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‘Women Photographers’ bring empathetic eyes to SVMA

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“When you’re looking at a lot of modern art, like the paintings of Jackson Pollack, you’ve got to take a pretty big leap of faith sometimes,” notes art historian and teacher Ann Wiklund, seated inside the library of the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

“But with photography, that’s not the case. Photography is easy to understand. It might be beautiful or not beautiful. It might be challenging. But photography has a way of reaching out and grabbing you, stopping you in your tracks and telling you a whole story in a matter of seconds.”

Wiklund, who’s been giving lectures and teaching art-themed seminars at the museum for the last eight years, will be leading a two-part class titled “Defining Eyes: Great Women Photographers Then and Now,” beginning Nov. 16. (NOTE: This date is a week later than originally announced.)

Planned as an informal survey of over 100 years of history, examining the lives and work of nearly 25 photographers – from the famous to the obscure – the class was conceived as a companion to the museum’s current exhibition, “Jane Baldwin: Kara Women Speak,” a much-discussed art show featuring stunning photos of women from the Omo River Valley in Southwestern Ethiopa and Northern Kenya.

“Since this is a photography exhibit, and it’s work by a woman, it hit me that doing a class on all the other great women photographers would be an interesting and appropriate topic,” says Wiklund.

In the class, divided into two parts spread over two consecutive Monday afternoons, Wiklund will take a chronological approach. The class will start out looking at the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, the first well-known female photographer, a Victorian artist from England, who began taking pictures in the days when being a photographer meant carrying nearly a hundred pounds of equipment. Among Cameron’s most iconic photos is a surprisingly haunting portrait of Cameron’s young niece Julia Prinsep Jackson, years before she became the mother of novelist Virginia Woolf.

“I love Cameron’s work,” says Wiklund, opening her laptop and showing a few examples. “It’s so moody and mysterious.”

Other artists she’ll cover include famous American photographers Dorothea Lange – whose heartbreaking 1936 portrait “Migrant Mother” called attention to the plight of Depression-era families – and Margaret Bourke-White, who likewise chronicled the depression and disenfranchised Americans, and whose heart-stopping shots of the liberation of concentration camps in WWII Germany shocked and electrified the world.

Just as each photo tells a vivid story, each woman’s life is filled with fascinating details, and Wiklund plans to give verbal snapshots of each one. Among these is the tragic tale of Francesca Woodman, whose self-portraits revealed a twisted sense of drama, and who committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. And no discussion of famous woman photographers would be complete without a mention of Diane Arbus, one of Wiklund’s favorites, and Annie Liebovitz, who took celebrity portraiture to a new level with her legendary shots of famous people.

“She took the last photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono,” points out Wiklund, showing the now iconic photo of a naked Lennon curled up against a black clad Ono. “Lennon was shot and killed five hours after this picture was taken,” Wiklund says. “It’s kind of stunning to look at this, and not feel a sense of what was about to happen to him.”

The class will be more than just looking at pictures and listening to stories, Wiklund explains. She hopes that her presentation will kick-start a lively conversation.

“What I’ve learned in getting ready for this class,” she says, “is that 20th century women photographers – and a male photographer might disagree – were possibly a bit more sensitive to the big issues of their times: the Depression, poverty, Japanese internment camps, the German concentration camps, and the tragic way so many men, women, and children lived. I think these photographs show a bit more empathy and sensitivity than a man might have shown.”

Adds Wiklund, “I imagine that’s one of the things we’ll be discussing during the class.”