When looking at top prizes in photography, at «book on books» anthologies or established photobook publishers’ inventories, it becomes clear that the representation of women is small in comparison with their male peers. How We See: Photobooks by Women is a book on books that came to life as a result of this discovery – a little gem of carefully selected photo projects that call for slow and careful exploration, and that appeal to the curiosity of both heart and mind.
To create this collection, ten women experts in the photobook field from ten diverse geographic regions were invited to shed light on their favorite photobooks made by female photographers. The books selected had to be in print, published between 1843 and 2010, and had to be historically significant, preferably reflecting the regions their makers came from. The result is a mosaic of conceptually well-defined projects. By turning their lenses toward private space, or looking outwards at the world around, each of the books selected uncovers a personal or social angle you might or might not have considered before.
It is important to say that the idea of having a carefully curated anthology of women photographers is generous, yet if this was How We See’s main selling point, it wouldn’t be enough. Its true value is not in the fact that it «supports women,» but that it turns the spotlight on powerful work that otherwise might be forgotten or unseen.
With each page, the readers are drawn into an experience that goes beyond what the images depict
One of my favorite projects featured is on Hannah Höch, one of the only women photographer members of the Dada movement, which pioneered the political photomontage. While working as an editor for women’s magazines in the 20s, she collected magazine ads and newspapers that address women’s emancipation and domesticity, gender roles, political discourses, racism, and slavery. She experimented with technique but, facing censorship in Nazi Germany, never found a publisher for her photobook named Bilderbuch (Picture Book). Eventually, it was published as a facsimile in 2008.
A challenging micro universe
The book is full of many other gems and surprising projects. In uncovering this emotionally and intellectually challenging micro-universe, the book is in itself an experience. With each page, the readers are drawn into an experience that goes beyond what the images depict, a full dive into a world of symbols, textures, and framed concepts expressed through a variety of photos and mixed media. Each page calls for full presence and attention, to decipher how immediate visuals hide subtle meanings and feelings, and the juxtaposing images and words can be used to create irony, critique or capture experience, emotions, and absurdity.
Many of photo projects featured don’t touch on a general theme and surprise by the subtle observations and commentary they contain (Lucia Nimcova’s Animal Imago and Justyna Wierzchowiecka’s Museum Studies #1; Ting Cheng’s Baker Salon; Eugenia Maximova’s Associated Nostalgia). Yet, some themes are clearly recurring throughout – such as engagement in political and social issues (Maria Isabel Arango’s Los Gestos Muertos; Hitomi Watanabe’s Tekiya; Celeste Rojas Mugica’s Una Sombra Oscilante), patriarchy and women’s condition (Frederique Bangerter’s Lucha Libre; Amak Mahmoodian’s Shenasnameh; Abigail Heyman’s Growing Up Female; Cemre Yesil’s For Birds’ Sake; Laia Abril’s On Abortion), family (Sophie Calle’s Rachel, Monique…; Mayumi Suzuki’s The Restoration Will; Arlene Gottfried’s Mommie: Three Generations of Women), sexuality and relationships (Laurence Rasti’s There Are No Homosexuals in Iran), the female body (Anne Collier’s Women With Cameras; Susan Meiselas’ Carnival Strippers; Barbara Kasten’s The Diazotypes) – a reflection of how these issues might have specific local traits and might vary in details, but they have an universal relevance, transcending geographical, generational and time barriers.
Eventually, what all projects truly have in common is their makers’ sensible eyes on human condition and impermanence, and the feelings, thoughts, and reflections they inspire. The sum of them, printed in one book, is a showcase for some of the best photography made by women, a book to experience page by page and get a taste of what is possible, and later on, decide which of the many windows it opens are the ones you would like to see better through.
Featured Image: Animal Imago (cover) by Lucia Nimcova