A conversation with Barbara Yoshida

Portrait of Barbara Yoshida in New York City, 16 December 2012 © by Susan Silas

CHRYSANNE:

We met almost twenty years ago when you took a photograph of me in my installation, 1-900 Mirror Mirror, for your photographic series of women artists. What inspired you to start taking photographic portraits of women artists and how many have you taken?

BARBARA:

I was a painter for almost twenty years, then I made sculpture for about six years, and then I started using a camera in 1990 because I wanted to do this project. We all knew what the male art stars looked like, but even now we don’t really see that many photographs of women artists. I wanted to create a community and also to become part of that community, by meeting more women artists. I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that women artists are not what most people think they are. I think most people—in this country, at least—think of women artists as kind of weird and strange. I got this large format camera specifically to do this project, for a fairly formal portrait, because I wanted the women to be seen the way I see them—as intelligent, serious, committed artists who many times are quite gorgeous and are very “normal” in a lot of ways. I wanted the project to be very inclusive, so I have photographed women who were largely unacknowledged as well as famous ones, and also women who made work that was considered craft by many people but not by everyone. I didn’t want a lot of divisions or distinctions between one type of work and another. I always wanted to do 100 portraits and I have done 94 now.

Nancy Grossman, 25 June 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

The women appear to me to be quite majestic.

BARBARA:

Oh, thank you—that is a real compliment to the women as well.

CHRYSANNE:

They are all done in black and white, is that correct?

BARBARA:

Yes.

CHRYSANNE:

Do you think the 4 x 5, black-and-white format leads to that majestic, ageless quality in terms of the history of photography?

BARBARA:

It might, depending on the viewer’s perspective. Some people might just think it’s old-fashioned. Of course, I don’t look at it that way. The majestic quality has a lot to do with the demeanor of the women being photographed. And also, I chose that particular camera and chose to work in black-and-white, hoping to achieve that quality, a classic look. So you could be very right about that.

SUSAN:

Who was the first person that you chose to photograph and how long ago was that?

BARBARA:

I started in October of 1990 and the first person was a friend of mine, Jerelyn Hanrahan, who was making sculpture outdoors. Very quickly, though, I shifted to a couple of women artists who were older, because I was afraid we might lose them. So in February of 1991, I photographed Louise Bourgeois and Hedda Sterne. Louise was 80 at the time, but she lived another 18 years! (laughter)

Hedda Sterne, 6 February 1992 © by Barbara Yoshida

SUSAN:

She surprised you.

BARBARA:

Sometimes the feisty ones do live longer. Hedda was 81 when I photographed her and she was four months shy of 100 years old when she died. So both of them lived quite a while after being photographed. Hedda was amazing. She was this diminutive little person, physically just tiny, but not in spirit. I don’t know if you are aware of the famous photograph that Nina Leen took of a group of abstract expressionists. They were called “The Irascibles” because in the 40s they objected to the Metropolitan’s big painting show that did not have a single abstract expressionist painting in it. Leen took a photograph in 1950 for LIFE magazine, which later appeared in The New York Times. And all the men are there—this whole group of them, all in their suits—Rothko, Reinhardt, Still, Newman, Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell, Gottlieb—and there’s Hedda. 14 men and she’s the only woman. She is all the way in the back row, but she is standing on a chair. She aims to be seen, and she is! I love that photo. She is fairly unacknowledged in art history, I think, but she continued to paint probably right up until her death. So she is one of my heroines.

CHRYSANNE:

Did you photograph her again, or only the one time?

BARBARA:

Only the one time.

CHRYSANNE:

Have you ever done a group photo of women?

BARBARA:

No.

SUSAN:

By the time you photographed Louise Bourgeois, her career had really taken off again. Was she the first person that was very visible that you photographed? How did she respond when you asked her, and how did you explain to her what the project was?

Louise Bourgeois, 28 February 1992 © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

I explained my motivation for doing the project and she agreed immediately. She had just finished a shoot with Herb Ritts, and she wanted to swing her leg, I don’t know why, but we had very different ideas. We were in her studio out in Brooklyn and there wasn’t a lot of light, so I wouldn’t be able to shoot at a fast speed. I wanted a quiet, contemplative portrait. And she wanted to swing her leg! I was somewhat intimidated by her, of course. It was one of the most difficult shoots I have ever done.

