Object Women: A History of Women in Photography

A new digital project exploring the representation of women in photography launched on Instagram today
Ilse Bing (American, b. Germany, 1899–1998). Self‑Portrait with Leica, 1931. Gelatin silver print, printed 1985. George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from the Charina Foundation. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum. © Estate of Ilse Bing
Ilse Bing (American, b. Germany, 1899–1998). Self‑Portrait with Leica, 1931. Gelatin silver print, printed 1985. George Eastman Museum, purchase with funds from the Charina Foundation. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum. © Estate of Ilse Bing

Object Women will feature images from across the history of photography, from the beginning of the medium in the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. New images will be released on weekdays over a two-month period, and each image will be accompanied by a brief written reflection by Cardiff University academic Alix Beeston.

The project draws on the extensive photographic holdings of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography. Its focus is dispersed and idiosyncratic, taking in both the artistic and commercial uses of photography, as well as a wide range of technological and aesthetic forms and traditions.

“In Object Women, I wanted to construct a loose narrative of the female body under the gaze of the camera,” explains Beeston, a scholar of modern and contemporary visual culture and literature. “How have we looked at women, and how have women looked at themselves?

“The answers to these questions are as diverse and surprising as the history of the medium itself—from the daguerreotype, the first commercially successful photographic process, through to contemporary experiments in para-photography, which take us beside and beyond direct photographic practices.

Unidentified maker. [African American woman wearing white gloves], ca. 1855. Daguerreotype with applied color. George Eastman Museum, gift of Eaton Lothrop. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum
Unidentified maker. [African American woman wearing white gloves], ca. 1855. Daguerreotype with applied color. George Eastman Museum, gift of Eaton Lothrop. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

“Photography works in a fragmentary and oblique way. It’s an art form that doesn’t give up its meanings as easily or straightforwardly as, say, narrative prose writing. And often what’s most interesting to me about a photograph is how it throws me in several different directions at once, conceptually speaking.

“This is certainly true when it comes to the representation of women. Sometimes the way women are pictured in photography fits the model of objectification or reification that we’re familiar with in art or popular culture. But usually the politics of representation are more scattered or complicated than this model suggests, as are the relationships between women and those who represent them (especially when it’s women depicting other women, or turning the camera on themselves).”

For Beeston, Instagram provides an ideal platform for exploring these issues, since it shares the serialised and disjointed format of the photographic medium that is central to it.

“I wanted to experiment with a more allusive and tangential kind of art history, one that not only articulates its development or ‘progress’ from one tradition or technology to another, but that also disarticulates it, fragments it.

“So I’m looking to see what it might mean to do art history in a form that is primed for fragmentation, that brings images and words together and also pulls them apart—and on an online platform that can also make art history visible and legible to a popular audience as well as a scholarly one.”

Object Women launches on Thursday 1 March 2018. You can see the project as it unfolds at this link or by following it through your Instagram account.


Alix Beeston is a Lecturer in English at Cardiff University, Wales. Her first book, In and Out of Sight: Modernist Writing and the Photographic Unseen, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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