Reiterating with a difference: feminist visual agency and late nineteenth-century photography.

Author:Fleckenstein, Kristie S.

In July 1900, accompanied by her mother and her aunt, Frances Benjamin Johnston traveled to Paris as the sole American delegate to the International Congress of Photography (Berch; Griffith). Here, the preeminent woman photographer in America presented "The Work of Women of the United States in Photography." She illustrated her short paper with more than 150 photographs produced by 31 American women, all solicited, catalogued, and curated by Johnston herself. Ardently admired, especially by a Russian delegate who solicited permission from Johnston to exhibit the photographs in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the display celebrated American women photographers as, first, flourishing, and, second, flourishing as artists ("Three Gold Medals" 12). At the same time that Johnston made a bold artistic statement, she also made a bold political statement: through photography women could equal if not exceed men as visual agents in art and the public sphere, two arenas traditionally hostile to women.

Buoyed by the rising tide of New Woman rhetoric that promoted women's increased participation in such male-marked spheres as post-secondary education, business, science, and industry, Johnston's presentation and photographic exhibition illustrated the potential of photography to alter the condition of late nineteenth-century women. All "images embody, are indivisible, from politics," Diane Neumaier points out (1), and art--the "fountainhead from which political discourse, beliefs about politics, and consequent actions ultimately springs" (Edelman 2)--reflects the power of that image politics. By extension, then, for post-bellum women like Johnston, photography, including portrait photography, combined image politics with gender politics, offering a vehicle and a venue for the emergence of feminist visual agency: the power to look and act on that looking in ways that redress gender inequality. (1) Neumaier suggests as much, arguing that photography constitutes an avenue for women's agency, "an assertion of power, a way of seizing the means of production" (2). Teresa de Lauretis goes even further, observing that a key move in the fight for feminist empowerment consists of women reshaping themselves as subjects, as "social beings producing and reproducing cultural products, transmitting and transforming cultural values" (93). Thus, Johnston and the 31 American photographic artists honored in Paris attest to the ability of women, even those without an explicit feminist agenda, to challenge "the contemporary play of powers and power relations" (Irigaray 81).

The intersection of women photographers and feminist visual agency, especially during photography's Golden Years between 1880 and 1920, constitutes an important transitional moment in representations of, by, and for women. The accomplishments of Johnston and her fellow artists underscore the potential of photography to provide new modes of expression, including self-expression, and new modes of economic support during an era that continued to disenfranchise women on political, cultural, and economic fronts. But, while inspirational, these accomplishments point only to the fact of agency without providing any insight into the process of agency, thus presenting a reductive narrative of how feminist visual agency materialized during a turbulent period of visual and gender transformation.

To better apprehend the complicated relationship between the representational power afforded to women poised behind the camera--to better understand the intersection of image politics and gender politics--requires discerning the strategies by which the women commandeered photography as a tool and statement of feminist visual agency. Nancy Fraser confirms as much. The "problem," she contends, in many feminist approaches to agency is that that even as they admirably aim to recover "lost or socially invisible traditions of resistance," they elide the "constraining power of gender structures and norms" (17). As Fraser critiques, by either "limn[ing] the structural constraints of gender so well that we deny women any agency" or by "portraying women's agency so glowingly that the power of subordination evaporates," much feminist scholarship fails to contribute to "a coherent, integrated, balanced conception of agency, a conception that can accommodate both the power of social constraints and the capacity to act situatedly against them" (17). Lois McNay echoes Fraser's concern. Feminist scholars need a "more rounded conception of agency," she contends, "to explain how women acted in spite of constraints" (5), a theory that accounts for how they, curtailed by cultural restrictions, instituted "new or unanticipated modes of behavior" (21). Understanding feminist visual agency as it intertwines with late nineteenth-century photography thus demands more than chronicling resistance or auditing constraints, despite the importance of both. It demands an account of how agency "exceeds the power by which it is enabled" (Butler, Psychic15) as it engages with the "agency-constraint conundrum" (Waggoner and Hallstein 27).

