Anna Backman Rogers


by Taous Dahmani

This year, Photo Oxford focuses on women. The 2020 festival highlights the variety of their viewpoints and relationships with photography. Asking myself what photography meant to others, I interviewed 6 women working with/for/on photography. They are all women for whom I have tremendous respect and it was a pleasure to be able to ask them 4 questions each, curious to hear their personal and professional photography stories. All these interviews are considered as a continuation of the conference « Let Us Now Praise Famous Women : Discovering the work of Female Photographers » This interview features scholar Anna Backman Rogers.

Anna Backman Rogers is Professor in Feminism and Visual Culture at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She is the co-editor with Laura Mulvey of Feminisms (Amsterdam University Press, 2015) and the co-editor with Boel Ulfsdotter of Female Authorship and the Documentary Image: Theory, Practice and Aesthetics and Female Agency and Documentary Strategies: Subjectivities, Identity, and Activism (both with Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She is the co-founder and editor in chief, with Anna Misiak, of the online academic feminist journal MAI: FEMINISM AND VISUAL CULTURE.

She is also the author of American Independent Cinema: Rites of Passage and The Crisis Image (Edinburgh University Press, 2015); Sofia Coppola: The Politics of Visual Pleasure (Berghahn 2018) and Still Life: Notes on Barbara Loden's 'Wanda' (1970) (Punctum Books, 2021). She is currently working on Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) for the BFI Classics series (Bloomsbury, 2022) and a monograph on the films of Lynne Ramsay (Berghahn, 2023) as well as a further co-edited volume with Laura Mulvey (Bloomsbury, 2023)

Selfie by Anna Backman Rogers

  1. Taous R. Dahmani: Where does your interest in images, still and moving, come from? Can you tell us about your first enthusiastic reaction to a photographic work?

Anna Backman Rogers:

I think I was likely quite a strange child. I was obsessed with any film that was in black and white for a while and loved the Laurel & Hardy, Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films (although something about Keaton’s face did then and still does make me feel very sad). Later on, I loved Hollywood musicals, especially those in Technicolor, but my favourite film was Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, which I watched every Sunday morning with a chocolate sandwich until the fatal weekend during which my grandpa recorded the cricket over it ! I loved Moira Shearer and all of her clothes in that film. I mean, visually, it’s a complete feast for the eyes. I remember always finding the central dance sequence pretty scary, though. I still think it is amongst the most evocative and beautiful scenes rendered on film. When I was a teenager, I think I churned my way through most of what we now not-so-fondly refer to as ‘the canon’. There was an excellent performing arts library where I lived and I borrowed about five videos from there every week : I discovered Ken Russell this way….all I will say is bloody hell ! I also remember being completely overwhelmed by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

I honestly cannot say where any of this fascination with film came from. I’m an only child and I think films offered access both to an imaginary story world and license to use my own imagination and I could deal with loneliness in this way. I think this is quite a common experience, actually, if one thinks of the ways in which cinema can build both cult-like and affective communities. I think I’ve always ‘directed’ stories in my head and I’ve got a riotous imagination as a result, although I think I’d make a terrible film director in actuality : I’m much better off as a film scholar. At school, the subject I enjoyed the most was English Literature because of the emphasis placed both on the form of language and the ways in which stories function through symbolism and allegory. I think this really fomented my passion for film further because film is not a medium that I think should be read literally, but rather metaphorically. I think I started to think about film critically when I was a teenager because literature kind of gave me both the tools and the permission to do so. So I think I already knew, in my heart, that thinking and writing about images would be my path in life. I studied philosophy for my undergraduate degree and I think this has also had a profound impact on the way I read images. I was lucky, in retrospect, to be able to combine all of these facets in my MSc and PhD because I was allowed to deepen this approach to reading images and that has formed who I am as a scholar. I’m also lucky enough to work in Sweden where this kind of perspective and specialism has been encouraged from very early on in my career and feminism, generally speaking, isn’t something people are scared of. So, this is to say that I’ve lead a life informed by images – in a deliberate sense - from a very young age and I don’t think it’s happenstance that I’ve ended up in this profession. I feel incredibly lucky to get to do this for a living. It’s a real privilege.

