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 Harriet Riches.
Dr Harriet Riches is an art and photography historian.. After completing her PhD at University College London, she has held various academic posts in universities and art schools, and was until recently Head of Cambridge School of Art. Her research focuses on the history and historiography of women’s art and photographic practice. Harriet’s research expertise is in the area of feminist art practice and the history of women’s photography. She is currently focusing on writing her book which analyses the operation of gender in the historiography and representation of photography (and figure of ‘the photographer’) as medium, practice and technology in cultural discourse.
Taous R. Dahmani: Where does your interest in photography come from? Can you tell me about your first enthusiastic reaction to a photographic work?
Harriet Riches: My interest in photography specifically grew quite organically out of my interest in women’s art more generally. As an undergraduate many years ago, I was lucky enough to be taught by Professor Deborah Cherry at the University of Manchester in a module called Women Artists. I had always had an interest in gender and feminism, but this was the first time I studied feminist art in particular. Deborah recommended I pursue my MA studies at UCL with someone she described as an amazing young feminist scholar ; this was Tamar Garb, and after completing my MA I worked with Tamar on my PhD. It was through Tamar that I was introduced to the work of Francesca Woodman, which I found compelling from the start, and on our MA we had looked at Rosalind Krauss’s essay on Woodman’s work. I was particularly interested in the relationship between formalist and expressive concerns. The exhibition of her work at London’s Photographers’ Gallery in 1998 was a turning point for me : seeing the original prints ‘in the flesh’ had a huge impact—the small and intimate scale of her medium format prints demanded a very particular mode of viewing, and I think this is what really engaged me with the photographic medium. Before, I had studied some photography, and was interested in the ways that women artists and photographers had engaged with the medium—in the work of already well-known figures such as Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus and in particular Jo Spence. But I found Woodman’s work interesting in a different way—they are undeniably beautiful, but also convey a sense of discomfort that is intriguing and demanded a different kind of analysis and set of references. At this point I had no grounding in photographic history or theory as my frame of reference was art historical which helped, but Woodman’s engagement with photography as both a performative and very material medium demanded an understanding of her process as well as her own frames of reference. Before studying art history I had studied print-making at art school : I think it was this material sensibility and dependence on touch and a kind of bodily making, combined with Woodman’s imagery of self-erasure, that first engaged me with the photograph as a medium, rather than just an image or space of representation.
Taous R. Dahmani: What does it mean to be a photography historian today? What meaning does this have for you and what meaning do you give to the teaching of photographic images nowadays?
Harriet Riches: The teaching of photography and its histories and theories has changed even over my teaching career. From my perspective, the teaching of photography within universities has become even more critically engaged, and with each successive generation of students there comes a keener edge and sense of critical enquiries. Giving young photographers and historians the tools to unpack imagery, analyse and read meaning is as important as ever, but over the past years an engagement with materiality and an interrogation of the conditions of making has become important too. For me, there was a turn to analogue process and a growing interest in outmoded forms of image-making that at times felt nostalgic, if not regressive, and apparently at odds with new digital technologies. As a historian, I found this shift interesting in terms of historiography : the language of digital technology—and of digital photography in particular—is incredibly gendered, and threw into relief the gendered nature of all photographic discourse, right from its earliest days. Through this I became increasingly interested in that discourse, and how the gender of photography itself fluctuated—particularly at key moments of technological change.
Taous R. Dahmani: Your work gives weight to a gendered reading of the history of photography. In particular, you have written about Francesca Woodman's work (also the subject for your PhD thesis). Woodman killed herself at the age of 22 in 1981, but despite a brief career, she left behind her a large and passionate body of work around the themes of portraiture and the female body. The lack of recognition during her lifetime tortured her, but five years after her death she obtained a posthumous exhibition and since then has been well recognized with numerous publications and shows. She is often described a ‘prodigy’ — highlighting her uniqueness: How do you explain Woodman’s institutional success? How do you explain that she became one of the ‘happy few’? How do we avoid canonical interpretations of her work and how do we renew our view of her work?
Harriet Riches: One of the things that intrigued me about Woodman’s work was her early support from influential art historians—one subsequent critic described her as a lucky young artist on whom fate, fortune and Rosalind Krauss had smiled, and for Abigail Solomon-Godeau Woodman was a ‘rare’ photographic prodigy. These analyses undoubtedly influenced her institutional and art market success (alongside careful control of her estate and release of vintage prints).
