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THE FEMALE GAZE: #GirlGaze: On the Unique Vision of Female Photographers Picturing Grief, by Diana Nicholette Jeon

Author’s Note: I’m doing something different from my typical interview feature today. I’ve been feeling extremely emotional due to all the turmoil in the world this fall, so I decided to do a group feature on women dealing with grief via their photography.

“Within the depths of melancholy lies the birthplace of great art, where sadness intertwines with beauty to create a masterpiece”.

—Pablo Picasso

The imagery I have included here represents a small survey of what we women photographers are doing via our work. Once again this month, I ask myself, “Is there something more, something else, something different, that separates how and what women photograph?” As I have written previously, the true essence of the female gaze lies in women creating art crafted without the consideration of the male ego or male desire but instead with the focus on the wishes of the female maker and female viewer. It’s been my experience that women share the emotional experiences and events of their lives via their work much more frequently than men. The exception, to me, is the area of grief and loss. It may be deemed more societally acceptable for men to show emotion over the loss of loved ones than in other areas. I am not sure, but I find in this one segment that men are making images as poignant and emotionally potent as women. I could name photographers and their series, but since my column focuses on women, I’ll not do so.

© Corina Bouweriks, Girl on Threads from the Residents of the Mind series
© Corina Bouweriks, Girl In Skirt from the Residents of the Mind series

I first noticed Corina Bourweriks’ work when I saw a Sara Moon-like image of hers in one of the entrant’s galleries on LensCulture. The work intrigued me enough that I looked up her name on Instagram, a site I dread and try to avoid. Looking at more of her work there, I was smitten. I sensed the melancholic undertones to every image; she made me feel. And that is my thing. I want to feel someone’s work rather than view it.

The two images I have shown here are from a project entitled Residents of the Mind. I’m captivated by her use of dress forms, how they act as cages, and what they may mean. Haven’t most of us had a period where we felt trapped by our circumstances? We cannot see the woman’s expression in either photograph, which adds to the sense of tension the images provoke. In both cases, they are only fragments of a whole person, which speaks of brokenness from experiences that the person is or has suffered. I was lucky to communicate with Bouwericks as she speaks some English in addition to her native tongue. She told me that the series was created during a period of loss, with its accompanying grief, emotional turmoil, and sadness, but also the chance for a newer (perhaps better) period—a time of confusion and sometimes hopelessness. Bouweriks says, “Basically, they are ‘self-portraits’ revealing the feelings and thoughts of the young girl who wasn’t able to speak up for herself at that time. She finally has the courage to show herself without any quid pro quo.

I look forward to seeing the follow-on piece, Kaatje, that she is currently working on.

© Beth Burstein, The Family Heirloom, No. 6
© Beth Burstein, Family Portrait After Auschwitz: My Grandmother Rachel, 40 and Aunt Ida, 11

In September, I met Beth Burstein when I served as a reviewer at the Exposure Reviews for LACP and included this project, Family Heirloom, in my article focusing on the women I met with. Usually, I would not write twice about the same project, especially in such a short period, but world events being what they are right now make it more urgent to show this work again. In September, I wrote, “The importance of Beth Burstein’s work, The Legacy, is undeniable.” It has now become even more so. Since the attack on Israel and the ensuing defensive counterattack on Gaza, what was an already rising number of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab hate crimes has increased to levels unseen in many years. From Oct 7-Nov.7, the number of antisemitic incidents increased 316% over the same period in 2022 (1)

This time, I wanted to shift the focus to the inherited grief that can permeate families of survivors of horrific circumstances like the Holocaust, Slavery, or Genocide. A 2015 study found that “transmission of trauma to a child via what is called “epigenetic inheritance” – the idea that environmental influences stressors can affect the genes of your children and possibly even grandchildren (2). I don’t need to add descriptions to accompany these two images; they speak clearly and bring tears to my eyes.

