The New Woman Behind the Camera,” the Met’s 200-plus picture show aims to demonstrate how women shaped modern photography between the 1920s to the 1950s. While the aim is high, there’s a pitfall in an all-female event like this.

Gender-centric exhibits can deepen the divide in an already divided art world. A sign of this is half-buried in Richard Woodward’s review of the Met show in the Wall Street Journal.

Covert chauvinism

Woodward begins by saying that the large number of photographs were “enlisted to support the thesis” that female photogs “opened up new artistic vistas for themselves and other women.” Did you catch the snarky phrase about how the pictures, on exhibit, were “enlisted to support the thesis?

There’s nothing hypothetical in this show. Women’s entry into the art of the lens is not a theory. It’s a historical fact that photography by women was new in the 20th-century and widened ways for female artists to express themselves. Why is that so hard to acknowledge?

You can see the difference gender makes in the Art News reviews by Nancy Kenney. Compare the way she begins with Woodward’s opening salvo. In Kenney’s words, “Triumphant in their time, yet largely erased later: a Met exhibition explores ‘The New Woman Behind the Camera.’” Same show. Different sex.

Zeroing in

To get away from the gender wars, consider a single exhibit example at the Met. It stands out and when you wonder why, the answer is likely to come readily to mind.

Even though the image was taken in 1936 during the Great Depression, it could just as easily have been shot this morning.

You’ve probably seen this image many times. It’s Dorothea Lange’s photo known as Migrant Mother - Florence Owens Thompson and her children. She wears a puzzled expression on her face as if she were asking, “What do I do now?”

Isn’t that what every mother in America must be asking in the forbidding face of spikes in the Covid-19 virus, the Delta variant, and the reluctance of half the nation to get vaccine protection.

A NY Times headline tells the story. “In the Capitol, the Delta Variant Spreads Worry.” And Global Media Arts reported just today that “Americans' optimism about country's direction over next year drops nearly 20 points since May.”

Lange’s photo is one of those iconic images. In her cases, it’s the archetype of the Great Depression just as Joe Rosenthal’s photo Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima of six American servicemen planting the American flag on Mount Suribachi is the quintessential image for WWII.

A statue in Arlington Park – the Marine Corp Memorial – is modeled after the photo.

Sign of the times

There’s no statue commemorating Lange’s Migrant Mother, but it’s no less epochal. I would argue that there’s just as much bravery in Florence Owens Thompson’s battle for her children’s survival as there was among the six servicemen at Iwo Jima.

Blake Gopnik, reviewing the Met show for ArtDaily, judged Lange’s Migrant Mother as “a beautiful piece that captures what so many Americans, at the time, were living through.” Odd that he didn’t see its relevance to our time.