In Depth

Girl on Girl: Charlotte Jansen on women in photography

The journalist on how her new book examines the way women are depicted and the images they create for themselves

The way we see women is changing, thanks to a new generation of female photographers who are breaking into the mainstream consciousness for the first time in history. We’re used to seeing women depicted by men or for men, but the ‘female gaze’ – a visual world according to women, for women – offers a different perspective.

I thought it was important to understand what the rise of female photographers in the last five years means not only for art and photography, but for visual culture in general. In Girl on Girl, I interviewed 40 women whose female gaze falls specifically on the female form: the most difficult subject to tackle in visual culture, and one that urgently needs to be repositioned. When we see women in photographs, the dominant message we get is that women are sexual or commercial objects – whether it’s in fashion magazines, in advertising or in art. Even when women are affecting the way we see things – creating more of the photographs we’re exposed to every day – it’s framed as a passing trend, rather than a genuine social shift. Since photographs of women have such a central place in our visual world, if we’re not able to see beyond these interpretations, how can we expect to feel differently when we look at a woman in real life?

Building on the legacy of female photographers throughout the 20th century, from the radical feminists of the 1970s, to the post-modernist works of the 1980s and 1990s, I talked to artists who have emerged in the so-called 'selfie' era, the Instagram age in which photography’s boundaries have become blurred. Deciding to photograph a woman as a woman is not easy – not only do you risk being dismissed as narcissistic and vapid, but your work will quickly be labelled as feminine or feminist, which is a way of making it appear less relevant. It’s even more difficult to be taken seriously if you are a woman who takes pictures of herself and you work online. The photographers I met continue to create in the misogynistic atmosphere that pervades our world, but if you care to take a longer look at what they’re doing, you’ll see that the female gaze isn’t something that only relates to women and has plenty to say on any number of topics. It’s a way of seeing the world in a way we’ve never seen it before.

Leading the way in this are young artists whose practice emerged first online, including Juno Calypso, Petra Collins and Molly Soda. Each of their practices is distinct and their approach is very different. Each plays with the infinitely problematic online selfie, and uses it in unique ways to disrupt the idea we have of public and private space. Calypso, for example, invents a fantasy world in order to say something true about inner desire and the way personal desire and commercial romance intertwine and diverge. Collins meanwhile works with the way we look at photographs now – at a rapid rate – and has built a community that’s less centred on the iconic image and more on developing tools for coping with the angst of modern life.

There are other women in the book, working across the fields of art, fashion, advertising and documentary, who show how varied the use of the female form can be – and how limited our understanding of it has been until now. Avia Wyse – a young Israeli photographer who doesn’t work online at all – for example, creates multiple images of naked bodies, insisting on bodies as bodies, a physical matter, a shell for the soul, and nothing more. She never appears in her images, but it is only her perspective that we get from them. Other women only use their own bodies, as it is the only one they can truly control, such as Isabelle Wenzel, who mixes design, sculpture and performance with photography. She only uses her own body, she says, because it is something she has constant, uninhibited access to, and no small talk with models is required. Her images tell us nothing about femininity or about the self – they’re spontaneous snapshots that make use of form, and the relationship to space.

The only thing that connects these 40 women is that they all choose to photograph women, and what their work shows us is that when we look at women, there are so many more things we could be seeing.

CHARLOTTE JANSEN is an arts and culture journalist and editor-at-large of Elephant magazine. Her book, Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze (£19.99, Laurence King), is out now; laurenceking.com

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