The exhibition, Women Seeing Women, asks some interesting questions, without offering a definitive answer. How do women see? Do they see women differently than men do? Is there a female gaze? Presented by Staley-Wise Gallery in conjunction with the Magnum Photo cooperative, the exhibition features documentary photography from renowned Magnum photographers like Susan Meiselas and Eve Arnold, alongside images from veteran photographers native to the fields of editorial and advertising, including Ellen Von Unwerth and Deborah Turbeville.
Both documentary work featuring unknown female subjects and commercial work highlighting celebrities and models are on view, including images of Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, Rihanna, and Coco Chanel to name a few. However, an equally compelling work by Magnum photographer, Diana Markosian, is featured at the entryway to the gallery. It offers a stunning image of a young girl submerged in a swimming pool. Her contemplative face rests on her elbow at the edge of the pool, and the bottom edge of the image frame. Blue water wafts off into the distance behind her, filling the majority of the photograph. There is a beauty to the girl, however, it is clear that this is not an advertisement or fashion image. The only insight into the 15-year-old’s expression comes from wall text, informing viewers that the young woman is a refugee from Iraq who crossed the Mediterranean to Turkey sitting on the edge of a packed small rubber boat. She is now in Germany taking swimming lessons to overcome her fear of water.
A pair of images by Susan Meiselas and Ellen Von Unwerth, both headshots of women wearing masks, speak of fashion in vastly different contexts. Meiselas’ work captures a traditional Indian dance mask in 1970s Nicaragua, while Von Unwerth’s image, from VOGUE UK, features model Nadja Auermann in Paris wearing a provocative embroidered black mask, lips parted and marked with dark lipstick. These two images seem to speak most directly to what Women Seeing Women may be trying to reveal about women who photograph women; a respect for the complex and mysterious inner life of individual women.
Two images from a series by Magnum photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti published in book form as The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams document the imagination of two teenage girls playing in the countryside. The specific games and stories they create are unknown to the viewer, but it is clear the images are about the creation of amusement outside the context of cell phones, computers, city life, or television.
In a section within the exhibition where visitors can browse more than a dozen books by female photographers, Sanguinetti’s book and two books by legendary fashion photographer Deborah Turbeville also speak to a mysterious private life beyond the surface presentation of women and girls. In fact, a walk through the exhibition reveals nothing of the interiority of the private life of any of the women on view. If anything, it vehemently announces that women are not monolithic, despite what images may show us.
Women Seeing Women is on view at Staley-Wise through August 31, 2017.