What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999
What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843-1999
Feb 23 – Jun 7, 2024
Museo Reina Sofía
Madrid, Spain

What They Saw project, a touring exhibition accompanied by a publication and series of public programs, is a means to ignite interest in underexposed and undocumented photobooks by women made between 1843 and 1999 and to begin a process of filling in the gaps. The present show is organized in collaboration with 10×10 Photobooks, a nonprofit organization with a mission to share photobooks globally and encourage their appreciation and understanding.

In seeking out the omissions in photobook history, the standard definition of the photobook: a bound volume with photographic illustrations published by the author, an independent publisher or a commercial publisher, needed to be expanded to incorporate those who do not call themselves photographers or artists but who nevertheless put together a “book” composed of photographs taken by themselves or others: individual albums, slim exhibition pamphlets, scrapbooks, mock-ups, fanzines and artists’ books to be more inclusive.

This iteration of the What They Saw exhibition includes 60 books of the more than 250 volumes highlighted in the associated publication. Most of these publications are from the collection of the Museo Reina Sofía’s Library and Documentation Centre. They are presented chronologically and show examples of books from around the globe. From the pioneers, such as Anna Atkins, who was the first person ever to print and distribute a photobook, or Isabel Agnes Cowper, who used photography to document museum objects, subsequently reproduced in numerous books, to the independent and self-published photobooks of the 1990s, including Colored People: A Collaborative Book Project by Adrian Piper or Twinspotting by Ketaki Seth, this selection allows for greater inclusion of previously marginalised photographic communities, including women, queer communities, people of colour and artists from outside Europe and North America.

Although only twenty-five years old, photobook history has been written primarily by men and has focused on publications authored by men. Very few books by women photographers appear in past anthologies documenting photobook history, and those included are already quite well known. This exhibition of women’s role in the production, dissemination, and authoring of photobooks is a necessary step in unwriting the current photobook history and rewriting an updated photobook history that is more equitable and inclusive.

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