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 Marie Robert.
Marie Robert is Photography Curator at the Musée d'Orsay. She was co-curator of the exhibitions Who is afraid of women photographers? (2015) and Splendours and Miseries. Images of Prostitution (2016) among others. She taught history of photography through the prism of gender at the Ecole du Louvre between 2014 and 2017.
Marie Robert and Luce Lebart’s new publication A World history of Women Photographers is written in collaboration with 160 authors — to name but a few : Damarice Amao, Clara Bouveresse, Charlene Heath, Shoair Mavlian, Rose Teanby and Lena Fritsch — from all over the world, will be the main subject of this interview. The book brings together 300 women photographers from 130 different countries, from the invention of the medium to the 2000s. A World History of Women Photographers includes detailed portraits of photographers following a chronological order and unique visual portfolios. In the introduction, the two editors with whom we are speaking today, discuss their methodology and motivations for making the book and underline the need to highlight women photographers too long ignored by a history of art written by men who privileged male artists.
Taous R. Dahmani: Where does your interest in photography come from? Can you tell me about your first enthusiastic reaction to a photographic work?
Your question is surprising, I have never asked myself that question or at least not in those terms: it would be dishonest to say that I remember having had an emotional shock at a precise moment in my life when I was looking at a photograph. In the end, perhaps like many people, my link to the photographic image is above all old, emotional and sensitive. They are memories linked to my grandmother: thinking back to the photo albums we used to look at together, as well as the 8mm and Super 8mm home movies she used to project in the family living room: in these sessions joyful family narrative of memory was constructed collectively. Afterwards, I was asked by my grandmother to take this family memory and to continue to pass it on. I believe that photography is essentially something that has to do with death, with the disappearance of loved ones. It is, in the end, what we have left once they are gone. It is the trace, the imprint of those who are no longer there or who, once photographed, are already dying. I think that I am deeply responsive to the Barthesian reflection on the "it has been" of photography (and cinema). And perhaps that's also why I'm so happy to work in a museum like Orsay, where vintage and heritage photography is preserved, because I love the responsibility of having to continue to bring to life all the dead in our storerooms, all those anonymous people who once had a name. Some decisive experiences with images took place in my early days at the Orsay Museum, notably with the discovery of the "domestic" photographs made by Nabis painter-photographers, such as Pierre Bonnard or Maurice Denis, who captured their nephews’ zest for life or the tender gestures of their wives. At that time I experienced a small epiphany. I said to myself: these snapshots are obviously related to both death and love. Maurice Denis began to practice photography after the death of his first child, as if there had been a pressing urgency for him to photograph those who would be born after his eldest child and thus keep track of the ephemeral. I am also thinking of the Polaroid series of window still lives, made by André Kertész after the death of his wife.
Taous R. Dahmani: Your book A World History of Women Photographers, which will be published this autumn, follows a history of photography seen through the prism of gender. In the 1970s, inspired by the women's liberation movement and second-wave feminist considerations, American author Anne Tucker published The Woman's Eye. This publication was, to my knowledge, the first major attempt to bring together notable photographs by women. Subsequently, in 1994, Naomi Rosenblum’s History of Women Photographers, became a seminal work. As an effect of the work of their predecessors, books focusing on women photographers have been experiencing a renewed interest since the early 2010s. Recently, in 2017, Claire Raymond published Women Photographers and Feminist Aesthetics. In France, in 2015, Ulrich Pohlmann, Thomas Galifot and yourself organised the exhibition Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? whose catalogue quickly became a must read. In England, in 2019, The Lightbox, displayed the long-awaited show entitled Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers. Can we say that your work is part of this heritage? How did the project for the publication A World History of Women Photographers (Textuel, 2020) come about and what are its goals and hopes?