I had agreed that at the end of the shoot I would give the film to her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, who got the film processed. Then I came back out and met with him. We discussed which ones I could keep. I kept the one that was the best and they kept the rest. It didn’t bother me at all, because it was not that different from my approach with the other women, which was that even before the shoot, I explained that I would give them the contact sheets afterward and they could mark on the backs yes for those I could use and no for any they did not want me to use, and they could choose the ones they wanted for themselves. It sets up a sense of trust from the beginning, which I believe will result in a better portrait. I also think we need to control the images of ourselves that go out into the world.

And of course, there is also a difference between a woman photographing a woman and a man photographing a woman. I think that had an effect—helped them to relax, be themselves, and give me something authentic and real. And I hope that because I am also an artist, it is an insider view and maybe that also contributed to a feeling of trust.

Arlene Raven told me a funny story about Louise. One time, many years ago, a young man photographed her. Louise said he had to come back and bring all the negatives and all the film and all the prints and everything. He said OK. So he came out and she didn’t like any of them. So she boiled them. She didn’t burn them, she boiled them! That says something about Louise, doesn’t it?

CHRYSANNE:

Did she keep the film?

BARBARA:

I understand that she boiled everything.

CHRYSANNE:

But your film?

BARBARA:

Oh, mine. I don’t know what happened to the ones I gave back. It doesn’t matter.

SUSAN:

So you only have the negative of the one image?

BARBARA:

Correct. The one we thought was the best. And she is moving in the photograph, so it is blurry, but it is very much Louise.

CHRYSANNE:

You photographed Hannah Wilke?

BARBARA:

Yes, she was one of the first, because we were friends, and she chose to lie on the floor with her sculptures. She has her arm up in the photo, covering her neck, because at that moment the lumps had come back and she didn’t want them to show. Later, of course, at the end of her life, she did that kick-ass exhibition at Ronald Feldman, and she was no longer afraid of showing the effects of the cancer—she showed everything—very gutsy—so it was only at the time of our shoot that she was self-conscious about the lumps.

Hannah Wilke, 21 February 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

She is an interesting artist because she wasn’t exactly dismissed, but she wasn’t as acknowledged, because she had such incredible physical beauty. At the end of her life, she let go of all of it, and the work got re-examined. In the photographs that you have taken, do you see the women showing an interior that has nothing to do with whether they are beautiful in terms of how the culture sees them?

BARBARA:

I’m not sure if anyone comes to mind at the moment—they are all beautiful to me. I just try to get them to relax, to fall into very natural poses. I don’t pose them. Some of them seem to be very aware of the way they will be perceived, and the result is perhaps a bit superficial when they do that—they’re not showing their interior selves as much. But posing for the camera is also an aspect of who they are. I think the ones who are not posing, who are the most authentic, show how incredibly beautiful they are, as women, regardless of how our culture might see them.

CHRYSANNE:

Who is the most recent person you photographed?

BARBARA:

This summer I went out to Santa Fe and photographed Judy Chicago—she had to be part of this project—and also Barbara Gonzales, who is the great-granddaughter of Maria Martinez, the famous southwest Native American potter. Barbara is a well known and well respected potter, working in her family tradition. I also photographed Hilary Lorenz when I was there. She is a New York artist but in the summertime, she has a studio in Abiquiu.

CHRYSANNE:

Who will you photograph next? Do you have a wish list?

Maren Hassinger, 20 August 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

Oh yes, I have been trying to photograph Shirin Neshat for a couple of years. She is a lovely person, and she is so gracious, and she wants to accommodate me so we are hoping maybe this winter, but she is just so busy. I have tried to reach Sophie Calle, I would love to photograph her, I am such an admirer of her work. And Yayoi Kusama, I have written to her, I don’t know what is going to happen with that.

SUSAN:

Are you going to photograph Patricia Cronin with her sculpture Memorial To A Marriage at Woodlawn cemetery?

BARBARA:

I hope so. We were supposed to do a shoot last year, but Pattie felt the landscaping wasn’t right.

CHRYSANNE:

Have you photographed Deb Kass?

BARBARA:

Yes, in 1991. That’s how I found out about WAC. When I was photographing Deb she told me that a group of women were going to get together—an activist group—and asked if I wanted to come. I said, “Absolutely!” And that meeting was the beginning of WAC, Women’s Action Coalition.

