In 2008, after participating in a panel discussion for the biennial exhibition 31 Women in Art Photography at Brooklyn's now defunct 3rd Ward, photographers Amy Elkins and Cara Phillips created Women in Photography. The project aimed to provide exhibition and grant opportunities for female photographers outside of the traditional structure of the commercial, often male-dominated art world. They collaborated with a range of curators and institutions including The Aperture Foundation, LACMA, MoCP, Leslie Tonkonow, Lightwork, P.P.O.W Gallery, and LTI/Lightside, and were at one point closely integrated into Humble Arts Foundation's programing. After taking a hiatus for a few years in 2013, Elkins and Phillips have returned, alongside curator Megan Charland, offering a range of new programing including a grant and mentorship opportunities for women making photography-based work. Shortly after the relaunch, which includes a stellar exhibition from Whitney Hubbs, I caught up with Elkins and Phillips over email to learn what's in store.
Editor's note: click on the photo credits below each image to see more of each photographer's work in the WIPNYC archives.
Interview by Jon Feinstein
Jon Feinstein: I'll start with a question that kicked off the 31 Women in Art Photography panel discussion years ago: How (or why) do you think gender (or culture) specific exhibitions or forums remain important today?
Amy Elkins: It seems as long as there is disparity among genders, cultures, classes, races etc, there is a need for such things. It’s a way of creating both support for those who feel a lack of support while also letting it be known that people/organizations/artists don’t want to be passive and wait for things to get better on their own. Creating these sort of forums and/or exhibitions creates a larger dialogue… which hopefully leads to more permanent changes.
Cara Phillips: Based on how much gender factored in the last election, I think it is clear that it continues to be an unresolved issue in our culture. I was on that panel and I don’t recall us discussing the additional challenges artists of color, queer, trans and disabled artists face. I think that the lens in which we look at gender disparity is much wider, and there is now more focus on how the experiences for women changes based on their privilege. But what we all share—is that women still remain under-represented at the highest levels of achievement in the art world and sell for lower prices. So there remains a need for community and opportunities specific to women artists.
Feinstein: For those who are just learning about WIPNYC, can you give some background on its history? How did you start? What were some of your early projects?
Phillips: In 2008 there was a thriving blog community. Amy and I both ran our own personal photo blogs. There was an article that ran in the NYTimes Style section that talked at length about ‘Gallerinas’ and how galleries liked to use attractive young women essentially as “collector-bait.” This sparked an online debate on the blogs—could women who consider themselves feminists, or who were making feminist work, show in this inherently sexist environment. I started in email chain with several bloggers asking “how the community of women bloggers should respond?” Amy was one of the first to respond, she suggested that we start a blog to showcase women artists. We actually didn’t even know each other, but we just both dived in. Shortly thereafter Humble kindly offered to support the site. That I think made a huge difference to helping us take it from just a blog, to an online exhibition project. A year a later I was approached by Jeffrey Kane from Lightside/LTI Photographic about funding a grant. We gave 12-thousand dollars in money and supplies over the course of that program.
Feinstein: What are some of the largest obstacles female photographers presently face?
Elkins: While I feel most emerging and mid-career photographers hit a lot of obstacles/road blocks, it seems there are certain obstacles that stay fairly present throughout the entire span of a woman’s career. Getting equal opportunities for museum solo exhibitions, significant gallery solo exhibitions, editorial work, advertising work, equal pay / price tags…the list goes on and on, seemingly regardless of how successful a woman gets.
Phillips: I agree completely with what Amy said. The other challenge that is specific to women, at least from what I have observed from my friends, is being an artist and a mom. Balancing being the primary caregiver with being an artist, and making a living, is really, really hard. The joke is always that women need a wife (metaphorically speaking the traditional idea of “wife”) at home so they can really thrive in their career. That is not to say that I don’t know many male artists who are super involved in raising their kids and who work hard to be equal partners. But somehow it just still seems to be harder for artists who are moms.
Feinstein: I'm bringing this up as it's come up quite a bit lately in other circles How do trans-identified women fit into all of this?
Elkins: If someone identifies as a woman and has identified that way most, if not all, of their lives… why deny that inclusion? They face all of those same (probably more) challenges. Being transgender is not a new way of living that has suddenly sprung up, but more so one that is finally being talked about and accepted by society a little more than in the past.
Phillips: We were actually asked about this issue as far back as 2009 and we said at the time that we would run work made by a transgender artist. I think that with the relaunch, we just decided it was important to make that more clear. We wanted those artists to feel welcome. One of my favorite episodes of the show Transparent is when Maura goes to the Idyllwild Wimmin's Music Festival and is driven out for being not being a ‘born women.’ I thought that was a super impactful moment and a great bit of television. I would never want any person to feel excluded from WIPNYC.
Feinstein: You went on hiatus for a bit. What prompted the relaunch?
Elkins: We went on hiatus out of necessity around 2013. At that point we had successfully launched and provided a grant program for four years (providing over $12,000 in grant money), we had exhibited numerous online solo shows, spoken on panels and curated physical shows… but the reality was that for the most part there were only two of us (Cara and myself) juggling all of that while juggling our personal lives, art careers and day jobs. And we were doing it all without pay, a labor of love. We finally got an assistant (Megan Charland) on board in 2011. She was able to help us with online exhibitions and our 2011 grant program. Shortly after, I moved across the country and the distance (along with our own personal workloads) made it too challenging to maintain. The relaunch was long in the making… but prompted by receiving very generous funding to launch the Women in Photography (WIPNYC) Grant and Mentor program now.
