From Barbie to Beyoncé to Taylor Swift, 2023 has been the Year of the Girl. In every arena, from culture to politics, it has become impossible to escape the power and impact of women. The BYU Museum of Art’s most recent exhibition perfectly matches this zeitgeist. But it does not stop there.
LIFE: Six Women Photographers, originally curated and exhibited by the New-York Historical Society in 2019, shares and celebrates the influential and largely unknown careers of the only women hired as full-time photographers by the magazine between 1936 and 1972: Margaret Bourke-White, Hansel Mieth, Martha Holmes, Nina Leen, Marie Hansen, and Lisa Larsen. For each woman, one of their most iconic, influential photo essays is highlighted in the exhibition.
With exquisite modern and vintage gelatin silver prints, contact sheets with dozens of unpublished thumbnails, and primary documents such as telegrams, interoffice memos, readership reports, and story drafts, the exhibit highlights these women’s vision and the story of their chronically underappreciated artistry.
Though it is a small exhibition featuring less than 100 photographs, LIFE: Six Women Photographers performs double duty. On the one hand, it honors the talented women behind Life’s lens, artists like Margaret Bourke-White, whose photograph of the Fort Peck Dam graced Life’s inaugural cover in 1936, and Lisa Larsen, who was the only photographer allowed access to Josip Broz Tito during his historic visit to the Soviet Union in 1956. It reminds the audience of the harm discrimination, sexism, and prejudice do in suppressing talent and innovation. Its celebration of women is in every way congruent with the trends of 2023.
But the exhibition is more than a “Yay, women!” moment, and those who think that is all it is will be missing an invaluable experience. Just as Bourke-White, Mieth, Holmes, Leen, Hansen, and Larsen were pioneers for women in photography, they were also early and leading actors in the burgeoning field of photojournalism.
In their time, these photographers and their editors used photography to craft specific narratives to provoke specific reactions from their readers. Today, in an image-saturated world of smartphone cameras, bottomless social media feeds, and 24/7 news cycles, the techniques these early innovators experimented with and mastered the use of are inescapable. With the six photographers’ works as case studies and a detailed gallery guide to act as syllabus, the university museum unabashedly calls class into session, inviting its audience to become its students and learn the language of images.
More than anything else, the exhibition reminds the viewer to always ask this essential question when looking at a published photo: What was left unpublished?
For each photographer’s story, published and unpublished photos are displayed alongside each other in identical frames, with the only indication to which ones made the final cut for publication in a notation on the accompanying captions.
Direct questions in the gallery guide invite viewers to study the published and unpublished images and consider what differentiates the two. In some cases, the answer is composition, quality, and artistic merit. In others, it is a matter of whether or not the images supported the story the photographers and editors ultimately wanted to tell.
For example, during the Depression, Hansel Mieth photographed members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union for a story intended to sway public opinion in favor of unions. Of the many photos she took, the magazine published those featuring young, pretty, union workers playing and laughing carelessly, and killed the ones showing the less socially acceptable union activities, such as a member actively on strike, or a racially integrated group of young women attending a union-sponsored lecture.
Another line of thought the exhibition pursues is the role of captioning in visual interpretation. For example, during World War II, Life sought to help the U.S. government recruit young women to the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps by sending Marie Hansen to photograph portions of the WAAC training. Aware that their readers were concerned with the upending of traditional gender roles, the editors softened potentially threatening images of women studying car and plane engines and performing exercises with captions like, “The exercises are designed to foster flexibility and endurance, not bulging muscles.”
One memorable image from the exhibition in particular demonstrates the power of images to provoke visceral reactions and lead to powerful consequences. In 1950, Martha Holmes photographed the popular singer Billy Eckstine, or “Mr. B,” sharing a joyful moment with young, teenage fans. A striking, dynamic photograph, the picture brought about immediate backlash because of the closeness it showed between a Black man and young white women. A case of primary documents related to the story includes a report on letters received by the magazine after the photo was published. Out of 83 received responses, the report notes that “Fifty-nine readers are very much upset,” with one reader calling it, “The most nauseating picture of the year.” Because of the photograph, Mr. B was blacklisted from the entertainment industry for decades. He received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, six years after his death.
Yet for all of the negative reactions, there were other readers who saw the same image and instead expressed joy and admiration for the photograph. “Orchids to you,” one wrote, “for your revealing article on the Billy Eckstine phenomenon. Few publications would have been so daring.”
The varied reactions to Holmes’ photo of Eckstine show that while photographers and editors have many tools for influencing reactions to an image – framing, cropping, tailoring, editing, and captioning, to name a few – it is also true that each viewer is their own wild card.
Once, Life was among America’s most popular magazines. It had a weekly circulation of hundreds of thousands of readers. Its mission, according to founder Henry Luce, was to enable the public, through photography, “to see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events.”
LIFE: Six Women Photographers uses every tool in its arsenal to disillusion us with the dangerous idea that when we see a photograph, we are an objective “eyewitness” to the pictured event. A picture is not a window. We are less an independent onlooker and more a captive audience, not really seeing so much as being shown a carefully selected series of images, cropped and crafted to tell a specific story.
So, as much as the exhibition continues the global trend of celebrating the voice and vision of female photographers, it is about so much more. It is about the interplay between what we see and what we are shown. It is about the choices made by photographers, editors, even curators and writers, and how the choices they make influence what we see, think, and feel, for better or for worse. It is about giving power back to the viewer by teaching them to always ask, “What am I seeing? And what am I being shown?”
LIFE: Six Women Photographers, BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through Feb. 3, 2024.
Candace Brown received her BA in Art History and Curatorial Studies from BYU. Raised in Utah, she is proud of the state’s extraordinary artistic community.