Lady Readers is a collection of photographs of women reading that I’ve amassed over the last 6 or 7 years. To date, it includes more than 300 photographs, made from every era of the history of photography, from early stereoscopes, ambrotypes and cartes postales, to graphic magazines, anonymous snapshots, press prints and contemporary artworks. The vast majority are from the middle of the twentieth century, when the volume of commercially produced prints—including archives of family snapshots and press prints—was expanding exponentially.
In her essay about reading, “How Should One Read a Book?”, [Virginia] Woolf talks about the special freedom of reading, and this extends just as easily to looking: “Everywhere else may be bound by laws and conventions,” she writes, but “there we have none.” There—in the space between the text (or image) and our own imaginations—etiquette and expectations might dissolve. It’s a wildly exciting idea, and one that is of particular consequence to women. Woolf addresses this directly in A Room of One’s Own, her pointed—and bitingly funny—lectures on the socio-economic structures of patriarchal ideology that made (make?) writing, and the generation of this space of freedom, so much more unlikely for women. The necessities of the writer—financial sovereignty and personal space—are, she proposes, at obscene odds with the conventional roles of wives and mothers, admirable occupation devoid by design of both.
Reading, Woolf suggests, exposes terrible contradictions—but this is also the great power of fiction, to imagine other possibilities.
Extract from Sara Knelman, “Lady Readers,” Photoworks 22 (Brighton: Photoworks, 2015), 138-153.
Sara Knelman is a curator, educator, writer and Director at Corkin Gallery. She has worked as a Talks Programmer at The Photographers’ Gallery, London and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Ryerson University, and the University of Toronto. Recent curatorial projects include Thirza Schaap: Plastic Ocean and Daniel Alexander: When War Is Over. Sara writes about photography for books and magazines, including 1000 Words, Aperture, Frieze, Prefix Photo and Source: The Photographic Review. She is at work on a book about the history of photographic exhibitions, co-authored by David Campany, and collects pictures of women reading.