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A traveling exhibition on women photographers doesn't skirt the issue

Online gallery of selections from A History of Women Photographers

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Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White . . . most of us have heard of these photographers and have some familiarity with their work. But how about Grace Robertson, Ruth Orkin or Lily White? These names are probably unfamiliar, but they won't be for long. Between a book published in 1994 — A History of Women Photographers, by art historian Naomi Rosenblum — and an exhibition of the same name that is now touring the country, photographs by all these women, and more than 200 others, have been brought together and placed in historical context. Co-curated by Rosenblum and Barbara Tannenbaum, chief curator of the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, the show began its tour last fall at the New York Public Library. It is now at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. (until May 4), and will later go to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California (June 7 to August 17) and the Akron Art Museum (September 6 to November 2), which organized it.

The steady stream of visitors who went through the show when it was in New York, as well as its long list of supporters, headed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, testify to the fact that our interest in photography, including its history, is stronger than ever. In the past year or two alone, scholars and curators of all stripes have raised the visibility of the works of Dorothea Lange, Dixie Vereen, Graciela Iturbide, Consuelo Kanaga and the inimitable Julia Margaret Cameron — the list goes on — and that's just the tip of the iceberg. In the sifting process, the great images will endure; but they must be seen to be judged.

"People have asked me, why a show on women photographers?" says Rosenblum. "It's not that I want to separate out women and say they're better or worse. It's because the history was getting lost, that's why." Rosenblum realized this when she was researching her earlier book, A World History of Photography, which was first published in 1984 and is now a standard reference work. She kept running across fine women photographers who, although often well known in their own time, seemed to be slipping into oblivion. The situation has changed since the mid-1970s, says Rosenblum; there has been a huge increase in the numbers and prominence of women working in the field. The need now, she says, "is to recover, and present to a wide public, the work of those who preceded them."

Lily White is the most recent case in point. When Rosenblum visited the Portland Art Museum in Oregon last year, curator Terry Toedtemeier showed her Lily White's platinum prints. White, who lived from about 1868 to 1931, had a houseboat, the Raysark, that she kept on the Columbia River. Her father had built it complete with a darkroom and running water. White is represented in the show by a print entitled Evening on the Columbia, circa 1902-04; the partially concealed structure near the shore may be the Raysark.

White didn't make it into the book; it had just been published. But that's all right with Rosenblum and Tannenbaum. They don't regard the book or the show as definitive. The way they see it, filling in the gaps in our photographic history is an ongoing process — and one that promises to continue.

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