Mary Panzer
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Mothers of invention
Barbara Norfleet, Elsa Dorfman, Bea Nettles, Clarissa Sligh and Susan Meiselas
in The photobook world
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This chapter discusses the work of photographers and book artist pioneers Elsa Dorfman, Bea Nettles Clarissa Sligh and Susan Meiselas. As women who work in a frankly autobiographical style, they fit neatly into a canon of feminist artists of the 1970s and 1980s; any re-examination of their work immediately calls these canonical habits into question. However, the primary aim of this chapter is to show how their mid-century bookwork challenged the existing idea of art-photography, and opened genuinely new aesthetic vistas at a crucial moment in the history of art photography and the art market. These photographers emerged at a time when art photography itself was beginning to rise in value and stature, while the conventions defining the genre (the fine print, the rare print, the high modernist move to abstraction and the reverence for a handful of masters) had grown stale. Autobiography, self portraiture, emphasis on children and family, mixing media and, in Sligh’s case, adding race to the range of subjects, entered photographic practice in this era through the work of these pioneers, among many others. This chapter does not aim to set up a cause-and-effect chain of influence, but to show how the open practice and welcoming marketplace that all art photographers now enjoy owes part of its freedom to a group of women book artists who broke existing conventions because there was no other way for them to work.

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The photobook world

Artists’ books and forgotten social objects



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