Before There Were Women

Alice Neel.

To take a primer course in women in culture, one merely needs to start with the Greek (three Fates) Moirai: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. In a way we are who we are because of the Moirai. In a way the Moirai in effect granted our existence. Though I always liked Odysseus’ wife Penelope: She put up with quite a bit until she succumbed. We did need Odysseus to have a reason to return home.

So much of where we come from whether it be myth or historical fact starts with women.

It sounds like something obviously worth celebrating.

When I was young I certainly considered living like a thousand Greek Gods. There are probably a thousand Greek Goddesses as well that I have knowingly or inadvertently taken direction from.

But my most impressionable years whether it was about worshipping gallant men or formidable women began with Warner Brothers, MGM and RKO. There might even be a couple million pages from known literature that rounded out and informed my life.

The women I have known

Louise Bourgeois.

I discovered women on television: Movies and serial television. Admittedly books came later. Not much later, but since cinema has influenced just about every emotion and thought I have ever tangled with, where better to begin: Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter.

It is possible that there are just merely two scenes in Night of the Hunter that have influenced the way I make photographs more than any other film. Is it possible that every time I measure what might be necessary to execute a successful photograph I conjure the best Black and White cinematography I have ever seen. Though I am a color photographer, and I gasp when I see a particular frame from the original Blade Runner: there is little or none that compares to my Gish Mitchum film.

Lillian Gish’s role as protectorate of the children from Robert Mitchum’s “Love and Hate” hands, still makes my hair stand straight up. The feisty Gish with a rifle speaks volumes about a woman who defends and is defiant in the moment. Maybe Barbara Stanwyck, equals Gish’s tenacity in tv’s The Big Valley. Yet still there are probably hundreds if not millions of roles that pointed to empowerment.

Isabel Bishop.

I was raised on Charles Laughton’s Gish. The visual influence is my reward.

I remember myself as a coming of age professional photographer when I discovered among some remarkable women: grit, empowerment and vulnerability. These words were not in my visual  vocabulary early on.  Some very famous artists; Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeoise, Alice Neel, Isabel Bishop, Helen Frankenthaler and countless others awakened photography sensibilities that I had not met yet.

Portrait Photography can be a bit like therapy and intimidate certain subjects. The only way to deal with it is through nervous chatter. Nervous chatter calms with time. The more time with the subjects the more at ease it may be to expose yourself. By expose, I certainly do not mean lifting up your nightgown like Alice Neel did for me one afternoon. I mean to let the camera in. To speak to the lens with a naked mind:  clear and comfortable in one’s own skin and ready to share.

Each of the above mentioned artists greeted me with suspicious minds. They were aware that I had photographed some very famous male artists. To a person, they asked me if I came to them because I needed some female filler in my archives, or was I truly interested in their work.

It became like a star studded sparring match. Dukes were up, questions flew at me left and right.

I was ill prepared for the onslaught. I must have fought back with deserving answers. Though it took about thirty minutes an each, the coffee and cakes or even shots of whiskey became part of the shooting environment.

The end of the sessions would bring one across the bow warning: Don’t mess up, and be sure that a successful picture lands in their hands.

That was then, and now hundreds of women as seen through my lens have live in my archives.

Louise Nevelson.

This photo essay originally appeared on Richard Schulman’s Visual Feasts blog.

Richard Schulman is a photographer and writer. His books include Portraits of the New Architecture and Oxymoron & Pleonasmus. He lives in New York City.