The Colorado Photographic Arts Center’s recently opened “Unveiled” proves just how instructive an art exhibit can be when a curator gets the connections right. In this case, Samantha Johnston has put together three photographers whose recent projects “reveal overlooked aspects of women’s sexuality, motherhood and reproductive health.” That description leaves a lot of room when it comes to subject matter, and the exhibit covers a broad range: adorable babies, vintage gynecological tools, a deep documentation of the history of gender research.
But the photo series that are on display overlap around the edges and bring out the richest aspects of each other. All three artists delve boldly into unspoken notions of what it means to be female — how women see themselves, how they’re treated by society in general, how their bodies work in bed.
And they come at it in ways that are diverse, original and, indeed, feminist, circa 2019.
There’s an empowered “taking back” in Lindsey Beal’s photos of gynecological and obstetric tools from the Ivy League libraries of Harvard, Duke, Yale and Brown universities. She shoots them with dark backgrounds and prints them digitally on plexiglass. They’re lit to highlight their curves and reflective finishes — making them appear like something between educational slides and product shots from an Apple catalog.
That allows a detached viewing of the most intimate objects she captures, some dating back to the 1700s: speculums used for looking inside of things and écraseurs used to cut things off, forceps, nipple shields, scrapers. In these photos, tools that might be hard to look at become straightforward and scientific.
In this series, titled “Parturition,” Beal wants us to see them for all that they are: a means for making women healthier, and for treating them with striking insensitivity. She notes how medical tools were historically used to experiment on the poor and disenfranchised and, at the same time, how they saved lives. It’s a complex suggestion made possible through her knack for simplicity.
Sarah Sudhoff’s photos of equipment developed for sexual research at the famous Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, founded in 1947 by legendary sexologist Alfred Kinsey, have a similar clinical feel, though they foster a different sort of curiosity. That’s because her subjects have subjects of their own — the men and women who volunteered to be part of unique experiments.
In this case, the objects photographed were used to measure the size of things and calculate blood flow and other physiological reactions to various stimuli. She shot them in situ, at the offices of the lab, which still operates in Indiana.
The objects are a throwback — they have wires and lights and switches that resemble early sci-fi movie sets — but their aura remains the same. Kinsey’s work was serious but controversial; the world wanted to know more about matters of sex, but there was no getting around the giggle factor of talking about such ideas.
That visceral response accompanies Sudhoff’s photos to the walls of CPAC, grouped as the series “Wired.” It’s a very serious photo essay but also a very naughty one, at least in the minds of viewers who are conditioned to see pornographic inferences where none are intended. It’s embarrassing, of course, and wholly human.
And while the devices in the digital prints were used on both men and women, the female-centered objects have a different sensibility, and not just because they have a more intrusive nature. We are conditioned, as well, to view the sexuality — and the sexual experimentation — of women separately from men, as something less appropriate. This photo series begs us to consider how this equipment was used, and on whom, and those prejudices carry into the viewing experience.
It’s a leap from Sudhoff’s work to the portraits of innocent babies and children taken by Megan Jacobs and installed on an opposite wall of the gallery. But they are linked together through their exploration of the mysteries of femalehood and their affirmation of the varied and immeasurable roles that women can play.
The photos are adorable, no doubt, and document a generations-old struggle that all mother’s face: getting their children to sit still for photos.
This is all the babies’ fault; as photo subjects go, they are the worst of the bunch — demanding through sheer cuteness that their countenance be captured, but being wholly uncooperative with the process, fidgeting, fussing, failing to look directly at the camera.
Women in the Victorian age had it particularly bad because cameras back in the day required long, static sittings. Their solution: to shroud themselves in fabrics, ghost-like, and hold their offspring firmly from behind. It wasn’t perfect but it worked.
Jacobs borrows the technique for her “Hidden Mothers” series of archival pigment prints, only she updates it in the photos she takes of mothers and children around Santa Fe, N.M., where she lives. Her fabrics, coordinated with a keen eye toward the skin hues of the children, are strikingly contemporary, and the kids look like the type who hang out in 21st-century nurseries.
As for the mothers, their presence is more abundant. Faces are still hidden, but they gain humanity. One has a tattoo, another is still pregnant, yet another is nursing her little one — none of those things would be shown a century ago. In keeping their identities under wraps but letting modernity slip in, Jacobs underscores how women, once and possibly forever, are positioned as the base structure of parenthood. The role endures.
That’s the root of “Unveiled” overall, connecting the past to the present and showing how some things have changed and some haven’t. We still use forceps, we still turn red at the mention of sex, we still count on moms more than dads.
Each of these photographers uses history as a starter but no one gets stuck on it. Nor do they work too hard to make a point, sometimes by simply being matter-of-fact in the way they shoot, other times by staging things in a way that invites us in on the process, or the joke.
And, technically speaking, these photo series have nothing to do with each other — except that they are sharing a room right now in Denver’s Golden Triangle. And that returns us to the insightful curating that’s also on display.
“Unveiled” continues through June 29 at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock St. It’s free. Info at 303-837-1341 or cpacphoto.org.