Deborah Kass, 24 October 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

Did you get very involved with WAC?

BARBARA:

Yes, I was the “phone tree queen,” in charge of phoning people who would phone more people who would phone more people, until everyone had been notified of an upcoming action.

SUSAN:

I remember that. In fact, I think that might be where we first met.

BARBARA:

I was able to photograph a lot of women I met there.

CHRYSANNE:

I went to WAC too.

BARBARA:

You remember? Our first action was when the Guggenheim was going to open a branch in Soho. It was in our neighborhood and not only that, the opening show was going to have four white men, and not only that, one of them was Carl Andre. Even though the art world was split over his trial, many of the women felt he murdered his wife and got away with it. So we picketed the opening and a lot of people refused to cross the picket line. We were wearing these T-shirts that said, Carl Andre is at the Guggenheim. Where is Ana Mendieta?

SUSAN:

It’s wonderful that you still have that. I know I have some WAC T-shirts but I don’t remember this one.


video ©2012 by MOMMY

CHRYSANNE:

That is a fantastic T-shirt.

BARBARA:

It is.

SUSAN:

It is amazing to think that this was not all that long ago, and the Guggenheim was going to open a new museum with an exhibition of all white men. It does seem really incredible.

BARBARA:

We jammed their fax machine. That was the first thing we did. Just sent fax after fax. We also sent them a gazillion postcards, and later they put Louise Bourgeois in the show and claimed they had always intended to, which was a bald-faced lie.

SUSAN:

Yes, I remember.

BARBARA:

So it was a very successful way to start. I talked to women at WAC meetings and asked if I could photograph them, because in the beginning I didn’t want to just photograph my friends. Right after I photographed Hannah Wilke I went to Nancy Spero’s opening at Josh Baer because I didn’t know her and I was shy about approaching artists that I didn’t know. I thought maybe I could photograph her in the gallery in front of her work, and she said it would be fine. And then, during WAC, women were just amazing—they were so accommodating and accessible, no matter who they were. Elizabeth Murray, for example—she couldn’t have been more down-to-earth, and gracious. She was just wonderful.

Elizabeth Murray, 29 April 1992 © by Barbara Yoshida

SUSAN:

Do you think that graciousness was influenced by WAC? By the sense of community the organization generated?

BARBARA:

I do. Now looking back, I feel that was such a special time.

CHRYSANNE:

I agree.

BARBARA:

It was a lot easier to approach people and get them to say yes, and they fit me into their schedules. There were a few that didn’t, but most of them did. Now it is much harder, everybody is busy and we are a little more separate. It’s just not the same time. I did over 70 women’s portraits in the first four years. And part of that was the momentum from WAC, I am quite sure.

CHRYSANNE:

And so your end number is 100?

BARBARA:

I guess so, although it is going to be hard to stop.

SUSAN:

You don’t have to stop.

CHRYSANNE:

You could go to the magic 108.

BARBARA:

We’ll see.

SUSAN:

The work of yours that I am the least familiar with, but I am quite curious about, is the self-portraiture that you have done. When did you do that in relationship to these portraits of women, and how did that get started?

Pietà, from the series “Conversations with a Dead Pig” © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

Well, as soon as I started using this camera to photograph women artists, I wanted to do things with it besides those portraits. It was about 1993 and I had a house upstate, so I started photographing at night, and I had a large field outside where I actually felt quite exposed because the moonlight, when the moon is full, is as bright as daylight. But I went out there and started doing some of the naked self portraits with masks. One time when I was shooting at night, I finished this one shot and I sat down against a tree, and I was waiting for the clouds to go past the moon, and I heard this grrrrrrrrrrr, grrrrrrrrrrr, grrrrrrrrrrr.

Oh my god, you know how magnified sounds are at night. I thought, There are no bears or wolves here, it could be a dog. So I picked up a stone and threw it behind the tree. Nothing ran off. I kept looking up at the sky to see if it was clear, and then I saw three pairs of eyes moving around, up in the tree above me. They were raccoons! They were probably waiting for me to get out of the way so they could get down the tree and look for food.

It was a little bit difficult to expose myself like that, but it was also kind of fun.

CHRYSANNE:

I know raccoons. In Toronto we are swamped with them and they are very smart.

