Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

8 Feminist Photobooks that Provoke and Inspire

The question of what makes a photobook “feminist” is entangled with all sorts of creative decisions, as well as worldly ones.

 - February 27, 2020

When Carmen Winant, guest editor of The PhotoBook Review, Issue 017, asked leading writers and artists to name an influential feminist photobook, the answers were as inventive as feminism itself.

Tee Corrine, Yantras of Womanlove: Diagrams of Energy (Naiad Press, 1982)

Jenni Crain on Tee Corinne

Yantras of Womanlove: Diagrams of Energy was published in 1982 by the Naiad Press, one of the first publishing companies dedicated to the circulation of lesbian literature. Artist, lesbian activist, sex educator and counselor, author, editor, and archivist Tee Corinne claimed this compendium as being “about the spirituality of sexuality, the transcendence that can take place when making love to ourselves and to others.” The publication comprises Corinne’s oft kaleidoscopic and almost always solarized photographic collages celebrating sapphic sexual relationships, interspersed with stanzas of Jacqueline Lapidus’s poem “Design for the City of Woman.” In the publication’s foreword, Corinne notes that the excitement that the act of making these photographs drew from within, as well as the response from the lesbian community at large upon their circulation, would influence her work in the years to follow and, we now know, through to the end of her life in 2006. The images proffer the correlations between her conceptualized motivations and her highly stylized formal delivery, for which she would become most recognized as a pioneer of lesbian erotica: namely, for the sharing of lesbian sensual sexual experience through the use of image and word as “a route to claiming personal power for women.” Throughout the pages of Yantras of Womanlove, we are presented with Corinne’s own cerebrations/celebrations of the sixty-some-odd women that volunteered to be photographed for the images contained in this book. Let Corinne and these women’s tenacious and triumphant exposures serve as impetus for our responsibilities in the lauding of lesser-told stories.

Jenni Crain is an artist and curator based in New York.

Sheila Heti, Motherhood (Henry Holt and Co., 2018)

Sara Cwynar on Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti’s use of images in this novel is somewhat mysterious to me, which I like. The book is kind of a reverse photobook—instead of a lot of pictures with a little bit of key explanatory text, we have a full novel, depicting an inner life through words and thoughts, with just a few images that help us gain our footing. Heti often incorporates pictures when she is discussing chance, flipping coins to decide what she should do with her life—specifically, whether she should have a baby and conform to the expectation of having children, or follow her instinct and continue the way she is, with art-making as a sort of child figure in her life. Heti’s makeshift divination method illustrates the randomness that can often feel a part of women’s lives, the necessity of making decisions that don’t feel like real choices. At one point, she demonstrates her selfmade decision-making technique, asking the coins where and how a knife should be placed within her home, a decision she treats with the same randomness as the decision to have a baby. (We see the knife placed ominously above a doorframe and on a windowsill.) Juxtaposed, she shows historical paintings of women: women looking at babies, a woman praying, women on cards floating in otherworldly situations, and finally, a picture of her own mother as a doctor, holding a knife. By using these images of women alongside her text and own photographs, Heti situates this very difficult decision-making within a long history of depictions of what women are supposed to do, and the ways in which we try to grasp control over our own lives.

Sara Cwynar is an artist based in Brooklyn.

Ramdasha Bikceem, GUNK #4 (Self-published, 1993)

Johanna Fateman on Ramdasha Bikceem

GUNK #4 bears a childhood photo of the zine’s author, Ramdasha Bikceem, one of my best friends since we were teens. The scowling snapshot of her with a Manson-girl “x” etched on her forehead is as beloved and familiar to me as a portrait in a locket. While there’s much to be said for the literary and graphic-art qualities of 1990s feminist zines, and this one in particular—the skate culture–inflected missive contains astute reportage and an early critique of the riot grrrl movement’s white character—they are also examples of a magical anticapitalist currency from another era. In our disaffected third-wave subculture, conceived of in rebuke to both the male-dominated North American punk underground and the blind spots of our mothers’ wilted radicalism as we entered the Clinton era, these urgent pamphlets were the talismanic objects traded at the shy beginnings of an alliance, whether forged at a punk club or through the mail. They were also a kind of packing material. Tokens of revolutionary love, including collaged letters, written on the verso of discarded photocopies; shoplifted Wet n Wild makeup; wristbands; spells against psychic death punched out on manual label makers; photo-booth strips; incendiary homemade stickers; and, of course, cassette mixtapes with glitter-encrusted cases were often stuck inside and protected by these Xeroxed and stapled invectives/valentines.

Johanna Fateman is a contributing editor for Artforum, and her art criticism appears regularly in 4Columns and the New Yorker.

Marlene McCarty, Hearth (detail), 1992

Laura Guy on Marlene McCarty

Matchbooks are slight objects that have long been the purview of smokers, advertisers, and collectors. A parallel tradition of matchbooks made by artists invokes the social comings and goings of the art world, as well as the economics of affordable multiples. During the 1990s, artist and designer Marlene McCarty regularly made use of matchbooks in her work. For McCarty—a member of the collective Gran Fury who produced powerful graphic interventions in the context of HIV/AIDS activism—matchbooks were also readily available items that, like advertising, could be hijacked to transmit political messages. Some of McCarty’s matchbooks feature blunt slogans, while others employ photography as central to their message. One such book was produced in 1992, and on the cover shows a glamour shot of an anonymous, topless pinup. Her benign smile is countered on the reverse side with the phrase: “I got a CLIT so big I don’t need a DICK.” The capitalized words have been added in permanent marker as a concession to a priggish printer. Multiple copies of this small, audacious object were first displayed as the sculpture Hearth (1992), where they were placed in a perfect circle on the gallery floor. On a separate occasion, during the exhibition The Art of Self-Defense and Revenge at Momenta Art, New York, in 1993, duplicates were available for visitors to take away. The use of crude language and ambivalent deployment of the female figure signal an attitude characteristic of McCarty’s practice. The matches in my copy remain intact, each one a gentle feminist provocation in the context of this appropriated form of photographic reproduction.