My interest in photography came later or, rather, as a result of my obsession with film. An immediate, but perhaps facile, example would be my fascination with certain film stars. I think I read every biography of Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly when I was a teenager ; in my early twenties I was besotted with Jean Seberg and Mia Farrow (which lead to poor judgement on my part for a number of years in the haircut department). Looking back, this wasn’t so much about their performances on screen as it was about the images used to shore up or create specific personae. I think I wanted to know, deeply, what lay behind those images. In some sense, I wanted to understand what those images were being put in service of and, thus, what they signified – why it is that women, in particular, are made to bear the burden of iconicity. I wouldn’t have articulated it like this at the time, of course. But I think this gap between cinema and life and how we constantly seem, unconsciously perhaps, to mistake one for the other is what interests me and why that can - and does – often lead to ethical bankruptcy. So, I think some of those iconic (approximately in the religious sense), flattened-out, highly-aestheticised images of stars would have been the first photographs that drew me in and captured my imagination. I should also say that I’ve grown up watching Kirsten Dunst on screen. I think her face is incredibly enigmatic and can register doubly. She embodies so much ambiguity and instability on screen that only certain directors have managed to harness this to full effect. I think she has her own particular genius, which is only starting to be recognised. There are photographs taken of her that I love - the spread from Dazed & Confused in 2004, and especially pictures taken by Corinne Day, Sofia Coppola and Yelena Yemchuk – which I think capture this quality about her so well.

In terms of specific photographs though, I remember seeing Nan Goldin’s The Hug in the Metropolitan in New York in 2002. That felt like a freight train hitting me. First : it’s pretty big and that matters just in terms of your encounter with the image. Second : it’s both incredibly striking and, for me, sinister. I don’t think I ‘read’ it as a tender embrace, but rather as something that contains potential violence (for me it’s the photographic equivalent of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day). It’s not clear, I think, what kind of complex dance of attraction these two are involved in. I loved the title because its seeming simplicity or clarity belies what it is going on in the image, for me. The first photographic book I bought was Corinne Day’s Diary. I got it with my pocket money. I knew about her work because I subscribed to British Vogue for about ten years when I was growing up (unhealthy, but as it turns out, useful in terms of my career now). So I had seen her photographs within the magazine and I loved those images she made of Kate Moss that were so controversial (more on this later), but Diary is this incredible and sort of devastating record of the parallel life she was leading during that particular moment in London. It’s a loving testament to all her friends during this period, many of whom were on drugs or in poverty at the time. I think I was really interested in this woman who was working to create these highly specific images for her day job as a fashion photographer, but at night was documenting the lives of her friends who were wholly set apart from that world. That was what made her amazing within fashion photography : that she could retain this element or kernel of painful reality even if it was transcribed or subsumed within fantasy. I think this is what people objected to in her images, actually : that she refused to be shamed or made abject and she brought this into a world that exists in flagrant denial of human bodies. I remember there was also this image of her going in for surgery in a hospital in London because she was diagnosed with a brain tumour during that period (and she died of it eventually). I was so in awe of and so upset by that image. I wondered how she was able to hold it together to have it taken : to expose her vulnerability in that way. But I think I understand that impulse or need to document some of the most devastating events of one’s own life: to exist both inside and outside of something so traumatic as a way of creating both a holding space to process trauma and, in a way, to dissociate from it. I think it’s the first image that affected me on a really psychological level and I think it remains a very rich image for me because of it: a sort of memento mori; I also seem to think about this image every week because my mum died of a brain tumour in 2011 and the way in which she coped with that illness (the effects of which are truly horrific) and the way in which she died, taught me so much about bravery and how life is really short in reality and you don’t leave this world having done all the things that you hope for. I look at Day’s image very differently now as a result : I see it as a determined act of courage or as an insistent act of pushing back against death through work. So that image of Day in her hospital bed is kind of a personal talisman for me. I think art can help us to cut through a lot of bullshit precisely because it can be brutal and uncompromising and can even make us feel really bad. I think it’s interesting that the two photographers that affected me the most in my adolescence and early adulthood are kind of related or imbricate. I see Goldin and Day as exploring very similar territory : the ways in which people survive life, how they manage to keep on keeping on, and the ways in which people build communities in the face of relentless difficulty. There’s such beauty there. I like the ethical confrontation that these images force, too.

