Where women photographers wield intimate power

Delaware Art Museum presents In Focus

3 minute read
From the waist up, a woman leans face-down on a white table, framed by the angle of one slender arm in a long white glove
Details of Woman with a White Glove, 1986. Susan Fenton (1949-2018). Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Alice B. Hupfel, 2017. (c) Estate of Susan Fenton.

On an upper floor at the Delaware Art Museum is a small, two-room gallery set somewhat apart from the bustle of the often-busy museum. The peace of this area perfectly suits In Focus, a gathering of works by women photographers that pulses quietly with intimacy and integrity.

In Focus, curated by Heather Campbell Coyle, features work drawn entirely from the museum’s collection. It opens with some century-old portraits that despite their long-ago aura still speak with immediacy. These platinum prints by Gertrude Käsebier, famed for portraits of her fellow artists, were created at a time when there were few women photographers. Two insightful studies (from 1907) are of John Sloan and Everett Shinn, leading painters in the Ashcan School. The museum’s John Sloan Collection is the world’s foremost holding of Sloan’s works, and in another gallery, you can see him at his apex. But here, elegantly clad, these men are two artistic strivers at the onset of their careers.

Legendary and intriguing works

There’s an iconic work by the great Berenice Abbott (1898-1991): her majestic gelatin silver print Murray Hill Hotel – Spirals (1935). And next to it are two photographs by another legendary photographer, Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), whose career spanned almost a century. Clare (The Dream), created in 1910, was influenced by Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris (artists also in the museum’s collection), while Phoenix Recumbent (1968), a close-up of her model’s swirling tresses, was made more than five decades later.

In the exhibition’s second room are five slightly oversized pigment prints by Donna Ferrato (b. 1949), whose expertise at capturing light and movement, especially in downtown New York City, is evident in Odeon Table West Broadway (2004), a work that shimmers with the aura of this well-known Manhattan gathering spot.

Exhibition highlights are two hand-painted prints by Susan Fenton (1949-2018): Gamelon Hat (1993) and Woman with a White Glove (1986). Coyle was intrigued by seeing how Fenton’s process echoed the hand-coloring of photographs (often by women) at professional portrait studios in the early 20th century when Käsebier was active.

Rubenstein and blue fingernails

About 40 percent of the exhibition—17 photographs on two entire walls, all from a single portfolio—is devoted to 1970s works by Eva Rubinstein (b. 1933). Born in Buenos Aires, she is the daughter of the great Polish American musician Arthur Rubinstein, niece of cosmetics mogul Helena Rubinstein, and her brothers are author Paul and actor John. Among the elegant works on view are portraits, nudes, and close-ups of interiors and exteriors like Unmade Bed, Ancona; White Courtyard with Shadows; and Park Lobby with Billowing Curtains, Ancona. Struck by Rubinstein’s “balance between formal elements and emotional resonance,” Coyle decided to exhibit the entire portfolio.

Over dark denim and red & white stripes of a US flag: two light-skinned hands with blue nails fan their intertwined fingers
Blue Fingernails, c. 1981. Barbara Proud (b.1956). Delaware Art Museum, Louisa duPont Copeland Memorial Fund, 1981. (Courtesy of the photographer.)

Also on view is Blue Fingernails (c. 1981), which Delaware photographer B. Proud (b.1956) made after working a shoot as a commercial photographer. At the suggestion of a friend, she entered it in a DelArt show, and the museum purchased it. Coyle notes that because of her expert lighting, “you can feel the textures of the denim and the stitching … the shine of the garnet ring … the unexpected sparkle of the blue fingernails.” Still an active photographer in the area, Proud’s current series focuses on the LGBTQ community.

A personal relationship with the work

Unlike many exhibitions, there is no wall text or curatorial interpretation here, something that might seem disconcerting at first but ultimately allows the viewer to establish a personal relationship with the works. And because they are held in the DelArt collection, you can find those works cited here (and others by the same artists) in the museum’s digitized online holdings.

As art media goes, photography is relatively new, and its technology can sometimes intrude on a work’s immediacy. But here, in this focused environment, these photographs are able to speak intimately, directly, and powerfully.

What, When, Where

In Focus. Through June 23, 2024, at Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington. $6-$18 (free for kids 6 and under, and for everyone on Thursdays from 4-8pm through December 2024). (302) 571-9590 or


Delaware Art Museum and Copeland Sculpture Garden are wheelchair-accessible, with free parking and a barrier-free entrance. Wheelchairs are available; personal care attendants are admitted free.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation