“In the last decade,” Kathryn Keane, vice president of National Geographic Exhibitions, says in a statement, “some of our most powerful stories have been produced by a generation of photojournalists who are women.”
Given that National Geographic created “Women of Vision,” an exhibition of work by 11 female photographers that opens today at the Field Museum, it’s no accident that all the photos in the show were taken for assignments for the magazine. But being a woman and working for National Geographic are not especially tight constraints, and the 100 images on display include a wide range of people, animals, and landscapes from every continent except Antarctica.
Some of the photos, like Erika Larsen’s pictures of the Sami tribespeople of Scandinavia or Kitra Cahana’s of teenagers in Austin, Texas, are straight-up ethnography. Some tell stories, like Lynsey Addario’s snapshot of two village women in Afghanistan stranded on their way to a medical clinic or Carolyn Drake’s ongoing observations of how life is changing in China’s Xinjiang Province, while others, like Maggie Steber’s series on memory, turn more abstract ideas into images. A few move beyond the boundaries of journalism, like Beverly Joubert’s portraits of leopards in Botswana, the product of years living in the field adapting to the rhythms of the leopards’ lives, and Stephanie Sinclair’s activist photos of child brides in Yemen and a Mormon colony in the American southwest. Spend an hour walking through the show and you’ll feel like you have seen the world, only a richer, more colorful world than the one you normally live in.
“National Geographic photographers spend a long time in the field,” says Janet Hong, the Field’s project manager for exhibitions. “They’re committed to weeks or months or longer. They stay with the community and take photos. There’s a richness of photography from this method.”
It can be argued that this method is also suited to women photographers, who can have access to spaces men do not, particularly spaces occupied primarily by other women and children. But, as Jodi Cobb says in the wall text that precedes her work, “At first I resisted photographing women because I felt I was being pigeonholed. But when it became my choice, then that changed everything.”
In addition to photos, the exhibition explores the work of a photo editor—when Addario gives you thousands of amazing shots from Afghanistan, how do you narrow them down to 18 to fit in the magazine?—and includes a video of the photographers talking about how they got started. This is interesting only in the way that each of these women, recipients of Pulitzers, Guggenheims, MacArthur “genius” grants, and just about every other award known to photographer-kind, manages to make her career sound like some sort of accident. Why is it somehow still unacceptable for a woman, in an exhibit devoted to her work, to say, “Yes, I am just that fucking awesome”?
Fortunately, the Field is less modest. The museum has allotted 7,000 square feet to the exhibition, divided so each photographer has a defined space (if not a complete room) of her own, identified by a banner bearing her name and picture. Hong explains that the exhibit takes up so much space because the museum draws larger crowds during the summer. But I think this is the Field’s way of saying, “We are going to make sure you can’t claim overcrowding as an excuse not to see this exhibition because these photographers are just that fucking awesome.”
“Women of Vision,” through Sun 9/11, 9 AM-5 PM, Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore, 312-922-9410, fieldmuseum.org, $15, $12 students and seniors, $10 kids 4-11, free on the second Monday of the month.