The rise and rise of the fe­male gaze

With an out­pour­ing of new fe­male photography, there’s an over­due fo­cus on women be­hind the lens. Sarah Bailey speaks to those at the fore­front

Red - - CONTENTS -

How #girl­gaze’s Amanda de Cadenet and oth­ers are re­fo­cus­ing photography’s lens firmly on women

I started shoot­ing pho­to­graphs be­fore the selfie was a thing, be­cause I wanted to be able to con­trol my own image,” says Amanda de Cadenet, CEO of the

#girl­gaze pro­ject and so many other slashes – founder/ sto­ry­teller/pho­tog­ra­pher/red mag­a­zine cover sub­ject among them. We could add “former wild child”, but re­ally, let’s not. After all, the mo­ment that de Cadenet be­came an ob­ses­sion of a pre-leve­son tabloid me­dia is a piv­otal mo­ment in this story. “The only di­a­logue I could have with the rest of the world was through images,” she says of that time. “We didn’t have so­cial me­dia when I was 15 or 16, so the mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion frus­trated me. I couldn’t sit down with the press, as they’d just write the story they wanted. All I could do was put out images of my­self. So that’s what I did when I was do­ing a pro­ject. I would put out self­por­traits. And then I fell fully in love with photography…”

De Cadenet and I are talk­ing on the phone – she in LA, me in north Lon­don – and even over an anony­mous con­fer­ence line, her tal­ent for straight-talk­ing in­ti­macy and sense of pur­pose is pal­pa­ble. She is a woman on a mis­sion. Cham­pi­oning (mostly young) fe­male photography through its cu­rated In­sta­gram hash­tag and, more re­cently, mu­seum shows, film-mak­ing schol­ar­ships and more, #girl­gaze is blos­som­ing. “For a whole gen­er­a­tion of cre­ative girls be­tween 14 and 24, if you are not into Kylie Jenner and her lip plumper, where are you go­ing? Who are your peo­ple?” dead­pans de Cadenet, who funded the en­ter­prise her­self for 14 months be­fore rais­ing cap­i­tal enough to go from two to eight em­ploy­ees in three months. “In 2016, women only saw 2% of VC fund­ing,” she ex­plains. “So it was ex­tremely dif­fi­cult.”

From Deb­o­rah Turbeville to Nan Goldin, Vi­vian Maier, Elaine Con­stan­tine, Sofia Cop­pola and more, I have al­ways been ob­sessed with fe­male pho­tog­ra­phers and women telling sto­ries from be­hind the lens. Of course, with the rise of the ‘vis­ual web’, we live in an in­creas­ingly image-sat­u­rated world, and yet still 90% of ad­ver­tis­ing images are taken by male pho­tog­ra­phers, which is just one tiny statis­tic that tells you how gi­gan­ti­cally skewed and pa­tri­ar­chal so many of the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women are. And yet, in this con­tem­po­rary pe­riod of dis­rup­tions and rev­o­lu­tions, we are see­ing a bril­liant wave of fe­male image-mak­ing that is chal­leng­ing the norms and flip­ping objectifications, whether in fash­ion, ad­ver­tis­ing, doc­u­men­tary or the art world. Ar­guably, the most ex­cit­ing name in fash­ion right now is Cass Bird (whose in­ti­mate por­traits of same-sex par­ent­hood and mod­ern fam­ily life are as pored over on­line as her fash­ion images are revered in mag­a­zines), while fierce tal­ents like Juno Ca­lypso, like Cindy Sher­man be­fore her, are sub­vert­ing fe­male self-por­trai­ture spec­tac­u­larly.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing how many of these fe­male image mak­ers play with iden­tity both in front of and be­hind the lens, and some­thing I dis­cuss with this month’s cover star Karen El­son (whose twin sis­ter is a film-maker and pho­tog­ra­pher), who puts it like this: “While I have been a muse many a time, I am also an artist and I am not shying away from that. It is es­sen­tial for me.” She draws par­al­lels with what’s hap­pen­ing in the film world right now, in the work of Sam Tay­lor-john­son, Sa­man­tha Morton (“who has just done a film”), Natasha Ly­onne and Sofia Cop­pola. “It’s a thing right now, it’s a move­ment, but it will be­come a norm.”