BARBARA:

Another thing that happened which was really funny was one time when I was shooting during the day. I had bought a pig head from the butchering place up there in the country. And I was photographing myself naked with this pig head and a mask and other props, sitting on my own stone wall outside my house, when my neighbors decided to walk through my property to get to the state land on the other side. And they had a dog with them, and I had my tripod set up with a long extension cord stretched out so I could take my own photograph. And there I was, buck naked on this stone wall. Excuse me, but I have a pig’s head here, I don’t think you want to come much closer with your dog! So I put on my robe and they walked by—both of them were psychiatrists—and I have no idea what they thought. But disaster was averted—the dog did not run into the cord and knock over the camera.

Babydoll-1, from the series “Conversations with a Dead Pig” © by Barbara Yoshida

CHRSYANNE:

Did they ever walk through your property again?

BARBARA:

I don’t know (laughter), but I’m sure they called out a warning if they did.

SUSAN:

The other thing I wonder about is the work you’ve done at night, because I am a little bit of a scaredy cat when I am alone in the woods or alone in isolated places, even at a perfectly safe place like MacDowell, where city people confess that they have trouble sleeping. But you have gone to really remote places alone. I find this very brave. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the experience of venturing out as a woman to places that are so isolated.

BARBARA:

What is brave for one person is not brave for another. Maybe what I do is risky sometimes, but of course we artists do what we need to do to say what we need to say. Especially in very isolated situations—where I have been photographing standing stones, they can be way out in the middle of nowhere—I think I rely on my sensitivity and my antennae. There have been some times when I decided it would be better not to pitch my tent in one of those locations but to sleep in the car instead.

There are other times when some strange things have happened. But generally speaking, I think most people are missing out on an incredible experience—when you are out there and all you can hear is the ocean or a night bird, and there are all those stars and the moonlight and this incredibly beautiful landscape—it is a humbling experience.

Ales Stenar Stone Ship—Moonlight, Kåseberga, Sweden, 2005
© byBarbara Yoshida

CHRYSANNE:

What is the most isolated place that you have been to?

BARBARA:

There are several, really.

CHRYSANNE:

You mentioned Ireland before.

BARBARA:

I drove a ways to get to those sites, so they were often far away from villages. And the site in Armenia was pretty far away from the nearest town. A lot of them are really remote.

SUSAN:

Talk a little more about these sites and how you decided to photograph them. I think most people know Stonehenge, but that may be it. And I don’t even know myself what the origins of all of these sites are. Because you end up with these star streaks from the earth moving, I know that the exposures are quite long, and I feel that whatever else the images convey they are mapping time. I was thinking about this today as I was looking at a book that illustrated different ways people have represented time graphically. Your photographs have that quality at the same time that they are doing something else. But I wonder, did all those places have the same function at one time? Do they date from the same time period?

BARBARA:

First of all, many of them pre-date Stonehenge by a couple of hundred years. And at Stonehenge, all of the stones are dressed—shaped by hand—and the lintels are fitted to the uprights and so on, so it is the supreme example. But it is comparatively recent and I wouldn’t be surprised if artisans had come from other parts of the world, with specific knowledge and skills that contributed to how they made that monument.

I like the older stones because they are not dressed, and they have a lot of character. Of course, they have changed since they were first erected, maybe as early as 3,000 BC. Some of them are more recent than that. That was before there was written language, so we really don’t know much about them, and that, of course, is what intrigues me. The mystery is one of the things that draws me to them. As Keith Carter says, “I always love what I don’t understand.” So they are definitely spiritual sites, and people are drawn to them because they can feel the power. Scientists like Euan MacKie and Elma Parsamian have shown that some sites were purposely aligned with the movements of the moon or stars or planets. There were probably astronomer priests at that time. The Celtiberians were probably the ones who used their shipbuilding and navigational skills to bring that knowledge to various parts of the world. The Libyans were also brilliant navigators and explorers during ancient times.

Zoraz Kar—Moonlight, Sisian, Armenia, 2009 © by Barbara Yoshida

I like what you said about representing time graphically. Another reason I photograph the stones at night is that I believe they are connectors between the earth and the sky, so including star trails emphasizes that.

SUSAN:

How do you find them all?