But she was not working in a vacuum, and my earlier research on Woodman attempted to put her back into context through her relationship to performance art of the period, but also to the formalist photographic education at RISD that she both embraced and rejected, and also to her contemporaries. She is an almost exact contemporary of Cindy Sherman, and while Sherman’s large-scale cinematic work seems entirely in opposition to Woodman’s precious almost-contact prints, there are similarities between both artists’ work—particularly the works produced by both just after graduation from art college. Compare for example the video works Sherman made with the video works Woodman made in her last year at RISD – they both share an interest in the potential of the photograph as a performative space and the conditions of the photograph itself. For me, these late works are the most interesting, as she explored moving image, large format, and large-scale diazotype and methods of industrial reproduction that evidence her pushing at the limits of photography. Some of these were shown just before her death--and are very different to those that were exhibited in her first post-humous exhibition, which focused on much earlier work. We don’t know where Woodman’s photography would have gone ultimately due to her early suicide—but I imagine a continuing fascination with the medium of photography that would have continued to maintain a currency over the 1980s and 1990s and into the 21st century. Where Sherman focused on mass-media representation, I could imagine Woodman focusing on material concerns ; but rather than continuing to make the long exposures and focus on her own dissolving image through analogue photography, that would likely have been through a fascination with the conditions of digital making, and the ontological shifts this new discourse and practice conjures up.
Taous R. Dahmani: If we consider photography’s history, we are currently living in an interesting moment that tries to shed 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?
Harriet Riches: Women have always engaged with photography as scientific, commercial and artistic practice—indeed as we know some of its earliest and most innovative pioneers such as Anna Atkins were women. Museums, libraries and local history collections are full of women’s work, which has in the past been dismissed as commercial, domestic, or without artistic merit. Their presence was until recently under-valued and certainly under-researched, but now there are fantastic photographic historians who are focused on bringing these stories to light.
For me, there is more to be done in terms of destabilising the gendered foundations of photography. It is only a couple of years since a young female student told me that her father told her that photography was for men, and that this nearly put her off taking her place on a degree course. But photography—as medium, technology, and both professional and amateur practice—does still have masculine connotations that are difficult to shake off. This is interesting to me as a historian, as as I see differences in the gendered language within which different aspects of photographic production are described, and can analyse these shifts in relation to wider societal anxieties or fears about technology in particular.
There is certainly an attempt to make space for women’s photography—both contemporary and historical— and to share a critical dialogue and write overlooked histories.
I think it is equally important that we retain the critical dialogue about gender more widely in relation to photography in both artistic and mass-media representation. It is heartening—though depressing—to see the recent critiques of publications and prizes in which male photographers are not only foregrounded, but which use highly objectifying imagery, seemingly without much critical reflection. I think this is coming from a new generation of historians and photographers who have a more politicised and critical outlook and who are calling out problematic assumptions and biases in the world of photography. Young scholars informed by intersectional feminism are opening up the dialogue, not only to reclaim women’s work and find voice for female photographers, but to speak up for those women represented in photography—women who may not have a voice, or much of a choice in how their image has been used. I think this is vital, and over the past year and in dialogue with both the legacies of #MeToo movement and Civil rights activism, the rejection of even big name photographers’ objectifying images and questioning of exploitative practices has enabled a broader spectrum of voices to heard.
Check out Harriet Riches’ writing:
2019. ‘Busy Hands, Light Work: Hand-made Photographs and the ‘New Materiality’’, chapter on lens-based media in Companion to Feminist Art Practice and Theory edited by Hilary Robinson and Maria Elena Buszek (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell).
2017. ‘Pix and Clicks: Photography, Femininity and the New ‘Digital Domesticity’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 40, no. 1.
2017. ‘Women and Photography’ in Sheehan, T. (ed) Grove Art Guide to Photography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2014. 'Making and Taking: Gender in the Historiography of Photography', in Sheehan, T., (ed.), Photography, History, Difference. University Press of New England.
2012. ‘Projecting Touch: Francesca Woodman’s late ‘Blueprints’, Photographies, vol. 5, no. 2.