Re-presentation, disability and gender: Contemporary representations of women in art images

So far in this part of my research I have aimed to identify and track common representations of disabled women. I have identified how popular online imagery defined disabled women in quite narrow ways in terms of impairment and physicality with them being represented largely as you white women who use wheelchairs.

I have also demonstrated that disability is either absent or trumps other representational identities in artistic imagery right up until the late twentieth Century but have provided one example, Jo Spence, of a counter approach to both representing women and disability.  I am, of course, talking about general trends, but notwithstanding this we can see that both popular and artistic representations of women have been limited to a few particular types. But what about contemporary artists? This is today’s task.

How have contemporary artists represented women?
Emma Campbell asked whether gender equality in the representation of women had moved on from the 1970s in an interesting article in Source Magazine recently (2014). Campbell makes many points but and one that struck me was that female photographers’ access to exhibition space is disproportionately limited when compared to male photographers and this hasn’t changed a great deal since the 1970s. I shouldn’t be surprised at this; it is, after all, a Man’s world still.

However while access to important spaces is limited for women photographers other forms for showing work such as books suggest a number of women have broken through to reach the very highest places in their art. For example, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing are contemporary artists who stand right at the top of their profession with their work held in many prestigious art collections and referenced in art books. For example, MOMA and the Tate hold images of these artists. All three women use their work to challenge societal assumptions around identity, social relationships, autonomy, originality and authenticity and offer discourses on the nature of representation as much as the nature of the particular subject matter in view. This approach challenges the modernist assumptions of art photography based as a manifestation of the photographers’ interior and is about reproduction rather than production.

But where is the disabled women represented in all this? I don’t see them.

Looking at Susan Bright’s Art Photography Now or Williams and Bright’s How We Are images of disability generally are absent let alone images representing disabled women (2005, 2007). Then if you look at more popular books positioned to represent important photography like The Genius of Photography you will a great deal of diversity recognised in contemporary photography – Nan Goldin and Seydou Keita’s work for example – but with the one exception of disability (Badger, 2007).

While some important contemporary artists have challenged representations of what it is to be a women they have continued the tradition of ignoring disability as an aspect of women’s identities.

So have any contemporary artists chosen to represent disabled women? This is my next task.


Campbell E (2014) Has gender equality has moved on from the 1970s?  Source Magazine Issue 79 Published by Photoworks North

Bright, S. (2005) Art Photography Now, Published by Thames & Hudson

Williams V. and Bright S.(Eds) (2007) How We Are: Photographing Britain, Published by Tate Publishing

Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography Changes Our Lives, Published by Quadrille Publishing


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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