The extraordinary worldwide impact women had on the practice of photography from the 1920s to the 1950s is celebrated by an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

During the 1920s, the iconic New Woman was splashed across the pages of magazines and projected on the silver screen. As a global phenomenon, she embodied an ideal of female empowerment based on real women making revolutionary changes in life and art. Featuring more than 120 photographers from over 20 countries, the groundbreaking exhibition, The New Woman Behind the Camera, explores the diverse “new” women who embraced photography as a mode of professional and personal expression from the 1920s to the 1950s.  

Model outside the Rose Pauson House, 1942, by Louise Dahl-Wolfe
Magnolia Blossom, c. 1925, by Imogen Cunningham

Known by different names, from nouvelle femme and neue Frau to modan gāru and xin nüxing, the New Woman was easy to recognize but hard to define. Fashionably dressed with her hair bobbed, the self-assured cosmopolitan New Woman was arguably more than a marketable image. She was a contested symbol of liberation from traditional gender roles. 

In an era when traditional definitions of womanhood were being questioned, women’s lives were a mix of emancipating and confining experiences that varied by country. Many women around the world found the camera to be a means of independence as they sought to redefine their positions in society and expand their rights. This exhibition presents a geographically, culturally, and artistically diverse range of practitioners to advance new conversations about the history of modern photography and the continual struggle of women to gain creative agency and self-representation. 

Vanderbilt Avenue from East 46th Street, October 9, 1935, by Berenice Abbott

The first exhibition to take an international approach to the subject, it examines how women brought their own perspectives to artistic experimentation, studio portraiture, fashion and advertising work, scenes of urban life, ethnography, and photojournalism, profoundly shaping the medium during a time of tremendous social and political change. 

Revealing how female photographers from around the world gave rise to and embodied the quintessential New Woman, even as they critiqued the popular construction of the role, the exhibition opens with a group of compelling portraits and self-portraits. 

Model Natalie Nickerson Paine wearing a bikini, Montego Bay, Jamaica, 1946, by Toni Frissell
Models wearing suits by Carolyn Schnurer, 1945–1946, by Genevieve Naylor
Vitrine magasin du Printemps, Paris (Store Window at Printemps, Paris), 1951, by Sabine Weiss
Untitled, 1932, by Toni von Horn

In these works, women defined their positions as professionals and artists during a time when they were seeking greater personal rights and freedoms. 

Organized thematically in eight galleries, The New Woman Behind the Camera illustrates women’s groundbreaking work in modern photography, exploring their innovations in the fields of social documentary, avant-garde experimentation, commercial studio practice, photojournalism, ethnography, and the recording of sports, dance, and fashion. 

Children of the Weill public school shown in a flag pledge ceremony, San Francisco, California, April 1942, by Dorothea Lange
Annie Mae Merriweather, 1935, by Consuelo Kanaga
Japanese-American-owned grocery store, Oakland, California,March 1942, by Dorothea Lange

The exhibition curated by Andrea Nelson, associate curator in the department of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, seeks to reevaluate the history of photography and advance new and more inclusive conversations on the contributions of female photographers. 

Photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Ilse Bing, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Madame d’Ora, Florence Henri, Dorothea Lange, Dora Maar, Niu Weiyu, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Gerda Taro, and Homai Vyarawalla, among many others, emerged at a tumultuous moment in history that was profoundly shaped by two world wars, a global economic depression, struggles for decolonization, and the rise of fascism and communism. 

14th Street, New York City, 1947–1948, by Rebecca Lepko 
Hiroshima Peace Memorial, 1953, by Tsuneko Sasamoto

Against the odds, these women were at the forefront of experimentation with the camera and produced invaluable visual testimony that reflects both their personal experiences and the extraordinary social and political transformations of the era. 

Accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog, the landmark exhibition will be on view from October 31, 2021 through January 30, 2022, in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It was previously on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.    

Page from New York Album, 1929–1930, by Berenice Abbott

The New Woman Behind the Camera | National Gallery of Art | Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC |

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