7 Female Photographers You Should Know from Paris Photo
Too many women photographers have been nearly lost to history, while those working today encounter an industry rife with sexism. But photography is having its reckoning. Even though the spotlight is beginning to shine more brightly on women photographers, past and present, cementing that legacy into history takes a sustained effort.
At Paris Photo this month, curator Fannie Escoulen contributed to that effort. She conceived Elles x Paris Photo, a project that offered a different way to tour the art fair, by viewing work made exclusively by women—from pioneers such as Dorothea Lange to young visionaries like Charlotte Abramow—in chronological order. Below, we share seven contemporary women photographers, some of whom Escoulen singled out, who exhibited at Paris Photo this year.
Jo Ann Callis’s early color work from the 1970s centers on fetish, ritual, desire, and intimate moments that happen behind closed doors. At the time, such conceptual, staged photography was in its infancy, and Callis was a young mother in Los Angeles. She was starting out as a photographer, having finally completed an undergraduate degree that she’d put on hold nearly two decades earlier.
Now, Callis is a Guggenheim fellow and a longtime educator at CalArts. A retrospective of her work at ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica, “Now and Then,” is currently on view, which includes the work shown at Paris Photo.
Callis first debuted her color work in 1974, three years before Cindy Sherman would begin her famous staged “Untitled Film Stills” series, and 12 years before David Lynch would direct the noir cult-classic Blue Velvet (1986). These prescient images are reminiscent of both. And though it might be easy to make a connection between the bold female sexuality and gender power dynamics that play out in front of Callis’s lens, as well as the feminist era in which she made the series, ascribing political significance to Callis’s photographs was never her intention.
“When I made that work, I was in the midst of leaving a marriage while trying to break into the art world at the same time,” she explained to The New Yorker. The artist wanted her photography to be “strong in its own right, rather than using it to make a statement.” Callis presents her perspective, and hers alone. “All of my work is about me. My stuff, my insecurities,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m never representing anyone else, ever.”
Delphine Diallo, Mother-Mystification 2, 2014. © Delphine Diallo. Courtesy of FISHEYE Gallery.
Delphine Diallo, Hybrid 1, 2011. © Delphine Diallo. Courtesy of FISHEYE Gallery.
French-Senegalese, Brooklyn-based artist Delphine Diallo is helping to shape an entire new generation of photography. Historically, black women have been largely excluded from the history of art and photography, but the past decade has seen the emergence of a number of female-identifying and non-binary artists of the African diaspora who are framing black narratives with their cameras.
Like her contemporaries Aida Muluneh and Muholi, Diallo’s practice is focused on the narrative potential of portraiture, invoking culture and history through costume or paint. She enlisted various collaborators to produce her series “Highness,” like Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo—who painted intricate white patterns on her subjects’ faces—or hair designer Joanne Petit-Frère, who has crowned her models with braided masks. These images are a celebration of women, and of heritage. “What kind of queen can I create?” Diallo posited to T Magazine. “How can I redefine what highness means to a woman’s experience?”
Running through Diallo’s work is a wealth of inspiration from anthropology, mythology, and philosophy. But most potent is the sense of spirituality—achieved through a sense of ritual adornment or the nymph-like presence of the women she photographs. Diallo isn’t transforming them, so much as enhancing what’s already inside.
Amy Friend, Afterglow, from “Dare alla Luce,” 2012–18. © Amy Friend. Courtesy of in camera gallery.
There’s a sensory experience to Amy Friend’s ongoing series “Dare alla Luce” (Italian for “to bring to the light”), which she began in 2012. The Canadian photographer gives her work a tactile quality by piercing the surface of each photograph, and creating optical effects by shining light through those holes.
Light may be the primary medium in photography, but Friend uses it in a different, quite literal way, altering the compositions of found photographs so that they glitter with light. The resulting patterns might scatter across a woman’s face, like a fading memory, or outline figures so that they appear transcendent, moments away from the rapture that will carry them skyward (the opening credits of HBO’s The Leftovers in 2015 come to mind).
Though the collection of images may seem as if they are from a single album, or a single life, they are vintage photographs that she collects from shops, auctions, and the internet. Displaced from their original context, each image is imbued with new meaning. “The images are permanently altered; they are lost and reborn,” Friend writes in her artist statement. In an interview with Lenscratch, she explained how the process of making the series has led to her questioning the larger philosophical questions of the photographic medium itself. “What is a photograph? What is its material quality, what does this material mean?” she asked. “And how does our relationship change with photographs over time?”
Viviane Sassen’s richly colored compositions—as comfortable in the pages of fashion magazines as they are in art galleries—are all born from a place of spontaneity.
The mid-career artist has pushed the boundaries of what a fashion image can be, as Lillian Bassman and Louise Dahl-Wolfe did before her. She spent part of her childhood in Kenya, and a love for Africa deeply informs her work. “The ways in which I perceive the light, the shadows, the bodies, for example, are all somehow linked to my memories of Africa,” she explained to Dazed this past June. The influence of Surrealism also enlivens Sassen’s photographs—she casts shadows, like those of Giorgio de Chirico, to cut the thread of her scenes to any specific place or time. Her images are fragments—a silhouette on concrete, or a palm leaf halved by a bright-red vein—together forming a more complete world, but possibly not the one we know.
