March 13: Is there a ‘gendered’ photograph?
I’m taking a rather cautious approach to what could be a rather vexed question by using just two examples; the street photography of Maria Austria and that of Boris Smelov, both born on this date.
Maria Austria was born Maria Caroline Östreicher on March 13, 1915 in Karlsbad, Austria (✝1975) and moved to Amsterdam, while Smelov was born in 1951 (✝1998) and lived and worked in St Petersburg.
Is it possible to attribute the following images to either one of the two photographers, the woman or the man?
The still life is ostensibly domestic, while the colour image is surely made later than the black and white (is that a clue?), and is the woman laundering in the lake the subject, or is it the lake? There is no real culinary interest in the still life; it’s not a food photograph for a recipe or publicity for a restaurant, so what is the motivation for it? Isn’t a man more likely to take a photograph of a woman working while he is at sufficient leisure to photograph her against such glorious scenery? Would it be a female photographer or a male who might be interested in arranging those rounded forms in the still life and to contrast them with the carving fork and knife (noting that these implements are not those one would use to eat or to prepare a meal of these particular foodstuffs)?
Having asked those questions, it is of course the rest of these photographers’ oeuvre that is going to answer them, and since both favoured the square medium format camera there is a point of comparison.
Boris Smelov photographed mainly in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg, having been given a camera by his mother on his 10th birthday, and by the age of seventeen considered himself a photographer.
He was an intuitive photographer rather than a technician. In interview, he admitted:
My biggest failure has always been associated with the technical aspects of photography, with the craft, when, due to impatience and haste I irretrievably lost my best shots when shooting or in the laboratory. I depend on good luck, on premonition.
In general, I consider myself a representative of the emotional and intuitive approach, with more confidence in feelings than structure. But at the same time, I don’t put it down to mysticism that many photos I dreamed of I suddenly saw first hand years later, happy that if at such moments I had camera and film with me.
His portrait of a bald smoker at an old table on a roof terrace with two lemons is given a radical ‘dutch tilt’ to place the shadow diagonally almost corner to corner across the frame. The male subject squints into the camera, his bald dome reflects the sun and his gnomic features are echoed in the two lemons that centre the shot. The lemons, the taste of nicotine, the salt of rising damp and the subject’s expression all account for the title of this portrait. As to the identity of the sitter, as for any of Smelov’s images, little information is available.
In 1968, in the photo club of the Vyborg Palace of Culture, he met Boris Kudryakov , who introduced him to the circle of poet Konstantin Konstantinovich Kuzminsky who was to depart St Petersburg for the West in 1978. During this period he was fascinated by the St Petersburg of Dostoevsky. At the request of K. Kuzminsky B. Smelov shot portraits of the underground artists and writers of the period…perhaps the bald-headed smoker is one of them?
Such poetic resonances are what make his photography.
His cityscapes of Leningrad also are more gauges of the emotion of the photographer than topographic. In his later years he wandered the streets at night between drinking holes, photographing until dawn. It was a time when he captured his most characteristic images of the city, in fog, rain and snow, but it also led to his untimely death as he perished in the cold on January 18, 1998, falling asleep never to wake again on the Grand Avenue of St Petersburg’s Vasilevsky Island, on which he was born, between the chapel and the tavern.
His are not pictures of a city he loved, rather, they are of a place in which he existed, out of necessity, and for much of his life photographed it out of compulsion. At twenty, in 1974 he took part in the first exhibition of independent photography Под парашютом (“Under the parachute”) at Konstantin Kuzminsky’s apartment where he presented 27 photographs.
In 1976 he presented 34 photographs (portrait, landscape, genre, still life) in an exhibition organised by the Vyborg camera club. The next morning ‘party workers’ of the district committee of the Communist party came and tore the pictures from the walls, and ripped them to shreds. The scandal prompted a ‘revision’ of the Vyborg photo club. After this, Smelov was unable to take any part in official exhibitions and was restricted to illegal apartment exhibitions. Ironically, the next year he received the Gold Medal for a reportage series at the 11th International Salon of Photographic Art in Bucharest, Romania.
