Giving credit where it’s due, correcting the record is but part of the energy behind “Underexposed,” which opened recently at the High. The exhibition runs through August 1.
The exhibition features 100 works by women, and at least one non-binary artist, whose work centers on women. Though arranged chronologically, the show isn’t a history of women in photography; rather it focuses on how the female gaze has evolved, and in some instances, remained constant over the past 100 to 150 years.
That legacy begins with British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins’ view of aquatic life. Captivated with both algae and the cyanotype process, in 1843 she created what is believed to be the first book with photographs.
From the pioneering work of Atkins in the early days of the medium, through the early 1900s,World War I and World War II, suffrage, the civil rights movement, and on through to the present, the way women view family, children work and themselves is told in each frame.
Anna Atkins, a 19th-century botanist and photographer is credited with making the first book with photographs.
Credit: Anna Atkins
Credit: Anna Atkins
There are plenty of familiar names in the show. There’s the documentarian’s eye of Dorothea Lang and Diane Arbus’ insistence that no life be considered marginal. Nan Goldin, who chronicled LGBTQ life and the emerging HIV crisis of the 1980s, is represented. Carrie Mae Weems’ and Mickalene Thomas’ visions of Black womanhood, at turns stark and lush, are also featured. And Zanele Muholi, the South African photographer whose photographs celebrate transgender women and explores notions of gender, is an important part of the line-up.
Eleven of the more than 80 artists featured in the show are from Georgia including, Sheila Pree Bright, Lucinda Bunnen, Doris Derby, Nancy Floyd, Jill Frank, Myra Greene, Sarah Hobbs, V. Elizabeth Turk, Shelia Turner, Christina Price Washington and Angela West.
But for every very recognizable name, there are just as many artists unfamiliar to some viewers but who say something important about what it means to go through the world as a woman. Forty percent of the show is comprised of artists who have not been shown in the museum since 2000.
“One reason we wrote a little label for every person is we didn’t want people to feel like they looked at the picture and they didn’t know anything about it or about the maker and they were expected to come to it with some knowledge,” said Kennel photography curator for the museum.
Exposure can bring about popular familiarity, however, and that typically hasn’t been the case for women photographers. Kennel and Kelly said that in some ways it’s dubious that a show centered on women is even necessary in 2021. But numbers suggest it is.
As has long been the complaint in the art world, women have historically been underrepresented in museum collections. For example, 26% of individual artists in the High’s photography collection are women, but fewer than 26% of the number of works are by women, said Kennel. One artist might have as many as 500 images represented in the collection. Typically, those artists are men.
Work by male photographers has long held more privileged spots in both museum and individual collections.
“Gifts have been given to us, but it also reflects the ways that, at certain points in history, men have been able to have bigger careers and make more friends and sell more art, and so it becomes a kind of cycle,” said Kennel. “If you look at auction prices or market prices, male artists still tend to be the higher selling ones.”
That is changing, albeit slowly, said Kennel and Kelly. As women and people of color have become increasingly vocal on both social and mainstream media about the dearth of their work in museum holdings, some institutions are taking heed. Kennel said acquisitions for the High’s photography collection have skewed heavily toward women and people of color over the past two years.
Visual artist Mickalene Thomas is one of 100 photos in the new High Museum of Art exhibition, "Underexposed: Women Photographers from the Collection." "Les Trois Femmes Deux," by Thomas is pictured here.
Credit: Mickalene Thomas
Credit: Mickalene Thomas
This show was planned to coincide with the 19th Amendment centennial in 2020. The pandemic dashed those plans. But a woman was inaugurated as the first vice president of the United States this year. So perhaps a show centered on who women are, how they see themselves and the world around them, is right on time after all.
“Representation matters,” Kelly said. “The more representation you have, whether its race or gender, it’s important for people to be able to come into a space and see work that they can relate to, and work they hasn’t been able to be seen as much as it should have.”