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Laura Wexler : Johnston's Photographs of Women
Laura Wexler Johnston herself is an exceptional woman, so she's exceptional in part because of the breadth of her interest in the everyday. So she's taking photographs of a wide swath of women in the United States at that time. She takes a lot of photographs of upper class women and we learn in that, in part, the rigidity still of gender roles in the upper class. We learn that the photographs that she takes of their husbands are photographs where the men are working at their desks, where the symbols of their power are arrayed around them. They're in front of bookcases. They're in front of offices in the Senate. And the women are in their beautiful dresses. Even if they're authors, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, who's an early friend of Johnston's, I think the first person who sits for Johnston, they are not photographed with the implements of their trade. They're still photographed as objects of the gaze. So we're learning then in the upper class these women who didn't really rebel, like Jane Adams, are still, incarcerated in femininity and feminine gender types, even women with power.

The trouble is I even studied the pictures of the rich women as much as I've studied what I've found even more interesting, which is her pictures of working women and her pictures of black women at the Hampton Institute, or Tuskegee, women who, unlike the rich women, who are still living a home life, living a domestic life, living a life of support for their powerful husbands, these women now have very important jobs themselves in education.

When I look at these images, what I see are women working very hard in factories, at the Mint, in other kinds of places where working class women worked. And they look slightly bedraggled. They look tired, but they look very alive and human. They look hopeful. They look friendly with one another. There are groups of them. They don't look discouraged. Johnston's images of working women are very much unlike some other people making images of immigrant and working women at the time, say, Jacob Reiss, whose women look just ... like arriving in the tenements in New York or working in a cigar box factory is the end of their energy for life. They're bedraggled, they're discouraged. Johnston's women, working class or not, have a same kind of pluck that Johnston had and knew in herself.

I think that working class women have been working since the Civil War in public kinds of work places. But what's different at this point is this massive emigration from southern and Eastern Europe and also massive emigration from the South of a dispossessed or, black farmers who are leaving the sharecropping. You have Jim Crow in the South, a huge internal migration from the South to the North and a huge migration from Eastern and southern Europe to the United States. This is maybe a different working class than there has been in this country before. And that's what Johnston is documenting, 'cause that's what's for her to see at this time.

The hope and the dignity in people. Her photographs characteristically across the board, rich women, poor women, the dignity of human beings comes through in her photographs. In fact, she, as I understand it, her method of photographing is she'll shoot again and again and again. She will do six, ten, 12 sittings of someone before she'll be happy with the picture. She wants the picture to be a dignified picture and she wants this for black people as well as white, and for poor women as well as wealthy women. This is important about Johnston.

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