The introduction to the book looks back at the last 40 years of research. Our intention is not to suggest that we have made theoretical discoveries or that we are revolutionising the history of photography from top to bottom. Of course, there have been many people who have reflected on the contribution of women to the history of photography and it is very important to remember this. These questions — the writing of the history of photography through gender — were first and foremost taken up in the Anglo-American world, then in Germany and also in some Eastern European countries, such as Hungary or Poland. There have been collectives, pioneering researchers — especially women — who have asked themselves these questions before us, French historians. I am also thinking of the more recent work of the Austrian Gabriele Schor, and in particular of her exhibition Feminist Avant-Garde: Art of the 1970s in the Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna. This exhibition has travelled a lot in Europe in the last 10 years: it's revealing to note that it has never been shown in France! As a result, in this book we have tried to bear witness to this vast area of research and commitment which preceded us, but of which we were ignorant for a long time, because if the works are not published in French or if they are not easily accessible in libraries, then there is necessarily a period of latency between the moment of the research, that of its dissemination and that of its acculturation in people’s minds. We also wanted to decompartmentalise the cultural spheres. We wanted to invite figures from the world of photography in South America, Asia or sub-Saharan Africa, where the output is very significant as this book testifies. This book and all similar initiatives around the world are rethinking global histories, which have too often had the limited ambition of describing the world from a Western-centric perspective. They show that research is more dynamic than ever, that work is increasingly available and that it is always better to think together, even through contradiction and debates.
Taous R. Dahmani: You work as a pair, as editors, and more broadly the work is also a collective endeavor with multiple writers: was this important to you? What are the strengths and weaknesses of collective work ? I imagine that these collaborations bring the possibility of new discoveries, can you tell us about it?
Two years ago Luce contacted me — she was already in contact with our publisher Marianne Thery, a committed feminist lady — and suggested that we combine our skills in order to conceive this crazy project: Luce in charge of concept, methodology and with her exceptional international network ; me in charge of the historical approach and the transversal analysis. We thus gave the impetus to the project, but in a way, we are only editorial managers: we give the floor to others. From the beginning, we wanted to create a collaborative and participatory space: we do not position ourselves as specialists of all photographers or all periods or all geographical zones. Luce had the brilliant idea of "delegating" in a way the writing of notices but above all of "delegating" knowledge or, in this case, to seek out where knowledge is produced today. Thus, we invited experts from various geographical and cultural areas. What is interesting, for example, are the to and fro of proposals for the names of women photographers between our interlocutors and us: in France, we obviously do not have the same references or the same pantheons of photographers as the historians in Brazil or in China. It’s obvious, but we’ve tried and tested. The other fascinating thing is the decentering of knowledge, getting rid, as much as possible, of a Franco-French point of view. For us, it is as much about de-virilizing as it is about de-Westernizing the writing of history. It was exciting because we don't write in the same way, we don't use the same concepts, we haven't had the same training as our colleagues from around the globe. We do not have the same grids for understanding the history of photography or the history of women, from one country to another, but also from one person to another. In short, today it is necessary to think the history of photography differently. So I think this book asks a lot more questions than it answers.
Taous R. Dahmani: If we consider photography history, we are currently living at an interesting time that tries to shed light on women photographers long ignored by cultural institutions and actors in the photo world. How do you analyse this phenomenon and how do you see it evolving? I am thinking of this quote by Andrea Fisher who wrote « To make present the work of women who have remained invisible in the writings of history is, in itself, only an opening on further questions. »
I have a feeling that French academia is once again politicized, and that's good. For a long time, and especially in heritage institutions, it was fashionable not to have a political point of view, so to speak. For me, a heritage curator, it is absolutely necessary to pose the question of our responsibility as citizens. What heritage, what vision of history, do we want to pass on to future generations? What is our place in society ? By producing books, putting on exhibitions, doing research, I work in the service of the common good and I produce a public discourse. I think it is essential to mobilize the work of the social sciences even more, that of thinkers such as Françoise Héritier, Bruno Latour or Baptiste Morizot, who fortunately shake us up. We need more than ever to consider actively the social question, post-colonial questions, but also animals rights and more broadly of all living things. We must now go beyond gender, to express and defend the existence of all of those who are not dominant white males: and there are a lot of people among the invisible!