Of course, the Hol­ly­wood gen­der power im­bal­ance is rightly no­to­ri­ous. (Lest we for­get, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman who has won an Os­car for di­rect­ing – ever.) But as de Cadenet points out, “There was lit­tle con­ver­sa­tion go­ing on with the lack of gen­der par­ity in stills photography.” It was this light-bulb mo­ment that prompted her to mo­bilise her sassy and in­flu­en­tial fe­male image-mak­ing gang – Sam Tay­lor-john­son, war pho­tog­ra­pher Lynsey Ad­dario, Inez van Lam­sweerde among them – as #girl­gaze am­bas­sadors, bring­ing au­thor­ity and a cu­ra­to­rial in­flu­ence to the del­uge of images (2.8 mil­lion and count­ing) sub­mit­ted to the #girl­gaze pro­ject to date. Now a bian­nual zine is on its way, there is a mu­seum show planned for the Brook­lyn Mu­seum’s fem­i­nist wing in October, and in the same month, the first #Girl­gaze book will be pub­lished, penned by de Cadenet and her friend Am­ber Val­letta. (The fact de Cadenet has a sec­ond book »

“We are see­ing a bril­liant WAVE of FE­MALE image-mak­ing that is flip­ping the OBJECTIFICATIONS”

of mem­oirs and es­says out this au­tumn, ti­tled It’s Messy On

Boys, Boobs, And Badass Women, only makes me love her more. Her voice is ut­terly, un­com­pro­mis­ingly au­then­tic.)

The groundswell of new fe­male photography and the ur­gent fo­cus on women be­hind the lens in­spired this Novem­ber is­sue of Red – al­ways loosely themed around women in art – and our choice of fe­male pho­tog­ra­phers for this month’s lead vis­ual sto­ries. Sit­ting down to talk with Amelia Troubridge, the doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher who brings emo­tional depth and sto­ry­telling res­o­nance to her re­portage por­trai­ture, and Coliena Rent­meester, who shot both our cover story with Karen El­son and Ni­cola Rose’s fab­u­lous fash­ion shoot this month, the con­ver­sa­tions were fas­ci­nat­ing, re­veal­ing and laced with a lit­tle poignancy.

Rent­meester, daugh­ter of Dutch/amer­i­can pho­to­jour­nal­ist Co Rent­meester (fa­mous in­ter alia for shoot­ing the Watts ri­ots for Life mag­a­zine) be­gan her ca­reer work­ing as an as­sis­tant at the su­per-hip com­mer­cial agency Pro­pa­ganda (di­rec­tors in­cluded Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze), cre­at­ing mood boards for her bosses’ pitches. When she couldn’t find the images she wanted in mag­a­zines or books (“this was pre-in­ter­net”) she would shoot them her­self with a Le­ica bor­rowed from her fa­ther (won as a World Press Photo prize). “And I was to­tally hooked, to the point of no re­turn.” It’s a mark of Rent­meester’s gen­er­ous and san­guine na­ture that she ap­par­ently bears no ran­cour in telling me that, when she ap­plied to for­mally study photography at the Art Cen­ter Col­lege of De­sign in Cal­i­for­nia, her dad told her, “You’ll never get in, your work is too im­ma­ture”. Or that when she ap­plied any­way, got a schol­ar­ship and told her fa­ther the good news, he said, “Well, it’s not enough. Just keep your job. It’s steady and in a great place.” Ap­par­ently, when Rent­meester called the col­lege and told them she could only study part-time as she needed to keep her job, they dou­bled the schol­ar­ship. Ul­ti­mately she flat-out de­fied her fa­ther. “I said, ‘I’m go­ing,’ which was a rev­e­la­tory mo­ment for me.”

As a reader of Red you will al­ready be more than fa­mil­iar with Rent­meester’s aes­thetic, which mar­ries a trade­mark el­e­gance with a witty touch of whimsy or the car­ni­va­lesque. She cred­its Art Cen­ter ed­u­ca­tor Paul Jas­min (also a men­tor to Amanda de Cadenet and Sofia Cop­pola) as a key fig­ure who helped her on her jour­ney. Also Kathy Ryan, direc­tor of photography at

The New York Times, who gave her her first as­sign­ments, com­mis­sioned from a tiny stu­dent port­fo­lio (“just con­tact sheets taped up to­gether and notes about this and that”).

As a fe­male fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher, is the re­la­tion­ship with a fe­male model dif­fer­ent, I ask her?

“Some­times mod­els say, ‘It is so nice to be able to shoot with a fe­male pho­tog­ra­pher. I never get to do that.’ Once they say that I in­stantly feel a con­nec­tion to them, like there’s some un­spo­ken bond, a lan­guage, like we are both work­ing to­wards a greater good.”

“There’s some UN­SPO­KEN bond, a LAN­GUAGE, like we are both work­ing to­wards a greater GOOD”

Amelia Troubridge also points to her re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther as one of the start­ing points on her jour­ney to be­com­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher.

