An institution’s collections are an ever-evolving organism; they shift to match the needs of the society they sit within, they pivot to reflect the focus of their times. When best-used, they aid in illuminating the path trodden, as well as potential ones ahead. This involves a continuous process of re-imagining older items within the collections, whilst also making astute, new additions. In a world that documents itself ever more visually, much of our understanding of our world has been (and is being) shaped through the camera lens; the role of the photographer has become indispensable in the documenting of human life. While the collections at Rylands will always primarily be made up of objects which exhibit the written or printed word, an ever-growing part of our remit is to make available thought-provoking and important photographic work.
Our extensive Photography Collection contains a slim grouping of 20 mostly first-edition photobooks by women. The purchase of these books in 2018, at the same time as our ’Women Who Shaped Manchester’ exhibition, was intended to act as a further step forward in diversifying the visual material within our Special Collections.
Photography has traditionally been an industry disjointedly dominated by men, with commissions from photodesks, offers to exhibit and publish work, too often overlooking women in the field. We would not wish for our collections to mirror this limited and unjust approach. We remain mindful of the amount of work still to do: we see the adding of these photobooks by women to our collection as a catalyst for further change, rather than a reason to rest upon laurels. An additional hope is that the people who access this work, whether physically in our building, or digitally, will strengthen the growth of this collection, through their useful insights and ideas.
As the photography collection is broadened, a wider range of representation will open out in both the photographers themselves and also the content of the work. No doubt this will lead to a re-examining of the categorisation of the collections; giving more space for women artists to stand alone, rather than be grouped together or included within collections curated by men.
That said, our collections in their current form do somewhat manage to capture the integral place women have within the canon of photography – from pioneering early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Mary Dillwyn, through to Fay Godwin and Mari Mahr.
Here in this piece, I want to focus in on the content of some of these photobooks by women, all of which have been selected from the last and current centuries.
The Devil’s Playground
If there’s one photographer who is capable of drawing your focus and holding it, it’s Nan Goldin. Goldin first became known in the early 1980s for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a slide show of approximately 750 photographs set to music, which was first shown at the Mudd Club in New York in 1979. Since then Goldin has continued to photograph individual life stories of her friends and family.
Her influence is pretty extensively felt throughout the western part of the industry from the late 20th century through to now. To spend time with these hyper-personal and deeply intimate still lives, that Goldin has captured, is an exercise in getting used to feeling normally oppositional emotions within yourself sit anew; comfortably side-by-side. You’re greeted into private moments, the likes of which you may have previously only entered into with loved ones, feeling an initial twinge of voyeuristic discomfort, which then gives way to kinship with the people on the page before you. Your zone of comfort has been nudged a little broader and an emotion not commonly felt often enough swims to the fore: empathy. It’s through empathy that Goldin filters her pictures. No subject matter is considered too taboo to document, everything is met with an eye incapable of judgement. Under that gaze, each person is able to unconsciously be their true selves: unguarded and willingly open. A drag queen getting ready for yet another night-time performance in some thankless basement bar, turns their head and fixes a gaze across their shoulder and down the lens in a moment of transcendence from their surroundings. They radiate. A young mother breast-feeding on a beach, with a towel as a shawl, becomes a contemporary Virgin Mary: exposed yet untouchably spiritual. A shabby red-lit vacated hotel room with a blood spot dead-centre of the white pillow takes on an almost Shroud of Turin-style holiness. A blunt-cut, dusty-haired friend of Goldin’s is reflected in a circular vanity mirror, in a slightly run-down apartment, carrying a Nico-in-her-prime poise, despite the less-than-glamourous frame she sits within. A sleeping male nude upon a rusted metal-frame canopy bed, enclosed by an ill-kept room, captured by almost anybody else would hang with a heavy air, but when shot in Goldin’s light, it becomes a classical masterpiece: Fuseli’s Nightmare in a New York loft.
This first edition that we hold of The Devil’s Playground features a significant body of work by Goldin, most of which was previously unpublished, including photographs from series such as Still on Earth (1997-2001), 57 Days (2000) and Elements (1995-2003). The photographs are grouped into themed chapters (arranged by Goldin herself to give the feel of a diary) and between these are interspersed poems, lyrics and texts – some of which have been specially written for the book – by prominent writers such as Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, EE Cummings, Cookie Mueller and Richard Price.
