Why This Photo Zine Exhibition Captures the Girl Gaze

Long before blogs, there were zines—independent publications by authors who used photocopy machines to express their ideas. While it sounds so 1990s, think again. Now, 19 books by 19 women made over the past decade are on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington in an exhibition called Full Bleed: A Decade of Photobooks and Photo Zines by Women, which opens July 30 and runs until November 30.

Curated by Sarah Osbourne Bender, the exhibition shows how both the art of the photo book and zine culture are both alive and well today.

As Alison Baitz, a photographer and zine-maker in this exhibition says: “Self-publishing means that anyone can get in on the scene, no matter their budget or vision. The fact that there are zine fests and art book fairs worldwide, from Los Angeles to the Philippines, means that people continue to be excited about seeing zines and making them. The audience for zines has never been bigger—from content-hungry zine fair shoppers to big-name magazines and websites providing coverage of them and their makers. It seems like no matter what kind of zine you make or what it’s about, someone out there (somewhere) wants to read it. It’s a thrilling time to be a part of or interested in zine culture.”

Photo Zine

From left to right: On Flora by Alison Baitz; My Dakota by Rebecca Norris Webb; Pura Vida La Ruptura y El Vacío by Lara Carmen Hidalgo

HOW Design: Why did you want to draw attention to photobooks and zines by women?

Sarah Osbourne Bender: I knew I wanted to do a photobook show, having been inspired by recent conversations at the Art Library Society of North America conference. But also, in anticipation of the release dates for books by women photographers Deana Lawson and Zanele Muholi.

Do you have a zine collection at the museum?

Yes, the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at NMWA has been collecting zines pretty heavily over the past couple of years and I saw that photo zines were a popular variation. As I started to gather books for possible inclusion in this exhibition, I saw that many of the strongest candidates were from the last ten years. It is safe to say that our culture is centered on visual content more than ever and the production of images has never been more democratized.

How does this relate to online images?

Instagram is used more by women, both posting and viewing images. So this explosion of images means, to me, not only are more people expressing themselves through the media of photography, but an appealing antidote to the endless stream of online and social media images is the photobook and photo zine. In these forms, the viewer is presented with a finite and ordered selection of photographs. The pace of viewing is slowed and the experience is more physical, material, and intimate.

Photo Zine

Faces and Phases by Zanele Muholi, 2010 — Zanele Muholi presents portraits of South Africa’s Black lesbians.

Is zine culture still alive and where does its power lie?

Zine fests, distros, and online showcases keep the zine community connected, inspired, and growing. Art libraries, like ours at NMWA, the Barnard Zine Library and Decker Library at Maryland Institute College of Art, have been collecting zines and using them in exhibitions and teaching. Zines are used to communicate via printed medium in a relatively fast and inexpensive way, often content of a personal or political nature.

How are photo zines different?

The cheapest and easiest way for photographers to reach an audience is to post on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, or other online platform. Photo zines require selection and sequencing. Printing choices can be costly and carry meaning, whether you choose photocopying or inkjet or offset printing. Photo zines can’t be deleted and aren’t contextualized by likes and comments. And they have to be sought out and often purchased from the maker. Like photobooks, they are a transfer of visual message and experience between photographer and viewer.

Can you give a few examples of pieces in the exhibition?

I had to include LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family, which was published by Aperture in 2014, and it was an instant classic. It has been called trailblazing and compared it to canon works by Walker Evans and Gordon Parks. The work is the result of a 13-year photography project started when Frazier was 19, and documents her community and family, specifically her mother who is a key subject and collaborator. The photos are extraordinarily emotional and full of personal and political narrative.

Photo Zine

The Notion of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier, 2014 — Frazier documents her family and its relationship to the crumbling city of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Alison Rossiter’s Expired Paper took my breath away when I first saw it. The book itself is a work of art with exquisite printing and large fold outs. The ultimate in material and process fetishization, Rossiter’s Expired Paper project is just that, the serendipitous results of processing a wide variety of aged photo printing paper. The result is at once a eulogy to the darkroom and an entirely new experience with the foundational materials of photographic history.

Is it all about femininity?

No. Sarah Anthony’s contribution to Oranbeg Press’s As of Late project, taken from her series called Brink, combines the powerful photographic theme of gaze with the documentation of adolescence. Anthony’s empathetic portraits of young men moving from teen years towards manhood present a picture of masculinity that is unsettled and awkward.

Photo Zine

As of Late by Sarah Anthony, 2017 — Sarah Anthony photographed men while asking them to reflect upon manhood.

What kinds of themes are addressed in these books?

There are certainly universal themes here, despite the wide variety of ages and background of the photographers. Themes such as the portrait, the natural environment, still lifes, observation of the everyday, and social criticism. To me, the uniting theme in these photobooks and photo zines is the experience of the photographer’s intent.

Why are these books important and not to be overlooked?

Women in photography seem to be carving out a significant and prominent space that they have not had before. Instagram accounts like @womenphotograph and hashtags like #girlgaze are providing vibrant and visible platforms with large online audiences. And at the same time, women photographers are producing some of the strongest photobooks and photo zines to be bought, borrowed, exhibited or collected. This exhibition is really just a small snapshot, pardon the pun, showcasing the variety, richness, and liveliness of the form.

Photo Zine

Lazy Mom by Josie Keefe and Phyllis Ma, 2016 — Keefe and Ma play with their food, inspired by the idea of a lazy, bored housewife.

Photo Zine

Early American by Sharon Core, 2012 — Artist Sharon Core modeled this book after the paintings of Raphaelle Peale (17744-1825) and grew all the heirloom fruits/veg herself.