Edited by Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco,
with a foreword by Linda Nochlin
The New Woman International: Representations in Photography
and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s
(University of Michigan, 2011)
In The New Woman International: Representations in Photography and Film from the 1870s through the 1960s, author Lisa Jaye Young refers to the female body as “the terrain of contestation for modernism,” characterizing the predicament faced by women before and after the turn of the century that is explored in this forward-thinking, conflicted new anthology. Editors Elizabeth Otto and Vanessa Rocco claim that “our book features women both in front of and behind the camera to reveal them as agents in constructing the New Woman as a creative avatar of change,” and yet many of the authors go on to examine photographic representations that are ambivalent, conflating a combination of conditions—war, nationalism, colonialism—into the shaping of public perceptions of modern women. More than anything, The New Woman International reveals the complicated web of intentions, receptions, and conditions of women around the world as formulated by emergent reproductive technology. At the same time that women were being rendered more visible than ever—as bold cultural contributors, iconic actresses, adventurers, suffragists—their bodies became indelibly associated, often negatively, with the rapid industrialization, urbanization, and instability of the modern world. This chasm reverberates throughout the 16 essays, and is never fully resolved, which is in fact to The New Woman International’s advantage.
Spanning the late-19th to the early-mid-20th centuries, the volume looks at portrayals of women in mass media (cinema, film stills, photojournalism, fashion shoots, advertisements, pamphlets, mug shots) and artworks that utilize mass media (collages, photomontages). It manages to avoid idealizing the New Woman in her various eras and locales, instead reveling in the ambiguities of what it meant to be a woman in the modernist period, as deep-set misogyny was beginning to shift and take different forms. In discussing photography, the editors argue that the perceived realist, “documentary” qualities of the camera were helpful in defining the authenticity of the New Woman, challenging existing social conventions and political limitations. The book’s cover features a well-known self-portrait by photographer Germaine Krull, in which she holds a camera in front of her face, both blocking the viewer’s gaze and reflecting the actions of the photographer. However, there are few other images in The New Woman International in which female subjects are as resoundingly empowered and in control of their own representation. According to author Claire I. Rogan, Krull’s photographs of lesbians together in sexual scenarios “curiously frustrate the expectations of the male gaze”; but these photographs were consumed largely by male collectors, and nevertheless “entered the predominantly male discourse of erotic images.”
Young’s essay investigating an aesthetic trope in which women’s bodies are multiplied to create a certain mechanized appeal, common to Weimar visual culture, as well as Martha H. Patterson’s examination of young, beautiful African American chorus girls as depicted in the Pittsburgh Courier, show how the camera could easily morph women into commodities—their presence provided space for debate over current issues, but it also helped sell newspapers. As photography became bound to consumer culture, advertising, fashion, and branding, it associated women’s bodies with “decorative” ideals. Even the works of avant-garde women artists such as Krull, Marianne Brandt, and Hannah Höch, all pioneers of 20th century art, reflect the pervasive ambivalence towards women in their photographs and photocollages. The writers illuminate the significance of the New Woman in these particular artists’ investigations of modern identity and selfhood, yet, as author Matthew Biro writes of a Höch photomontage, “a female figure is simultaneously represented as both a producer and a depicted subject of the new mass media, potentially powerful but brainless at the same time.”
One great strength of The New Woman International is its wide cross-cultural viewpoint and investigation of the New Woman in both Western and non-Western locales, from radical Japanese feminists to aviatrix Amelia Earhart. It argues that characteristics of the modern woman emerged at around a similar time and frequency throughout the world, and were not necessarily determined by Western culture. This point often gets lost or excluded in the stereotypical, European-dominated narratives of liberated, early modern women.
Scholarly texts require a reckoning with the gray areas and ambiguities of history and identity, particularly when a text’s focus is identity-specific. The tension between the agency afforded to women by new technology, and the unstable social realities that this new technology often brought to light, defines each essay in the book. But this undercurrent of contradiction is what makes The New Woman International a complicated and enriching look at history—it underscores the powerful presence of the New Woman and her role in rapidly transforming societies the world over, without essentializing her or distorting the extent of her authority.