“We see photographs of women every day, but we are used to looking at them in a few specific contexts,” writes editor Charlotte Jansen, in the introduction to her new book, Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze. “On products and billboards, in shop windows and magazine covers, in erotica and pornography.” The premise behind the book, however, is that there is a rapidly growing number of women out there photographing women, creating images where both the subject and the “gaze” are female. “At times,” Jansen continues, “there seems to be little difference between how women photograph women and how men photograph women, but women have the right to self-objectify and to exploit without critique, just as men have been allowed to do since the earliest forms of art emerged”. And here, Jansen offers 40 international female photographers the opportunity to present their work, their aims and their motivations neutrally and without critique, albeit opening themselves up for critical response.
Jansen seeks to present the whole gamut of women photographing women, denying, rather than promoting, the idea of a specific genre. While some of those included are using their imagery as a tool for challenging perceptions, changing politics, or making some broader contribution to society, others are simply using the female body as a means to an end – as “a material that is available, over which the photographer-model has total ownership and final sovereignty”. Nevertheless, Jansen slips in the term “female photography”, which, to me, intimates an attempt both to catalogue and label. Would “women’s photography” not be the more general – and appropriate – description?
A lot of the “photographers” included could have been omitted with no great overall loss – in fact, with the advantage that the book would become less repetitive in its artist statements, quotes and quips. Many of the young artists included, who grew up in the digital generation, started off simply posting to their Instagram feeds and, via this route, “became” photographers or artists. Petra Collins, for example, who shot to fame when her Instagram account was closed after she posted a picture of her unshaven bikini line, is described as “for mainstream US youth culture in the 2010s what male predecessors (and mentors) Ryan McGinley and Richard Kern were for their times”. Similarly, Molly Soda and Elizabeth Renstrom seem primarily to be channelling teenage angst.
There are plenty of other women photographers out there, photographing women – women other than themselves, and in set ups other than to feed their social media accounts – who might have added to the variety and quality of this overview. More women like Zanele Muholi, for example – the first black, gay, South African photographer to challenge her reality from the inside and undoubtedly the most significant photographer represented here – or Juno Calypso, who puts forth that “women dressing up and taking pictures of themselves is a historical, global practice”. Nevertheless, the book is accessible, can be picked up and flicked through, used for reference, or read cover to cover – although the repetition factor starts to spoil the enjoyment when doing the latter. As with any compendium, there is always going to be the quibble of: “Why didn’t you include so and so?” and “What qualified so and so for being included?”, so, my personal taste aside, this is a valid and interesting collection, capturing a phenomenon as it takes hold, influencing not only this generation, but those to come, and not only art and photography aficionados, but teenage girls of all walks of life.
– reviewed by Anna McNay
Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze by Charlotte Jansen was published by, and is available from Laurence King Publishing