BARBARA:

I did a lot of reading, although most of the books concentrate on the British Isles, and of course Brittany has huge formations. People know a lot about those. But otherwise there are some obscure books that have references to other sites and Julian Cope has a couple of books, where he traveled to as many stones as he could find. The internet helped a lot, because sometimes people just pose in front of a stone as a snapshot. Of course, I didn’t know if those stones were still standing or if they were covered now with trees or if they were too close to buildings or in the midst of cities. So it is always an adventure to find them, even with ordnance survey maps in the UK. Sometimes they just don’t want to be found!

CHRYSANNE:

Are there stones in Africa and Asia that you have found too?

BARBARA:

Yes, certainly there are some in North Africa, in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and I photographed some in The Gambia. Some of those people probably never saw stones anywhere else but they heard about them or the formations were described to them, and they used local stones to make what they could. The ones in Mongolia that I photographed are very different, and I have read that there are stones in India. I know that there are some in Indonesia, and some in Korea. I photographed a stone circle in Japan, but the stones are very small. Whether they are connected with the ones in Europe, I don’t know.

Wassu Stones—Moonlight, The Gambia, 2010 © by Barbara Yoshida

A man named Barry Fell, who was teaching biology at Harvard and who was a gifted linguist, especially in regard to ancient languages, wrote about ancient inscriptions discovered in the Americas. People sent him pieces of stone from the northeast that had markings on them and he said it was Ogam, the ancient Irish script, which he could read. Some people thought the marks were made by plowshares, but they even did an experiment, trying to make marks on stone with plowshares, but it didn’t look anything like what they had found. One of the inscriptions Fell translated said, Dedicated to the sun god Bel (Baal). I photographed a dolmen in New York State that has a plaque next to it and it says it’s a glacial erratic—a type of stone that doesn’t exist there, that was deposited from elsewhere by a glacier. Which it probably is. The capstone is not from that area, but it’s supported on five smaller stones, exactly like the dolmens in Ireland. So I think it must have been constructed intentionally. I know Fell’s theories are controversial. But he had a colleague who went up the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers and made latex molds of Punic and Ogam inscriptions that were apparently left by Libyans, Celts and Phoenicians around 500 BC. I think these ancient travelers were capable of going all over the world. So that is how this knowledge was probably spread.

CHRYSANNE:

And they are all photographed in the middle of the night?

Menhir de Clendy—Moonlight, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland, 2005
© by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

As many as I could.

CHRYSANNE:

That is interesting to me because in Tibetan Buddhist mythology and tradition, there are Dakinis, some of these flying goddesses. They come out in the middle of the night. They are night ladies. They are not out so much in the middle of the day. As I understand it, the night is female.

BARBARA:

Interesting that you say that. Traditionally, the moon and the night are female, whereas the sun is male. All over the world, as you know, the moon has been a symbol of the feminine, particularly female emotions and intuition. And of course there is a phallic aspect of the standing stones, and although we always talk about mother earth, I thought, What if those people in Neolithic times believed it was mother sky and father earth? If father earth were lying on his back, the standing stone would be his erect penis and mother sky could come down onto that, and that could be how people were born or maybe how the stars were formed. It’s possible, it could have been a mythology at that time. And I like the idea of mother sky being the active partner!

SUSAN:

How did you get started or interested in them in the first place?

BARBARA:

When I got my 4 x 5 and started photographing, I did six residencies for the National Park Service and one for a state park. I learned a lot by photographing outdoors, and I found that I really liked texture so then I started to focus on rocks. I started seeking out rocks that were solitary and that had a presence. When I was in Scotland, I saw my first standing stones at The Ring of Brodgar and I said, “Oh my, I think the focus has narrowed and the project will be about this.” It was an amazing experience. I pitched my tent there and it was pure magic. I photographed all through the night until dawn.

Calanais Stones—Moonlight, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, 2005
© by Barbara Yoshida

SUSAN:

One thing that is interesting to me is that both of these projects, making the portraits of women and photographing the standing stones, are long term, on-going works, and I wonder if you feel that they somehow relate to each other or are intertwined? Or do they just feel like two parallel lines of thought that have no relationship to one another?

BARBARA:

I think they are related, in that they are both concerned with women’s issues, women’s perspectives around the world. Very definitely. One is perhaps more about my personal relationship to the world, and the other is more a project that I hope will enhance the image that women have, especially women artists, in the eyes of the world. Some of the women, especially the ones who are not as well known, or not known at all, working in isolation as many of us are, have been somewhat empowered by being on the walls of A/c Projectroom in the early 90s or in Poland at the National Museum in 2010, on the same wall with someone like Kiki Smith or Jackie Winsor or Jenny Holzer, and this is important to me as well. One young woman that comes to mind was part of one segment of the art world, she was probably not well known by a lot of women artists even, and she died just a couple of months ago. I feel so grateful that she will be remembered as part of this project, no matter what happens to it.