In terms of a similarly visceral encounter, the first time I saw a photograph by Francesca Woodman, I was changed incontrovertibly. In all honesty, I’ve not been the same person since. This would have been in my twenties and it was definitely in Edinburgh because I was doing my PhD at the time. I actually had no idea about her really tragic death then, so I didn’t read what she was doing as some rehearsal for an act of disappearance. Subsequently that entire way of looking at her work has really made me exceptionally cross, I have to say. In fact, beyond it being yet another example of the many ways in which we misconstrue all women’s work as a manifestation of some intensely narcissistic impulse (let me just call this out as, once again, that boring old chestnut - misogyny), her own family and friends have said that, in retrospect, the clear warning sign was that she stopped taking photographs altogether before she died. That is, making art was synonymous with drawing breath for Woodman. Anyway : I digress. I was really drawn to this young woman who could in her nakedness be perceived as exposed and vulnerable (and yes, again, narcissistic), but who actually gives nothing away in terms of herself. I think she likes to play a trick on her viewer here, too. Some of the images are really small in reality. In a gallery space, she draws you right in and you have to look at the image at close range : and yet despite feeling like you’re being asked to look in microscopic detail, nowhere will you find this ‘person’ you are looking for – and directly at - in the image. She’s an artist of displacement and dissimulation, but not a ghost (that would be an insult to Woodman, I reckon). Rather, it seems clear, her project is precisely the formation of subjectivity in dialogue with an ‘other’ – whether that is the photographic apparatus or an imagined viewer, but it’s not autobiographical in any sense either. It also seems that, at such a young age, she already understood that the nature of any kind of photographic subjectivity is both highly constructed and elusive (I think she deliberately plays on self and persona in terms of, for instance, her use of masks made up in her own image). And this is especially political because she photographs herself as a woman; this is why I see her as confrontational – that she is saying that her subjectivity belongs to her only and cannot be taken or evacuated. In short, she refuses to be the ‘mirror’ for any ‘man’ (in the broadest sense) – for me, that is what the image after this title is about. I think my ongoing work on Woodman has also drawn me to reading the work of Jo Spence and Hannah Wilke in a similar vein. But with Spence and Wilke, I’m especially interested in the ways in which they documented their own illnesses as a slow slide into death. I guess, this goes back to my first encounter with Corinne Day. I think all of these women are/were incredibly brave as artists. Visionary, uncompromising and un-swayed by the really silly things that, inevitably, people have said about their work – mostly because they are women and we are all still governed by misogynist assumptions with regard to art that centres on women’s bodies, especially if that work is actually made by women ; I don’t know whether I’m angered or amused by the frothing lather people work themselves up into over women who make work about women’s bodies. It’s utterly ridiculous and totally confusing, but mostly really embarrassing. Apparently things are changing – or so I am told.

Corinne Day, Diary, Kruse Verlag, 2000

  1. Taous R. Dahmani: Today, what does it mean to be an art historian and commentator of the image? What role or place should the teaching of the visual matter have in our society?

