Of the eight photographers and one videographer whose solo portraits of girls and women comprise Upright Female at the Bernard Toale Gallery through August 13th, only August Sander (1876-1964) has died and become immortal. His black-and-whites of German citizens, meant to illustrate the spiritual multiplicity of his ethnically homogeneous land, drew enough attention to be banned by the Nazis in the 1930s.
This small exhibit of females—”upright” as in posture, with an intentional pun on doll-baby expectations of chaste moral rectitude—includes three Sanders of standing women. A mannish lady in bowtie, smock, and boots occupying a stark room, her pose as flat-footed as the look on her face. An androgynous woman in Turkish pants and blouse daring the camera to deny her right to wear a man’s haircut and a dark slender tie and belt, her lipstick the clue to her actual gender. And a robust Frau in floral hat and patterned dress bearing in plump arms a bouquet of roses, her shoes as polished as her teeth and sense of well-being, her garden attesting to her prosperity.
Because everyone else in the exhibit is still alive, it would be easy to infer that the documentarian Sander is the standard here—the master up to whom the living aspire. But curator Joseph Carroll admits that he wanted to put some of the gallery’s great holdings to good use, and so he sought a theme and this interesting show of woman—of women—was born.
Lapping the room, the visitor finds women in an international array of settings. Laura McPhee’s large color of a sensuous young Sri Lankan tea-harvester on the misty mountainside posing in her Punjab and burlap-bag skirt, matching burlap bag open on the ground. Malick Sidibe’s amused look at an arty Malian party-chick posing in funky dotted dress, out-a-sight glasses, frilled bag, and silver fingernails, ripped wallpaper and polka-dotted floor cause for exaltation. Tomoko Sawada’s portraits of herself dressed up as others—eligible Japanese women (fashion-conscious sex kitten, kimono-clad geisha girl, blazer-clad working woman) who advertise their availability in the same ghastly albums used in her display.
The whirlwind tour of upright females stops in Burma as well, where Chan Chao, known for shots of war veterans, found a gorgeous young woman with a blue-and-red shoulder bag, blue trim to white collar, black bangs accentuating warm face, and eyes as absorbing as those of the Sri Lankan she should see across the room.
It stops in the U.S. as well, long enough for two by Sage Sohier that use setting to describe their subjects (Appalachian Lolita with house trailer in background and glamorous grand dame in well-heeled boudoir), and one by Nicholas Nixon (African-American girl in tight light jumpsuit having the ripeness of her new sexuality highlighted by the less upright females seated at her sides, soft human forms contrasting with hard industrial setting, compositional symmetry affectionately emphasizing unconscious ceremony.)
Sometimes observing, without blatant commentary, the natural looks and daily activities of women, sometimes commenting on sexual objectification and occupational oppression, these are mesmerizing photographs to see—and interesting places to visit on a vicarious summer vacation in a converted warehouse gallery building at the outer edge of Boston’s South End.