Though the exhibit on gender currently showing at George Eastman House does not seek to lecture its viewers about contemporary socio-politics, its scope and range of representations provide ample opportunity for cultural and self-reflection. The first show presented by the Eastman House team under its new director, Bruce Barnes, "The Gender Show" explores the ways in which gender has been represented in photography over more than 170 years, from daguerreotypes to massive color prints, in a thick, juicy cross-cut of the wide world. It should be enjoyed leisurely, with friends or alone, and given the proper time to digest fully.
The museum's galleries hold more than 130 images with plenty of representations of men and women in what we still know as traditional gender roles, as portraying the role of their dichotomous opposite, or in various manifestations of the androgynous spectrum. Images allude to the extended effects of our physical sexual traits: the specific pleasures and burdens they each designate, and their effects on our culture and relations with one another.
From the steady gazes of these historic mirrors arise subtly nagging questions. What if we felt no awkwardness toward the androgyny of children? From birth we begin to be strictly marked by self-conscious kin with colors and themes. Soon, more specific physical aspects are shaped, as seen in Victor Keppler's 1943 "First Hair Cut," which presents one bewildered little angel newly shorn of his babyish curls, with a tearful mother and a proud barber. Early challenges to these definitions are found in Elias Goldensky's 1920 "Head And Shoulders Study," in which we find the young adult "beautiful boy" type, appreciated since antiquity.
Women are depicted again and again as objects of desire, or in stations of domestic usefulness, and men as romantic pursuers and in the utilitarian and leadership roles. The exhibit includes a few exceptions, such as Lewis W. Hine's 1935 series about the progressive Ethical Culture Schools that taught wood-shop classes to girls and cooking to boys. But in general, the subjects in these photos are often caught training the next generation to be the same. In Frank S. Scherschel's 1940 work "Mother and Daughter," a dolled-up wife transforms her toddler's hair into a pretty coif. In Susan Meiselas' "Before the Show, Tunbridge, Vermont," from her 1974 series "Carnival Strippers," a boy is initiated into male voyeurism by a group of leering men. Though the child gives little away in terms of specific emotional expression, he is undoubtedly rapt.
What we consider to be the paragons of femininity are built on so much artifice. Study the faces of the subjects. Recognize the self-conscious acting, the downright discontent among some of them. Not even Marilyn Monroe fit the mold she was helping to reinforce. The star's prescribed fog dulled the aching hollowness of what her life had become for a short while, and different versions of her fantasy continue to be envied and emulated. Nickolas Murray's 1952 shot of the starlet is all perfectly defined pout, bedroom eyes, and blooming figure displayed for consumption. In a captivating set of images by Chuck Samuels, the artist unflinchingly takes on the male gaze with his own flesh through a series of self-portraits based on iconic nude portraits of women by Avedon, Weston, Bellocq, and Man Ray.
The ever-present disparity between upper-class and squalor rears its disturbing head, too. Some women are saved from domestic drudgery by their station in life, while others are condemned to it. Barbara Norfleet's "Private House, New Providence Island, Bahamas," captures the carefree demeanor of a young man adorned in a speedo and glistening from a swim, and the abashed giggle of the black maid busy cleaning the bathroom. Contrast portraits of first-world countries' male and female soldiers in decorous dress, or intense close-ups of helmeted faces, with Gilles Varon's shot of an unarmored, youthful body from Biafra, loaded down with ammunition and burdens of the invisible sort, a man-child confronting the camera warily from beneath bandoliers of bullets.
Anomalies are bright bolts in a dim routine of uneasy conformity that doesn't even recognize itself. How you react to such daring tells a lot about how you'll live your life — though such a jolting encounter doesn't necessarily reflect your own path, it may be such a signal that inspires your own liberation, whatever that looks like.
Definitions are flipped in Kalup Linzy's 2006 video "Lollypop," a brilliant, playful update on the theme of frustrated seduction and flirtatious dismissal, in which two men (Linzy and a friend) sit bare-chested, lip-synching a risqué 1930's song. In the Entrance Gallery, Janine Antoni's formal portrait triptych, "Mom and Dad," depicts her parents in drag as each other or as themselves, three times as a couple in various combinations of gender.
In so many of the works, the subtleties of gender expression seem to be more about navigating various power dynamics than anything else. But one series stands apart in its depiction of utter cooperation. Debbie Grossman's series "My Pie Town" is a re-envisionment of Russell Lee's body of photographs, created in 1940 for the United States Farm Security Administration, which focused on the depressed Pie Town, New Mexico, and its struggling inhabitants engaged in activities of work and rest. Here, the power between individuals seems balanced. As in many other images in the show, the ghost of strife/hard living haunts the subjects, and the sense of harmonious living almost certainly lingers from the desperate lack of nonsense present in the original subjects.
Using Photoshop, Grossman seamlessly replaced any male faces and attributes in the images with more feminine features to create a township entirely populated by women and girls. The series offers an opportunity not only to conceive of the capacity of women to meet any task demanded of them if the need is present and the will serves, but also to picture how natural it is to love and struggle and play together, regardless of what combination of features our bodies possess.