Using Johnston as my reference point, I offer such an account, arguing that, within the context of Johnston's photographic career, this freelance photographer performed feminist visual agency via a favored strategy: reiteration with a difference. Consisting of an ironic or parodic repetition of dominant constraints, reiteration with a difference constitutes a mechanism by which a marginalized member of culture can simultaneously inhabit and resist oppressive identities on an everyday bases. More specifically, Johnston reiterated with a difference two constraints to photographic feminist visual agency--the Victorian male-marked agent of the gaze and the Victorian lady photographer--exposing them as constructed rather than natural, contingent rather than essential, and thus rendering them open to change. To trace the complexities of Johnston's deployment of this strategy in her portrait photography, I begin with reiteration with a difference, defining this strategy by situating it, first, within constraints and, second, within evidence of women's photographic resistance. I then turn to two examples of Johnston's reiteration with a difference: first, her ironic inhabitation of the male-marked agent of the gaze in her self-portrait The Rebel, a move that destabilized the gender binary on which that gaze was based; and, second, her ironic repetition of the Victorian lady photographer in her 1897 Ladies' Home Journal article, "What a Woman Can Do with a Camera," an enactment of agency that alters the conservative bent of photography. Finally, I conclude by extrapolating from Johnston's reiteration with a difference the co-constitutive nature of feminist visual agency.

Reiterating with a Difference: Photography and Feminist Visual Agency

Feminist visual agency--the right to look and act on that looking as a means of exposing and resisting cultural conventions oppressive to women--constitutes a complicated, even paradoxical, phenomenon in past as well as present moments. Each element of the term--feminist, visual, and agent--all highlight complementing layers of restrictions. Reiteration with a difference comprises a single, albeit powerful, strategy available to women seeking to resist the constraints characterizing late nineteenth-century image and gender politics. Scholars in rhetoric and feminist studies point to the potential of reiteration with a difference as a tactic for feminist agency. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell argues that ironic iteration contributes a vital criterion to agency, especially for marginalized people. Stemming from the classical concept of techne--an art learned, honed, and practiced through canny, clever deployment--ironic iteration acknowledges constraints while subtly undermining them. Campbell offers this approach, she claims, "not to deny the power of recurrent practices ... but to highlight the sense in which techne understood broadly is linked to iteration with a difference and with citation that exploits the past, and opens up possibilities for resistance" (7). As "stylized repetition that has ironic overtones," Campbell's iteration with a difference aligns with Judith Butler's parodic repetition. As Butler explains, the question to ask in agency is not how it repudiates subordinating power; the question to ask is "how might we think resistance within the terms of reiteration?" (Psychic 12). In other words, "how is it that the power upon which the subject depends for existence and which the subject is compelled to reiterate turns against itself in the course of that reiteration?" (12). Situating herself within a critique of gender identity, Butler answers both questions with "parodic repetition," a local level subversive strategy that fosters resistance by bringing into relief the "utterly constructed status" of a so-called original and disrupting the naturalization of that original {Gender Trouble 31). It is this strategy that Johnston employs, transforming constraints into resources for enactments of feminist visual agency.

For women photographers in the fin de siecle, visual and photographic restrictions proliferated. Historically, agency has always posed a challenge for women and other marginalized populations. But photographic agency posed an even more trenchant challenge for nineteenth-century women especially at it aligned with visual prohibitions. To set herself behind the camera lens, the woman photographer had to assume the subject position of one who looks with a sustained and focused gaze, an identity that assailed 2,000 years of efforts in the West to control what Madeline H. Caviness calls women's "ocular behaviors" (19). Concentrating on "the hegemonies created and maintained by looking" in the Middle Ages, Caviness explores the political, not merely the sexual or erotic, nature of "staring and being stared at" (22), for, she notes, gendered ocular...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP