Whether they are young designers or renowned photographers, women play a leading role in the world of photography. An exciting digital journey makes it possible to discover it, reports French Ministry of Culture. Even though Paris Photo, the international fair dedicated to photography, cannot take place this year because of the global pandemic situation, there is still an opportunity to discover the digital version of the journey dedicated to women photographers through the project Elles X Paris Photo.
The website of the project is curated by Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, who is also a curator at the Centre Pompidou’s photography office. She shares some of the key insights about the project in an interview.
Bright images, dreamy images, transformed images, militant images and witness images: the journey of ellesxparisphoto.com is organized around five themes. How do these themes focus on women photographers?
Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska: These themes make the selection more readable and testify to the fact that among the masters and historical figures who inspired the contemporary authors, there are also women. They combine aesthetic approaches or photographic genres by demonstrating that there is always an elder to discover for contemporary women. For example, for a young photographer who is in the surrealist vein, we spontaneously tend to cite Man Ray, Brassaï or Hans Bellmer as sources of inspiration. We might as well quote Kati Horna or Dora Maar.
How did you choose the forty photographers in the selection?
- K.Z.-L.: This choice comes from the proposals made by the galleries for Paris Photo. There were about 200 to 250 women photographers among the 1,000 authors proposed. It is from this corpus that I made my selection. I first became interested in other women I did not know, who were discoveries for me. Then, and we discussed this within the team, it seemed to me that the fact of only proposing new names could be discouraging for the public who also likes to find known names. It was at this point that I began to think about these older women who could be the inspirations of contemporary women. With one difficulty however: for contemporary creation there were many original, surprising and strong proposals. For historical photography, on the other hand, one remained on the same names, as if in the history of photography, there was nothing more to discover with regard to the presence of women, which is not the case, quite the contrary.
The challenge today is to make them discover. I find it a shame that the galleries, even though they know that a course will be dedicated to women in Paris Photo, continue to present the same photographers, as interesting and talented as they are. For example, there were many women to discover in the 19th century. The authors of Une histoire mondiale de la photographie are not mistaken. They focused specifically on the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. But this disappointment aside, I naturally integrated these historical authors known to trace a genealogy different from that which usually exists.
Who are the historical photographers and, at the other end, the discoveries, that you would spontaneously like to talk about?
- K.Z.-L.: As for the historical authors, I was very fortunately surprised by the work of the galleries working on the Japanese scene. We have photographers, Miyako Ishiuchi or Hitomi Watanabe, to name a few, all born in the 1930s, who have worked in the documentary vein. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, they were often absent from the presentations of Japanese photography on the model of the avant-garde magazine Provoke [a journal that popularized the work of Moriyama and Araki (Ed.)]while aesthetically they are very close to this movement. It is a very interesting sign to see them among these proposals.
What also struck me was the strength of the younger generation. I’m not just talking about the very young women, but also the middle-aged. Among these generations, the women are very numerous and talented. I am also very impressed by the non-European scenes. We can see that parity is emerging and, more generally, changes that echo those that occur throughout society. For some of them, they are authors I already know, I observe and I support. I am thinking in particular of Charlotte Abramow, Tanja Lazetic whom I discovered several years ago and who is still unknown in France, who carries out a very interesting and committed work, especially on feminist and environmentalist themes, to Yael Burstein, an Israeli photographer who is probably seen for the first time in Paris Photo, to Ira Lombardia, a very interesting Spanish photographer… It is impossible to mention them all because they are so numerous. The strength of their work and their presence undeniably mark contemporary photography.
Working under extremely special circumstances, we also decided at the last moment, when we learned that Paris Photo would not take place, to modify the selection intended initially to make discover new authors by adding a few French authors of more confirmed generations, such as Valérie Jouve, Sophie Calle or Sarah Moon to whom the Musée d’art moderne de Paris dedicates an exhibition that the confinement has come to interrupt.
The particularity of the site is also to give voice to these women photographers through filmed testimonies.
- K.Z.-L.: When we organize these courses today exclusively dedicated to women, it is not neutral. Some authors do not wish to identify with this approach, while others on the contrary are very supportive and support it. We wanted to give an indication of how the other women are positioning themselves in relation to this action. On the other hand, it is always interesting to give them the floor. That is why we are doing these actions: to make them more present and to encourage them to speak out. The idea of filming some of them is directly related to this desire to give them more visibility.
The site also publishes infographics that show the place of women in photography schools, exhibitions, fairs…
- K.Z.-L.: This is very important work that was undertaken by the Ministry of Culture’s photography delegation. There had never been any investigations from that angle. So there was no comparison. Beyond this survey, it is the policy generally pursued by the Ministry of Culture in favour of parity that is important. The results have not been long in coming. Let us hope that this continues and changes the situation in a sustainable way. We are of course no longer in the 1970s, things have changed, but they have progressed less quickly than we might have supposed, which is why institutional actors and civil society are mobilizing today. There’s still a lot to do.