I spent last week at LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia. I contend that LOOK3 is the best photo festival in the U.S. (if not world); however, I’m not exactly impartial. I helped organize last year’s LOOKbetween, a symposium for young photographers held in LOOK3’s off year, and liveblogged, Facebooked, and Tweeted for the festival this year.
I could go on about why I think LOOK3 is so great (limited attendance, small town setting, inclusion of younger photographers, passionate heart, amazing organizers), but I particularly want to talk about something I noticed in the talks and slideshows at this year’s event…as someone (I wish I could remember who) said to me after talks by Christopher Anderson and Ashley Gilbertson, “Today could have been titled, ‘Men Being Emotional.'”
Chris kicked off Friday’s Masters Talks with his usual thoughtful eloquence, focusing on his latest work, Son, an extremely personal project centered on his family (wife, young son, and ailing father). Ashley followed with an impassioned talk about his years of conflict work and especially his most recent project, Bedrooms of the Fallen, which quietly but undeniably demonstrates the price we pay for war. Their presentations were mentioned as a festival high point by almost everyone I met.
This got me thinking about photography that is more emotionally present, something I wrote about a few weeks ago here. There seems to be a trend, with photojournalism in particular, of going beyond an objective capturing of “who, what, where” to a subjective account, seen through the photographer’s own emotional lens.
Now, there is nothing to say that this is necessarily a movement from “male” to “female,” but I do think that to be emotionally engaged with your images you have to be vulnerable (a big idea in my life right now). And I think it’s fair to say that vulnerability is associated more with women than men, that it is something we are more inclined toward, or, probably, more encouraged by society to feel and express.
Which brings me to the second high point of LOOK3: the closing-night conversation between Sally Mann and Nan Goldin. Sally opened with this: “It occurs to me that Kathy Ryan put us here on stage together for a reason. We are perceived to be so strong and unflinching. Yet, I know that I’m fragile as ash. And I have the perception you feel the same.” And things only got more raw and more real from there. (Read the full conversation here.)
They admitted they envied each other’s lives, they commiserated about their work being dubbed pornographic, they talked about their pussies (and I don’t mean their cats). A few times I wondered nervously what the men in the audience were thinking. But then I thought, who cares? I’m sick of women acting like it isn’t hard to work in a male-dominated field, of not wanting to admit we’re vulnerable because it further calls attention to our “femaleness.” There was something so empowering and exciting about seeing these talented, wise, proud women talking just like they would if they were alone. “This is really how women talk to one another,” I thought.
What triggered my final “aha” moment was a slideshow presented on Saturday night: Steve Giovinco’s On the Edge of Somewhere. The artist’s description reads, “I photograph psychologically intimate and emotional relations between couples,” and the voice over clarified that the couple in the photographs was Steve and his wife. I liked the work, but I kept thinking, “This is just like Elinor Carucci.” Elinor’s My Children was shown a few slideshows ahead, so I doubt I’m the only one who saw the resemblance.
I don’t want to get myself in trouble by saying there is a “female” way of making photos, but if we had to draw some pattern from contemporary women photographers (at least in the fine-art world), it would be of making personal, vulnerable images, often of themselves or their loved ones. And here was a man doing exactly that! Women entering any male-dominated field have long been influenced by the men already there: insisting they are “just like men” or else working in conscious contradiction to “maleness.” I wondered if that flow of influence is starting to reverse?
Even more exciting is the idea that, like most walls in our modern society, the one between “male” and “female” art and artistic subjects/approaches is coming down. We are all given room to be vulnerable if we want, to make “family” photos that are still respected by the industry, or to do the opposite, if that’s your thing. More freedom and less pigeonholing can only be a good thing for art, right?