As Dr. Noam Gal began preparing for a major new exhibition of Modernist photography at the Israel Museum, he noticed something was missing among the museum’s impressive photography collection. The show was to focus on photography between 1900 and 1945, but among the collection‘s more than 75,000 items, there were noticeably few photographs taken by women.
Women photographers — especially in Europe — were prolific in that period, but this was hardly reflected in the museum’s holdings, despite being one of the oldest institutional photography collections in the world.
Gal could easily select among iconic works by renowned artists such as Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky), André Kertész, Walker Evans, Edward Steichen, and Brassaï (Gyula Halász). But where were photos by Germaine Krull, Annelise Kretschmer, Lucia Moholy, Ilse Bing and Florence Henri, among other leading women photographers from the first half of the 20th century?
Gal, the Horace and Grace Goldsmith Curator of the Noel and Harriette Levine Department of Photography at the Israel Museum, decided he would not launch “A Modern Love: Remarkable Photographs From The Israel Museum” without acquiring some of the missing artists’ works and giving Modernist women photographers their due.
“I said wait a minute, there is a whole category missing here. It’s not that we didn’t have works by women photographers before. This is not the case. For example, we had a very nice Dorothea Lange, and a beautiful Dora Maar — both of which are in the show. But it bothered me that women were explicitly a minority and on the margins,” Gal told the Times of Israel.
“We’ve been aware for at least two decades now that women photographers were very important to the development of the medium in general during that period. They were very active. In addition to being practitioners, they were the teachers, and some of them wrote the history of photography. For instance, Lucia Moholy wrote the history of the period and she is much less known than her husband [photographer László Moholgy-Nagy],” Gal said.
With the exhibition aimed at showing visitors — and also collectors and curators from other international art institutions — the extent and quality of the Israel Museum’s photography collection, it was essential for the Yale University-educated Gal to track down works by the women photographers he knew from his research and teaching at the Hebrew University, but whose names had remained generally unknown to the public.
According to Gal, these photographers were not totally lost to history. It was more a matter of their oeuvres haven been broken up, with individual pieces ending up in separate collections.
Fortunately, some of these pieces were accessioned by or gifted to the Israel Museum over the years. For instance, the show includes a 1928 melancholy portrait of Irish author James Joyce, as well as a masterfully composed architectural photo of New York’s Penn Station made in 1936 by American photographer Berenice Abbott. The latter was a bequest of famed American photographer Arnold Newman, who had been instrumental in helping the museum grow its photography collection.
The gift of the estate of German-Israeli photographer Liselotte Grschebina by her family added to the collection powerful images of pre-state Israel. Grschebina’s striking photographic series of athletes is aesthetically reminiscent of Soviet — and even Nazi — imagery in its quest to convey the power of the Zionist enterprise.
The Noel and Harriette Levine Photography Collection — spanning over 170 years, and considered to have been among the finest photography collections in private hands — was bequeathed to the Israel Museum in 2008, enabling it to add works by Modernist female photographers. Among them are American photographer Gertrude Käsebier‘s “The Morning Meal (1904) and “Happy Days” (1903) — both portraying groups of children in the Pictorialist style, which emphasized subjects’ beauty. Another photograph included in the show from the Levine collection is “Triangles” (1928), a small print of an abstracted female nude by American photographer Imogen Cunningham. Despite the image’s geometric shapes, its lines remain purposefully blurred, playing with light and shadow.
“If we do want to say we have a substantial photography collection we must have these names included, even if we have only one first work from each of them — though obviously we would want to have more from each,” Gal said of these and the many other female artists he felt were owed representation.
The Israel Museum’s photography collection, which was established in 1977, initially focused on acquiring and exhibiting images of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Middle East. According to Gal, a substantial core of the collection today remains 19th century Holy Land photography.
“At that early stage, it was less about Modernism in photography. It was more about history, but looked at through artistic eyes. It was about the aesthetic choices of those early photographers from England, Germany, and France who visited Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria, Turkey, Greece — which makes our collections one of the best ones worldwide in that area,” he said.
The photography collection’s holdings began to expand in the 1990s, following the donation of the Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art, which brought with it photographs by “big names” like Man Ray, Herbert Bayer and Marcel Duchamp. “That gave us international recognition regarding our photography collection,” Gal said.
Walking through the large exhibition space, one notices that a good number of the 178 photographs on display — especially those made by women — were gifted to the museum by Gary B. Sokol of San Francisco.
According to Gal, Sokol, a generous supporter of the the museum’s photography department, has one of the most substantial photography collections currently in private hands. Gal praised Sokol for his eye and enthusiasm for the art from.
“He combines his passion for photography with research work. He knows the history, the biographies, the old stories of the first dealers in the market, and where to get things,” Gal said.
Although Sokol does not focus on women’s photography per se, he did have “a very nice holding of these things,” according to Gal, who worked with Sokol on a list of pieces to gift for “A Modern Love,” with an eye toward boosting the attention that this expansion of the museum’s collection could draw.
The photos gifted by Sokol reflect that women, like men, employed a wide range of styles and subjects during the period. For instance, the French artist Laure Albin Guillot‘s “Study of a Male Nude” (1939) is a soft-focus classicist-style male nude interpretation of Narcissus. In stark contrast, the American Alma Lavenson‘s subject in “Mother Lode: Wheels, Guadalupe Mines” (1938) is obsolete pieces of machinery in dialogue with the field grass on which they lie.
In “Untitled (Smokestack)” (mid-1920s), German-born photographer Germaine Krull focused her lens on urban towers, train tracks and other urban structures to make a statement about how industrialization and steel were changing the landscape.
Florence Henri, who was born in the US and was active in Germany and France, created avant-garde images such as “Composition no. 10” (1928) using objects placed on a mirrored surface and tilting her camera at irregular angles. (At the height of her success, Henri was compared to Man Ray and Herbert Bayer.)
Sokol’s husband Dr. Paul D. Blanc gifted two photos by women in the show. One is “Frances with a Flower” (1931-32), an extreme close-up of a black woman smelling a flower by Consuelo Kanaga, one of the first white American photographers of the 20th century to choose African-American communities as their main subject. The other is by Gerda Taro and her husband, famed war photographer Robert Capa, of Republican fighters in action during the 1937 fight for Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. (Taro would be killed in Spain the same year.)
There is no special section for women photographers in “A Modern Love.” Instead, their work is displayed in a fully integrated way within the exhibition. Photographs by women artists hang next to images — some canonic — by famous male photographers. This is purposely meant as a corrective to women’s exclusion in the past
“I’m suspicious of categorizing the history of photography according to gender. I feel less comfortable because there is some kind of implicit message about what makes the photography feminine or special. I don’t think this should be a question. I think we should see and look for the same questions — aesthetic, political or whatever — regardless of gender, as long as we exhibit the photographers together,” Gal said.
Gal is careful not to say that it was outright misogyny that kept these women’s art off gallery walls and out of text books. However, one can’t be too surprised that the (mainly male) individuals teaching and writing the history of photography and curating photography departments were not particularly interested in the women creators.
“I’m interested in showing a collection that reflects a corrected historical narrative. We’re bringing women back into the story,” Gal said.
“A Modern Love” runs at The Israel Museum until January 2020.