Urgent Museum Notice

Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography

A photograph depicts a mountain covered in green trees and grass. At the foot of the mountain, a young woman is standing holding up her child. The woman and the child are naked and blending into the background of gray and beige rocks.
Oct 17, 2008, to Jan 25, 2009

Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography features the work of two generations of artists whose portraiture, self-portraiture, and narrative photographs have indelibly inflected our understanding of gender and identity over the past 30 years. More specifically, it focuses on how role models and role-playing have been central to the art, meaning, and social function of contemporary photography.

The exhibition begins with the 1980s, a time when many American women artists and photographers realized that they could be both the creator and the subject of their work. Influenced by photographers such as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander and liberated by the feminist and civil rights movements of the 1970s, these women sought to develop a place for their work within “the big picture” of identity construction.

Some, like Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson, were postmodern artists who used external images as cultural mediators of identity in their work. Others, such as Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Mary Ellen Mark were documentary photographers who sought to depict the varied roles that girls try on as part of the internal, subjective struggle to find a gendered identity that fits.

Over the past twenty years, of course, their photography became established, and their concerns were recognized as central to the practice of contemporary art and photography. The exhibition also considers how, by the mid-1990s, this first generation had become exemplars for a new cadre of younger women artists. It also will make clear that this new generation, including Anna Gaskell, Justine Kurland, and Nikki S. Lee, have made their own contributions by collapsing the old boundaries between postmodern and documentary photography, establishing new sensibilities that are post-feminist, and evolving more fluid and nuanced concepts of female identity.

A light-skinned woman of Asian descent stands in the doorway of a small home or trailer, her arms above her head and resting on either side of the doorframe. She has blonde hair and bangs worn up and wears a pink crop top, jean shorts, and flip flops. Her midriff is exposed and she looks directly at the camera.

Nikki S. Lee, The Ohio Project (8), 1999; Fujiflex print, 40 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Nikki S. Lee

Exhibition Sponsors

Role Models: Feminine Identity in Contemporary American Photography is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts and is generously sponsored by the Business and Professional Women’s Council of NMWA, Lois Lehrman Grass, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding was provided by Sotheby’s and the Members of NMWA.