by Andrea Nelson. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC., November 2020. 288 p. ill. ISBN: 9781942884742 (h/c), $60.00.

Reviewed March 2021
Beverly Mitchell, Assistant Director, Hamon Arts Library, Southern Methodist University,

nelsonThis lavishly illustrated catalog is a companion to the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, closing at the end of May and continuing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until early November 2021. Curated by Andrea Nelson, the catalog offers essays by her and contributing authors illuminating the photographic works of women globally from the 1920s to the 1950s. Framed thematically under the rubric of the New Woman, a term that emerged in the late nineteenth century, the broad concept of which had its fullest expression of women’s growing economic and sexual agency in the 1920s. Nelson reveals this trend as global: “Known by different names, from nouvelle femme and neue Frau to modan gäru and xin nüxing, the New Woman was a global phenomenon that embodied an ideal of female empowerment based on real women making revolutionary changes.” Most works in the exhibition date from the 1920s through the 1940s, and the term, New Woman fades in favor of the concept, modern woman.

The catalog’s scope examines photographers who mostly identified or presented as female, such as Germaine Krull or Margaret Bourke-White. However, there are several less-familiar names, such as Yva, a mentor to the photographer later known as Helmut Newton. Author Mila Ganeva highlights her successful and influential career among other female fashion photographers working during the Weimar Republic. Ambitious in its aim to uncover female professional photographers internationally, the catalog delivers this trend in selective genres or practices - studio photography, children and women, photojournalism, nude photography, and fashion. Women went into the fields of photojournalism, and with its low financial entry, studio photography, where demand rose for portraiture. Vera Jackson, a Black photographer, had an extensive career from the 1940s to the 1950s, contributing images documenting the African American community in Los Angeles, teaching, and photographing her trips in Africa. Adopting the expressive freedom profited by more liberal attitudes, female photographers presented complicating representations of gender, as seen in the work of Claude Cahun, or Lebanese photographer Marie el Khazen’s 1927 photograph of two women dressed as men.

The overall landscape of this catalog with its global focus, large and plentiful photographs, and an index of short biographies of many, but not all, of the photographers in the exhibition, yields an excellent reference text. While monographs on several of these photographers exist, the cumulative approach of Nelson and the other authors’ research as instantiations of the New Woman phenomenon gives this subject the air of fresh territory. This text may encourage further or renewed scholarship on these photographers. Recommended for all art libraries, particularly universities offering degree programs in photography.

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