This list features ten photography books by women photographers who worked or are working throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century. I’ve left out those artists that are extremely well-known, mostly because they’ve been written about a zillion times over and don’t need the extra press (especially because such fame and acclaim is disproportionately allocated to white, straight women).
In grouping together women photographers, it is not my intention to essentialize the idea of “woman” or to presume that there is any underlying style that makes a photograph a “woman’s” photograph. Too often, when women artists are grouped together, the effect is one of ‘separate but unequal,’ as if by separating women’s art from canonical man’s art, you’re demarcating it as lesser in the process. It’s good, but not good enough to compete with the boys.
But rather than reinforcing an outdated notion of ‘women’s art’ or what it means to be a woman making art, I hope the works on this list are challenging rather than reifying. Here, the vitality of difference highlights the complexity of identity. What does it mean to be a woman making art? Does it mean anything? Should it? How have women of color photographers, queer women, and disabled women been erased from the history of art? In what ways do these photographs complicate the nature of looking, the gaze, and the power dynamics of viewership? Read on for more.
1. Francesca Woodman by Corey Keller
Francesca Woodman started producing photographs of herself and her surroundings in her early adolescence. In less than ten years, she took more than 800 haunting photographs. By now, she’s most well-known for the ways in which she radically challenged the genre of self-portraiture, as well as her use of shadow, composition, and props. But her career was cut short at the age of twenty-two, after Woodman committed suicide. Such an end has complicated critical readings of her work, often resulting in a sexist interpretation that fetishizes her youth and the way that she died. Keller’s book does no such thing, offering an arresting look at her work in full. The accompanying essays are worthy of the material, and give varying perspectives on Woodman’s work that match its complexity.
2. Lorna Simpson by Joan Simon
Published in 2013, this book is one of the most comprehensive overviews of Conceptual artist Lorna Simpson’s work, beginning from the documentary photographs produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s, up to the present decade. Simpson’s work challenges traditional notions of black womanhood and the black woman’s experience in the world. The historical legacy of violence against black women’s bodies is repeatedly explored, often though the juxtaposition of photographs and texts.
Perhaps best known for her Kitchen Table series, Carrie Mae Weems is one of the foremost photographers exploring the dynamic tension between power, love, and society. Her work incisively explores the meaning of representation by subverting images of the home, the woman’s body, and the interior spaces of the family. Many of her early works are autobiographical in nature, though she transitions to more conceptual modes later in her career. But while Weems’ work concerns itself with Blackness and Black experience, it is precisely to jar the white viewer out of their position of authority and the gaze. She reckons with the violence done to Black women and Black families, as well as the survival on the other side.
4. Catherine Opie: Empty and Full by Helen Molesworth
Catherine Opie is one of the most dynamic, magical documenters of queer life currently working. Many of her photographs are portraits, of both herself, her friends, and even famous figures. Perhaps best-known for her portraits of the lesbian community she was active in, she’s also done portraits of high school football players, surfers, and other subcultural groups. Many of her works give a resounding middle finger to LGBT respectability politics, and the mainstream gay scene that prefers assimilation to rebellion. As an aside, Helen Molesworth is an art writer whose essays you really, really don’t want to miss.
5. Shirin Neshat: Facing History by Melissa Ho
Neshat is perhaps the best-known Iranian artist working today. Her iconic images, often shot in black-and-white, often feature the relationship between women, Islam, and militancy. Her ‘Woman of Allah’ series, for example, explores the role of martyrdom in Iran as it relates to women martyrs during the Iranian Revolution. But rather than passive victims of a religious doctrine, the series portrays women defiantly, violently gazing back out at the audience. During times of immense socio-political upheavel, Neshat’s photoraphs and videos never fail to capture the multivalent experiences of Muslim women.
6. Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin is a photographer best known for the documentary photographs she produced of life in New York city in the early ‘80s through to the ‘90s. Composed mostly of her friends, these works depict the brutality and beauty of life with drug abuse, interpersonal violence, and the autobiographical highs and lows of life on the edges. There is something incredibly raw and viscerally fragile about her photographs that few others since have been able to replicate. Taken together, her body of work presents a glimpse inside a world of artists and friends from that part of history.
7. Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun by Jennifer L. Shaw
Claude Cahun is the Surrealist photographer you haven’t heard about. Born in France, they’re one of the earliest photographers to play around with gender presentation and gender roles. Consciously adopting the name ‘Claude,’ itself gender-neutral, Cahun described themselves as ‘neuter,’ or something entirely outside of the gender binary (I’m using the ‘they’ pronouns because I’m not sure what they would prefer, as well because of their preference towards androgyny). Like many on this list, Cahun intervenes in self-portraiture, using costuming and theatrical modes to complicate viewer perceptions of their identity. Although little is known about Cahun’s life, their photographs live on as powerful visual examples of gender fluidity — all nearly a century before Judith Butler would come to popularize the idea of gender being a performance.
8. Shadi Ghadirian: A Woman Photographer from Iran by Rose Issa
In some key ways, Shadi Ghadirian’s work echoes an artist earlier on this list, Shirin Neshat. Both are Iranian photographers who challenge the relationship between Islam (and particularly Sharia law) and women’s experiences. Ghadirian’s portraits, however, engage with these connections with a far greater degree of irony and humor. In her ‘Like Everyday’ series, veiled women’s faces are replaced with household objects, suggesting an ambiguity between the Muslim woman’s self-image and what the world sees when looking at her. She’s also much more overtly interested in the relationship between the West and the Middle East, as well as between capitalism and Islam.
9.America by Zoe Strauss and Steve Crist
Zoe Strauss is a photographer out of Philadelphia. Her work is often categorized as ‘street photography,’ meaning that her primary subject matter is the urban environment and its inhabitants. As her photographs demonstrate, she has an incredible eye for capturing the character – in its good and its bad – of a city, from portraits of the residents to the ways that the city is planned architecturally. Her strange compositions will compel you to look at the city in new ways, beholden to its beauty and its ugliness all at once.
10. Faces and Phases: Zanele Muholi by Zanele Muholi
Zanele Muholi is a South African artist whose primary interest is portraits of lesbian and transgender people. Her images also explore traditional South African cultural modes, suggesting the intricate manoeuvrings of identity for herself and her subject matter. She states that, “The black body itself is the material, the black body that is ever scrutinised, and violated and undermined.” Along these lines, she prefers the term ‘visual activist’ to artist. Her work radically decenters a Western conception of South African identity.