© Nicole Campanello, Hiding, from the series In the Interim
© Nicole Campanello, Kindred, from the series In the Interim

I met Nicole Campanello by chance at Fotofest in 2016; I am so glad I did because I am a massive fan of her work. The unspoken emotions burst from the edges of the frames, calling attention and begging me to ask questions. Her series, In the Interim, speaks of grief and the transition away from it – that place in the middle of despair and the return of normalcy.

The images are almost stark in their use of space. When you consider beyond the clean white so prevalent in the work, you see the clues to the grief – gestures, hidden visages, the person only a small piece of most images. In the Interim takes us on an unsettled journey into Campenellos’ private world, allowing us to feel her pain and confusion.

© Diane Fenster, #1 from a new series in process, Melancholia

Diane Fenster spent 47 years with Miles Stryker as partners in life and love. They were each other’s muses. He was a painter who wrote her (incredibly beautiful) poems; she made photographs.

In the last few years, his health was poor, and they spent more time in hospital rooms than at home. She spent much of her spare time making photographs of her beloved Miles. If you follow her work on IG or FB, you have seen many of them. In October, his body could take no more stress, and he passed away on October 14 during the height of the annular eclipse on the West Coast. Fenster said, “What is remembered lives.”

A few days ago, I contacted her to see if she had any work about Miles done in the days since he passed. She didn’t, it was too painful. I understand because I make work from the depths of pain, but I always need to have at least a year, sometimes more, of separation before I can stand to do the work, even though it brings the comfort of catharsis. It’s challenging to work from this vantage after the fact, even more so when you are in pain and cannot find the light. After 47 years, his absence now must feel vast and overwhelming, like the Grand Canyon. Then, today, this image appeared, and I asked to feature the work, and she agreed. I am including her post of the poem by WS Merwin and her words that accompanied it here:

“Separation

by W.S. Merwin

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

I have begun to photograph “weeds” as a means of expressing my grief over the recent loss of my husband, Miles, and I am pairing the photos with poems that express loss. I am not yet ready to fully embrace a series that will sincerely represent my emotions.”

Stryker’s last words as Fenster sat by his bed were, “I love you.”

© Arrayah Loynd, Dissociated 8, from the series Pain Always Finds the Surface
© Arrayah Loynd, Dissociated 8, from the series Pain Always Finds the Surface

Arrayah Loynd’s series, Pain Always Finds the Surface (Vol. 1), is an entirely different type of grief.In effect, it is the grief of living each day with a body that has felt enormous pain. The purposely uncomfortable and disconcerting series is a quixotic and confrontational work that stops inches short of beautiful. Although there is beauty there, she has intentionally undermined it to attempt to show others her experience of the world. Loynd ambiguously depicts a mental dissociative state that overcomes her due to medically-induced PTSD intersecting with her neurodivergence. The series of diptychs pairs a self-portrait with an abstract, organic form, with an element from the latter overlapping into the former. I will use her words here, as my synopsis would adequately portray the meaning behind her work.

She wrote, “I have had many medical interventions in my life and have been consumed by pain with only the briefest, sweetest exhalations of relief in between. Nine surgeries, organs removed, things sewn up. One thing ‘healed’ leads to two more things to deal with. No one knows what is wrong with me, my body refusing to divulge its secrets, even to those with the greatest of expertise.

The thought of receiving medical treatment quickens my heartbeat and restricts my breath. Memories from the past begin to surface and burn within my body, a painful reminder that they never indeed left. It triggers an overwhelming sensory response that leaves my nervous system feeling agonizingly raw and exposed.

And so my mind begins to shut down, dissociating to protect myself from what has been and is yet to come. It isn’t voluntary; I lose my grip on reality and am birthed into another place. But it isn’t a place. It is a nothingness, limitless, soundless, and without time. Eight hours moves like one or one hundred; it is hard to tell when you have disappeared. I become no one and nothing, and I never want to come back.”