Phillips: Yes, I have to give the majority of credit to the Crossed Purposes Foundation. Their support really was the driving force in our decision to start up again. And I think both Amy and I are at different moments in our own work and lives. It just felt like the right moment to come back.
Feinstein: You kicked off the relaunch with an online exhibition of Whitney Hubbs. What excites you most to her work?
Elkins: We relaunched WIPNYC with Whitney’s work for multiple reasons. It seemed both relevant and organic to relaunch with an artist that is closely examining and deconstructing the female body in the midst of the shifting and divisive political climate created by the nomination and furthered by the election of Donald Trump. Her work is successful on so many levels and speaks about body ownership in a way that feels fresh and exciting.
Phillips: Whitney is super talented and her work is great! And as she is one of the mentors in our new grant program. Having her as our first artist felt like a great way to tie together the launch of the site and the new grant.
Feinstein: Your feet, as photographers, are consistently planted in the "art photography" world. Do you see this as being a focus with the types of photography you feature in WIPNYC?
Elkins: I think our main focus focus has always been “art photography”, though we strive to remain as diverse as possible if work is strong and resonates. I personally always love seeing work that successfully crosses-over between genres like documentary, journalism, commercial and fine art.
Phillips. For me yes as that is more in line with my own practice. The nice thing about having two curators is that Amy and I each bring our own sensibility to the site. And we are hoping to bring in outside curators as well. Overall we want to site to show the diversity of work being made by women, that could be art, photojournalism or even fashion photography.
Feinstein: I'm interested in the grant/mentor program. Most grant programs these days end with a sum of money, or maybe some sponsored perks, but the mentor element adds an incredible layer of value. Can you speak to this?
Phillips: First, I can’t take credit for the idea, but when it was suggested to me, I thought it was an amazing idea. One of the primary things I have heard over the years from other women artists is that they want female mentorship but struggle to find it. And that instead of feeling a stronger connection to women curators and photo editors, they feel that it is harder to establish relationships with them. They watch their male colleagues get opportunities because they have those relationships. There are of course exceptions to this. But fostering community through a program like this seemed like a great way to encourage women decision-makers to think about this issue. The reality is that all artists need feedback, support and help along the way.
Feinstein: What can winners expect when working with a mentor?
Phillips: Six one-hour meetings over the course of a year with each mentor. That can be done by Skype, Google Hangout, phone (or in person if that is possible) We ask that both the mentor and the mentee commit to being fully present. But ultimately it will be up to the winner to shape what they want their experiences to be.
Feinstein: How did you go about selecting the jury/ mentors?
Phillips: We wanted to provide a variety of perspectives. It was important to not have 4 curators, or 4 other artists so that the winner gets the best possible experience. There were a TON of amazing women to choose from. We are hopeful that we can continue and perhaps expand the grant in the future to provide even more mentorship opportunities.
Feinstein: what else is in the pipeline for the near future?
Phillips: The grant call for entry opens on April 30th. The deadline is May 30th. I think that is probably going to take up most of energy for the next little bit!
Feinstein: I can imagine! What has the response been so far?
Phillips: It's been really positive overall. I think people are actually still just finding out that we relaunched. And there is a whole new generation of women photographers (and curators, editors, etc) out there. I am hopeful they will discover the site. We are close to rebuilding our entire archive. It is really wonderful to go back and see the evolution of work from 2008 - now. Several of the artists we have shown have really evolved since being on the site.
Amy Elkins is a photographer currently based in the Greater Los Angeles area. She received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has been exhibited and published both nationally and internationally, including at Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria; the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; North Carolina Museum of Art; Light Work Gallery in Syracuse, Aperture Gallery and Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. Elkins was awarded The Lightwork Artist-in-Residence in Syracuse, NY in 2011, the Villa Waldberta International Artist-in-Residence in Munich, Germany in 2012, the Aperture Prize and the Latitude Artist-in-Residence in 2014 and The Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant in 2015. Her first book Black is the Day, Black is the Night was Shortlisted for the 2016 Paris Photo Aperture Foundation Photobook Prize as well as listed as one of the Best Photobooks of 2016 by TIME, Humble Arts Foundation, Photobook Store Magazine and Photo-Eye among others. Elkins is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in NYC.
Cara Phillips was born and raised in suburban Detroit. Her history with the beauty industry began as a child model for Ford Models and continued into her years working as a make-up artist in luxury department stores. In her late-twenties she returned to school and studied photography at Sarah Lawrence College.Since graduating in 2007 her work has been published and exhibited internationally and she has received numerous awards. Solo exhibitions include Robert Morat Gallery in Hamburg & Station Independent Projects in New York City. Her work is in several public & private collections and her first monograph, Singular Beauty, was released in 2012 by Fw:. It was short-listed for the 2012 Paris Photo Aperture Foundation First Book Award and was selected for several best book lists. Cara lives and works in Brooklyn.