From Julia Margaret Cameron to Imogen Cunningham to Nan Goldin, women photographers have often made other women their subjects. What these pictures have in common is an unusually subtle sort of empathy, a shared knowledge, a warmth that male photographers only rarely bring to their photos of men. This warmth hasn’t been much in evidence recently, edged out by an ironic, often savagely satirical distance in much of Cindy Sherman’s work and by a complex array of narrative conventions in the work of young storytellers like Anna Gaskell, Justine Kurland, Tracey Moffatt, Malerie Marder, and Dana Hoey. Though most of the latter photographers regard the women in their pictures (some of whom are the artists’ surrogates) with obvious affection, the theatrical nature of the work renders any emotion suspect, and the artifice keeps viewers at arm’s length. Perhaps this is as it should be; even the most unmediated photographs are fictions. Still, it’s something of a relief to see work that, without being in any way reactionary, puts aside distancing mechanisms and recognizes the bond between women on both sides of the camera as an important subject in itself.
In their current shows, Catherine Opie and Amy Steiner photograph women with knowingness, wit, and clarity that often feel effortless. Since both photographers are lesbians, their work is sometimes complicated and enriched by desire, but that’s nowhere as evident or as compelling as the pictures’ sense of genuine understanding. Though their approaches are not much alike, Opie and Steiner strike a similar balance between sympathy and descriptiveness, never allowing one to overwhelm the other. Because her project is essentially a documentary one—finding and photographing gay women in their homes across America—Opie doesn’t always achieve this balance without some awkwardness; neither she nor her subjects are always comfortable in these photos. Steiner, on the other hand, finds the women in her pictures—assorted friends, extended family, and a lover—close at hand and seductively at ease; her photos are idylls that she doesn’t just orchestrate but clearly takes part in.
Opie says she approached her “Domestic” series with the same question that has prompted earlier work: How is community constructed? Here, determined to frame a response to MOMA’s virtually queer-free 1991 “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” show, she refines her inquiry: What is a family? Taking the investigation beyond her L.A. home ground, Opie went on a three-month, 9000-mile cross-country road trip, dropping in on old friends and new acquaintances in Minneapolis, Tulsa, New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere. The pictures she brought back, 20 of which are on view at Gorney Bravin + Lee, tweak both Tina Barney’s casually stylized high-WASP tableaux and the smarmy self-congratulation of so much gay-is-good representation while never entirely avoiding the pitfalls of either. Opie’s couples and housemates, captured in attitudes ranging from mild anxiety to deep bliss, can be stiff, folksy, cool, or so darn cute. They mope at the kitchen table, horse around on the sofa with their adopted children, hold hands on matching yellow rockers in the backyard, hug, lounge, and stare into one another’s eyes.
Talking about the series at ICP recently, Opie joked that the first few couples she photographed all broke up within several weeks, and she began to think that she was a jinx. But all domestic scenes are potential tragedies, and it’s this edge of darkness that gives even the sweetest of these images their bite. Opie, no romantic, is clear-eyed but respectful, even admiring. Her pictures, though full of closely observed details about class, style, and gender roles, are not satires of gay normalization, as much as Opie herself might loathe the concept. Instead, like Bill Owens’s photographs of ’70s suburbia, they’re documents—not straightforward, not simple, but full of curiosity, pleasure, and longing. Opie, who has always lived alone, says she set out to explore the possibilities of domesticity for herself. Face-to-face with its messy, fragrant reality, she’s hungry for information, and she can’t get enough. Some of her most revealing images are still lifes: a prim patchwork quilt and matching pillow, an overelaborate arrangement of cheese and crackers, a neatly organized washer and dryer, a dollhouse. Opie eyes these things with more tenderness than skepticism; she recognizes but resists their allure. You can’t go home again.
Amy Steiner, with no agenda, no project in mind, photographs with a looseness and spontaneity that makes even the most casual of Opie’s pictures look a bit academic. Her model is Nan Goldin, who has included Steiner in two artists’ choice shows, but her influences are broad; William Eggleston’s crisp, color-saturated sensuality comes across in Steiner’s buttery sunlight, Harry Callahan’s succinct formal elegance, cleverly torqued, in her uncomplicated compositions. In a two-person show at Klagsbrun, she’s included a pair of diptychs—one a pair of landscapes lit with fluorescent tubes, the other a doubled still life of stacked take-out coffee cups, one side of which has been slathered with mud—that might have been interesting in someone else’s exhibition but here seem overworked and unconvincing. Steiner’s strength is elsewhere, in her offhandedly beautiful photographs of women, which temper the immediacy of snapshots with a richer, more considered grace.
The centerpiece of Steiner’s show is a picture-window-sized grid of 12 photographs, each centered on a different, single woman. Titled Natural Selection, the piece is lit from behind so every photo transparency glows like a subway ad, pumping up images that are already suffused with bright sunlight. The time is high summer, the place a pond, a lake, a beach, a front porch. In many of the pictures, women are eating, their mouths full of cake or cantaloupe or peach; one girl’s face is smeared with berry juice. Dressed in bathing suits or tank tops, lying nude on a towel in the dappled sun, these are not exactly the fabled ladies of leisure. These are women with appetites and passions, at home in their bodies and in their world. Steiner hints at that world—at its broad, lush contours, its comfort, its openness—but lets us fill in the blanks. We know that one of these women, the blonde with the ice cream cone, is her girlfriend (she’s been the subject of many of Steiner’s previously exhibited pictures), but we can’t make any assumptions about Steiner’s other subjects, and we can’t turn her piece into a footnote to Opie’s “Domestic” project. No matter. Steiner’s photos, like Goldin’s and Jack Pierson’s, are intimate moments offered up for us to share. We may not entirely grasp the nature of that intimacy, but sometimes just a hint of its warmth is enough.