Saturday, December 08, 2007

Forum #4 - Identity: Women in Photography

(The much-awaited transcript)

Meridel Rubenstein:

Maybe we should introduce you, or perhaps you can introduce yourself.Thank you for coming, men, this is great.

I decided to do something a whole lot personal, not because it is more personal to be a woman, but I figured that there will be a lot of young women here and I notice that in Singapore people don’t tell their ages? But I will be in 59 in March. So if anyone wants to help me in this per say, you could say that you’re Chinese and you’re 16 right?

So I’ve become a photographer working for over 30 years, during a time when women did not have a voice, and women now have a voice.

So I think it would be interesting for you to see some of the things that I had to grabble with.

In 2001, I was offered a chance to make a book, a monogram of 20 yrs of work. This is my first book, the copies never arrived, and there is one in a bookstore somewhere. And I’m putting it here not to brag, but to say that it was a landmark for me and it is actually why I am in Singapore. Because imagine working for so long and then being able to put your work together and stand back to take a look at it. You know, in a new face of gathering again. This is like a huge breath even though it is work from different projects.

It is related to 911, because of the issues we humans save in the role. All over the world, people became really concerned with up-rootedness and people’s loss of the sense of belonging. So that was a real focus in my work. So what you’re seeing here is somewhat a 3-dimensional piece, about that size actually, a little bigger than that actually. But it is the transparency between glass, sand-blasted on the outside in a 19 century wood go go. And what you’re seeing is called volunteer, it is referring to transit in safely called ‘trees volunteer they just grow on their own’ as oppose to landing somewhere else. We call these self-grow, self-rooting trees volunteer. These are people that have come and gone from Vietnam as a result of the war, and I’m going to talk about the later image of sandblast image of more dug out, trees falling into water and stray people to and from, in times of war. Just to mention, this isn’t just the last few years even though the book came out in 2004, 2005 the night of a couple years of retrospective shows, so I’m just giving you a sense of something, but also a way for me to begin talking. So this is a piece from 1990, I work with a lot of materials, and materials are everything to me. It’s a little different in Singapore, because materials have a hard time here. Buying materials is hard here, with all the different languages.

These are all, whenever you see a brown and white print, it is made with a 19th century platinum plated process, where I take my negative and enlarge them add cold water color paper and you can use the sun for a UV light source. So when you see something like this, that is bigger than this, each print is about 20 x 24 inches, so you add it up, and it is about 7 feet tall. This is called Three Missiles, and it is about ( I have to tell you that I know what it is about after I do it) science and religion, religion made out of science, and how science is made out of religion. It is a feminist piece because; well I’m re-contextualizing my work for you today, because I want to talk about women. A man could have made this piece, but I as a young woman looking, I come from two parts of the US, and what I’m really gonna talk to you about is the emicicle. Because its was the home where I spent 30 years, and the home of the first people, the indigenous people, there are 70 indigenous tribes, over 70 in the US and probably over 15 of them are in the amicicle. So we have a sense of preservation culture, and then we have the… which is the home of the first atomic bomb was designed to be built. So as young woman, thinking about all those things, I thus conditioned myself, 20 years ago, I shall save you the details.

I want to read something, but just going back, I want to say that the prints are on watercolor paper, but then they are set in steel mount. They are hollowed out, so they are like giant pieces of net-board. And there’s text standing in the field, so there is black and white font, the left says white force, the middle says for element, and the right says physic space. Right up on the top. But steel and platinum together are two different kinds of metal; hard and soft, warm and cold (you see the detail now in some of the images). With this image I want to reconnect, our talk about women. I think it is very important to honor our elders, as women. Because I’m a father-identified girl, I am much more identified with my father than from my mother. But I know from this identification process that I’ve had, how important it is to collect women mentors, and honor them. I was named after a great writer, whom my parents didn’t know anything about; they just liked the way her named sounded, they thought she was dead, and I had the chance to meet her in amicicle, she came from Minnesota. Her name was Meridel the third and she lived to be (oh this is so wonderful); she lived to write until she was 89. This is something she wrote. She wrote about (so imagine an older women writing this, she wrote this when she was 70).

‘The body repeats the landscape; they’re the source of each other. We are marked by the seasonal body of earth, by the terrible migrations of people, by the swift turn of the century, virgin unchanged, never before experience on this rainy earth.’

