England Photographers are women. As an art of the 20th century, photography has given women and men a chance to grow up together. And at long last, recognition for artists of the camera is coming to the women who have pioneered and excelled.
Published in Equal Times