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
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