Laura Guy is an early career academic fellow in art history at Newcastle University, UK.

Masumi Kura, Men Are Beautiful (Urgent Press, 2016)

Michiko Kasahara on Masumi Kura

People who are amused when they read the title of Masumi Kura’s book are clearly well-versed in the history of photography. It goes without saying that the title is based on that of the famous 1975 Garry Winogrand book, a reversal and contemporary version of Women Are Beautiful (Light Gallery Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux). In his book, Winogrand writes, “Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her.” Now, more than forty years later, his photographs appear suffused with the 1970s American image of women—a male imposition of value on women’s youth and appearance. What about Kura? When a woman is the observer rather than the observed, what does she see in a man? Some may find it distasteful to value men only according to their looks, but Kura’s work does not focus on young or handsome men with nice figures. “I did not limit my subjects to people I found attractive as members of the opposite sex,” she writes, “but rather made a point of releasing the shutter whenever I saw somebody who shone as a human being.” In forty years, I wonder how viewers of Kura’s Men Are Beautiful will see her images of men as reflections of early twenty-first-century Japanese society.

Michiko Kasahara is vice director of the Artizon Museum, Ishibashi Foundation, Tokyo. Translated from Japanese by Gavin Frew.

JEB (Joan E. Biren), Lori and Valerie at Wrenchwomen, Washington, DC, 1979, from Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (Glad Hag Books, 1979)
Courtesy the artist

Justine Kurland on Joan E. Biren

Two women lean forward from opposite ends of the frame in Lori and Valerie, Washington, DC (1978), one of Joan E. Biren’s photographs in Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (Glad Hag Books, 1979). Bodies against metal, the women commingle with the machine, their skin the same silver tone. They labor in unison, arms cradling an engine block in a gesture of mutual support. One sighs through pursed lips with grim determination, as though summoning courage for the long revolutionary road ahead. The other smiles in anticipation of the many places she can go in a fast car.

“Once you know that technology is just learning how to do things, you don’t have to worry any more, you have autonomy,” explains Valerie Mullin in the caption. Or, as Adrienne Rich writes, “We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own [auto] body.”

Imagining is one of the things photography does well, not simply because it can visualize lost histories and alternative futures, but more important, because it engenders a community to receive them. Once Eye to Eye was published, JEB traveled across the country, continuing to make photographs and giving slide lectures (in community centers and bookstores) tracing a photographic history of lesbians, famously known as the “Dyke Show.” Only women were allowed to attend, some of whom appear in the pages of JEB’s photography books, lesbians looking at lesbians. I like to imagine that these women are fixing JEB’s car, providing practical support for her trips while embodying the reason she took them: women working in collaboration with women to build a safe (and groovy) space for women.

Justine Kurland is a New York–based photographer. Her book Girl Pictures will be reissued by Aperture in 2020.

Grete Stern, Sueño n° 36 from Idilio

Mariela Sancari on Grete Stern

“Psychoanalysis will help you” was the title of a column in the Argentine women’s magazine Idilio [Idyll] that Grete Stern illustrated with her photomontages from 1948 to 1951. Readers—all of them women—sent in answers to a questionnaire, each related to a dream they wanted interpreted by Richard Rest, a pseudonym used jointly by sociologist Gino Germani and editor Enrique Butelman. Stern received the original answers and some guidelines from Germani, mostly related to how they should appear on the page or specific content needed to illustrate the dream and its interpretation. Almost all of her photomontages—later grouped together as a series titled Sueños and shown in exhibitions—featured women as the main characters, usually facing a dilemma.

Even though Stern did not openly consider herself a feminist, a present-day reading cannot obviate the forcefulness of her feminist tone in the form of ironic criticism of the roles and expectations imposed on women in the society of the 1940s and ’50s. Domestic situations, animals, and the varying scale of the figures were all used as devices to represent harassment and oppression. It is important to point out the fact that these critical comments toward the role of women in patriarchal society were published in a magazine that, in many ways, perpetuated that vision and paradigm.

Mariela Sancari is an Argentine photographer based in Mexico City.

Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture (Real Comet Press, 1988)

Drew Sawyer on Jo Spence

There are few photographers who explored the feminist dictum “the personal is political” more profoundly than Jo Spence. Born in London to working-class parents in 1934, Spence spent the last two decades of her life turning the camera on herself in order to question hegemonic forms of representation, knowledge, and power. One of her enduring achievements is the 1986 book Putting Myself in the Picture (Camden Press, London), which she published after a touring survey of her work the previous year. Rather than relying on the authority of the curator or art historian, Spence wrote the text herself, calling it “a political, personal, and photographic autobiography.” In short chapters, the book reflects on her evolution as a photographer and her intersections with various cultural contexts, from a working-class commercial portraitist in the 1950s and 1960s, to a documentarian of women’s labor in the 1970s, to a photo therapist reclaiming pictures of her body after being diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1980s. Yet, more than an autobiography or catalogue raisonné, Putting Myself in the Picture demonstrates a praxis of photography as a means for personal, political, and social change through critical pedagogy and self-representation.

Drew Sawyer is the Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography at the Brooklyn Museum.

Read more from The PhotoBook Review, Issue 017, or subscribe to Aperture and never miss an issue.