Collaborative Portraiture Female representation
In this new exhibition uniting the work of three Magnum photographers, Oliver Atwell finds the power of representation handed back to its subjects
When we look at a portrait, who is it we are actually seeing? Our first instinct is to suggest that the answer is obvious: we are seeing a person. But the real question is, which version of that person are we seeing? Are we truly seeing an honest depiction of an individual or are we witnessing an individual who has been moulded by the subjective gaze of the photographer? Perhaps we are seeing them through the gaze of an artist who has staged and controlled a character as they see it. Add to that the gaze of each individual who then sees that image – all of whom will carry their own preconceived notions – and we’re left with a subject that, in the end, bears little or no resemblance to the ‘reality’ of the sitter. The sitter ultimately becomes a tapestry or collage, one that is rearranged and renewed with each viewing. This has of course been an issue with photography since day one. The very act of photographing a scene means it is stripped from its context. Portraiture (along with documentary) is perhaps one genre that illustrates this beautifully. The reactions to the annual Taylor Wessing prize always inspire debate about the political nature of representation. But perhaps the best examples revolve around gender. The female form, as we know, has for the most part been captured and crystallised by the male gaze. That’s why literature, art and cinema are populated by such distinct archetypes – the housewife, the passionate lover, the maiden, the mother, the Mary Sue, the manic pixie dream girl, and so on, ad nauseum. It’s with great interest that we can look to today’s politicised climate around gender and hope that female representation is given back to its artists and subjects. This exhibition is one of many attempts to move towards that goal.
The Magnum Print Room in London is hosting three female Magnum photographers – Carolyn Drake, Bieke Depoorter and Susan Meiselas – and all of the images feature female sitters who have been asked to, in the words of the exhibition, ‘present themselves on their own terms, to perform, play and control their representation in front of the lens’. This is important when we consider that only a small fraction of the Magnum agency’s members is female, though this number has been growing in recent years.
Between 2014 and 2016, Carolyn Drake photographed the female residents of a Soviet- era orphanage, also called an ‘internat’, in the Ukraine. The orphanage contained young females marked with a range of disabilities, all of whom were overseen by a male director. In each image, Drake has allowed her sitters to use any available materials, such as found
objects and the surrounding environment, to create images that evoke art history and fairytales in order to explore how they perceive their own individual identities and their links to notions of femininity.
Some years before Drake’s project – in the early 1970s – Susan Meiselas photographed carnival strippers in New England and South Carolina. Her images show the women on and off stage, giving us an insight into their stage personas and private lives. Getting such an intimate insight into the lives of these women allows a larger dialogue to form around how we view women who put themselves on display for patrons who objectify them and, ultimately, come to see them in derogatory ways.
Of all the projects, perhaps the most intimate is Bieke Depoorter’s. In November 2017 Depoorter met Agata when the photographer went for a drink at a striptease bar. The two immediately hit it off and quickly bonded. They spent the next few days together and Depoorter took a series of intimate and revealing images of Agata and her life, though importantly it was Agata who dictated how she was shown and represented.
Each project is a perfect exploration of how difficult the notion of representation can be, particularly as it applies to femininity. However, the real success of this show lies in how confidently it asks the questions we began this review with and its ability to place the power back in the hands of the sitter.
‘Ternopil, Petrykhiv, Ukraine, 2017’ by Carolyn Drake
‘Agata, Paris, France. 2017’ by Bieke Depoorter
‘Agata, Beirut. August 3, 2018’ by Bieke Depoorter