at Kelmscott Gallery

Though the title “Not Nice Girls” might suggest otherwise, most of the work in this show isn’t explicitly feminist in intent, method, or imagery. Nevertheless the exhibit won’t fail to persuade viewers that women photographers have made significant contributions to the medium. The show’s title is taken from an anecdote about Berenice Abbott, who told a friend she was going to shoot some photographs in the Bowery in Manhattan and was admonished, “Nice girls don’t go to the Bowery.” Abbott sensibly replied, “I’m not a nice girl. I’m a photographer.”

Arresting, intelligent images by Abbott, Lisette Model, and Chicagoan Jane Wenger dominate this show of more than 20 photographers. Model, who was born in Vienna in 1906, was a self-taught photographer who took up the medium after emigrating to the United States in 1937. During her career as a magazine photographer, for Harper’s Bazaar and Look, among others, and as an independent photographer, she produced memorable images of men and women, some seated on park benches or in cafes, others going about their daily business on the streets of New York, Paris, and other cities. The 12 photographs included here were originally shot in the late 30s and early 40s; these prints are taken from an edition made in 1975.

Most are casual but penetrating portraits of weathered, solitary individuals. At first our attention is caught by their strangeness–the overdone makeup of an old woman in Woman With Veil, San Francisco, the exceptional girth of a woman at the beach in Woman at Coney Island, New York, the clashing, garish patterns of the hat and tentlike dress worn by another rotund woman in Woman in Flowered Dress, Riviera. But Model crops the photographs to downplay surroundings, filling the frame with her subjects, prodding us to study intimately their expressions, gestures, and style. An affectionate sensibility permeates many of these photographs, as though each person Model photographed were her own relative. When they are aware of being photographed, Model’s subjects rarely betray discomfort; in this respect her photographs are quite different from those of her well-known student Diane Arbus.

Arbus is represented here by three photographs taken during the 1960s. They aren’t among her best images, but they do convey her capacity for bringing out freakish qualities in the most ordinary people. In Man and Boy on a Bench in Central Park, NYC, for example, distinct patches of light in an otherwise dark image oddly illuminate the sides of her subjects’ heads; from their faces our eyes travel over their mismatched, well-worn jackets and sweaters. The boy gazes warily at the camera, while the man, sporting a loud bow tie and nervously clutching a cigar, wears an uncertain half smile. It’s hard to know whether these two look foolish because they are foolish or only because Arbus finds them so.

In these photographs Arbus steps back from her subjects, giving us more information about their environments than Model does, but telling us less about the people portrayed. The woman and three men in Four People at a Gallery Opening, NYC, clustered at the center of the frame and surrounded by bare white walls, read like broadly drawn stereotypes, not individuals. Is the uneasiness betrayed by the woman’s stiff posture and one man’s twisted, intertwined hands caused by their relationship, the social situation, or the photographer? It’s neither necessary nor possible for a photographer to erase all traces of her own attitude toward her subjects, but in Arbus’s work I sense an underlying contempt–misanthropy even–that unfairly inserts itself between her subjects and the viewer.

Despite their differences in tone, both Arbus’s and Model’s photographs are primarily documentary. Jane Wenger’s, however, are not easily classified. She too photographs people, but her interest lies more in the expressive potential of the human body than in portraiture. Three untitled photographs from her Faces series of 1980 present extremely close up views of an elderly person’s face–so close up that it’s hard to determine whether the subject is a man or a woman. In these dramatic images moles, wrinkles, and pores are bathed in light; the shadows are deep pools of darkness. The face is presented not so much as an indicator of personality but as a mysterious terrain to be explored in order to understand the physical reality of aging.

Also on display are six small, untitled photographs from Wenger’s 1975 series Extended Arms. Their subjects are one or two nude bodies viewed straight on or from below, limbs extended and muscles taut. The photographs are cropped so that only portions of the figures–and never their heads or faces–can be seen. They are surrounded by nothing but darkness. Caught in a moment of acute emotion, they seem about to fling themselves into the void; in the photographs that include two figures, one arm pulls at another, straining to hold it. Like the tension-filled figure drawings and watercolors of Egon Schiele, Wenger’s photographs convey an unnameable but palpable anguish.

Tension of another kind characterizes the collaborative photographs made in the mid-80s by Diane Schmidt and Michele Fitzsimmons, in which Fitzsimmons, a poet and artist, posed nude in unexpected places–on an el platform, in an Art Institute gallery, on a ledge across from the Wrigley Building. But her role isn’t to allure. Sitting on a bench at the Sedgwick el stop in Five Minutes to the Loop she gazes matter-of-factly at the camera, looking tired and bored. In Reclining Figure, Art Institute she clings apprehensively to a Henry Moore sculpture, while behind her two men peer at a Picasso painting, seemingly unaware of the presence of model or photographer. Schmidt and Fitzsimmons cleverly blend conceptual and documentary approaches; while making straightforward images that celebrate Chicago’s light and architecture, they prompt us to reevaluate attitudes about the body and about women that underlie more conventional nude photography.

Some of the finest photographs in this exhibit are by the prolific American photographer Berenice Abbott. A number of her many riveting images of New York City in the 1930s are on display here; all are distinguished by her technical proficiency and her commitment to straight, or realistic and unmanipulated, photography. Hardware Store, 316-318 Bowery, for example, presents a jumble of utilitarian objects–knives, brushes, plungers, bird cages–with impressive clarity, each detail precisely delineated. Such photographs have something of the fascination with seeing and recording that’s characteristic of 17th-century Dutch painting. Abbott’s views of pawnshops, barbershops, and street corners embrace the everyday enthusiastically–everything that can be seen is worthy of consideration.

Abbott’s Auto Graveyard, made in 1954, is another memorable image. This photograph of piled-up wrecked cars, in which sharp sunlight mercilessly picks out their dents, broken headlights, and rust spots, is an early indictment of the waste inherent in American consumerism. The cars take center stage–nothing else is visible save a few tufts of weeds and a wedge of sky.

Many photographs in this show are worth spending time with, including work by Margaret Bourke-White, Germaine Krull, Florence Henri, and Dorothea Lange. Gisele Freund’s Clowns presents illusion in the making as three clowns view themselves in a mirror, concentratedly applying their makeup. Lilo Raymond’s light-filled still-life arrangements of eggs, fish, ceramic bowls, platters, and jars are stunning in their simplicity and quietude. Unfortunately they’re overshadowed by the surrounding figurative work. It’s too bad also that they’re separated from one another and not presented as a group, as are the Model and Wenger photographs.

In fact, the overall presentation is a significant problem. While the Model photographs are given plenty of breathing room on a single wall, most of the others are lined up on shelves, crowded together with far too little space between them. A couple of photographs, including one of Abbott’s, are even placed on the floor, leaning against the wall. I couldn’t help but wonder–would Stieglitz or Steichen or any important male photographer receive such treatment?