On view at Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, are two exhibitions that focus on the emergence of professional female photographers since the 1950s. While Bunny Yeager: Both Sides of the Camera looks at the brief yet important career of the 1940s and 50s famed pin-up model-turned-photographer; Woman’s World: Contemporary Views of Women by Women considers the changing image of femininity in the last decades. Both shows are wonderfully executed and represent a shift in conventional female roles and also the exploration of photographic methods.
Peter Boswell, the museum’s curator at large, describes both exhibitions as complementary shows, both exploring images of women in photography, but during different timeframes. For Boswell, the theme serves two mistresses, providing both a lens for the changes in the medium of photography and the shifts in women’s roles in society.
The Yeager exhibition explores both shifts as it unveils self-portraits chronologically. While many of the photos are nostalgic and embody the period of “pin-up photography,” Yeager’s photos capture a sense of timeless quality, vitality, and freshness.
First are images dating from the 1950s and 60s, Sportraying the model/photographer in Miami Beach or Key Biscayne, usually sporting her Rolleiflex camera. At the time, photography was dominated by men working in the strict, artificial confines of New York studios, often shooting for fashion houses and magazines to produce images of “ideal’’ women. Yeager’s images in the tropical outdoors -- many from her 1964 book How I Photograph Myself -- were designed to convey a more open, expressive relationship of a woman with herself.
In another set of photos, Yeager evokes popular Hollywood icons including Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Audrey Hepburn. Limited in her resources Yeager used wigs, jewelry, handmade costumes and plain backgrounds. The simplicity and elegance of these photos demonstrate her ability to transform into various personas and personify their eternal characters, and viewers familiar with the work of Cindy Sherman can’t help but think of Sherman’s conceptual self-portraits.
A large selection of the Yeager exhibition is focused on the extensive photos of Bettie Page, a 1955 Playboy playmate of the month who became known as the “Queen of Pin-Ups.” Early in their careers, Yeager met the then-unknown Page in Miami in 1954. The Africa USA portfolio shot in the former Boca Raton safari theme park jump-started both women’s careers. Yeager’s fascination with natural beauty and exotic locations led her to photograph models in Jamaica and the Yucatán.
Yeager still works and lives in South Florida. The show reaches into the current year with a selection of stylized photos shot with a digital camera. In one particularly striking image, Paz de la Huerta, from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, reclines in a dugout canoe floating on a glistening poolside. The scene projects film noir mood electrically charged by de la Huerta’s uncanny gaze, sultry red lips, a lit cigarette in her hand.
Yeager’s independent approach to female photography is paired with new visions of the modern woman in Woman’s World. The 25 photographers featured call attention to universal issues that affect other women worldwide. The images show an intimate and identifiable relationship between contemporary female photographers and their sitters .
Approximately 40 photos in different photographic mediums hang continuously around the gallery’s walls. The photos are not displayed in chronological order but by theme.
One striking example is Rayne-Lin, Little Miss Firecracker, LA (2006) by Colby Katz. Examining rites of passage, Katz photographed a child beauty pageant winner who stares disconcertingly away from the camera.
On another wall, Laurie Simmons’s The Instant Decorator (Yellow Kitchen) (2004) is a kitchen collage flex print that parodies the 1976 “do-it-yourself” home-design planner of the same name — a manual used by home decorators to sample fabrics and wallpaper combinations. The idea: women are expected to excel simultaneously in multiple, and sometimes conflicting roles both at home and outside it.
The largest piece in the gallery is Cuban American Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s De La Dos Aguas (2007). Campos-Pons’s photo contemplates an intimate attachment and sense of isolation from her homeland where most of her family resides. The grid-like Polaroid photos include self-portraits and various objects linked to the artist’s past. Campos-Pons, like the many women of color on this wall, reflects her race with adaptability outside their cultures.
No exhibition of female photographers could be complete without works by Cindy Sherman, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz and the late Diane Arbus. Though their views of feminity are starkly different, each is instantly identifiable.
In Marilyn (1982) Cindy Sherman embodies the stunning appeal of the iconic sex symbol in a pose that suggests a movie publicity advertisement. Like Yeager’s glamour shots, Sherman’s photos allude to 1950s and 60s movies; however she assumes the stereotypical roles that female actresses were assigned during that period. Sherman and her female counterparts from the so-called 1980s Pictures Generation were concerned with how women were depicted in the past in mass media.
Hanging next to the photos by Sherman is an image of Sherman by Leibovitz. In this image, Sherman poses with eight other women all wearing the same simple black and white outfit. Now the viewer has to decide which of these women is the real deal.
The exhibition ends with four photos by Diane Arbus. Arbus was widely known for her black-and-white portraits of dwarfs, giants and others whose appearance falls outside physical norms, and for this show, Boswell has chosen photos of women that question traditional beauty, pictured in a nudist camp or a showgirl’s dressing room. The idea, he said, was to show uncommon women in their everyday environments; who better than Arbus to do that job.
Taken together, the images in the two shows explore feminine beauty — conventional, burdened, satiric, even freakish. That they are presented through the eyes of women themselves adds a layer of complexity; that they have been chosen for display by a man adds an even deeper pool for thought. Women may indeed always be something of a mystery, even to themselves.