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Collecting Conversations: Five Women in American Photography

A six-part series of timely interviews with five artists whose work has recently entered the Ransom Center's photography collection.

Conducted by Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center's curator of photography, these expansive conversations introduce newly acquired works and situate them within each artist's creative practice and personal life.

Artist Panel Discussion

In this lively panel discussion led by Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, curator of photography, artists Betty Hahn, Joanne Leonard, Joan Lyons, Bea Nettles, and Susan Ressler explore the institutional forces that affected their careers, especially as they navigated the art world as young women. The panelists recall the challenge of presenting their work to museum curators for potential acquisition, particularly when the work expressed "women's themes" or when its unconventional techniques made it difficult to categorize. They discuss pivotal exhibition opportunities, and their ambivalence about participating in women-only exhibitions and editorial projects. The group talks candidly about successes and failures, and about what it means for an artist, or her work, to be "rediscovered" now.

Betty Hahn

In this wide-ranging conversation with Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center's curator of photography, artist Betty Hahn recalls early mentors who challenged her to think critically about definitions of photography and the snapshot. She describes her immediate impulse to probe those definitions, producing innovative works that dance around photography's edges. Hahn reflects on managing her expectations as a young woman training for a career in a male-dominated field, and on the subtle ways in which those formative challenges "seeped into" her work. She details her incorporation of handmade photographic processes with techniques traditionally associated with domestic craft, situating her work within centuries of women's creative labor.

Artist bio
Betty Hahn is an artist and educator who has been recognized since the 1960s for her mixed-media works that challenge the conventions of photography. She taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology from 1969 to 1975, and accepted a position at the University of New Mexico in 1976. There she taught in the Art & Art History Department for 22 years, many of those as chair of the photography program. She retired in 1997 as Professor Emerita. The monograph Betty Hahn: Photography or Maybe Not, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1995, remains the most comprehensive volume of her work. More information:

Joanne Leonard

In this conversation with Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center's curator of photography, artist Joanne Leonard recalls her role in a photographic survey project intended to study the impact of technology on the lives of workers in the late 1970s; instead of corporate or industrial environments, Leonard went into private homes to produce a series of photographs that explore "a woman's place and the machines and gadgets that inhabit it." Leonard also discusses her subsequent intimate, autobiographical works. She relates feeling bolstered in those years by the women's movement, both by the inclusion of her work in feminist publications like Ms. and Heresies, and by the intellectual framework it provided during challenging transitions in her life.

Artist bio
Joanne Leonard is a photographer, photo-collage artist, educator, and writer whose work has contributed to a range of fields from fine art to autobiography studies. After teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 70s, she taught at the University of Michigan for 31 years, and is now Distinguished Professor Emerita in the School of Art and Design and Department of Women's Studies. Her monograph Being in Pictures: An Intimate Photo Memoir was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2008. More information:

Joan Lyons

Early in this in-depth conversation with Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center's curator of photography, artist Joan Lyons explains that "almost everything I've done in my life has been dictated by the process intersecting the idea that I want to convey." In one illustration of this, Lyons describes innovative works she made in the early and mid 1970s in which fabric became both the essential technical element and the subject of the work, representing "personal power objects" and feminine rites of passage. Lyons also recalls the technical discoveries that were integral to her concurrent investigation of portraiture, in which she posed herself as female archetypes to explore what portraits of women, by women, might look like.

Artist bio
Joan Lyons is an artist and educator who has worked in a broad range of experimental media over more than six decades, and has produced over forty editioned artist's books. For nearly thirty-five years she was on the faculty of the Visual Studies Workshop, an independent, artist-run organization with a graduate program in Rochester, New York, and was director of the Visual Studies Workshop Press, a leading publisher and printer of artist's books. Her multimedia works on paper and fabric were featured in solo gallery exhibitions in Paris and New York in 2018. More information:

Bea Nettles

In this conversation with Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center's curator of photography, artist Bea Nettles reflects on her first courses in photography and the anti-establishment professors who encouraged her to experiment with materials and techniques. Nettles tells stories of resourcefulness, describing her initial attempt at stitching into a photograph as the practical solution to a logistical problem. She explores the deeply autobiographical nature of her work, detailing the recurrence of feminine mythological symbols and their association with menstruation, pregnancy, and other aspects of women's lives long considered taboo subjects for art. She muses about moments in her life when her subconscious fears and desires have emerged in her work, seeming to foretell significant life events.

Artist bio
Bea Nettles is an artist and educator who has been exhibiting and publishing her autobiographical works since 1970. She is Professor Emerita at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she established the undergraduate program in photography in 1984 and was chair until 1999 before retiring in 2008. The major retrospective exhibition Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory was presented at the Sheldon Art Gallery in St. Louis, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, and the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois from 2019 to 2021, with a catalogue of the same name co-published by the George Eastman Museum and the University of Texas Press. More information:

Susan Ressler

In this interview with Dr. Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center's curator of photography, Susan Ressler describes searching for her identity as a young photographer. After making documentary photographs on a First Nations Reserve in Northern Quebec, and later at cattle auctions in New Mexico, Ressler ultimately turned her camera toward communities she found more familiar. In the late 1970s she photographed bank lobbies and business interiors, and went on to Los Angeles where, she recalls, "you could see the future before it happened." There she photographed the executive offices of Fortune 500 companies, laden with symbols of power and success. Ressler describes revisiting that work decades later and recognizing the complex cultural and political issues that permeate the sterile interior views.

Artist bio
Susan Ressler is an artist and educator who has been making photographs since the early 1970s. She is Professor Emerita in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue University, where she taught photographic practice, criticism, and history from 1981 to 2004. Susan edited the scholarly anthology Women Artists of the American West, published in 2003, and the first book of her own photographs, Executive Order: Images of 1970s Corporate America, was published by Daylight Books in 2018. More information:

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