Expanded Photography

Expanded Photography

Women have been at the forefront of every stage of the photographic revolution. Anna Atkins (1799-1871), for example, is credited as the first person to publish a photobook. Pioneers like Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) experimented with form at a time when technical prowess was lauded above artistic ambition. Cameron’s dreamlike, ethereal shots of Victorian women were deemed flawed by her contemporaries – adorned with finger marks, scratches and smudges – but would go on to influence future generations. Women also broke boundaries in subject matter. Imogen Cunningham’s (1883-1976) male nudes caused scandal in 1914; the subject was seen as “too taboo” for a female artist to document.

These select few are part of an immense catalogue of women who continued to advance understanding of the medium, yet the historical record highlights that women have been – and remain – overlooked. Photography should be “the most egalitarian of all art forms – the one in which we no longer even have to think about gender,” writes Art Editor Jan Dalley in an essay accompanying Collage, Prix Pictet’s latest photobook. “Yet still, somehow, we do. Still, somehow, there seems to be barriers.” When just 15 per cent of professional photographers are women, these boundaries seem significant. Inequality remains prevalent, but recent endeavours have championed women’s art. Sony’s Alpha Female Award, for example, was established to “empower female photographic talent,” and the Female in Focus Award from the British Journal of Photography advocates for greater representation of women artists.

The Prix Pictet shares this ambition to combat gender inequality in the arts. It has recently published Collage, a new book documenting work from 64 contemporary female-identifying photographers previously shortlisted or nominated for the prize. Each iteration of the award is dedicated to sustainability, highlighting a particular facet of conservation – from water shortages and wildfires to overconsumption. The goal: to communicate important messages about global environmental and social issues. Collage highlights artists from across the previous nine editions, including Alex Prager, Christina De Middel, Heather Agyepong and Rena Effendi, whose images broadly interrogate the theme of the award.

This publication shows us how environmental and social injustice are inextricably linked. Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti (b. 1980), for example, captures abandoned buildings from the city of Mashhad, highlighting how nature recovers in the absence of human inhabitants. Plaster peels and cracks. Wooden planks drape from the ceiling. Doors hang loose with empty windowpanes. These scenes juxtapose the vibrant growth of plants, which cover floors and walls in green tendrils and leaves. Dashti “explores the innate kinship between the natural world and human migration,” illuminating the heartbreak of modern conflict whilst exposing a reality where nature exists – and thrives – without our influence.

Elsewhere is Sophie Gerrard (b. 1978), who examines environmental exploitation for economic gain. The Flows originates from the Norse and means “flat, deep, wet land,” a definition that encapsulates the British photographer’s landscapes of Scotland’s vast peat bogs. Since 1980, over 80 per cent of the UK’s peatlands have been lost to excessive drainage. Wetlands are responsible for storing twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests – an invaluable resource to reduce emissions. Gerrard considers how these areas can be conserved and reinvigorated as threat posed by the climate emergency increases.

Other creatives utilise multidisciplinary approaches to bend the form in myriad ways – cutting, pasting, layering. Joana Choumali (b. 1974), for example, the first African photographer to win the Prix Pictet, incorporates collage and painting into her compositions. In Here I Stand (2022), repeated layers of embroidery create a dreamlike, ethereal effect. Noémie Goudal (b. 1984) also alters the landscape, intersecting thin strips of lush vegetation to expose slivers of the Earth frozen at moments in deep time.

Once again, we see women artists at the forefront of photography at a critical juncture in history. Collage showcases some of Prix Pictet’s finest photographers, whose images address the most urgent environmental and social problems faced around the world. Together, these artists ask viewers to consider the scale of human intervention and to re-examine their own relationship with the planet.

Published by gestalten | uk.gestalten.com

Words: Megan Jones

1. Alex Prager (Afternoon), 2021. Courtesy of Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, NewYork, Hong Kong, Seoul and London, Collage, Prix Pictet / gestalten 2022
2. Cristina De Middel (Ua Piedra en el Camino), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Magnum Photos, Collage, Prix Pictet/ gestalten 2022
3. Alice Mann (Drummies), 2019. Collage, Prix Pictet /gestalten 2022