Anna Backman Rogers:

I’m sorry to say that I am of the view that despite living in a cultural moment that is utterly saturated in images to the point of literal and metaphorical exhaustion, we are seemingly increasingly stupid when it comes to reading those images. I think we all like to think that we are the singular, wise person who exists outside of this paradigm (of this ideology) and can see things for what they ‘truly’ are or represent, but this is, of course, a nonsense and quite impossible : I think we can just be smarter and this entails accepting that we are all cultural dupes, to varying extents, in this world. That is what I will say first and foremost, but this also entails a responsibility to improve at this game, in which we are players, because the stakes have been raised lately and not for the better. This is why I think Guy Debord’s work is having a bit of a cultural resurgence right now. I know there’s some debate about whether his work really can be extended to the seemingly endless digitalisation of everything, especially with regard to social media, but I think his work is both prescient and useful in terms of thinking about the spectacle as a relation of power ; that is, we now find ourselves at a point in history in which power (proper) and representational power have coalesced so tightly that it’s very hard to work against the grain of the image. It’s terrifying to me how this recuperation of ‘reality’ so to speak into appearance has resulted in a culture in which reality, representation and appearance are tantamount to the same thing. In this environment, we need to become so much smarter about reading images. I remember when I went to university to do my undergraduate studies, nobody was being advised to take Media Studies : it was perceived as a soft choice that wouldn’t get you very far in the world. Yet now, it’s one of the few disciplines that could actually help us unpack how on earth we ended up in a world with that man in the White House : something which The Simpsons predicted ! This is a long-winded way to say that the spectacle has now become, in its purest form, power. It is capital at a degree of abstraction as such that the image comes to function as a relation of power and mediates relationships between self, other and world. It’s become globalising and totalising and this is really dangerous.

There is also a lot to be said of the ways in which women’s bodies are increasingly specularised and de-materialised within this. So whilst I think this state of affairs is all-round bad news for everyone : I think it is especially impactful on young women. I am especially reticent with regard to images being characterised as ‘empowering’ : for whom is this empowering ? who created it ? is it being used to market or sell something ? what cultural values is this image aligned with ? Social media has become a pervasive and pernicious tool with regard to, in particular, casting young women as the ideal agents of late capitalist consumerism – and all under the name or seeming aegis of feminism (which in this context is really just neo-liberalism and we all know that and need to stop pretending otherwise). The wave of mental health issues this has unleashed is both unsurprising and symptomatic. We really need to wake up to what is going on. Maybe I’m just too old to ‘get’ all of this now : but I really am not sure that anything subversive is being enacted on social media (Facebook is doing an excellent job of destroying democracy). I don’t believe we are ‘in control’ of our own images or identities: I think we’re all steadily barrelling down the path of becoming ideal late capitalist subjects urged on by post-feminist tenets of self-actualisation and a myopic notion of individuality (which we all know can be harnessed politically to shift blame onto individual subjects instead of the egregious corporations truly responsible for this mess in which we find ourselves) – and all of this is mostly expressed through consumerist choice (that watchword of post-feminism co-opted from feminism proper). We’re not playing the system: it’s playing us.

Francesca Woodman, Phaidon, 2016

  1. Taous R. Dahmani: Film studies have been central to the elaboration of feminist theories of photography, the two mediums are closely intertwined. In 1975 in her seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term male gaze (the act of depicting women from a masculine, heterosexual perspective) debunking patriarchy in visual studies. You regularly collaborate with Mulvey discussing and shaping notions that help better understand women image makers such as female gaze, or female authorship and female agency. Considering Photo Oxford 2020’s theme ‘Women & Photography. Ways of Seeing and Being Seen’ what role theory might play in the experience of the photographic image? In other words, what place these notions could have for people visiting exhibitions, discovering a new body of work or just for any interaction with an image in our daily life?