To view Goldin’s work is to be indelibly marked: your outlook henceforth being able to be measured by life before, and life after, Goldin.
This 1971 second edition of Imogen Cunningham’s ‘Photographs’ begins with one of the first images she ever made of marshland at dawn in 1901 and runs through chronologically to 1970, giving a sense of the development of her work. Her curiosity with nature, particularly plantlife, never dimmed; she’d return to focus on natural beauty throughout her life. Although it is her portraits of family and famous faces of the 20th century which are most known, her early experimentations with the photographic form, have just as much to give.
Cunningham’s career began when her father built her a darkroom in the woodshed of their Seattle home and she spent $15 on her first 4×5 camera and some lessons. She learned commercial platinum printing in the studio of Edward Curtis, who was engaged in the enormous project of recording the faces and customs of the vanishing tribes of Native Americans.
After studying in Dresden and running her own portrait studio in Seattle, she moved to Oakland, California where she helped change the direction of West Coast photography. With the likes of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and other photographers living in the San Francisco area, they founded the famous Group f/64, which was dedicated to the honest, sharply defined image, rejecting the furry, soft-focus style that was in vogue at the time.
This book is a full-length treatment of her career – featuring ninety-four black and white examples of some of her finest photographs. The likes of Frida Kahlo, Cary Grant, Gertrude Stein, Herbert Hoover and Man Ray were all captured by Cunningham; all wonderful, thoughtful and styled images but none really giving much insight into the character underneath the persona. Perhaps, by being so used to being photographed or seen publically, these well-known figures were able to be shot without giving anything but their ‘public’ selves. For capturing those unguarded moments, Cunningham turned to the coffee shops, park benches, bus stop queues, shop fronts and alleyways of US and European cities. It’s here that folk were caught in their most honest of moments. Two friends sharing news over a diner table, an elderly woman feeding a pigeon from some street steps, a woman taking a break from carrying huge piles of newspapers on a park bench in the late afternoon sun, Cunningham’s grandchildren playing in a hall of mirrors, street portraits captured during the racial segregation of 50s America. She even in a brief moment, turns this more spontaneous approach to shutter-releasing onto herself, in a rare self-portrait, taken in the mirror of a disused store-front in 1958. The beautiful honesty in the reveal of the magician behind the curtain is both arresting and poignant.
Cunningham always came back to nature: interspersed throughout her work are images of flowers and plantlife: portraits in their own right. She also frequently captured portraits of friends in the rural backstops of the United States: the inclusion of the natural world, acting as a breathing spot between the concrete-heavy images from cities.
To view Cunningham’s work now is not only to time travel, but also to learn when to keep busy and when to keep still. As she knew better than many, it’s often in the still moments that you notice the most.
Inherit the Earth
For a photographer who is so well known for documenting breath-taking works of nature, from many corners of the planet, there is a humanising moment in the foreword (written by Sheila Metzner’s son) when she is described as, ‘The girl from Brooklyn who, at the age of twenty-two, hadn’t travelled farther than southern Jersey now treks the globe.’
Her life and career did indeed begin in one of Earth’s largest metropolises, studying at the Pratt Institute in New York and then taking up work as the first female art director at an advertising agency in the Sixties. It was here that she first successfully collaborated with well-known photographers, including Richard Avedon, Melvin Sokolsky, Bob Richardson and Diane Arbus.
The earlier period of her career as a photographer mostly centred on creating elegant fashion stories, alongside intimate portraits of her home life. As this book, ‘Inherit the Earth’ exhibits in an impressive manner, Metzner in later years really focussed in on the majesty of nature and spectacular structures of human endeavour – from Venezuelan waterfalls and Alaskan icebergs to great arches and ancient pyramids.
Released in 2000, this oversized first United States edition journeys across the globe in over sixty full-page landscape photographs. Her images have a transcendent quality and evoke the awe and spirit of each place. To look at magnificent displays of Mother Earth’s beauty in these current times, it’s difficult to not feel a twinge of guilt at the precarious nature of this majesty, due to the hand of man. If anything, the work in this book can be used as a tool for appreciating how great works of the human hand and of nature’s hand can work in a blissful harmony. From that angle, this book can be used as a source of hope.