© Lea Murphy, #6 from the Sorrow Catcher series
© Lea Murphy
© Lea Murphy

I first became acquainted withLea Murphy about five years ago when we both participated in a class run by Laura Valenti. Most of the work I knew as Lea’s was beautiful photographs of her nieces and nephews, which is a given due to her chosen career as a family portrait and lifestyle photographer. I was also well aware of her personal stories of loss, yet they were not present in the work I knew as being hers.

Then, in 2019, SHOTS magazine featured a cover image of an old toy sailboat on the water. I loved, I mean ecstatically, fully, LOVED, that image. But I was shocked to find out the work was Murphy’s. Previously, I thought the photos she made were “nice,” but I didn’t think more about them. From a distance, over the internet, they looked like any other skilled photographer’s personal pictures of their own family. I didn’t have a point of entry.

But I couldn’t get the boat out of my mind! Murphy’s image haunted me, so much so that I returned to frequently and ultimately wrote about it 26 months ago. And that is how I learned of the series it emerged from.

The images in The Dark Between The Stars are personal and profound. On the surface, they are visually beautiful. But if you look intently at the work, there are clues to the pain beneath these images. You sense the melancholia in the frame, for they were born of the tragic loss of her siblings: one drowned, and two committed suicide. The images help her try to make sense of the things to which we can never fully know the answer.

On the other hand, the images in Sorrow Catchers are more conceptual and challenging to discern, yet they are even more personal as they record the remnants of Murphy’s tears.She writes, “In March of 2017, my brother took his life, the second time this horror has happened in our family. Those first raw days when the world crashed to a halt, and I was sure the universe had no heartbeat, tears poured from my eyes. Wet, wadded, twisted, and misshapen tissues held my deepest grief for this little brother I loved. And so I gathered them from the coffee table when friends came to offer condolences, brought them home in my luggage after his Montana funeral, carried them in my pockets after his memorial masses, packed them into my bags after spending weeks with his wife and baby daughter, laid them used and wrung on my desk when a photo or old email caused me to weep, picked them from the floor by my bed when dreams haunted my nights and wracked my body, and collected them on the seat of my car when aimless driving allowed tears to fall uncontrollably. I photographed each of them, the holders of my profound sadness: tissues, toilet paper, and restaurant napkins. They are a record of a year of grieving.

Murphy stated about The Dark Between the Stars, “I use my photography to help make sense of the relationships we had, what we knew about each other, and what we didn’t. I looked closely at what was on the surface, easy to see, and what was more profound and perhaps more challenging. The Dark Between the Stars is my ongoing exploration of grief, disbelief, and questioning as I work to come to terms with these profound losses.”

Both series are work worth spending time with.

© Deborah Saul, #4, from the series sweet and healing medicine
© Deborah Saul, #6, from the series sweet and healing medicine

I’m a huge fan of Debra Saul’s imagery, dating back to when we met about seven years ago in (another) online class by Laura Valenti. Saul’s young adult daughter, Lindsay, was diagnosed with cancer and, after a trying and protracted battle, passed away.

Saul told me, “This series of self-portraits, “sweet and healing medicine,” was made during the pandemic and after the profound loss of my daughter. I was looking for solace and found the quote by Horace that says nature is “the sweet healing medicine of troubles.” Through these portraits, I explore the transformative power of nature as a source of comfort and healing. Each image reflects an acknowledgment of the impact of adversity and nature’s inherent beauty on the human spirit. The blur is a metaphor for the emotional upheaval experienced at the time. The figures meld with the indistinct background to capture the healing process and the blurred boundaries between sorrow and resilience found in nature.”

© Anne Renee Silver, from the series Elegy
© Anne Renee Silver, from the series Elegy

Anne Renee Silver continually makes beautiful, emotionally loaded work that I wish I had made. This particular series speaks to the emotional pain of having a hysterectomy, a uniquely female occurrence. It’s showing the world her inner journey from grief to healing. Sometimes photographs are beautiful or tragic images documenting a moment in time; other times, they link to someone’s inner life and speak more universally to the human experience. If one of the aspirations of an artist is for people to see their work and experience specific feelings, then Anne has mastered this skill and brought it to life via this series.

