‘I am for an art’ : the struggle of the San Diego group and the Women’s Caucus to reinvent photography in the Society for Photographic Education, 1962-1982




Evans, Ariel (Ariel Cecilia)

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This dissertation orbits around three discursive spheres within the Society of Photographic Education (SPE): that of its early founders and members (Nathan Lyons, John Szarkowski, Robert Heinecken); that of younger graduates from the University of California San Diego (Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Fred Lonidier, Phel Steinmetz); and that of the SPE Women’s Caucus such as Rosler, Sally Stein, and Catherine Lord. Conversations and arguments between these communities propelled a turn in the history of photography’s institutionalization in the arts, a process that since 1962 had owed much to Szarkowski et al. This dissertation considers the effect of leftist (particularly feminist) ethics and pedagogies on American photographic practice. The San Diego photographers entered the SPE intending to change photographic praxis. Yet while their critiques circled questions of documentary, at stake were the photographer’s role and responsibilities to her subjects and audiences. For founding SPE members such as Lyons and Heinecken, the authenticity of the cameraman’s vision to himself was of prime importance. Rosler, Sekula, etc. critiqued these views as exploitative, connecting artist-centered rhetorics to unequal social exchanges in the photographic act, in which the photographer’s voice becomes more significant than camera subject and audience. The endeavor to link photographic subjects to the medium’s discursive sphere had activist intent. Rosler, for example, linked author-centric values in photography to the aesthetic and real-life sexism displayed by men long-ensconced in the SPE; and she connected these men’s physical and photographic approaches to women’s bodies with the lack of professional opportunities for living women photographers. Importantly, she also worked to correct this absence, in 1980 helping organize a Women’s Caucus and series of panels within the SPE to advocate for female photographers as a labor group and new forms of less authorial documentary. Many consider essays and others by Rosler and Sekula as watershed publications in histories of photography, conceptual art, and institutional critique. However, these essays were only a portion of a praxis toward social liberation. This dissertation recovers the contexts and conversations of these works, showing how these artists and photographers negotiated and articulated their relationships to audiences, images, and photographic subjects



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