Undertake to do a book of photographs of people with nothing more in common than that they are women (and living in America at the end of the twentieth century), all–well, almost all–fully clothed, therefore not the other kind of all-women picture book.
Start with no more than a commanding notion of the sheer interestingness of the subject, especially in view of the unprecedented changes in the consciousness of many women in these last decades, and a resolve to stay open to whim and opportunity.
Sample, explore, revisit, choose, arrange, without claiming to have brought to the page a representative miscellany.
Even so, a large number of pictures of what is, nominally, a single subject will inevitably be felt to be representative in some sense. How much more so with this subject, with this book, an anthology of destinies and disabilities and new possibilities; a book that invites the sympathetic responses we bring to the depiction of a minority (for that is what women are, by every criterion except the numerical), featuring many portraits of those who are a credit to their sex. Such a book has to feel instructive, even if it tells us what we think we already know about the overcoming of perennial impediments and prejudices and cultural handicaps, the conquest of new zones of achievement. Of course, such a book would be misleading if it did not touch on the bad news as well: the continuing authority of demeaning stereotypes, the continuing violence (domestic assault is the leading cause of injuries to American women). Any large-scale picturing of women belongs to the ongoing story of how women are presented, and how they are invited to think of themselves. A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women –there is no equivalent „question of men.” Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress.
Each of these pictures must stand on its own. But the ensemble says, So this is what women are now-as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this. Nobody scrutinizing the book will fail to note the confirmation of stereotypes of what women are like and the challenge to those stereotypes. Whether well-known or obscure, each of the nearly one hundred and seventy women in this album will be looked at (especially by other women) as models: models of beauty, models of self-esteem, models of strength, models of transgressiveness, models of victimhood, models of false consciousness, models of successful aging.
No book of photographs of men would be interrogated in the same way.
But then a book of photographs of men would not be undertaken in the same spirit. How could there be any interest in asserting that a man can be a stockbroker or a farmer or an astronaut or a miner? A book of photographs of men with sundry occupations, men only (without any additional label), would probably be a book about the beauty of men, men as objects of lustful imaginings to women and to other men.
But when men are viewed as sex objects, that is not their primary identity. The traditions of regarding men as, at least potentially, the creators and curators of their own destinies and women as objects of male emotions and fantasies (lust, tenderness, fear, condescension, scorn, dependence), of regarding an individual man as an instance of humankind and an individual woman as an instance of . . . women, are still largely intact, deeply rooted in language, narrative, group arrangements, and family customs. In no language does the pronoun „she” stand for human beings of both sexes. Women and men are differently weighted, physically and culturally, with different contours of selfhood, all presumptively favoring those born male.
I do this, I endure this, I want this because I am a woman. I do that, I endure that, I want that even though I’m a woman. Because of the mandated inferiority of women, their condition as a cultural minority, there continues to be a debate about what women are, can be, should want to be. Freud is famously supposed to have asked, „Lord, what do women want?” Imagine a world in which it seems normal to inquire, „Lord, what do men want?” but who can imagine such a world?
No one thinks the Great Duality is symmetrical–even in America, noted since the nineteenth century by foreign travelers as a paradise for uppity women. Feminine and masculine are a tilted polarity. Equal rights for men has never inspired a march or a hunger strike. In no country are men legal minors, as women were until well into the twentieth century in many European countries, and are still in many Muslim countries, from Morocco to Afghanistan. No country gave women the right to vote before giving it to men. Nobody ever thought of men as the second sex.
And yet, and yet: there is something new in the world, starting with the revoking of age-old legal shackles regarding suffrage, divorce, property rights. It seems almost inconceivable now that the enfranchisement of women happened as recently as it did: that, for instance, women in France and Italy had to wait until 1945 and 1946 to be able to vote. There have been tremendous changes in women’s consciousness, transforming the inner life of everyone: the sallying forth of women from women’s worlds into the world at large, the arrival of women’s ambitions. Ambition is what women have been schooled to stifle in themselves, and what is celebrated in a book of photographs that emphasizes the variety of women’s lives today.
Such a book, however much it attends to women’s activeness, is also about women’s attractiveness.
Nobody looks through a book of pictures of women without noticing whether the women are attractive or not.
To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one’s best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care „enough.” Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images. And, of course, a primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging.
In advanced consumer societies, it is said, these „narcissistic” values are more and more the concern of men as well. But male primping never loosens the male lock on initiative taking. Indeed, glorying in one’s appearance is an ancient warrior’s pleasure, an expression of power, an instrument of dominance. Anxiety about personal attractiveness could never be thought defining of a man: a man can always be seen. Women are looked at.
We assume a world with a boundless appetite for images, in which people, women and men, are eager to surrender themselves to the camera. But it is worth recalling that there are parts of the world where being photographed is something off-limits to women. In a few countries, where men have been mobilized for a veritable war against women, women scarcely appear at all. The imperial rights of the camera–to gaze at, to record, to exhibit anyone, anything–are an exemplary feature of modern life, as is the emancipation of women. And just as the granting of more and more rights and choices to women is a measure of a society’s embrace of modernity, so the revolt against modernity initiates a rush to rescind the meager gains toward participation in society on equal terms with men won by women, mostly urban, educated women, in previous decades. In many countries struggling with failed or discredited attempts to modernize, there are more and more covered women.
These are the opening pages of the essay „A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” by Susan Sontag which appears in „Women” (Random House, 1999) by Annie Leibovitz. Essay Š 1999 Susan Sontag, All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the permission of The Wylie Agency.