Anna Backman Rogers:

I think these theories are the tools for unlocking how images come to work on us. We are not sovereign, consistent, exhaustive and self-defining subjects : we are mediated subjects (cultural dupes). I’m not saying anything new here, but it does bear repeating. I think theory has a role in waking us up to this fact. It’s interesting that Mulvey’s central arguments have never ceased to be controversial. I’ve been teaching on Mulvey’s (in)famous 1975 article for well over a decade now. It’s an absolute staple of any introductory course for film or visual culture and I doubt highly that any student could leave a humanities-based 101 course having either not read it or having not heard of it. It’s been quoted and misquoted and mis-attributed by celebrities (thanks, Kim Gordon) and misconstrued. Mostly it just gets applied badly by a lot of people in a really clumsy and literal fashion, but this is no reflection on the brilliance of Laura’s contribution (although we are often left to mark the resulting essays). Rather, I think it’s a testament to the continued relevance of her actual argument. So much so that it’s become part of popular culture (Mulvey is name dropped on Parks and Rec). Often, I’ve noticed, people talk about the male gaze, but don’t mention Mulvey. This is just to say it’s part of our cultural currency. I think it’s a pity that its legacy sometimes tends to overshadow Laura’s other work which is truly exceptional : Death 24 X A Second is, in my view, the greatest book written on film as an art form.

When I started teaching on feminism and Mulvey’s article, I laboured under the startling, but perhaps understandable, misapprehension that it might be the psychoanalytic framework with which the students might take issue (and I can confirm that at best they tend to see it as dated, and at worst they tend to pour excoriating hatred onto Freud and Lacan without having read either in any detail), but actually it is the main arguments that many (mostly boys, it must be said) seem to get inexplicably cross and offended over. I’ve been reported for teaching feminist propaganda in the classroom, preaching women’s ideology, discriminating on the basis of sex (against men) for teaching on this article. And yet, anyone who has their eyes even half open towards the outside world knows her cardinal thesis to be true : because this remains the world in which we live. Actually, when I first met Laura back in 2012 we pretty much both agreed that things have gotten far worse with regard to representation of women’s bodies in visual culture at large : a situation only exacerbated and amplified by digital technology. I think to argue anything else is rather naive, I’m afraid.

I’m also a big fan of Claire Johnston’s essay ‘Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema’. It’s received neither the attention nor the traction of Mulvey’s essay, but I think she makes some incredibly important and salient points with regard to why positive representation alone isn’t enough and never will be enough (because that was, partly, what the feminist debate was centred on at the time of its publication). I think Johnston has a really sophisticated understanding of the image as a tool of ideology. I mean, she says it :

‘clearly, if we accept that cinema involves the production of signs, the idea of non-intervention is pure mystification. The sign is always a product. What the camera in fact grasps is the “natural” world of the dominant ideology - Women’s cinema cannot afford such idealism’

She doesn’t brook a conception of the image as in any way, shape or form, ‘realistic’ but precisely as a creation, as a product, which can and does manipulate our perception, our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others and the wider world. This is the sort of thing about which we cannot, as she says, afford ‘idealism’ because, historically, many of us have been and remain on the losing end of that equation. Images are tools of power. These articles present that argument clearly and, yes, vehemently, because their cause was deeply political and they could not afford to waste time – and in all honesty, I don’t feel we have time to waste either. A lot of these scholars were also working on the fringes of academia. I really wish for a resurrection of that kind of politics of the image, to be honest. We need it badly. Judith Butler has lately written on feminism as a form of coalitional politics and community building and this I think is incredibly important in terms of the future of feminism as a politics and ethics. We need to reclaim radical feminism from atomising notions of individualism and exclusion.