Did I read too quickly? Is it ok? It is a beautiful poem, such a sense of time and place. And looking for her in the 20th century, she was someone who would watch the storms on television, and say ‘the earth wouldn’t stand for this any longer’. She has this sense of earth and body, the women’s body, earth and the relationships between them. Moving on, I’m honoring (to my friends that just came in), the matriarch in my life. On your right is an image I made called matriarch. A photo of an egg in the photo and one of Meridel the third, great grandmother. That was an early piece, I was just your age. This one on your left is a very important picture for me, it is of my mother-in-law, but she’s come to stand for, she was 92 in that picture. Here is how I used her, as the woman in the middle; I used her over and over as the ‘woman in the middle’. I’m going to talk about being the women in the middle. Here she is part of a piece about the world of a Native American and a nuclear scientist being woven together. And I’ll show you a bigger project on that.

Here in the matriarch on your left, with my mother on the left and my grandmother who came from Russia, she was an immigrant, and they came to Detroit, and I’ll tell you how Detroit was, what a sleepy town, a car city, where all the American cars was and factories, big factories, its like Singapore, an industrialized city. I was brought up in the farm on your right. Sorry I don’t have a great photograph, it was a beautiful farm with hundred of acres with cows and animals (Just so you know). In the funny hippie picture over there, which is a funny picture of the family I married into in New Mexico. And they don’t really look like that, but we were out on an outing, this is just a student picture many years ago, but this is showing you the landscape that I went from. I went from Detroit, to Singapore, to Vermont, going to New Mexico. Then my husband came with my high school daughters. That was that white sand where the first Atomic bomb was detonated. So that gives you a sense of the space, of the web southwest of the US, a very dramatic space for us, with all sorts of contradictions.

I was very lucky to have had a woman mentor, when I was only 15 in summer camp. A very great photographer called Wendy McNeil. She was very interested in resentlessness, so she liked to put pictures together. This time, with this man on your left, with his great-grandmother to see how faces are mapped. Right away, through Wendy and myself, I became quite interested in portraits. And I just want to mention another teacher I had, which was Minor White. I don’t have any good reproductions, but he was one of the great metaphoric using landscapes and abstractions from rocks, stones water. Just imagine a crystal of ice, and doing a close-up on that. This might be that, a close-up on a pattern on a rock. Very dramatic and very powerful photographer to study with.
This is me also being a student.

You have to imagine now, that I started photography as a student, and Wendy’s taken my work to Minor which happens to be at a place called MIT, very technological, and this is where they teach engineers how to be creative. With older men only, and all the men was photographing rocks and trees, so when I had a chance to take photographs, I went right away to where I thought there were rocks and trees, a place that was as far east as you can get in Newthanland. And I photographed rocks and trees, but I was able to find one woman subject, a girl in an abandoned house, a girl’s room. So I did my first year in photography as the only girl with a master in photography, amongst a group of men who wanted to be just like him. It was a very dynamic situation as I was the only girl, and who did portraits, so basically, they would just ignore me. I did try to make photographs of landscape, but really, I was interested in people. This was 1972, and I understood that I needed to support myself, as during this time, there weren’t galleries, and this obviously was not a commercial attempt, so I wasn’t going to be a commercial photographer. There wasn’t any example of women as studio photographers anyways, except for Diane Arbus.

So anyways, going to New Mexico and studying to learn to teach. So he sends me to New Mexico, and I take these romantic pictures. You must know that New Mexico is closer to California, so romantic pictures are not going to fly there at all.

But in any case, I went to study with this man and a few other men, but I happen to have a photograph of him. So for you who are interested in photography, this is Beaumont Newhall. Lot of time, his name gets loved because he’s old, he’s passed on, and he was the first person to write about the history of photography. He wrote the first book he did the first research by going to flea markets in Europe finding new photographs and piecing it all together and writing it down. This is one of his photographs. But as a young female student, what I did know was that there were only 11 women in this book of hundreds and hundreds of photographers. And when I said something, it was just a normal responses as the only women with this book, the rest were men who had wives making lunches for them, as the only girl you want to know where the other women went. So I went to the library to do research, at the Smithsonian restriction, telling them I’m covering 19th century photography, I was trying to find some sources.

I’m going to bring this up for everybody who are students, because as I was talking in my photo club, these are issues on woman who came up before other issues about your otherness, you’re differences in terms of ethnicity, religion, your gender preference or whatever.

To be Continued…

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