The New Woman of the 1920s was a powerful expression of modernity, a global phenomenon that embodied an ideal of female empowerment based on real women making revolutionary changes in life and art. Opening July 2, 2021 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New Woman Behind the Camera will feature 185 photographs, photo books, and illustrated magazines by 120 photographers from over 20 countries. This groundbreaking exhibition will highlight the work of the diverse “new” women who made significant advances in modern photography from the 1920s to the 1950s. During this tumultuous period shaped by two world wars, women stood 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.
The exhibition is made possible in part by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, The Daniel and Estrellita Brodsky Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
It is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met, commented, “The international scope of this project is unprecedented. Though the New Woman is often regarded as a Western phenomenon, this exhibition proves otherwise by bringing together rarely seen photographs from around the world and presenting a nuanced, global history of photography. The women featured are responsible for shifting the direction of modern photography, and it is exhilarating to witness the accomplishments of these extraordinary practitioners.”
The first exhibition to take an international approach to the subject, The New Woman Behind the Camera will examine women’s pioneering work in a number of genres, from avant-garde experimentation and commercial studio practice to social documentary, photojournalism, ethnography, and sports, dance, and fashion photography. It will highlight the work of photographers such as Ilse Bing, Lola Álvarez Bravo, Claude Cahun, Florestine Perrault Collins, Elizaveta Ignatovich, Dorothea Lange, Lee Miller, Niu Weiyu, Tsuneko Sasamoto, Gerda Taro, and Homai Vyarawalla, among many others.
About the Exhibition
Known by different names, from nouvelle femme and neue Frau to modan g?ru and xin nüxing, the New Woman of the 1920s was easy to recognize but hard to define. Her image—a woman with bobbed hair, stylish dress, and a confident stride—was everywhere, splashed across the pages of magazines and projected on the silver screen. A symbol that broke down conventional ideas of gender, the New Woman was inspiring for some and controversial for others, embraced and resisted to varying degrees from country to country.
For many of these daring women, the camera was a means to assert their self-determination and artistic expression. The exhibition begins with a selection of compelling self-portraits, often featuring the photographer with her camera. Highlights include innovative self-portraits by Florence Henri, Annemarie Heinrich, and Alma Lavenson.
For many women, commercial studios were an important entry point into the field of photography, allowing them to forge professional careers and earn their own income. From running successful businesses in Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Vienna to earning recognition as one of the first female photographers in their respective country, women around the world, including Karimeh Abbud, Steffi Brandl, Trude Fleischmann, Annemarie Heinrich, Eiko Yamazawa, and Madame Yevonde, reinvigorated studio practice. Photography studios run by Black American women, such as Florestine Perrault Collins, not only preserved likenesses but also countered racist images then circulating in the mass media.
The availability of smaller, lightweight cameras spurred a number of women photographers to explore the city and the diversity of urban experience outside the studio. The exhibition features stunning street scenes and architectural views by Alice Brill, Rebecca Lepkoff, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Genevieve Naylor, and Tazue Sat? Matsunaga, among others. Creative formal approaches—such as photomontage, photograms, unconventional cropping, and dizzying camera angles—came to define photography during this period. On view are experimental works by such artists as Valentina Kulagina, Dora Maar, Tina Modotti, Lucia Moholy, Toshiko Okanoue, and Grete Stern, all of whom pushed the boundaries of the medium.
During this period, many women traveled extensively for the first time and took photographs documenting their experiences abroad in Africa, China, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Others, including Marjorie Content, Eslanda Goode Robeson, and Anna Riwkin, engaged in more formal ethnographic projects. This period also gave rise to new ideas about health and sexuality and to changing attitudes about movement and dress. Women photographers such as Lotte Jacobi, Jeanne Mandello, and Germaine Krull produced images of liberated modern bodies, from pioneering photographs of the nude to exuberant pictures of sport and dance.
The unprecedented demand for fashion and advertising pictures between the world wars provided new employment opportunities for many female photographers, including Lillian Bassman, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Toni Frissell, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, Margaret Watkins, Caroline Whiting Fellows, and Yva. Fashion magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar visually defined the tastes and aspirations of the New Woman and offered a space in which women could experiment with pictures intended for a predominantly female readership.
The rise of the picture press also established photojournalism and social documentary photography as dominant forms of visual expression. Galvanized by the effects of a global economic crisis and growing political unrest, many women photographers, including Lucy Ashjian, Margaret Bourke-White, Kati Horna, Dorothea Lange, and Hansel Mieth, created powerful images that exposed injustice and swayed public opinion. While women photojournalists often received so-called “soft assignments” on the home front, others risked their lives on the battlefield. The exhibition features combat photographs by Thérèse Bonney, Galina Sanko, and Gerda Taro, as well as unsparing views of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps by Lee Miller. Views of Hiroshima by Tsuneko Sasamoto and photographs of the newly formed People’s Republic of China by Hou Bo and Niu Weiyu underscore the global complexities of the postwar era.
The New Woman Behind the Camera is curated by Andrea Nelson, Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The Met’s presentation is organized by Mia Fineman, Curator, with Virginia McBride, Research Assistant, both in the Department of Photographs.
Following its presentation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where it will be on view from October 31, 2021 through January 30, 2022.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and distributed by DelMonico Books.The exhibition is featured on the Museum’s website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #NewWomanPhotographers.