In the Frame: Female Photographers Telling Stories

There are loads of photographers who take the body as their subject matter—hey, it’s nothing new. But the women in this post made a point of portraying the body as something to be celebrated and combined with fashion, sociological thinking, or mythology. It’s so much more than just snapping a photo.

Universal Dreams: Sam Taylor-Wood’s Escape Artist

white woman suspended in mid-air by four balloons

[Escape Artist, 2008]

Not just a photographer but also a prolific filmmaker, Sam Taylor-Wood has often used herself as the guinea pig for her experiments with mid-air suspension. Escape Artist is a brilliant example because it can be interpreted in many different ways—we see a woman frozen in time, with balloons tied to her hands and feet. Is she escaping or just thinking about getting away? Are we seeing her reality or what she longs to do? Without seeing her facial expression, it’s hard to tell whether she’s awake, asleep, dead, or knocked unconscious, so this act of freedom becomes more sinister. On a lighter note, seeing this image since the release of the children’s film Up made me think of its plot, with the house moved by thousands of balloons on an adventure, which obviously gives Taylor-Wood’s image the potential for childlike charm, talking about those hidden dreams we all keep inside us. After all, there are few of us who have never wished we could fly. 

Myths and Legends Brought to Life: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Circe

young white girl looking at the cameraolder white woman looking to the left

[L-R: Circe, circa 1865; At the Tomb, 1870]

She never planned to become a photographer—in fact, the medium wasn’t invented until she was middle-aged—but Julia Margaret Cameron’s hobby soon became her passion and she ended up working at a studio within the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Her images of goddesses and legendary characters were posed by her servants or relatives and they all have a beautiful soft focus that makes them seem ethereal. The photographer rejected the precise sharp focus that her contemporaries used, which was very daring at the time, and she gave us exposures that are truly beautiful.

Making a Point: Linder Sterling

two photos of white women in lingerie, their faces are covered by cutouts of roses

[Collages by Linder Sterling, dates unknown]

Sterling is known for hiding the identity of her subjects. The fashion designer Richard Nicoll praised her for having such a “strong, subversive female perspective,” and you can see where he was coming from when you look at her work. There’s a cut-and-paste collage element to her censoring of people’s faces that feels like vandalism, but it also can be seen as protective. By keeping someone’s identity a secret, there is a distance between the image and the viewer which cannot be breached. It’s also tempting to think that the women in question could be anyone—your mother, your sister, your daughter—which changes the way that men might think about exploitative photographs, instead of consuming them so readily.

Exploring Islamic Femininity: Shirin Neshat’s Women of Allah

a pair of hands covered in writing in black inka woman in a burqa standing next to a naked young child who is covered in ink drawings

[Images from Women of Allah series, 1993-1997]

A visual artist who works with video and photography, Shirin Neshat is a staple in modern art history textbooks here in Britain. She lives in New York but frequently focuses on her Iranian heritage, though she refuses to make “parallels between two cultures,” preferring to look at either Western or Middle Eastern influences individually. Women of Allah is a chance for her to engage with Iranian values and the divide between males and females, as well as the line between loving God and bearing weapons, which becomes more blurred when “devotion brings violence with it.” Religious fundamentalism is still a pressing issue in today’s society across all cultures, years after this series was created, and Neshat’s images can help viewers to try and untangle the problem.

Fashionable People: Deborah Turbeville

[Rosana, Parco, Paris, date unknown]

Turbeville blurs the lines between fashion and art in her images, which are sumptuous but also ultimately advertise products. Taking one of her photographs as a piece of art is all too easy when you look at her storytelling potential, carefully directing tableaux scenes and creating a narrative that feels too exciting to just be about commercial appeal. For me, that’s the value of great fashion photography: You could stick it on your wall and it would be a great piece in its own right (especially if there’s not a brand name in sight). There’s a fragility to her female figures which doesn’t feel dangerous, just honest, whether it’s a shot that mimics daily life or something a little more fantastical. We get to see women as women intended.

There are plenty of other female photographers to check out—I’ve mentioned Francesca Woodman, Ingrid Berthon-Moine and Nan Goldin previously in my blog series, and of course there are countless others that I didn’t have the space to write about—but these five stood out for me. They might not all call themselves feminists, but their work can speak to us about feminist issues.

by Polly Allen
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Claude Cahun

And not to forget Claude Cahun

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