“My fa­ther had given me a cam­era when I was 15 and then he died when I was 18.”A de­fi­ant au­to­di­dact

(“I just started look­ing at books. In those days the big pho­tog­ra­phers like Lei­bovitz didn’t go to col­lege, they went on the streets to study it.”), cast emo­tion­ally adrift by the loss of her dad, Troubridge paints a pic­ture of fall­ing into the doc­u­men­tary photography scene in a pe­riod of deca­dence and cul­tural may­hem, whether tour­ing with Motör­head, hang­ing with Hunter S Thomp­son in Man­hat­tan or doc­u­ment­ing il­le­gal Mex­i­can im­mi­grants climb­ing the fences in Tijuana at 1am. “And you think you’re go­ing to get raped and they’re go­ing to steal your cam­eras, but you think, ‘I’m go­ing to give it a go,’” she re­calls. “So you of­fer them a cig­a­rette and they just trust you and that’s your en­ergy. It’s a very lucky thing to have a bit of luck.”

To­day Troubridge ad­mits that her fe­male­ness and her pro­fes­sional iden­tity was of­ten fraught. “I knew I had that brav­ery, that bravado, but I was also a sexy girl. [There was an as­sump­tion that] I could use my fe­male powers to win that re­ally dif­fi­cult fa­mous per­son over, and so you play the game.”

Her hon­esty is salu­tary and re­fresh­ing. “Be­cause

I was sexy, or pretty, I knew that was work­ing against me be­ing taken se­ri­ously as a pho­tog­ra­pher, which re­ally pissed me off. I found my­self work­ing dou­ble time to prove that I was just as good as the men. And I was ac­tu­ally be­ing paid less be­cause I am a woman.”

In the last seven years, Troubridge has mostly por­trayed women in her work. It has been a de­lib­er­ate shift, both per­sonal (“I’m a girl, I’m a woman,

I want to be ac­cepted by other women”) and po­lit­i­cal. She is elo­quent on the sub­ject of the chang­ing eco­nomics of me­dia, which have seen ed­i­to­rial photo desks starved of re­sources, while com­mer­cial brands in­creas­ingly stump up the com­mis­sion­ing fees for the im­agery we see around us – a sit­u­a­tion she de­scribes as “a cri­sis in photography” and the rea­son why the golden age of re­portage may well be be­hind us.

Re­cently, Troubridge em­barked on a fas­ci­nat­ing gov­ern­ment-funded pho­to­graphic pro­ject to de­pict fe­male in­no­va­tors (which was shown at the Getty Images Gallery in July). Troubridge in­sisted on full cre­ative con­trol over the pro­ject. “I just wanted to come out with a heroic image, not rely on hair or make-up, not re­ally on the styling, just them. There’s one woman with red hair and blue gloves on and she’s in the lab and she’s got chicken feathers and she is mak­ing them into in­su­la­tion.

And that’s world-chang­ing stuff. We don’t see women like that get the cool treat­ment, so if my work can be used like that, that’s amaz­ing. That’s what we’re here to do, to in­spire, I’m in­spired. I carry that in­spi­ra­tion.”

Such de­pic­tions are world-chang­ing stuff in­deed. I ask de Cadenet if she be­lieves there are par­tic­u­lar, in­nate qual­i­ties to a fe­male-lensed image. “I think there’s an em­pa­thy, a re­lata­bil­ity…” she says. “I mean, we all look through a lens. A straight man will pho­to­graph a man dif­fer­ently than a gay man will. It’s just to do with per­spec­tive, life ex­pe­ri­ence. I mean there are men who pho­to­graph women so beau­ti­fully… Plenty. It’s just that there’s no bal­ance. At #girl­gaze we high­light all the marginalised fac­tors – women of colour, non-gen­der bi­nary, trans – we are ex­tremely in­clu­sive. We have a whole com­mu­nity which is ev­ery colour of the rain­bow. And that is life. That is life in Amer­ica and the UK in 2017.”

“Be­cause I was SEXY, or pretty I knew that was work­ing AGAINST me be­ing taken SE­RI­OUSLY as a pho­tog­ra­pher”

Coliena Rent­meester, above and right, has brought her trade­mark el­e­gance to Red ’s pages, top

Amanda de Cadenet’s new book #Girl­gaze cham­pi­ons fe­male photography

CLOCK­WISE, FROM LEFT: Pho­to­graphs by Daria Kobayashi Ritch; Amaal Said; Kira Sneed; Claire Packer; Flora Ne­gri; and Yudi Ela from #Girl­gaze: How Girls See The World

CLOCK­WISE, FROM BE­LOW RIGHT: Amelia Troubridge; on set; her se­ries Women In­no­va­tors; Troubridge shot Pearl Lowe for Red De­cem­ber 2016 is­sue

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