June 2: What is beauty and femininity in contemporary society?
This has been the quest of three women using photography; Rineke Dijkstra who was born on this date in the Netherlands in 1959, Ana Casa Broda, also born on June 2, in Spain, in 1965, and Jana Romanova whose work features at the Copenhagen Photography Festival.
Familiar to almost everyone, Rineke Dijkstra, since producing her Beach Portraits of 1992, has portrayed people, most often women and girls, at stages of development, or in situations, of transformation; adolescents at the edge of the sea, or at a disco or in gymnastic training; or women who have just given birth whose standing pose holding their newborns, in a most vulnerable, but triumphant, state.
Dijkstra has used a large format camera and in almost every series has confronted her subject face-on so that such vulnerability is apparent, though always with sensitivity. In addition she has used video in a similarly acute manner.
Other than their first name being given in some titles, the subjects remain anonymous so that we are primarily aware, through our personal experience, of their particular state and characteristics, as conveyed by their reaction to the camera, expression, body language and relation to the background.
Her pictures convey human experience and circumstances which if compared to male images of female subjects has a greater variety that avoids the cliché or stereotypical.
Ana Casas Broda uses herself as a subject, turning the camera on her own body to record in separate series her struggles with weight loss and with fertility. Their candour is remarkable since these are images most of us would prefer to keep to ourselves.
From 2006 she sustained an ongoing project Kinderwunsch (Fertility) published by La Fabrica, Madrid in October 2013 as a book of narrative texts in three languages (Spanish, English and German) and pictures on the experience of motherhood dealing with maternity and fertility treatments; it took her five years to become successfully pregnant with her first son. For her second child she undertook to document everything about that pregnancy and later, the relationship between her two sons and herself.
Kinderwunsch approaches maternity as a setting of complex interactions, where my children’s identity is created and my profound transformations as a mother are explored. Motherhood as an identity is one that is not fixed and is grounded in daily acts and sensations. As in my previous work, the body and the home are fundamental axes of this project.
These were reenactments of fantasies and dreams, her own and those of her sons.
From the age of nine Broda lived in Mexico City with her mother, where she studied photography, painting and history, dedicating herself to photography in 1983. Moving in her twenties to Vienna and Madrid between 1989 and 1993, she returned to Mexico in 1993, with periods in Vienna until her grandmother’s death in 2002.
For 14 years she worked on the project Album, beginning with a series of images with her grandmother and later developing a book and exhibition that included texts, diary entries, images of her ancestors including her grandmother which the Spanish publishing house Mestizo published in 2000. Since 1991 she has exhibited individually in Spain, Austria, Germany and Mexico, as well as participating in group exhibitions internationally.
For a series of self-portraits titled ‘W’ Jana Romanova has asked young women to pose for a portrait in a variety of outdoor environments. She then moves in to the frame herself and copies them, standing nearby or in the background. In a manner, she herself becomes a camera, as she uses her own body to mirror others. In the image above playground swings become a balance like that wielded by Anubis in the act of weighing souls or psychostasia.
In all these images, the viewer is likewise invited to compare and to judge, as Romanova subjects herself to her own verdict. The exercise is part of an ongoing series, two of which are exhibited together at Copenhagen; the other being a series of videos in which Romanova recorded her sessions with women who coach others to achieve a feminine manner and interaction with the world: what kind of clothes to wear, how to follow the moon calendar, how to ‘breathe with the womb’, how to create magic and change reality around you.
Following an interactive approach and working with her subjects as collaborators, Jana Romanova’s reason for attending these classes was on one level personal, having been told throughout her childhood and adolescence that she ought to be ‘more feminine’. Her projects aspire to understand what femininity is and if she could attain those qualities herself.
Of course they have a poignant and universal appeal. We all exist somewhere on a spectrum of male and female identity, and a large part of it is learned. To be born a male with a more delicate frame or with a greater sensitivity to one’s feelings and those of others, or to be female with an endomorphic body type closer that of the Wilendorf Venus which is conventionally no longer ‘feminine’, is to experience a societal and personal conflict.
These projects are works-in-progress that bravely exploit the photographer’s own fragility and her obsession with perceptions of what will bring happiness. They share the motivations of Jo Spence (*1934) who also made a study of her own, similarly built, body as both subject and object. The difference is that Romanova works this approach into a new direction in photojournalism.
Ultimately it brings its own vindication. This is a deservedly successful photographer, a photojournalist, who is confident in her ability to explore the most intimate topics with success, using her own approaches which are ultimately feminist practices rather than ‘feminine’, a quality they share with the older practitioners Dijkstra, Broda and Spence.
Romanova (*1984) is based in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. After having attained a degree in journalism from Saint-Petersburg State University she studied contemporary art at PRO ARTE foundation in a School for Young Artists, also in Saint-Petersburg.
These long-term projects have been selected for a number of international exhibitions and festivals including Format (Derby, UK), Chobi Mela (Dakha, Bangladesh), Cortona on the Move (Italy), Encontros da Imagem (Braga, Portugal), the Backlight Festival (Tampere, Finland), Encuentros Abietros Festival (Buenos Aires, Argentina) Perchance to Dream at Andrea Meislin Gallery (New York, USA), New Saint-Petersburg at Nieuw Dakota Gallery (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), Moscow Photobiennale 2016 (Russia), Riga Photography Biennale (Latvia), The Month of Photography in Minsk (Belarus). This exposure has brought her several prizes and honorable mentions in photography.
In 2014 the British Journal of Photography included her in the list “Ones to Watch”, and in 2016 she was selected to participate in the Joop Swart Masterclass by World Press Photo. She co-founded the Expert Photobook Review project, a YouTube channel that offers alternative photobook reviews.
How different is femininity as seen by women than as depicted by men?