Christopher Broughton, director of Four Friends Gallery in Thousand Oaks, gives a tour of the gallery’s current exhibition, L’Optique Féminine, and stops in front of “In the Box” (1962), a photograph of a nude woman lying in a box. Broughton tells the story of when photographer Ruth Bernhard showed the photograph to some of her friends. They assumed the photograph had been taken by a male photographer and were outraged. In their eyes, it was an example of a woman being objectified by a male artist. When Bernhard told them that she had taken the photograph, they were shocked. Was Bernhard making a political statement? According to the story, Bernhard said she staged the photograph in such a way because she liked the way it looked: the contrast between the woman’s body and the straight lines of the box.
Did Bernhard’s friends’ opinions change once they learned the truth? Does the identity of the photographer always influence how a photograph is perceived? Should it? And does a photographer’s identity affect what she sees, and must it dictate how she sees it?
So many questions bubble up while taking in Femmes Photo Fest, which includes L’optique Féminine at Four Friends Gallery and Exposed: The Female Lens in a Post-Identity Era? at California Museum of Art Thousand Oaks (CMATO). The question mark in the exhibition’s title is intentional because it’s debatable whether we are — or ever could be — in a post-identity era. “The more we try to get away from labels, the more labels we seem to come up with,” says CMATO’s Senior Curator Lynn Farrand.
The exhibitions aren’t bogged down by trying to give any definitive answers. They simply lift the works of several women photographers into the spotlight and let them speak for themselves. If they spark conversation, all the better. As Farrand explains, CMATO hopes to “assist in launching a dialogue about the concept of a possible post-identity era as well as introducing an important element of empathy.”
The idea to host an exhibition of women photographers was a mutual decision on the part of Four Friends Gallery and CMATO. “Women are often looked at through the lens from a male gaze,” says Broughton. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to bring the female gaze into view.’ ” The result is a rich and varied collection of works by significant female photographers, from the young to the legendary.
Four Friends has several iconic photographs belonging to Larry Janss, the gallery’s owner. They include a photogravure of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and silver gelatin prints of “An American Girl in Italy” by Ruth Orkin and a work by Leni Riefenstahl. A large Polaroid self-portrait by Joyce Tenneson is also on exhibit.
The majority of L’Optique Féminine (which translates to “the female lens”), however, focuses on women photographers of today: Joyce Wilson, Michelle Magdalena Maddox, Nancy Lehrer, Lindsey Ross and Makenzie Goodman. The works include vibrant, colorful street scenes captured by Lehrer and Goodman. Glorious landscapes by Ross, created using the wet-collodion process, evoke a time gone by. Powerful images by Wilson and Maddox exalt the female body while celebrating its physical beauty and strength in all shapes and sizes.
Exposed: The Female Lens in a Post-Identity Era? at CMATO features the brilliant work of Jo Ann Callis, Sant Khalsa, Sandra Klein, Andréanne Michon, Gay Ribisi and Arden Surdam.
One of the most striking images is “Woman with a Black Line” by Callis, which features a woman lying facedown on a bed, a thin black line drawn from the top of her head down her bare back. Another work, “Hands Grabbing Ankles,” is equally arresting. When speaking about these photographs, Callis has said that she set them in a home because home is a place of comfort and discomfort, and she wanted to focus on the dichotomy between the two states.
Ribisi’s “SSBBW#3” focuses on a “Super-Sized Big Beautiful Woman,” who is lovingly and honestly photographed — no body-shaming-induced alterations. Ribisi goes from reality to the cinematic with her gender-bending “Ladies in Waiting” and the floating costumed woman in “Head Above Water 2.”
In “Life Is a Frail Moth,” Klein’s silhouette is a map of the stars. In “Creative Growth,” the same silhouette houses a scramble of succulents. A melding of photography and collage, Klein’s work shows “her view of the world and her magical mindset.”
Housed in a former fast-food restaurant, CMATO has transformed the space into a mecca of art and much more. “We want to start a conversation,” says Farrand, “It is so important for people to have access to art and to find a way to be touched.”
Femmes Photo Fest may not have the answers to all the questions of identity, but it succeeds in addressing the biggest question of all: Why aren’t women photographers and artists better represented in galleries and museums? For their part, CMATO and Four Friends Gallery are upending the status quo by exhibiting art that represents various points of view that just happen to be proudly, powerfully, unabashedly female.
Exposed: The Female Lens in a Post-Identity Era? runs through Dec. 9 at CMATO, 1948 Thousand Oaks Blvd., 405-5240 or www.cmato.org. See L’Optique Féminine through Nov. 9 at Four Friends Gallery, 1414 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, 601-7530 or www.foufriendsgallery.com.