In/Sights: Self-Portraits by Women, came up in (if I recall) a thread on Twitter about female photographers and under-representation in Photoland.* Published in 1978, the year I was born, In/Sights is a collection of 125 photographs from 66 photographers, selected from over 4000 submissions, solicited, culled, put together, and Introduced by Joyce Tenneson Cohen, with an afterword by Patricia Meyer Spacks.
Some of the photographers in In/Sights are well known. With my limited knowledge, I recognized Eve Kessler, Elsa Dorfman, Marilyn Szabo, and others, and given that the vast majority of the photographers were working professionals or instructors, and almost all have MAs or MFAs in photography, it’s a shame (on me, for sure, and likely also on Photoland) that more of the photographers that appear are not more well known today.
(Apologies, I somehow either didn’t film the unboxing or didn’t upload the video. I’m not sure what happened, but at least you don’t have to sit through (or just scroll past) the video.)
The world was different in 1978, or, I think it was. My earliest memories come from 1981/82, and the world was different then, so I suspect it must have been different in 1978 as well. And I would guess that 1978 had more similarities to 1988 and 1998 than those decades have to the Naughties or the Twenty-Teens, and self portraits by female photographers have, if anything, absolutely exploded in the age of Instagram.
In looking through In/Sights I’m struck first by how similar many of the apparent concerns these photographers had at the time and tried to confront through photography are to recent work by, for example, Dee Elegia** and Juno Calypso. This largely verified by the brief statements by the artists that appear at the end of the book, many of which deal with identity, memory, sexuality, fantasy, and emotion.
I’m next fascinated, or interested, in how many of the photographs more or less fit, however loosely, with Selfie Culture that runs rampant in the Twenty Teens. Sure, many of the Instagram stars are (apparently) only interested in cashing in on their bodies while they still can—sic transit gloria, and all, though I doubt many of them really think about that—but the framing, poses, backgrounds, and techniques are virtually indistinguishable. There’s nothing, or almost nothing, like Selfish, but there is a family resemblance to some.
Mostly, though, it’s much more scholarly, artistic, academic (as in ‘from the academy’ rather than ‘elementary’). Some of the photographers try on identities like Cindy Sherman; some merge with nature or the environment, rocks, trees, lakes, peeling wallpaper; others photograph themselves as mother, daughter, friend, in straightforward or more surrealist modes.
The first part of In/Sights is a jumble of single images or two page spreads from sixty different women, grouped by method or mode or emotion. The second part is a collection of 6, six image portfolios from six different photographers. Bobbi Carrey uses multiple exposures (most probably in the printing phase) to merge herself with her grandmother and family, farmland and lawn furniture, spiderwebs and blooming wildflowers. Judith Golden photographs herself a characters from film or literature. De Ann Jennings’ work explores crises in identity and the traps we find ourselves in due to expectations from family and society. Bea Nettles uses montage and collage to explore her childhood and adult relationships. Joyce Tenneson Cohen’s work is probably the most properly artistic, and her statement at the end reads like a 21st Century artists statement.
My favorite of the portfolios is a set of what look like simple snapshots from Suzanne Winterberger. I initially flipped right by them, but almost immediately went back. They don’t look much like anything else in the book. Winterberger’s photographs look like holiday snaps or backyard barbecues. She’s goofy, posing like a Saguaro cactus or laying in a waterfall or lying flat on the ground, exhausted or exasperated, surrounded by older people on lawn chairs in a suburban backyard, and I just love them. I hunted around and could only find a 1980 zine by her called ‘Prototype Man,’ and I ordered it immediately.
Overall, the photographs in In/Sights give a good overview of the variety of (caucasian) female experience and concerns in the late 1970s, and probably for most of the 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s, after the Women’s Liberation movement, but before anything really changed, if anything really has. Given #metoo and other, more recent, developments, I’m hopeful, but I’m also in my early 40s and somewhat cynical.
If you want to see what female photographers were up to in the late 1970s, beyond the Cindy Shermans and Francesca Woodmans, you can find a copy of In/Sights for cheap. I think I got this first edition softcover for less than $10, shipped. If you’re not familiar with BookFinder, it’s probably the best source for finding used books online. It’s worth more than that, but it also shows how much this society values women’s artistic output, especially women’s artistic output.***
*Well, except in the obvious sense.
**I kickstarted a book of Elegia’s photographs of/with her muse Faye in 2017, and remain hopeful and patient. Look for a review at some future point, God willing.
***That said, older photobooks by second and third-tier photographers are often very inexpensive used, but still. At time of writing, there are copies of In/Sights on BookFinder for $4, shipped. May Allah forgive us.