This summer, a new exhibition and monograph, Hot Mirror, brought together old and new works, photo collages, and snippets of text that read like a memoir. In the spirit of Surrealist exercises, the “image-poems” create a visual lyricism and a narrative that is open to interpretation. Like all of Sassen’s work, it questions the truth in an image: “Two people can look at the same picture and see something completely different. It’s essential to create a space where perception and subjectivity can run free,” she told Dazed.
Andrea Torres Balaguer, Hazel, from the “Unknown” series. Courtesy of the artist.
Andrea Torres Balaguer, Azure , from the “Unknown” series. Courtesy of the artist.
In an image, there is just as much power in what you don’t see, and that is the spring that Spanish photographer Andrea Torres Balaguer taps into. Since graduating from the University of Barcelona five years ago, she has exhibited her mysterious portraiture internationally.
Balaguer’s portraits of women, all formally considered, exude a gentle moodiness. They seem lost in ennui, suspended in time. In each image from the series “Moon” (2017), a woman sits at a table, turned away, leaving the viewer to draw connections between her and the carefully placed tabletop objects. In “Unknown” (2018), which exhibited at Paris Photo, Balaguer becomes both photographer and subject, facing the camera directly, her face hidden by a single brush stroke painted on the surface of the photograph. She chose to turn the camera on herself, she explained, because concealing the faces of her subjects began to seem “a bit aggressive,” as if she were “stealing their identity.” Instead, she continued, “I strip myself of my identity, but I can be whomever the spectators want.”
Balaguer’s practice immediately calls to mind Gerhard Richter’s technique of obscuring or enhancing photographs with paint, or Surrealist René Magritte’s faces, obscured by cloth or fruit. But it also echoes women photographers—such as Mexico-born Flor Garduño (also featured here) and U.K.-born Julia Fullerton-Batten—who have sought to capture a portrait of the feminine psyche, understanding the strength in enigma.
Flor Garduño began taking photographs in the 1980s in her native Mexico. Born in the capital, she began exploring her country in depth while working for the department of public education; the position took her to remote places while looking for new topics for the department’s bilingual literacy books. It was there that she began connecting with the indigenous people of her homeland.
Garduño photographs female nudes, still lifes, and landscapes with the same sensitivity, in rich black-and-white. Among her influences is her former teacher, Kati Horna, a Hungarian-Mexican photojournalist who used Surrealist conventions in her photography. In Garduño’s nudes, she plays with the juxtapositions between skin and flora, tenderness and strength, with strong roots in cultural heritage. She is “always in a perpetual search for the subtle boundaries of the imaginary; a portrait of the roots of magical cultures,” according to the Mexico City–based Patricia Conde Galería, which exclusively represents Mexican photographers.
Garduño has become a major influence on Latin American photographers, and her work has been collected internationally, by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the National Library of France; and the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, among many others. A major exhibition of her work was shown in San Diego in 2016, dividing her oeuvre into three overarching themes: “Bestiarium,” “Fantastic Women,” and “Silent Natures.”
Mickalene Thomas, Racquel with Les Trois Femmes, 2018. © Mickalene Thomas / Artists Rights Society (ARS). Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery.
A decade ago, mixed-media artist Mickalene Thomas’s screenprint of Michelle Obama became the first artwork featuring the former First Lady to hang in the National Portrait Gallery. By 2010, Thomas had solidified her presence in the art world, exhibiting at MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum, among other institutions.
Her paintings and collages celebrate black women, often posing them as famous figures in art history, like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814) (Michelle O., 2008, too, was a reference to Andy Warhol’s Jackie O., 1964). Discussing some of motifs—wood-paneled living rooms, rhinestone embellishments—that reoccur in her work, she has said: “Everyone had wood paneling in their house, regardless of race, and everyone loves rhinestones.…These elements are not necessarily about the black experience; it’s about the idea of covering up, of dress up and make up—of amplifying how we see ourselves.”
Thomas has a photography practice, too, one that has gotten more attention in the past couple of years. Her paintings are often based on photographs staged in the constructed living-room set that makes so many appearances in her art. The composition of the photograph that was on view at Paris Photo, Racquel with Les Trois Femmes (2018), is arranged like an Édouard Manet luncheon, the wood panels and patterned textiles around the four women adorned with plastic verdant greenery.
Thomas has crossed over into editorial photography, as well, capturing photographer Carrie Mae Weems for the T Magazine and rapper Cardi B for W Magazine. That dynamic of black artists proudly supporting and collaborating with other black artists is something Thomas has championed within the fine-art space, as well: Her show at Henry Art Gallery this summer dedicated a room to her peers, including Weems, Muholi, and Lyle Ashton Harris.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mickalene Thomas shot Carrie Mae Weems for the New York Times Magazine. Thomas photographed Carrie Mae Weems for T Magazine. The text has been updated to reflect this change.