CHRYSANNE:

Who is she?

BARBARA:

Eva Nebeska, a painter and one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met. I hope that being part of this group has some impact on the lives of these women. It is very important to me.

CHRYSANNE:

Have you done a book with all the photographs?

BARBARA:

I hope to, and I plan to. Right now I’m just beginning a book on my standing stones so that will come first, and then I will start working on the other one. Maybe the production of the two books will overlap.

CHRYSANNE:

Getting back to Mongolia, how did you find out that they had the stones and how was traveling in Mongolia? How was that different, east versus west?

BARBARA:

I first saw the photographs of the stones in a magazine and a friend at my day job wanted to go there and I had never really thought about it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this would be great because they are making this huge transition from a nomadic society to a modern one and I wanted to see it before it changed. And also, it is a culture that has a very special relationship to the land, and I love landscape. And there are several spiritual sites. So I started researching sacred sites and we tried to find them. Some of those sites had standing stones. We didn’t go to the northwest, but we did go all the way east, near the Chinese border, where almost no tourists go. We had to bring tents. We hired a driver and an interpreter, which I never have done before or since, but we were able to determine our itinerary and change it at any time. It is a huge country, with mountains and forests as well as grassland and steppes, and then it has the Gobi. Our main driver was from a horse breeding family. They make everything from horse, and I milked a horse! We had a different driver in the Gobi and we visited a camel breeding family there.

CHRYSANNE:

Did you meet any shamans on the way?

BARBARA:

I would have loved to, but we didn’t.

SUSAN:

It is interesting that you bring up people from a nomadic culture because I think that nomadic culture, before Islam, had been matriarchal and the city was considered patriarchal. Perhaps that is part of the unacknowledged reason that nomadic people are reviled in contemporary culture. The gypsies have that problem and so do the Bedouin. And of course, nomadic culture resists the norms of capitalism.

CHRYSANNE:

Well, the Roma are the most obvious example.

SUSAN:

Part of the resentment comes from the way in which nomadic people think about the world around them. They have a different understanding about what is theirs and don’t recognize property in the same way. It is one of the reasons for the stereotype of gypsies as thieves.

BARBARA:

That is absolutely correct. Most indigenous cultures, like the Australian aborigines, feel like the land belongs to everyone. It is part of their whole existence—their history, their ancestors, their spirituality, everything is intertwined with the land they live in and the ecosystems they inhabit. But the idea of buying and selling land is incomprehensible. I suppose nomads are similar to refugees. Nobody really wants them and that’s unfortunate.

CHRYSANNE:

We have a friend who is a writer who terms himself a cross-cultural nomad.

BARBARA:

It is a charming term.

SUSAN:

In Mongolia, which is such a different culture, did you have a sense that the sites were respected as sacred sites, that they were part of the religion of the people who were there?

BARBARA:

Not sure about that. Even in Europe, the stones have been there so long that people will plough around them if they are in a field but that’s also because they are superstitious about them. They may be starting to honor them in some places because the rest of the world is paying attention to them, but many times they don’t revere them the way they did. In Ireland, the church had to adopt many pre-Christian things. They had to incorporate them because they couldn’t stamp them out. But many people may just disregard the old sites, not giving them importance. Sometimes the stones are defaced and so they get fenced off. At Stonehenge you can’t walk freely among the stones anymore.

SUSAN:

I didn’t know that.

CHRYSANNE:

So it is like the Parthenon.

SUSAN:

They attracted too many people.

Is it your feeling that the skill to build these stones was spread by one particular group or culture; that it came from one place and was dispersed by travel and exploration?

BARBARA:

Who knows, really? For a while, people were speculating that the knowledge came from the Middle East into Spain and then to Italy and Malta, which of course was a huge site, and on from there up the coast to the British Isles. But now some people are saying that it started in the British Isles. The more they excavate and the more archaeological work that is done, the more they learn about these cultures. I dislike the word prehistory. Why is it prehistory? It is history. It is all part of the continuum, and it is all our history as people of the Earth.

