The identity of the woman has been made to disappear - all except for the fetishized object, which is the focus of male fantasy.
Birgit Jürgenssen (1949-2003)
Ever since its invention back in the 18th century, photography has been documenting life. At the same time it focuses on inviting audiences to a rather subjective world, while trying to be taken serious as an art form. Photography has always been considered a male dominated profession, but luckily things are changing. Scholars, writers, bloggers, photography students and enthusiasts have been giving due to the female pioneers of the field. Most of them were always standing and/or hiding in the shadows, oblivious to how much they could acclaim and accomplish. Arguably, the technique, concepts and thematic female photographers use differ from those of a male photographer. At a time when most women were convinced that their place was in the kitchen and certainly not in the dark room, there were those who were struggling to surpass their male counterparts and work towards gaining respect and recognition for their work.
Birgit Jürgenssen (Austrian photographer, 1949-2003) was acclaimed as one of the outstanding international representatives of the feminist avant-garde. At the age of 14, she received her first half-automatic camera. She almost exclusively used it to take pictures of small objects which she had created herself. The Viennese photographer attended the University of Applied Arts and first gained attention for her photography with her participation in a group art exhibition about feminism through creativity. Her diverse photographic art forms revolved around the female body and its transformation. Jürgenssen’s body of work mainly concerns the various forms of femininity that set the boundaries of social norms and external cultural codes. The photographer often developed her art throughout and around the repression and restrictions of a woman’s life. She often engaged in self-portraits as a way to suggest that she felt entrapped in the authoritarian codes of beauty and domesticity that women had often been subject to. In the 1980’s Birgit started teaching in the master class of Arnulf Rainer at the Academy of Applied Arts Vienna. She taught there for over 20 years, while simultaneously taking part in solo and group exhibitions. Jürgenssen’s oeuvre consists of graphic, pictorial and photographic works, based on surrealism and inspired by psychoanalysis and the socio-critical discourse of her generation. Her complex and stylistically diverse art made her a worthy representative of applied feminism in the arts.
Sanja Iveković (Croatian photographer, 1949-) was the first artist in her country to label herself as a feminist artist. She is considered to be the first artist in the former Yugoslavia to actively engage with gender differences and one of the leading artists to address issues such as female identity, media, consumerism and political strife. Iveković was born in Zagreb and studied graphics at the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts. Her career as an artist began during the Croatian Spring in the early 1970’s when, together with other artists, she broke away from mainstream settings, pioneering video, conceptual photomontages and performance. Much of her work is centered on her own life and the place of women in today’s society. She has been a key player at the Centre for Women's Studies in Zagreb since it opened back in 1994. The photographer, performer, sculptor and installation artist has founded and/or has been engaged in numerous Croatian women’s organizations and has always been interested in the representation of women in society. One of her most interesting projects - ongoing since 1998 - the “Women’s House” series, displays plaster casts of the faces of abused women arranged in a semicircle. Her “Rohrbach Living Memorial” from 2005 depicts the fate of the Roma victims of the holocaust. A presentation was enacted by volunteers representing statues of the victims. They were surrounded by 10 monitors presenting slideshows of photos of the 545 victims, whose eyes were intentionally closed by the artist. Iveković has been the recipient of various awards among the years, and in 2009 she was the winner of the Camera Austria Award, as photography was recognized as an integral part of her conceptual work. The jury mentioned the topicality of her work and its significance for the younger generations, as well as her social and political commitment to enhancing the role of women in society through her work. Sanja is undoubtedly a very important figure, whose work is instrumental in our understanding of the reconfiguration of roles and gender in today’s art. She was always keen on breaking away from institutional infrastructures and pointing to the hypocrisy of the public declarations of gender equality in socialist Yugoslavia.
In all my work since the beginning of the seventies, three major themes have preoccupied me the most: gender, identity, and memory. For me, as a visual artist, the starting point of my research is the visual representation of woman in our everyday life transmitted to us by mass media. As a feminist, I have tried to make art that reflects my political consciousness of what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal culture.
Sanja Iveković (1949-)
We will continue talking about female names that left their mark in photography and about contemporary female photographers who are still to emerge. There are a lot of female photographers out there deserving of praise and we can only hope to cover as many of them as we can. Please, follow this space to find out more.