The fighting female gaze

PhotoEspaña 2013 offers varying views of the human form

An Edward Weston nude from 1934.
An Edward Weston nude from 1934.

For centuries, most images of women have incontestably been projections of male fantasies. The exhibitions at the heart of this year's PhotoEspaña festival offer clues as to how photography has been key to rebelling against that dominant iconography. It did so radically through the feminist avant-garde in the 1970s, more lovingly through the work of classical photographers such as Edward Weston and Harry Callahan, and more coldly and geometrically via the photos of artists such as Polish modernist Zbigniew Dlubak.

Spread over four rooms at Madrid's Círculo de Bellas Artes the exhibitions Woman. The Feminist Avant-Garde from the 1970s. Works from the Sammlung Verbund, Vienna; He, She, It. Dialogues Between Edward Weston and Harry Callahan; and Zbigniew Dlubak. Body Structures opened on Monday.

The 21 artists featuring in Woman... — among them Birgit Jürgenssen, Renate Bertlmann, Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman and Esther Ferrer — all rebelled against the patriarchal narrative in the 1970s. In their bodies they found both a means of expression and a battlefield. "These artists are pioneers," says exhibition curator Gabriele Schor. "They constructed their own image for the first time in history."

While Dlubak's female nudes minimize the erotic element with a focus on outlines, symmetries and repetition, Weston and Callahan show a more amorous path of rebellion. "They didn't just want to represent the body of their women, but also capture the subtle relation between two people who love each other," explains curator Laura González Flores. "There is desire but also a lot of affection in two artists who coincided in systematically photographing their respective companions."

There's a darker vision of the human form down in the Círculo de Bellas Artes' basement. The tiny Minerva room has been reserved for Fernando Brito, the young Mexican photographer honored by the festival two years ago, and who is now presenting the terrifying Your Steps Were Lost in the Landscape, which documents the corpses resulting from violence in Sinaloa state. "I work on a newspaper and there the dead are forgotten from one day to the next," Brito says. "I only wanted to give back some life to these dead people."

His corpses are incomprehensible knots of flesh and blood situated in the middle of nature. He keeps the distance that their executors did not respect, which is perhaps what makes them so impactful.

PhotoEspaña 2013. Until July 28 at various venues around Madrid.

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