I also, inevitably, think of John Berger who argued that men look actively, but women have a far more complex relationship to the gaze and to their own image. They are both inside and outside of it for Berger : both agents and objects and keenly aware of their currency as ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ - as Mulvey puts it. Francesca Woodman, in fact, is the perfect artist to dramatise this ! Berger was also attuned to the gendered hypocrisy in all of this. Essentially, that men paint images of women in the nude because that’s what they want to look at and then they place a mirror in her hand and call the picture ‘Vanity’. I don’t think, fundamentally, this has changed : it informs our cultural discourse entirely and explains the continually misogynist reactions to work made by women. I teach a lot on Griselda Pollock’s work in this regard, too. I know there’s a lot of talk about selfie culture being a reclamation of female agency etc and an assertion of control over one’s own image and, to a certain extent, I can see all of that, but images don’t exist in hermetic isolation. They are part of continuous forms of circulation and exchange in an endless chain of signifiers (of which we are not in control) and they often are literally traded for currency in a patriarchal culture (again : Debord). Anyone who has had their image co-opted and used against their own will understands that this is precisely a form of (more-often-than-not gendered) violence. I think sociologists have lately described selfie culture as the male gaze 2.0 and I would tend to agree, to be honest. I’m sure there are fitting counter-examples : in fact I commissioned a bunch of essays on this for our second book on female agency and the documentary image and I am particularly intrigued by Amalia Ulman’s projects in this regard, but I remain, essentially, sceptical about such gestures. I think patriarchy is real, it exists and we don’t know the half of it yet. I’ve not got any time for idealism and utopian thinking on this score and I regularly bore my wife to tears with this argument. But: misogyny is running rife, globally, in every sector of society currently and it’s getting worse. Anyone who thinks this isn’t a battle for human rights is mistaken.

Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second. Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion Books, 2005

  1. Taous R. Dahmani: You have been an active participant in the renewal of gendered art history. If we consider photography’s history, we are currently living in an interesting moment that tries to shed more light on women photographers — often ignored by traditional histories of the medium. How do you analyse this phenomenon and how do you see it evolving?

Anna Backman Rogers:

I’m excited about what’s going on at the moment. I think this process of decolonisation of the curriculum might be the most important thing to happen in academia in a very long time indeed. It might be the most important thing ever to happen in academia because we are changing the terms of the debate in doing so. We must recognise that education is never neutral. Text books are not neutral documents of facts. The production of knowledge is not neutral. Whiteness does not signify neutrality. I know this even in a very minor way from my own experience of being petitioned by a bunch of boys to teach film history from a ‘neutral perspective’. We need to understand that there is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to knowledge: who writes it, who teaches it, who has access to it…all of this matters! We are in the process of re-thinking and problematising the very basis or inheritance of our educational principles in cultures of Enlightenment generally in the Western world. Academia is, at its very core, an institution that changes painfully slowly and only by degrees of increment. The work has started now, it will be ongoing throughout our lifetimes and beyond and we cannot baulk from this task. It is our duty to change this thing because we are all part of it in this discipline. We all have a role to play.

I think a lot of people are feeling a blow to their egos right now: discovering that they are not the purveyors of historical and indisputable facts and there has been a lot of acting out from certain quarters in response (nobody ever said privilege was easy to give up); nobody likes to hear that they are actively helping to co-create and promulgate (his)tories that have been used to disenfranchise women and minorities and, by extension, to sanction violence in the name of certain notions of ‘civilisation’ or entitlement. I can’t say enough as to how important I think what is happening right now truly is and it’s really important that we stick with it and we are not swayed by asinine reactionary discourse that fears a more complex and nuanced portrayal of human history and diversity on syllabi as a starting point for ethical education. Within this, I think the fact that women’s work is coming not only to be recognised, but also included on various humanities curriculums that have been in dire need of, to put it bluntly, dusting off is wonderful. But we cannot implement this in a tokenistic and facile way. I think the neo-liberalisation of higher education generally has actively created a situation in which only immediate and fairly meretricious solutions are sought to ingrained and structural issues that have existed for centuries. We cannot un-do this damage with, for instance, quotas or statements or consolatory gestures towards broad notions of ‘inclusion’ on syllabi. None of this will suffice. This is also going to require that white academia confronts itself and difficult conversations are not only sat through, but taken seriously as a matter of ethical import: but currently, given the alarming push back that has even appeared on academic listservs in response to Black Lives Matter from people who should, frankly, know better, there is every sign that once again, this will be swept under the rug, so to speak. We are at a really difficult junction in history and we will be judged by how we meet the task that lays before us as scholars and teachers.

