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Landscape Photography Through the Female Gaze

An exhibition explores how women photographers are upending gendered views of the landscape—and reveling in the sublime.

By Katie Booth

Graciela Iturbide, Mujer Àngel, Desierto de Sonora (Angel Woman, Sonoran Desert)

Graciela Iturbide, Mujer Àngel, Desierto de Sonora (Angel Woman, Sonoran Desert), 1979
© the artist and courtesy Throckmorton Fine Art, New York

In 1979, Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta traced her silhouette on a mound of earth, dug a volcano-like crater filled with live coals, and set the shape of herself on fire. Her visionary film Volcán and the corresponding photographs are evidence of her symbolic claiming of the earth, sexuality, and power.

Mendieta is among twelve artists included in the exhibition Live Dangerously, which opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, on September 19. Ranging from Xaviera Simmons’s portraits interrogating fiction and truth, to Justine Kurland’s lush chronicle of girlhood and adolescence, each of the works on display explores the female body in nature. Rather than historically passive portrayals of women in landscape, here, women are dynamic—running, setting off fireworks, climbing trees, and reveling in the sublime. The exhibition spans back to Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s work for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and ’50s, when she insisted her models interact with the arid dunes of the California and Mojave deserts.

Ana Mendieta, Volcán

Ana Mendieta, Volcán, 1979
© The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC, and courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, California Desert

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, California Desert, 1948
© Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Justine Kurland, Jungle Gym, 2001
© the artist and courtesy Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Live Dangerously aims to offer a fresh perspective not only on the American landscape, but on other global landscapes as well. “Historically, artists from diverse backgrounds and hybrid identities have frequently been the subjects of Eurocentric representations in landscape,” says curator Orin Zahra. “Here, they are the ones tackling their surroundings and shaping their own narratives.”

In her floor-to-ceiling installation 100 Little Deaths (2002), German-born artist Janaina Tschäpe inserts herself, horizontal and face down, into a variety of settings, exploring the interplay between the real and the imagined, darkness and humor. Meanwhile, Lebanese photographer Rania Matar’s portraits explore the interconnectedness between the landscape and personal and collective identities.

Rania Matar, Yara, Cairo, Egypt

Rania Matar, Yara, Cairo, Egypt, from the series She, 2019
© the artist and courtesy Robert Klein Gallery

Laurie Simmons, Water Ballet (Vertical)

Laurie Simmons, Water Ballet (Vertical), 1981
© the artist

Also included in the exhibition is work by Anna Gaskell, Dana Hoey, Mwangi Hutter, Graciela Iturbide, Kirsten Justesen, and Laurie Simmons. “There is really no one ‘feminine’ style, as has often been argued in art historical discourse,” remarks Zahra. “Contemporary artists take the idea of nature as primitive or gendered, and expand it so the relationship between women and the environment can signify so much more.”

Katie Booth is the digital manager at Aperture Foundation.

Live Dangerously is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, September 19, 2019–January 20, 2020.

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