War, abuse, restrictions, poverty and maternal mortality are the common lot of women around the globe. But in the privileged West, many women are able to pursue the fight for equality rather than simply struggle to survive. This sharp contrast is brought to bear in an intriguing show at Orlando Museum of Art of work by 11 female photographers for National Geographic. They exhibit images ranging from landscapes to leopards, but the show's underlying theme is the storyline of contemporary women in the world. Women of Vision will be seen at OMA for just another few days – if you haven't already seen it, this weekend is your last chance.
The presentation of this traveling exhibition is impressive, constituting a journey in itself. The photographers are treated as subjects themselves in the installation, with large portraits hanging from banners, biographies printed on decorative metal panels and lighted pylons marking each woman's segment of the show. One wonders if the bit of glamour given these photographers would be bestowed on male photographers, or is their feminine identity accented for a purpose in this show, to contrast against so much of their subject matter?
The viewer's experience begins with work by Jodi Cobb and Stephanie Sinclair, photos seeking the meaning of beauty, as well as the meaning of love. Cobb's camera finds theatrical artifice in Venice, defiantly staring mudmen in New Guinea, lusty teens sweating on a Cancun beach. Sinclair looks deeply into individual identity, documenting child brides in Yemen and polygamists in Utah. Each photographer's eye brings a strange dignity to these scenes.
Works by Amy Toensing, Beverly Joubert and Diane Cook occupy the gallery's center. Toensing's intimate portraits of individual women are juxtaposed with Joubert's wild Africa: Equally intimate is a haunting close-up of the unnerving green eyes of a leopard she followed from birth through adulthood. Cook's urban landscapes cool things down and bring out a contrasting beauty. In photos of Manhattan's High Line, for example, or the green garden roof on Chicago's City Hall, Cook's rich shadows soften the harsh city angles and carry an optimism about them.
Kitra Cahana and Maggie Steber are paired and featured in two fascinating light boxes near the rear of the museum. Cahana follows Austin teenagers' helter-skelter journey to adulthood in a series called Teenage Brain. Compared to Cahana's bemused documentation, Steber delves deep into the psyche in her portraits of people in Nepal, Dubai, Afghanistan and here at home.
The last rooms in the museum plunge one into a more disturbing, less contemplative world. Lynn Johnson and Lynsey Addario do not hold back, leaving disturbing images of Zambian animal trackers, Indian lepers and burqua-clad Afghani mothers to linger in the viewer's mind. Erika Larsen and Carolyn Drake complete the viewer's tour. Drake's overhead photo of a young girl lying flat on the floor, a Mongolian shaman's hand on her stomach, is oddly familiar yet remote from our Western experience, while Larsen's portraits of brightly costumed American Indian girls and Samí reindeer herders end things with a (mostly) happy lift.
In a series of interviews, a short film presents the photographers discussing their work. National Geographic protects their "field time," maximizing the photographers' autonomy to develop an extraordinary depth in their projects. The magazine has always had an earnestness about it; no photographic tricks or art for art's sake here. (One hopes the magazine will retain its rigor under new owner Rupert Murdoch.) The straight-up documentary style can seem severe, but out of it has come a deeper library of wisdom about the world.
In any case, this provocative exhibit takes the viewer into intimate contact with our worldwide sisterhood, and helps write a story of contemporary women that is refreshing, profound and focused.