With regard to the specificity of women’s art history and women’s photography, it is, of course, brilliant that this is coming to light and that their work is being used to revise histories. Given that we are, globally, more than half the population, one might wonder why on earth this has taken so long. The contribution, for instance, of women filmmakers to the very earliest days of film history, is also only really coming to be recognised now. There was a fantastic documentary on the work of Alice Guy-Blaché a few years ago at the Gothenburg Film Festival here in Sweden, for instance, (Be Natural The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché), which made it perfectly clear that she was one of the earliest and true pioneers of the moving image. It’s a travesty that women’s work and their considerable contribution gets overlooked in this way. I’ve just completed writing a book on Barbara Loden’s Wanda, the celluloid print of which was nearly chucked into a dustbin. My colleague Ingrid Ryberg was responsible for finding a film Mai Zetterling had made for Swedish Television which had been mistakenly misattributed to the film’s male producer. I mean, this kind of stuff is both a joke and totally shocking. Our work in the archives is that much harder because women’s work has not been invested with the same level of interest and prestige culturally and socially: much of it has been consigned literally and metaphorically to the dustbin of history and it’s really hard labour to salvage that work and re-write histories against the grain of entrenched views which people persist in calling fact. So what I am trying to say is that the work of feminist archivists here is not to be underestimated: we need sponsorship and funding of this work in order to make these alternate histories.

In conjunction with this, I’m really inspired by the re-appraisal of the role of the muse and the artist’s wife. I think that our cultural moment has manifested in a situation in which we really do perceive the inequities between this utterly ridiculous priapic conception of the ‘lone male artist/genius’ and the female muse as kind of outrageous. Not only were most of these women extremely talented artists in their own right, they also laid the foundation and created the environment for that work by a ‘male genius’ to thrive. One of my favourite books this year was Celia Paul’s autobiographical Self-Portrait because it’s not only a living document of a female artist stepping into her own power, it’s also an account of how the male genius can actively thwart and hinder women’s creativity simply because of engrained cultural assumptions about male brilliance and skewered hierarchies of labour. Just on a personal level, I feel freer to shrug off half-baked opinions about the nature of my feminist approach to visual culture simply as a result of reading it. Women are all-too-often forced to internalise judgements about the importance of their own work and their own thoughts before they’ve gained any real purchase on what is actually going on (I’ve likened it in my own writing to a form of slow, internal death). I, for instance, think this probably happened to me well-before becoming a teenager. It’s hard labour to battle against one’s own internalised mechanisms of misogyny every day, on top of doing the work required to attain and hold down this kind of job in the first place. I don’t have to believe women need to be one hundred times more brilliant in every profession to make it: I know it from my own experience. So with regard to this, I’m especially heartened that women’s hidden labour within art history is also coming to light. That, in essence, it is women’s labour that has facilitated what we call ‘Art History’. I also think women are so much more interesting and subversive as artists and as thinkers because getting our work noticed often requires tactical subversion. We should be more attuned to women’s acts of subversion, however seemingly small and quiet – we would find hidden histories and a wealth of stifled voices and stories if we looked a little harder and longer. Basically, that’s what I spend my life doing and intend to carry on doing so.

Celia Paul, Self Portrait, Jonathan Cape, 2019

Check out Anna Backman Rogers writing:

Backman Rogers, Anna. Sofia Coppola : The Politics of Visual Pleasure. Berghahn on Film. New York ; Oxford, 2019.

Backman Rogers, Anna. American Independent Cinema : Rites of Passage and the Crisis Image, Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Ulfsdotter, Boel, and Anna Backman Rogers. Female Authorship and the Documentary Image : Theory, Practice and Aesthetics. Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Ulfsdotter, Boel, and Anna Backman Rogers. Female Agency and Documentary Strategies : Subjectivities, Identity and Activism. Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Mulvey, Laura, and Anna Backman Rogers. Feminisms : Diversity, Difference and Multiplicity in Contemporary Film Cultures. Key Debates ; 5. Amsterdam, 2015.

Rogers, Anna Backman. "Imaging Grief and Loss: Laura Mulvey's Death 24 × a Second as Film-philosophy." De Arte 50, no. 92 (2015): 11-18.