Photobooks by Women @ MFA Boston

In March, I had the pleasure of presenting at How We See: Photobooks by Women, a conference at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, along with some fellow grad students. I spoke about Vanessa Winship’s lovely book, Sweet Nothings.

A short excerpt from my presentation:

“To me, these photographs are primarily about female friendship, and the particular qualities that relationship takes on at the edge of puberty. When I first encountered the portraits in Sweet Nothings, my mind immediately went to Italian author Elena Ferrante’s recent popular series, “The Neapolitan Novels” – the first book, especially, which is titled, My Brilliant Friend. These novels were largely acclaimed for their insight into the peculiarities of friendship between women, from girlhood to adulthood – not a topic that has often been at the center of great novels. Ferrante writes, in the voice of one of the girls in the novel, “We were twelve years old, but we walked along the hot streets of the neighborhood, amid the dust and flies that the occasional old trucks stirred up as they passed, like two old ladies taking the measure of lives of disappointment, clinging tightly to each other. No one understood us, only we two—I thought—understood one another.”

This same sentiment comes to life in Winship’s photographs. The girls often hold each others hands, at once an innocent gesture, but also a way to brace themselves for the uncertain world ahead of them. Their bodies feel like walls. In the portraits of two or three girls together, they stand incredibly close to one another so that there is a barely – if even – a gap between them, their body language speaking to the sort of devotion, camaraderie and trust that they feel for one another. They step in front of the camera with a mix of propriety and excitement, their arms often awkwardly by their sides. But in some photographs, their discomfort gives way to a giggle, or slight boredom as they wait for the shutter to click. Yes, these portraits convey a sense of innocence, as many have pointed out, but moreover, these girls demonstrate an acute awareness for their place in the world and their need for one another in order to navigate that world.”

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