SUSAN:

Have you ever felt threatened or scared in any of these places?

BARBARA:

Well, once I wasn’t really scared but I was very tense, very anxious. I went to a site where there were fields all the way around so I could hear and see anyone approach. And the site was a square of earth that had tall oak trees, and it had a passage-tomb, and then it had some standing stones. It wasn’t near the solstice or any of those times so I thought, OK, maybe because it was on the weekend some hooligans might come and start drinking and cause some mischief, but I was not going to be in the midst of some solstice celebration or anything. I thought it would be alright to pitch my tent. But I pitched it so the entrance was facing the road that came up to the site.

So I was lying in my tent, facing this very narrow opening which faced the road, and at about 4:30 a.m. I heard a car come along and turn and come up the road.

I thought, Oh great. And the car stopped and I watched, horrified, as a man got out and started to walk up to the site. He had a black coat on with a cowl over his head and a black scarf wrapped around his face and neck, with only his nose and eyes showing. He began to perform some bizarre, personal ritual that lasted for two and a half hours. He lit a stick of incense and placed it in the ground and stood before it, facing east. He circled the site several times and again stood facing east. He was carrying a jar of some kind and it looked like there was an amulet or something, on a cord around his neck. At some point he sat down, and he was doing this rocking thing that I have seen people do in a mental institution. Finally he disappeared for maybe an hour behind the passage-tomb. It sounded like he was banging something with a rock.

I was thinking, OK, he has seen the tent, he wasn’t offended by it, somehow I have not violated the sacred space or he would have done something by now; he probably thinks there is a couple in there or maybe one man or two men, but he would never think there’s one woman in there. So I was pretty much OK but I didn’t dare take my eyes off him. I couldn’t relax or move a muscle. Finally he went to the eastern part, facing east again, and I prayed that he was waiting for sunrise and would leave then. He didn’t have the jar anymore. I didn’t know what he did with that or what was in it, and I didn’t want to know. When the sun appeared, he stood facing it. He took off the cloak with the hood and he was wearing a white sweater and multi-colored, patch-work pants! He made a slight bow toward the passage-tomb, turned, and put his arm, fist closed, across his chest. Then he went to his car and drove away. I couldn’t rest. So I just packed up my tent and went into town and had a good breakfast of crêpes with fresh strawberries.

SUSAN:

Would you describe yourself as having been wary or afraid?

BARBARA:

Not afraid, no, I decided early on that this was nothing directed toward me. Not afraid, but I felt vulnerable.

SUSAN:

Maybe we can wind down by having you tell us a couple of sweet anecdotes about the women that you have photographed.

Lynda Benglis, 21 November 1991 © by Barbara Yoshida

BARBARA:

Oh, some of them have been just great. Sandra Fabara was one. She was a graffiti artist at a time when she was the only woman in the subculture of male graffiti artists. From ’79 to’83 I think she was using her tag, Lady Pink. I was glad to include her in the project.

One of my heroines is Jacqueline Livingston. She was teaching photography at Cornell, and in 1978 she got fired after she exhibited photographs of her husband, her father-in-law, and her son, and they were naked. When she asked why she was being fired, the head of the art department told her, “You cannot be a feminist and expect to work here. And you certainly cannot photograph men’s genitalia.” Although some of the faculty men were painting nude portraits of young women that were so realistic you could tell who the models were. Of course that was accepted.

CHRYSANNE:

Did she take them to court?

BARBARA:

She was part of a sex discrimination suit against Cornell, a class action suit, that was in court from 1980 to 1985 and considered a “win” when they got an out-of-court-settlement.

CHRYSANNE:

Was she able to get another teaching job?

BARBARA:

She applied for teaching jobs but was black-listed, because of the controversy of her art and the suit against Cornell. She opened a small gallery in Soho. I went to Ithaca specifically to photograph her, and I drove to upstate New York to get Jenny Holzer at her farm. When I was out in Idaho visiting my parents, I photographed women there, and when I did my national park residency in Michigan I photographed an artist there. I photographed an artist in Ireland, two women in Poland, one in Hungary, and three in The Gambia. I tried to make the project as inclusive as possible so that it wouldn’t be elitist or geographic, just this community of women, women who make art. I enjoy seeking out some of these women in other places. It was such a privilege to be welcomed into their homes and studios and to see them in their environments—just to hang out with them. I feel very lucky.

