This assignment is rooted in the tradition of Feminist Photography, which first appeared in the 1960s. Women photographers had their place before this, and in the very early days , ‘those with ability found professional photography a refreshingly level playing field.‘ (Ang, 2014, p114)  but it was limited to the wealthy, as only they could afford the necessary equipment. People such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Zaida Ben Yusef, Anna Atkins and Gertrude Käsebier were among those who made a name for themselves before and around the beginning of the 20th century. On the whole, their images tended to be more artistic than documentary in nature.
In the period from the beginning of the 20th century to the Second World War, women photographers gradually expanded their acceptable remit to include social documentary, domestic and vernacular photography and fashion, as well as an under-reported representation as war photographers . However, it was only with the huge upsurge of the so-called Second Wave of Feminism of the 1960s  that the place of women in society and more specifically as photographers was addressed. This was the period of history that spawned the feminist photographer – one who used photography to make specific and overt political points about women’s place in the world.
The 1970s was a hugely creative period for both feminist artists and photographers, and the exhibition Feminist Avantgarde of the 1970s,  which was shown at The Photographers Gallery in London in 2016 revealed the range and ability of work that was undertaken at that time. Of particular interest to my assignment was that produced by Barbara Kruger , with its use of words overlaying images in a Dada advertising style, Francesca Woodman‘s use of the body in performance to make specific points about her place in the world,  and Carolee Schneemann’s reclamation of the female nude as a feminist symbol through tableaux.  Some of the work was aggressive in style, with overt use of female nudity to make people feel embarrassed and ashamed, such as VALIE EXPORT’s Genital Panic , which actively courted hostility in its audience. Others used self-mutilation to make their point, such as Karin Mack  and a third group questioned their place in society through the different roles that they were required to take, e.g. mother, lover, working woman, etc. (Martha Wilson  Marcella Campagnano .
From the 1990s a new wave of feminism began to appear – The Third – which has focused on ‘the micropolitics of gender equality‘  and which continues to this day. This has been attempting to find an acceptable path between the aggressive politics of 1970s and 1980s feminism, with its hint of butch women in dungarees which is actively rejected by many younger women, and the selfie generation – obsessed with how they look, and who often see current feminism as permission to choose whether to seek equality and independence or the role of the traditional Stay At Home Mother/Wife/Girlfriend. Alongside this, views about gender and cultural politics are changing at an ever-increasing pace, with non-binary, non-gendered and LGBTQ groups each claiming a Gaze of their own and intersectionality, gender mainstreaming, and the reframing of woman as ‘subject, not object’, all being added to the mix. This is outlined in the concluding chapter of Angela McRobbie’s The Aftermath of Feminism (2009)  and leads to concerns about whether diluting the message too much risks losing it altogether.
It is not until one is shown a clear alternative that some of the baggage that mainstream arts is carrying becomes obvious. Throughout this course unit, I have been considering different aspects of how much of our world is wholly perceived through the lens of the Male Gaze, a term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’  and which is defined as
The perspective of a notionally typical heterosexual man considered as embodied in the audience or intended audience for films and other visual media, characterized by a tendency to objectify or sexualize women.
‘it’s because of the male gaze that female characters are regularly eroticized’ Oxford Dictionary (n.d.) 
With the concept of the Male Gaze having been accepted, it was only a matter of time before feminists asked whether a Female Gaze might also exist , and more lately a Non-gendered Gaze, and we began to wonder what art using the female gaze might look like. Jill Soloway brilliantly outlined it in her lecture On the Female Gaze (TIFF Uncut, 2016) . Two books which consider this are Annie Liebowitz’s Women , which is a series of portraits of some of the important women in world affairs around the millennium, (although I was not convinced at her lecture recently that she specifically started with a feminist viewpoint, and she indicated that it may have been added by Sontag) and Charlotte Janse’s Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze , which considers work by 40 female photographers from all over the world in a refreshing reversal of the usual male-oriented photographic anthology. The latter book in particular is fascinating in the way it subtlely offers an alternative viewpoint on matters as varied as Nakeya Brown’s Hair Stories Untold  and Pinar Yolaçan’s Maria (2007)  a series on Afro-Brazilian matriarchs, whom she dresses in handmade costumes of meat and offal. It soon becomes abundantly clear that half the world’s population has views that are quite different from the historic patriarchal one, and that those views are interesting and as worthy of exploration as the more traditional male ones.
Bringing this from the general to the particular, my assignment uses the concept of the female gaze to question where women are really positioned in today’s society. It draws on the performative aspects of work by photographers including, Carol Schneemann, Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman and Jo Spence’s Phototherapy series , whose work specialises in using the female body as a prop/clothes horse to make political and social points. Schneemann and Woodman were often unclothed in their work and used the environment of the studio to make their point, while for Sherman and Spence the clothing is an important part of the performance, connoting different domestic and societal roles.
I have written previously  about the work of the Albarran Cabrera duo, who use gold leaf as a part of their image making, and my own early experiments using similar techniques. On the whole, one cannot actually see the gold leaf in their work, as it is usually only the back of the works, but I rather like being able to see the leaf around the edges of the image – it firmly acknowledges its presence and provides the opportunity for symbolic value.
Process of work towards the final assignment
As has been stated previously, the starting point for the assignment was a series of silhouette images that I made from a photoshoot. My early experiments with them included printing them on thin washi paper and backing them with gold leaf, so that there was a hint of it showing through the paper.
I also tried using words around the images, which I liked but which did not provide sufficient depth of meaning for an assignment. However, it did produce the variable of using the images in reverse silhouette, offering the opportunity of viewing them as two different sides to the story.
At this point, I became interested in how the series could be presented so that the gold leaf would be visible but also contained, as it is very fragile. Further experiments using some of the book making skills which I had begun to learn at the SW OCA’s workshop day  gave me the idea of remodelling a Sewn and Tied Binding  to include a window within each page, and sandwiching the images back to back. When sewn together the final result becomes a book that one can view from either end, but with each end beginning a different story.
The final part of the production process was to make a box in which to present the fragile book, initially to protect it, but also to add an element of mystery and value to the object inside. I made the box from instructions found in Marie Clayton’s (2017) Ultimate Papercraft Bible, p141 – Made to measure box .
The overall aim was to produce a physical piece of work that had a story to tell, but in which the materiality of the piece added layers to that story. I have avoided giving too many suggestions in the Assignment itself about what viewers might like to read into the object, but will outline a few here:-
- the box as container (Pandora’s Box) and as mystery (The Box of Delights)
- the physical book giving gravitas and value to the images as well as being a showcase for them
- the images being seen through windows (voyeuristic, trapped, exhibits-objects)
- the gold leaf extending raggedly from underneath the images, with occasional spots on the surface (imperfection, partially hidden value/worth of women to society)
- the silhouetted figure (everywoman) who is clothed and shoed (not vulnerable, strong)
- the double-ended nature of the book – whichever end one begins, the story becomes the same, and it is binary in nature. One can either start from a good, white demon or angel, but the internal story moves to the reverse, but identical conclusion, a bad, black demon or angel.
- the powerful strength of the poses – there is nothing submissive about them at all.
- the concept of woman as being a stereotype, either good or bad, and its transformation between the two ends (angel and demon) to indicate that there is a middle ground.
However, despite all these meaningful connotations, the overarching feelings that it provokes for me is one of exuberant play and the joy of collaborating with other women.
Finally, I would like to thank Kate Aston for all her help during the process of making this assignment and for pointing me towards her post  on the Feminist Avantgarde exhibition. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this myself and her review was very helpful.. She has been a great source of support and ideas throughout.
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