0f Mothers and Men
Signals — a Festival of Women Photographers presents a diverse range of contemporary work from all over the world. Beatrice Colin takes a look at two contrasting shows and finds intimacy and humour in both.
woman with a camera can often be regarded with the satne jokey contempt as a woman behind the wheel of a car. Take pictures? Does she know which button to press? Despite an impressive body of work by women photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron. Imogen Cunningham. Dorothea Lange and Diane Arbus. live years ago when the 150th year of photography was celebrated. only four out of 92 photographers exhibited at the Royal Academy were women.
All over Britain and Ireland this month. however, exhibitions are being held of women photographers’ work. As part of Signals — a festival of women’s photography. everything from the delicate portraits by four Edwardian lady photographers shown in the National Gallery in London. to Cindy Sherman’s incredible self-portraits in an exhibition held in Manchester. will grace the walls of 400 venues. The festival will no doubt bring accusations of the ghettoisation of women’s work and critics will reel off the names of successful female photographers such as Helen Chadwick. Maud Sulter and Sally Mann in a feeble attempt to undermine the idea. But Signals is already proving to be extremely important in terms of acknowledging achievement in a wider arena and. more significantly. acting as a forum for women’s ideas and ways of seeing other work.
Two group exhibitions in Edinburgh focus on the female photographer’s response to another specified individual. In What She Wants at Stills. women look at the male body. and in Portrait of my Mother at the French Institute. in words and images. women explore their relationships with their mothers. What She Wants could also be called The Dick Show. Penises of various sizes. erect. flaccid, leaping out of computer monitors. handcuffed to a gloved hand or pierced with huge rings are the subjects of many of the images. But beyond the initial gawp and quake reaction, the exhibition re-appears as a funny. tender and occasionally erotic depiction of the male body by two dozen female photographers.
Diane Baylis’s piece Abroad is one of the less provocative photographs. Here. the torso and nether regions of a nude male become a
landscape in which the penis curves and folds
like a soft hillock. ‘It doesn’t have to be threatening. it can be like a place to travel.’ says Baylis of her male subject’s body. “Like abroad. it can be dangerous and frightening but it can also be a very illuminating experience because it's outside of yourself.‘ [Elsewhere the images in the show will divide relationships. horril’y old ladies and provoke long arguments in the ladies’ loo. Is it exploitative‘.’ Is it sensationalist? Is it any good'.’ Skip the verbose. political essay in the catalogue. This exhibition is a tentative. sometimes clumsy look at that thing. The object most people never look at in public let alone examine in detail in private. ‘We so rarely see it.’ says another participating photographer. Robin Shaw. ‘They’re hidden but they’re everywhere. in our conversation. alluded to but not actually visible.’
This show is about establishing a whole new language to interpret the male body. Although everyone is familiar with the female nude and it has been portrayed in dozens of ways from Degas to Page Three. the male nude has been frozen by classicism and by the homo-erotic work of Mapplethorpe. The penis. for multiple
reasons. one of them aesthetic. has never been seen as worthy of much attention. It’s an unknown quantity. "I’here’s a certain nervousness and anxiety that exists in some ways of approach.’ agrees Baylis. ‘When women look at the images that are genitally- orientated. there is a discomfort because it’s about confronting your own reactions.’
‘An erection is one of the most taboo images in our culture.‘ she continues. ‘But you have a natural curiosity about it when you’re growing up. Why is it wrong to look‘.’ Other cultures depict the erect penis in a pleasurable way. [In our society] you don’t come to it as something which is a wondrous or magical thing. It is very beast-like and dangerous. I don’t think this builds a very good relation between the sexes.’
In this show men are depicted as proud. embarrassed. turned on and. dare I say. cocky“? And while some women are clearly turning the tables on men and producing porn in an act of revenge. others capture highly personal moments which act as a celebration of love. "l’here are loads of images of women’s fertility.’ points out Baylis. lots of footage of the celebration of childbirth. when the baby comes
10 The List 23 September—6 ()ctober I994