SUSAN:

And did you have a particular selection process?

BARBARA:

It was very organic. When I was in WAC, sometimes I asked people. I asked Laurie Anderson to recommend someone and she suggested Tina Girouard, whom I didn’t know. When I went out to Los Angeles, one of my friends, Tobey Crockett, suggested a couple of people and helped me get in touch with them. I went mainly to photograph Betye Sarr, but I ended up photographing some women I hadn’t known about.

SUSAN:

So even if these women didn’t know who you were, they would still entertain the idea of sitting for you? Did you have to present a proposal or a list of the women that you had already shot to legitimate yourself in their eyes?

BARBARA:

I do now. I sent a whole package to Judy Chicago and Barbara Gonzales, for example, to see if they were amenable. It’s not as easy as it was during the WAC time.

SUSAN:

It is interesting how communities can come together in certain periods of time and then dissolve, really disappear.

BARBARA:

That is exactly what happened to WAC. It was a wonderful thing while it lasted, wasn’t it?

SUSAN:

It was wonderful, I remember how great it was.

BARBARA:

Very empowering, some of the actions really had an impact—some of the cases where we picketed outside and filled the courtroom. We were very sedate in the courtroom, but we picketed outside and wrote letters to judges. One judge quoted from our letters in his decision, and it was just an amazing thing. It was a bonding experience for a lot of women. But you are right, it was very ephemeral—when it was over, it was over.

SUSAN:

WAC seemed to dissolve in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election.

CHRYSANNE:

I think that energy and those activities are coming back.

BARBARA:

I hope so.

SUSAN:

One of first things I heard about Occupy Wall Street, early on, was how male dominated it was and that women couldn’t get their voices heard. And I couldn’t believe it. It sounded just like more late 60s activism against the war in Vietnam where the guys thought they were the real Marxists and the women were expected to fetch coffee!

BARBARA:

Right.

SUSAN:

I thought, “This is ridiculous!” Women are having trouble getting themselves heard now in an activist organization that is a critique of current governance. I really couldn’t believe it.

CHRYSANNE:

But some of them, like Georgia Sagri, who occupied Artists Space for a few days, and was in the Whitney Biennial, are making their voices known. There are some women from that group who have made themselves known whether you like what they do or not.

SUSAN:

But that was a splinter group that was more focused on the art world. I think the main Occupy movement as it began in Zuccotti Park, at least in the very beginning, was not especially congenial to women.

CHRYSANNE:

But WAC was part of the art world.

BARBARA:

Right.

CHRYSANNE:

Where would you like to see the photographs, once you finish them, installed? And how would you like to see them installed? And who would you like to write about them?

BARBARA:

Well, of course I would like to see them in a book, and I would like to see that book in every art history department in the country. And I would like Lucy Lippard to write about the photographs. Of course I would like a major museum in the United States to show this work.

SUSAN:

I would like to see all of those portraits of women in the atrium space at MOMA.

BARBARA:

And they should own it as well. I have been a little hesitant to approach galleries and museums about this. I have sent the catalog from the National Museum in Poland to several places in this country, but I don’t know anyone personally at most of the US museums, so it is hard to make a cold call. Some of them you cannot reach by phone. Yes, a New York gallery would be great, I would love that.

SUSAN:

Are they editioned, the prints?

BARBARA:

An edition of ten.

CHRYSANNE:

How large do you see them?

BARBARA:

The edition is 13 x 19. I print them from scanned negatives on my Epson printer. But I have printed larger ones as well for the show in Poland. I might do an edition that is 17 x 22, but I don’t need them too large because I like the intimate scale of a slightly smaller photograph.

CHRYSANNE:

Any other dreams? To photograph? Is there a third project?

BARBARA:

I have started one but I’m not certain whether I’ll continue that, we’ll see. But in terms of the stones, there are three more countries I would like to do. I’m going to Morocco in November because it’s a nice connector between southern Europe and West Africa. Italy has some beautiful stones that I would like to photograph. And then in the spring I’ll shoot in the Crimea because it’s a nice link between southern Europe and Armenia, which is all the way east.

SUSAN:

Thank you.

CHRYSANNE:

Any words to women out there?

BARBARA:

Just keep working!

Portrait of Barbara Yoshida in New York City, 23 September 2012 – © by Chrysanne Stathacos

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