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Do you remember struggling to figure out who you were in high school? Trying on different personae, maybe even daily? At that malleable stage, role models can be powerful – good or bad. So it was with particular fascination that I attended “Outspoken: Six Women Photographers” in the Nesto Gallery at Milton Academy, curated by photographer and educator Marky Kauffmann.
What I discovered is, while this show may appear to be pointed at girls and women, it is constructed so deftly that it appeals to a wider audience. As Milton Academy junior, Lea, summed it up, “I like the way it ranges from serious to funny”. In fact, for such a concentrated exhibit (6 artists with 6-8 photographs each), the range and reach is remarkable. The subjects portrayed span a time from early childhood to old age, with artists utilizing methods from traditional photography to alternative processes and photomontage.
Most importantly, the six women photographers in “Outspoken” have taken the personal and made it universal with their strong imagery and expert craft. Emily Schiffer’s B&W photographs of young girls playing outdoors on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota transmit the complexity of “love, joy and pain” experienced simultaneously that “dissipates in adolescence”. In “Growing Up Girl”, Tira Khan follows her three prepubescent daughters in their “chaotic, crazy family life” and captures the moments that “represent the pause in this cacophony” to reveal a seriousness that “says what is usually left unsaid.”
In “A Girl and Her Room”, Rania Matar studies both American and Arab teenagers in the invented universe of their bedrooms, their jumbled surroundings conveying the sometimes surprising cross-cultural commonalities in their quest for an adult identity. Not surprisingly, the Milton girls I spoke with at the opening related most strongly to these images. Caroline, a junior, thought they were “not as posed” as the photographs of women in the show. And indeed, the other three artists were more barbed in their messages exploring women’s roles and appearances within a broad cultural context.
In “Ms. Behavior”, Nancy Grace Horton employs humor to ponder the influence of mass media on female roles. Utilizing vibrant colors and visual puns, she composes “narrative fragments that confound conventions of American popular culture to explore the norms of female behavior – and misbehavior.” Photomontage is the vehicle by which Nadine Boughton wryly explores the relationship of both sexes to power and beauty. Capitalizing on typical gender polarities found in magazines like Fortune and Women’s Wear Daily during the 1950’s and 60’s, Boughton brings together “two distinct sets of images for open narratives with humor and a dark edge.” Her inventively juxtaposed magazine clippings suggest men and women enjoy equal, but decidedly different, powers.
Marky Kauffmann brings this show full circle, with simultaneously magnetic and repellent images of older women in her series, “Lost Beauty”. Mining this artistically underrepresented group, Kauffmann questions societal assumptions by asking, “in a desperate attempt to look young, if we employ all means available to stop age, what is lost?” Starting with chemically treated B&W gelatin silver prints, Kauffmann scans and electronically layers various treatments onto her subjects, essentially veiling their “story of struggle and survival, fortitude and even triumph.”
The compelling images in this show can be both thought-provoking and fun and they succeed in provoking some deep questioning. As Milton senior Laura asked, “So much imagery is sexualized, so how do you define female?” Indeed. “Outspoken” will be exhibited through October 31, 2014. For information, directions and hours, go to: www.milton.edu/arts/nesto.cfm
Feature image: Crop from “Hiba, Shatilla Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, Lebanon, 2010” archival inkjet print by Rania Matar (courtesy of the artist and and Carroll and Sons Gallery, Boston)
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