– Peter Zimmerman

Sherrie Levine’s photography of the late 1970s/early 1980s focuses on the cultural impact of authenticity, the esteem placed on the unique nature of authorship and the technical mode of production implicit in the photographic medium. However, within these larger and more broad discussions are slightly more nuanced attacks on the status quo of photography. It seems that Levine, who is also very much a conceptual artist, uses photography as a means to highlight the separation of female and male in the history of fine art photography by placing the sphere of maleness on display in her pictures, either vis-a-vis female objectivity or through mechanically reproducing the works of 20th Century photographic “masters.”

Perhaps Levine’s most famous photographic series from this period is the “After Edward Weston” collection shown at Metro Pictures in 1980 during a solo exhibition. However, the series began in 1979 when Levine simply photographed some of the images found in an Walker Evans catalogue, and without further manipulation displayed them as images created by her and thereby attributed to her. Sherrie Levine, “After Walker Evans 2″ (1981)Instead of them being the artistic and intellectual property of Walker Evans they now belonged dually to Sherrie Levine. The act of rephotographing opens up many questions regarding the medium and its impact on the history of art. For example, if Levine can rephotograph an image and call it her own, does this explode all notions of unique creativity in photography? Is the medium, with its implicit capacity for easy reproduction, able to maintain artistic integrity? Who is the “real” author of these pictures? For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on still a more subtle question that is being asked by these photographs: why is Levine only re-photographing the works of esteemed male artists of the 20th Century?

There are certain images that are iconic and continually reproduced in culture. Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the Venus de Milo, van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Andy Warhol, “Marilyn Monroe Diptych” (1962)Andy Warhol’s pop art, and basically everything from the French Impressionist movement are all availble in a wide variety of art ephemera. But what images from the 20th Century stick out as undeniably iconic photographs? Ansel Adams is an obvious answer, as his photographs have been countlessly reproduced and hung in all sorts of places, ranging from museums to doctor’s offices. Robert Mapplethorpe’s polaroids and forays into the world of sexual taboo characterized much of the late 1980s post-AIDS breakout crisis. Images of Marilyn Monroe abounded, especially the one of her standing above the street grate holding her dress from exposing her undergarments.

One of the major sources for the iconographic history of 20th Century photograpy is the Farmer’s Security Administration. The FSA employed many photographers to travel around the United States in order to capture the reality of the Great Depression. From this come some of the most recognizable images from the 20th Century, as they were disseminated widely within America in order to better depict the harsh realities of the economic situation that pervaded all of the country. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is one of the most reproduced images in American history. Henri Cartier-Bresson, although French, greatly added to the canon of great depression images. But perhaps the most recognizable collection of images from this time is Walker Evans’ series used in James Agee’s novel Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Naming many of the images after the area from which they’re photographed, (“Hale County Alabama, 1936”) Walker Evans visually creates a history of American poverty and rural resolve.

Walker Evans “Hale County Alabama, 1936″ (1936)

It is no coincidence that Sherrie Levine chose to include Walker Evans’ iconic series in her “After Edward Weston” exhibition. The fact of the matter is Levine had the option of re-photographing any image, so why choose Evans? One could argue that it is an exploration into the classic American image and its cultural relevance; however, I would like to push this investigation further. Instead of focusing on any female artists, of which there are a few, that are generally included in the canon of the history of photography, Levine chose specific male artists from a specific period in specifically American art history. Edward Weston and Walker Evans in many ways typify the American photographic aesthetic. Their images are not as generally reified as the works of Ansel Adams, and thus their inclusion of human subject allows for more options in analyzing the layers of cultural meaning within the image. Their composition at times edges on the abstract (Weston’s “Pepper” from 1930), while at other moments presents a classic American landscape or family portrayal? But what, again, makes it classic? Perhaps the clothing, the lighting, the rural architecture, or even the overarching fashion in the photographic; however, perhaps maybe all that makes it classic is that these photographs were made by men, disseminated by men, and consumed via literature to a wider audience across America.

We will see Levine critique maleness, male agency, and the canon of American Art as this project progresses. As recently as June 2008 Levine had work in the Whitney Biennial of a project after works by Alfred Stieglitz. Important to these discussions, however, will be not only art historical texts, but also those of prominent feminists. I’ll be looking at some of the writings of Linda Robinson, Susan Faludi, Annette Kuhn, and Laura Mulvey in order to better understand the role of authorship and gender in its representation, both visually and implicitly, in the arts and society in general.

Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” (1936)If you’re interested in reading more about the creation of Lange’s “Migrant Mother” as an iconic American image, you can read an excerpt from Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites’ book “No Caption Needed” here.


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