Thank you to all the artists for allowing me to present your work to my readers. I’m looking forward to seeing more work from all of them!

ARTIST BIOS

Corina Bouweriks is a Dutch photographic artist living and working in Bussum, The Netherlands. Her work has been recognized as the Juried as well as Reader’s Choice Winner by NRC Magazine, used on book covers, and featured as an Editor’s Pick in multiple Lens Culture Award galleries. She has exhibited with Gallery Sophie Maree Brussels, The Affordable Artfair, Gallery Nomad, and Sandvoort Gallery. Bouwreriks work is held in private collections worldwide.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Beth Burstein is a photographer based in the New York City metropolitan area whose work currently focuses on projects recording vanished or vanishing cultures. Most of these projects stem from her history and experiences and her desire to tell these stories, which she feels hold a universal connection. She has exhibited in solo and group exhibits nationally and internationally.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Nicole Campanello is a photographic artist based in Houston, TX. Her work has been featured at Pictura Gallery and Hallie Brown Ford Gallery, and in group exhibitions in the United States and internationally; venues include Tilt Gallery, The Center for Fine Art Photography, and PH21 Gallery. Campanello has won several awards, and her photographs have been featured in SHOTS Magazine and Ain’t Bad Magazine. She obtained her BA in Photography with Studio Art minor summa cum laude in 2009 from Sam Houston University, Huntsville, TX.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Diane Fenster is a self-taught and boundary-pushing photographer working since 1990. Recent recognition includes publication in DODHO Magazine’s PORTRAIT issue and book; Honorable Mention, 20th Julia Margaret Cameron Awards; and Finalist, 2022 Photolucida Critical Mass. Her long career includes a multitude of solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally; venues include the International Center of Photography and the Art Museum of the Americas. Fenster was among the first three inductees to the Photoshop Hall of Fame.

LENS CULTURE
INSTAGRAM

Arrayah Loynd is a lens-based conceptual artist born in the UK and raised in Australia. Recognition includes Lensculture’s Emerging Talent Juror’s Pick’s and Art-Photography Award Finalist, Head On Photo Awards Semi-Finalist, Photolucida Critical Mass Finalist, and Australian Photography Awards, among many others. Publications featuring her work include Lenscratch, Australian Photography magazine, The Guardian, See:Zeen magazine, and ArtDOC Photography magazine.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Lea Murphy, b. 1964, has been photographing for over forty years. She has had six solo exhibitions and participated in over thirty group exhibitions; venues include the Albrecht-Kemper and Minnesota Marine Art Museums, Haw Contemporary, Edition One, SE Center for Photography, Leedy-Voulkus Art Center, and Kansas City Artist Coalition. Recent recognition includes Black + White magazine awarding first place for her underwater portfolio as well as shortlisting her for BW Photographer of the Year. Print and online magazines featuring her work include SHOTS, Black + White Photography, Mothering, Lenswork, and One Twelve Publications. She is vice president of the Kansas City Society of Contemporary Photography.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Deborah Saul is a St. Paul, MN-based artist best known for her street, fine art, and portraiture photography. Her work has been shown at A Smith Gallery, Minneapolis Photo Center, Mobile Digital Art Summit, and The Curated Fridge.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Anne Renee Silver is an American photo-based artist/writer who resides in France after working many years in private practice as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in trauma, loss, anxiety, and depression. She has been a full-time practicing artist since 2016 and exhibits internationally. Silver’s work has been published in OneTwelve Publications, Lenscratch, SHOTS, L’Oeil de la Photographie, Featureshoot, and The Hand. She authored and published “Pйnombre,” an interdisciplinary artist’s book.

WEBSITE
INSTAGRAM

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>


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