Joyce Tenneson began her photography career in front of the camera. While in college, she modeled part-time for Polaroid as the test subject for their new color films. Youthful and talented, she was often asked by the male photographers in the studio to model for their personal artwork. On the few occasions that she agreed, she was disappointed by their photographs, finding them sometimes shallow. Tenneson quickly realized that if she was going to have a role in front of the camera it would be as her own subject. Upon her request, Polaroid gave her a camera and unlimited quantities of film. It was this tool that prompted the French literature major to put down her pen and dedicate her life to photography. Fifty years later, she continues to photograph herself and others, seeking a deep connection between artist and subject.
Tenneson took a stand for women artists early in her career. While a photographic instructor at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., she marched in protest of the 1971 Corcoran Biennial for their exclusion of women artists. As the first woman in Washington D.C. to teach photography at the college level, Tenneson faced resentment and jealousy from her colleagues.
Turning her camera inward, she photographed herself to explore feelings of inferiority, uncertainty, and loneliness. These deeply personal black-and-white self-portraits were not well received by the D.C. photography community and were dismissed as “women’s work.” Even more so than today, the art world then was dominated by men—as dealers, patrons, critics, and educators. While men have always appreciated artistic depictions of the nude female form, overtly feminine perspectives of were not viewed as universal and often dismissed. Women photographing themselves or other women in an unapologetically feminine manner struggled for inclusion as “real” artists.
Tenneson sought out her contemporaries and placed an ad in photography publications asking women photographers to send her their self-portraits. The response was overwhelming. Her mailbox flooded with photographs, she complied a selection of them into her first book, In/Sights: Self-Portraits of Women, published by David R. Godine in 1978 with the specific aim of bringing this diverse and underrepresented genre to the public’s attention. The book was the first anthology of self-portraits by women ever published and quickly sold out. It was later named one of the five most important photography books of the year.
A few years later, Tenneson left her teaching position at Corcoran and moved to New York City. By then nearing 40 and a mother, she pushed forward with her artwork. Soon after, she was awarded a grant from Polaroid to work with one of their few 20x24 large format cameras. Struggling to find her identity in a new city, she invited into her studio women with whom she felt a kinship, photographing them as surrogates for her own spiritual and emotional journey.
The Polaroid camera produces a one-of-a-kind direct positive. Without a negative, each image portrays its subjects without manipulation. Like her subjects, each piece is unique. Gauzy and pallid, these cool-toned Polaroids became the series and book Transformations. This body of work was life-changing for Tenneson, catapulting her into art-world stardom. It also cemented her signature style and use of large-scale Polaroids. The photographs and books that followed the success of Transformations earned her a reputation critically as “one of America's most interesting portrayers of the human character.”
Now in her seventh decade, Tenneson continues to photograph herself and others. She is no longer the “fragile woman I see staring back at me from my early self-portraits,” as she described herself in her book A Life in Photography. As she found her own footing as an artist and a woman, Tenneson’s subjects became more grounded. Over the years, her autobiographical photographs have moved from the minimal white-on-white self-portraits of a young woman seeming to vanish into her surroundings, to strong portraits of spiritual women, to the rich, earthy photographs of aging women with hard-earned wisdom. Tenneson has also photographed other subjects over her long career, including botanicals, trees embellished with gold leaf, sea shells, and a series titled Amazing Men consisting of portraits of men over 60. But it is her portraits of herself and other women that defined her career. Tenneson has inspired countless women—artists and non-artists alike—to be unapologetically authentic and to see themselves as much more than their surface and worthy of a deeper look.
This article first appeared in Issue 11.
Kat Kiernan is an advocate for women photographers and the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.