There has been no shortage of books on female photographers appearing over recent months, so what does this compendium, published by Thames & Hudson this autumn, add to the library that its predecessors haven’t already provided? Certainly many of the artists included have been represented elsewhere, and some of the images are beginning to feel a little overly familiar – but, in a world where Helmut Newton’s vampy erotica or Robert Doisneau’s iconic Le Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville (1950) are recognisable in the flash of an eye, why shouldn’t Juno Calypso’s saccharine pink Honeymoon series nymphets (2015-16) and Natasha Caruana’s faceless brides (Fairytale for Sale series, 2011) be just as familiar and ubiquitous?
Firecrackers is named after the online initiative, set up by Magnum Photos Global Business Development Manager Fiona Rogers, one of the book’s co-editors, in 2011, as a platform dedicated to supporting female photographers worldwide by showcasing their work. Together with Max Houghton, who runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London, she has used this book to present the work of 33 women photographers – some involved with the platform, others not – who, together, provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the key themes concerning women working in the field today. ‘The challenges were more about who not to include, due to a finite number of pages, rather than who to include,’ Rogers notes in the introduction, adding: ‘Our emphasis was on the contemporary, the best or the surprising.’
Each artist is given one page of text and five of images – ample space, although in most instances works from just one or two series are set out. The texts are incisive and provide relevant biography (with more detailed biographical paragraphs in an appendix at the back of the book) and an overview of the themes, questions, inspirations and provocations of each artist’s work. The selection is as international as the concerns are global, with, for example, Indian photographer Poulomi Basu photographing inside the homes of absent sons, radicalised to fight with ISIS, in the jihadi ‘hotbed’ of Vilvoorde, on the outskirts of Brussels. Meanwhile in Florida, performer-provocateur Haley Morris-Cafiero captures the sneeringly askance gazes of passers-by as she – overweight and somewhat revealingly dressed – walks along the boulevards and beaches – spaces unofficially reserved for the trendy and toned.
Particularly interesting is the work of Scarlett Coten – a name new to me – a French photographer whose subjects are young Egyptian and Moroccan men, whom she meets in the streets and asks to pose for her, in an in-/subversion of the canonical norm of the female muse and male gaze. The results assert both masculinity and a certain femininity – perhaps moreover a basic sense of humanity. Also compelling are Mariela Sancari’s portraits of men who resemble her father, who committed suicide when she was 14, and Yunya Yin’s series of vignettes captured while travelling on the Trans-Siberian express.
The majority of the photographers deal with human subjects, but a small number focus on void landscapes, one such being Diana Matar, whose night-time shots explore human rights violations and anxieties. Zanele Muholi is of course also included, presenting her activist portraits of South Africa’s LGBTI community.
Houghton, in the foreword, pre-empts my own inherent scepticism, noting: ‘Drawing attention to a creative practice on the grounds of gender alone is, in a way, reductive.’ And indeed it is. But, until Calypso and Caruana trip off the tongue as readily as Newton and Doisneau, or at least until their images are recognised and lauded to the same degree, then well-edited and well-presented compilations like this are valid and, I would argue, even essential.
– Reviewed by Anna McNay
Below, a look inside Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now