His still life pictures of this period are of pre-revolutionary antique objects, a tribute to memories of his grandmother. Nostalgic and sentimental, they are also a formal exercise that he continued for the remainder of his life. In them, as he noted, the object ‘is like the grain of sand that forms the pearl’.
Where the cityscape and human figures, alive or in the form of public monuments, are contained in the one image, he is at his most ambiguous.
One of his most striking street photographs is one in which he shows an itinerant knife-grinder at work. In the midst of this quite mundane scene of crumbling masonry and rain-soaked bitumen, between the man at work and the curious child, is a vision of gold domes on a Russian Orthodox church. His interest is not in the man or the child for themselves, but for the way they and their environment represent the city.
Maria Austria’s documentary imagery by contrast is concerned with people above all else. Invariably she shows the human subject reacting to their surroundings as in this dramatic image of women cleaning up after a disastrous flood in Zeeland who watch as bovine victims are transported unceremoniously to burial.
Her stories are all narrative; all report on the Pulitzer questions ‘who, what, why, when and where’, but in an oblique, intriguing and often humourous manner.
In all of them a deep empathy with her subjects is apparent that approaches sentimentality, but never tugs at the heartstrings for the mere sake of the sensational, morbid or cute.
Growing up in an artistic Jewish family, her father a doctor, she took technical training in photography at the Höhere Graphische Bundes und Lehr-Versuchanstalt in Vienna then from 1934 worked as assistant to the Viennese photographer Willinger photographing avant-garde theatre productions.
Because of the threatening measures being introduced against Jews, she moved to Amsterdam in 1937 where she lived with her sister Lisbeth, who was a textile designer, and they worked together under the name ‘Modes and Photo Austria’. After marrying a German businessman, Hans Bial, she went into hiding and was active in the resistance, forging identity cards. There she met Henk Jonker with whom in 1945 she founded the photo agency Particam along with photographers Aart Klein and Wim Zilver Rupe, and whom she married in 1950 after she divorced Hans Bial at the end of War.
Particam provided documentary stories for newspapers and magazines about the working man and the cultural life of the Netherlands during postwar reconstruction. From 1949 to 1960 Austria and Jonker had a social issues photo feature on the back page of the Algemeen Handelsblad featuring ‘human interest’ stories like the one above.
Austria specialized in theater photography and portraits of dancers, actors, comedians, musicians, conductors and directors for major ballet companies, the Holland Festival (from 1947), the Dutch Opera Foundation (after 1949) and the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Her street photography, which is clearly her métier, is alive with gently humorous observations of human relations and in particular a warmth of feeling for the young and for her sisters, the hardworking women and mothers who are barely noticed by the male photographers of this era.
A child’s first day at kindergarten, twin boys standing on their father’s bike to watch a puppet show, an injured child in traction being read to by a hospital volunteer, a deaf girl learning to speak; all are subjects with an emotional load that could overbalance into mawkishness, but all are represented with an incontestable sincerity and a crisp, luminous realism to rival Helen Levitt or Vivian Maier. Unlike them, Maria Austria’s pictures are intended for publication and some are clearly not made candidly. Consequently they have quite a different value, but one which is still unfortunately as underappreciated as was once the photography of Levitt and Maier. She deserves better.
After her death in 1976 the Maria Austria Institute (MAI) was founded in partnership with the Amsterdam City Archives. It houses the searchable online archives of over 50 photographers, including those of Maria Austria herself.
To go back to the examples above, it must be clear now that the photograph of the laundress at Lake Rosso is by Maria Austria, whose sisterly empathy has prompted her to raise her camera; and the still life is a tribute by Bruno Smelov to a dear grandmother and to times lost.
Good photography springs from inner motivations deeper and more subtle than mere gender, and it is rare that the sex of its author needs consideration.