Tania Olive set out to create a series of photographs that moved people. She may not have realised how moved they would be when creating her series entitled Dyke of Our Time which has just won the impressive British Journal of Photography’s (BJP) Best in Show Award. The series was one of many on display at the Free Range exhibition, one of the largest student shows in the country. This series examines the changing understanding of gay cultures in society by providing the audience with a face to face observation of a variety of individuals many of whom struggle with their identities and the publics perception.
The series Dyke of Our Time shows a collection of Lesbian women as they are. Olive chose to photograph the women in matter of fact portraits, opting to avoid busy backgrounds or distracting political scenes that may take away from the value of understanding these women as they exist in the world and as a community. Olive states that she wanted to complete a series that was different and showcased these women as a diverse range of people. She says “I’ve always found the butch and femme labels with which lesbians are associated to be antiquated. In fact, I find the idea that gender is a distinct dichotomy unrealistic. I wanted to show the fluidity of gender in the lesbian community”. Stereotypes surrounding gays and lesbians permeate society even among the educated and supposedly liberal minded. A series of this nature, which aims to break down stereotypes and increase awareness about the variety of genders that exist within the lesbian community can be positive. Olive says that she is inspired by typology and wanted to create a “typology of lesbians” that did not look at the history of lesbians but examined the importance of this group of lesbians during a specific period of time.
This series brings to light the fact that there are very few photographers professional or otherwise looking at lesbians in any society. For that matter, there are very few artists in general exploring the lesbian community. It still very much remains a topic of taboo where as photographs of gay men have made an increasing step into mainstream, and even the fine art consciousness. Robert Mapplethorpe is one example of a photographer who grappled with this topic in his work, and successfully developed a career around the subject matter in his renowned “Black Book”. This is not to say that gay men are portrayed positively in the art world or even all that often, they just are shown more than lesbians. For a variety of cultural and social reasons gay men depicted in art tends to remain ever so slightly more acceptable to the public eye. With artists and photographers like Tania Olive displaying successful series such as the one at Free Range this looks set to change. The media is certainly taking a keen interest in the work which may suggest a social shift in topics considered taboo. Olive’s work will be featured in the upcoming issue of BJP, likely to draw more attention to the discussion.
Free Range was a success and showcased a selection of very talented young photographers during their first two weeks show. It is positive that students of the arts are willing to grapple with a variety of topics that many of their predecessors may not have been able to successfully address. While gay men are slightly more acceptable in the gallery spaces of London, lesbians tend to be forgotten or deemed too unacceptable to hang on walls for all to see. Setting sexuality aside, the series that Olive presented at the Free Range show successfully portrayed a diverse group of people that exist in the world, at a particular moment in history. It is a big step forward for the photographer as well as her subject to clutch the attention of the British Journal of Photography not only to win the prize but also secure a feature in their upcoming issue. The art world appears keen to see an alternative to pretty flowers and landscapes and is moving towards social issues that are complex and distinctive.
Portia Pettersen © Artlyst 2012
Image © Tania Olive