Passionate Crusader

In the 1950's, Helen Gee's Limelight Gallery — the first exclusively photographic gallery in New York— used to sell prints by now—familiar masters, such as Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams and Minor White. Since photographs had never been sold to collectors before, the gallery did not know what to charge. The average price was $25, though for an Imogen Cunningham the pictures were tagged as low as $10 —and she was happy to get it.

Even in the formative days of American creative photography, the serious woman photographer - in the commercial company of men -was being shortchanged even when her work was equally fascinating, technically expert and passionately committed. This whole annoying situation has never really changed.

In the current travelling exhibition, "Women See Women", you have the rare opportunity of seeing a show comprised entirely of women artists. You can shift your focus to any of 96 photos by 70 diverse women contributors. It offers a choice juxtaposition of visual styles and techniques, ranging from the extremes of merely ordinary candids to the spectacular and unreal "Fist" by Barbara Morgan.

The purpose of the show, selected and organized by Vvonne Kalmus, Rikki Ripp, and Cheryl Wiesenfeld and mounted by Starr Ockenga, director of MIT's Creative Photography Lab, is to "interpret and redefine woman's relationships". It's an innovative concept, but it has disappointing results. Considering how women have been and are treated by men in the media, the subjects in this show are let off rather easily and mercifully: they are affectionate objects of mild curiosity but are not revealed in any new ways as to intensify our feelings. Our comprehension of them remains vague and not truly changed.

This show is pleasant and sometimes good. Some prints radiate energy and strength, but the images are neither expressive nor strong enough to make a lasting impression. Any sense of poetry is notably absent, except for one mysterious gun/Arabic print by Eva Weiss of a pallid man in shower cap.

Photos ought to capture moments that people can't always see. In this show, what you see is what you already know: there are men in muscular poses, men in hard hats, hands of men holding power objects like food or a cigar. There is Sardi Klein's wry non-commonplace pose by a tailor in front of his rack of suits in Playboy centerfolds arrayed like frescos above him.

The most admirable are the portraits which create their own existential dramas: Inge Morath's portrait of the elusive cartoonist Saul Steinberg in a paper cut-out mask, Gretchen Berg's commanding profile of the deceased film-director Fritz Lang, Lotte Jacobi's picture of the young and bulging-eyed Peter Lorre, and finally Nancy Crampton's warm and private portrayal of the artist Romare Beardon and his cat.

This particular show contributes to and enlarges the tradition of the all-woman effort, but finally it conveys little of importance and exerts no profound effect. I sincerely wish it had been better. My feelings coincide with Dorothy's Parker's succinct review of the film I Am A Camera: "No Leica !"

Published in Equal Times