Ask why blue-chip photography galleries represent fewer women than men, and you might hear a supply-side argument: “A century ago, there just weren’t that many women making museum-quality work.” A Female Gaze: Seven Decades of Women Street Photographers, now on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery, proves this theory false. Encompassing work by 12 women photographers that spans the course of the 20th century, this impressive exhibition showcases these artists’ creative ingenuity and their raw technical skill. The exhibition title cleverly inverts Laura Mulvey’s concept of “the male gaze” — which, according to Mulvey’s well-known essay, objectifies and fetishizes its female subjects — while rightly acknowledging that its artists’ perspectives are not universal; it is a vision, not the vision.
A Female Gaze includes a wide range of street photography, not all of which was taken at street level. Several works by Ruth Orkin were taken looking down from the artist’s apartment window, giving the scenes an angled, almost Constructivist appearance. “Man in Rain”(1952) is one such image, which masterfully captures individual raindrops — no easy feat, even with today’s digital technology. Berenice Abbott’s show-stopping aerial photograph “Night View, New York”(1932) is one of those works that now looks cliché because of the decades of photographers who have tried to imitate it. The level of detail in the gargantuan gelatin silver print is startling; despite the photograph’s 15-minute exposure time, one can still make out the rooms behind each illuminated window.
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Many of the women in A Female Gaze were members of the Photo League, a New York cooperative of socially conscious photographers that was active from 1936 until 1951, when its leftist origins landed it on a Justice Department blacklist. The organization championed work that was both aesthetically composed and socially significant; for example, Helen Levitt, one of the better-known female photographers associated with the group, documented children on the on the streets of New York and the chalk drawings they left behind. One of the works from this series, “N.Y.” (c. 1942), depicts a delightfully youthful chalk portrait of a girl with a sly smile. Positioned so that only the plane of the sidewalk is in view, the photograph itself becomes a kind of abstract drawing, recalling Brassaï’s Graffiti photo series of the 1930s. Women like Levitt made up almost a third of the League’s membership, serving significant roles within the organization at a time when women were rarely allowed such agency.
Whether these women of the Photo League were really “encouraged equally alongside their male counterparts” as the press release claims is up for debate; as Catherine Evans writes in The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951, the League “encouraged women but did not entirely support them.” Photo League editors — just like their gallery and institutional counterparts — favored work by male photographers, leaving many of the group’s female members to return to the domestic roles that society expected of them. Today, much of their work has been lost.
Hopefully, A Female Gaze signals a new direction for Howard Greenberg Gallery’s program, which has skewed disproportionately white and male. While the art world has become increasingly conscious of gender and racial inequity in recent years — and the gallery itself is predominantly staffed by women — its program has in fact become less equal along gender lines over the past decade. From 2013 to 2015, its website indicates that 26 percent of its solo exhibitions were of female artists; from 2016-2018, as the MeToo movement gained traction, this figure dropped to 18 percent. Since 2018, solo presentations by female artists now stand at a dismal 7 percent. Of the 66 artists that Howard Greenberg lists as representing on its primary roster, 10 of them are women. (Only two Black artists are included in this list: Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee.)
From its inception, Howard Greenberg Gallery has championed a socially conscious approach to photography similar to that of the Photo League; a pioneer in the art market, the gallery fought for photojournalism and street photography’s place in the canon. Its program, however, hasn’t always matched its ethos. As one of New York City’s leading photo galleries—particularly as one that describes its collection as “a living history of photography”—it should strive to represent an accurate, more complete view of that history. As Mary Ellen Mark once said, “nothing is more interesting than reality.”
A Female Gaze: Seven Decades of Women Street Photographers continues at Howard Greenberg Gallery (41 East 57th Street, Suite 801, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 2.