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by Betty Brown

(Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego) The Model Wife, curated by Museum director Arthur Ollman, is both an exhibition of over 100 photographs that nine prominent male photographers--Baron Adolph de Meyer, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin, Lee Friedlander, Masahisa Fukase, Seichi Furuya and Nicholas Nixon--took of their spouses, and an elegant book published by Bullfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company.

Ollman’s description of marriage in his catalogue essay is touching, and his historical analysis of the collaborative nature of portraiture is impressive. Going beyond the subject of the title, he appropriately includes mention of homosexual relationships, illustrated with the example of two Don Bachardy portraits of Christopher Isherwood, including a remarkable image made as Isherwood lay dying of cancer.

Ollman admits that “Few areas of study can be more politically charged than that of male perception of women. For some the discussion need never be addressed; men’s views about women have dominated the discourse for too long. For others, the act of viewing is itself related to objectification, a form of violation.” Indeed, there are included a few images women made of their male partners. There is clearly an effort to bring a feminist-informed perspective to the exhibition’s concept. But when Ollman later asserts that it “seems necessary to be able to objectify one’s subject” doubts arise.

Alfred Stieglitz, “Georgia O’Keeffe:
A Portrait,” 1920, gelatin silver print.
Courtesy The J. Paul Getty
Museum, Los Angeles.

Harry Callahan, "Eleanor, Chicago,"
gelatin silver print, 1949.

Seiichi Furuya, "Graz,"
gelatin silver print, 1979.

Emmet Gowin, "Edith, Danville, Virginia,"
gelatin silver print, 1978.
In his discussion of the “troubling” fact that the photographers included rarely portrayed their wives’ professional lives, Ollman rightly addresses the crucial issue of control: “[t]he time a woman spends on her profession is time during which the husband exercises no control.” This suggests a thesis that “[t]hese husbands made these images to direct, control, name and hold that which cannot, in fact, be directed, controlled, named and held.” The more subtle, perhaps even unconscious, aspect of control that Ollman does not address is curatorial control. The works ultimately included in the exhibition, after all, were culled by the curator from among dozens, sometimes hundreds, of images of their wives in each of the nine artists’ oeuvre.

Many of the photographs on exhibit possess stunning formal beauty, clearly part of the curator’s intention. Yet from a feminist perspective, immediately suspect is the repeated inclusion of images that highly objectify the wife-models. One cannot object to a husband privately photographing his wife in explicitly sexualized poses. The politics of sexual relations and those of public visual culture are separate issues. Thus it is objectionable that so many of the selections here feature nude or semi-nude women in overtly sexual poses.

A 1918 photograph by Stieglitz of Georgia O’Keeffe can only be described as a ‘crotch shot.’ It is a close-up of her body from breats to upper thigh, her legs widely spread to reveal her gential area. There are several photographs of Charis nude and splayed to passively receive Weston’s devouring gaze. There is one of Eleanor Callahan depicting only her pubis and upper thighs.

Studying these and other images, we can only conclude that Ollman has consciously or unconsciously rehearsed, and therefore reified, the very sexism he critiques in his essay. This is not to say that there is no place for the continued viewing of images of women created by men; the reality of historical and psychological fact ought not be papered over. However we simply don’t need to continue to present egregiously sexist images of women. Ollman had an interesting opportunity to explore other views, other aspects of the photographer/model wife dialogue. Unfortunately this was limited by sexist selections.