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A Conversation with Nathalie Herschdorfer

episode 43
March 16 2023

Curator and art historian Nathalie Herschdorfer shares with us her wisdom and thoughts on the body and body-image, the influence of photography on the self-conception of the body, including its importance in the emergence of social media.

About our guest

Nathalie Herschdorfer is a curator and art historian specializing in the history of photography. In 2022, she was appointed Director of Photo Elysée, the cantonal photography museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. Before this, she was the Director of the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle, where she organized exhibitions featuring the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Stanley Kubrick, Vik Muniz, Alex Prager, Viviane Sassen, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Andy Warhol, amongst others. She is an active voice in contemporary photography and has been invited to organize numerous exhibitions outside Switzerland. She teaches the history of photography at ECAL the Lausanne cantonal art school and is the author of several books, including: Body: The Photography Book (Thames & Hudson, 2019); Mountains by Magnum Photographers (Prestel, 2019); The Thames& Hudson Dictionary of Photography (Thames & Hudson, 2018); Coming into Fashion: A Century of Photography at Condé Nast (Thames& Hudson, 2012); and Afterwards: Contemporary Photography Confronting the Past (Thames & Hudson, 2011).


Photo Elysée

“My hope is that, at least for younger generations, being more exposed to a variety of different bodies, and to understand that the body is not this beautiful image completely retouched, will help to express other identities and to live in our own bodies in a saner way.”

photo Amélie Blanc 2019

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Nathalie Herschdorfer talks about her journey of becoming an art historian, the experiences that have raised her awareness of the gender disparity in the art world, what this means for the industry, and for her research on the body and body-image. She speaks about several kinds of deconstruction and reflects on how the evolving photography practices have impacted these processes. Finally, she gives insightful thoughts on her book “Body” and the ‘feminist prism’, sculpting the landscape of art photography nowadays and how it has come to change through the emergence of social media. Nathalie closes the conversation with final reflections on the importance of women’s experience – as women – as they relate to their art.

Conversation Highlights:

  • When it becomes clear that countless women were erased from Art History
  • The challenge for women to make a living through art
  • Nathalie’s book Body and the “feminist prism”

When it becomes clear that countless women were erased from Art History

Nathalie begins by telling us what inspired her to go into art history. It started with a feminine figure: her grandmother. “I remember about visits I had in museums with my grandmother, when I was a kid,” she says. “And this is true that it was always a joy. Maybe it was a joy, also to be with my grandmother (...)  These first experiences in museums were very inspiring for me. But also, I have a very close relationship with my aunt, and my aunt is a painter. And when I was a kid, I was always looking at her paintings in her studio. And I was fascinated by that. Not that I wanted to be an artist myself, but I really liked this kind of atmosphere.”

To become an art historian in Switzerland, Nathalie had to read a lot of books. Two of them were “the most well known history of art” books, and during her studies, Nathalie had not noticed the absence of recorded artist women. But now she does. “I think not a single female name is mentioned in these books,” she explains, “I didn’t realize that at the time. But of course, it had an impact on why we don’t talk about women in the arts.”

Nathalie is clear on one thing: the necessity to change our outlook on paintings and sculpture. Forget the myth of the genius, which, as Mauren points out, “is being increasingly deconstructed by women especially.”

The awareness of this gap is not something that came in the blink of an eye for Nathalie, who, in her early twenties, remained unaware of the extent to which one could think about and look at art differently. Like for many of us, this awareness comes gradually. She’s gained hers through intuition, and through discussions with other female artists.

The challenge for women to make a living through art

It was clear to Nathalie that the industry was designed for men, making it difficult for female artists to make a living. As a curator and museum director, she found that she was mostly approached by men, and she had to actively seek out female artists. This disparity is made even more obvious as Nathalie teaches at an art school where she has noticed a majority of female students, while the majority is of the opposite sex at exhibitions and galleries. “So I was wondering,” she says, “what happens to all these women after school?”

To exemplify this, Nathalie tells us the story of a photographer she’s met recently, a woman in her mid-life. “I was a bit surprised,” Nathalie recounts, “because usually you just bring your portfolio, and it's recent work. And she showed me work she made in the 1990s, when she was at school in a very good art school. And then the very first, you know, salaries she made just after school, and she was brilliant. And then there was a gap. And then she showed me the recent work. And then I asked what happened between the 90s and today. And then she explained ‘I had children. I had a family to raise.’”

Before all the photography institutions in Switzerland came to be directed by women – which Nathalie now notices is something that is spreading internationally – women had to somehow be “tough” enough to make the art world ignore that they were women. “Cute” is the word she uses to describe the impression she seemed to give her male peers at the beginning of her career. “Today I have a feeling that it’s more balanced,” she adds. And of course, this is good news.

“My point,” Nathalie continues, “is that we need this balance.” She is aware, however, of the need to be careful, not to rejoice too fast. There is still some work to do. Despite the fact that the director of the Louvres is a woman now, the majority of museum directors in France are still men (as opposed to mostly women in Finland, according to Nathalie).

Nathalie’s book Body and the “feminist prism”

For Nathalie, the representation of the body is an interesting subject of research. As an art historian of photography, she believes that the practice is born from both industry and art. The nude is a long-lasting tradition that has been continued by photographers throughout history. However, she has also observed that an increasing number of contemporary artists are deconstructing this practice, particularly female photographers who want to shift the male gaze and change the way we look at the nude female body. She cites Viviane Sassen as an example of a photographer who approaches the female body in a subtle way and changes the gaze without resorting to shock imagery.

Nathalie also talks about the difference between our physical body and our body image, something that she discovered through her research on photography. She notes that we are constantly exposed to images of bodies, particularly through advertising and fashion photography. This has resulted in a kind of shock when we see our own image, which often does not match the idealized images we are used to seeing.

Nathalie finds this interesting because it means that we have an image of ourselves in our mind that is related to all the images of bodies we have seen, and this image can be quite different from our physical body. But this is not always ideal. “My hope is that, at least for younger generations,” Nathalie presses, “that being more exposed to a variety of different bodies, and to understand that the body is not this beautiful image completely retouched, will help to express other identities and to live in our own bodies in a saner way.” And for this reason, her opinion on social media is not such a bleak one.

“Photography has a huge impact on your life in that sense,” she explains, “And for me, it is not something that is secondary (...) And it’s very exciting and inspiring actually, that photography has this power. That through photography, we can reclaim our bodies – our natural bodies.”

Nathalie does not fail to mention a current discussion in the art world about gender: how many claim that it shouldn’t matter. How it ‘should’ be about the artist, and not the artists’ gender. “I don’t agree with that,” she impels. “Because I think that the experience you have, as a woman, in society, in your life, in your couple, in your family, in your work, has an influence on what you create. The vision you want to give is related to your own experience. And your experience is the experience of a woman, it’s not the experience of a man. And everything in your body is the experience of a woman. Even in a society where you think that it's equal. And we may think that sometimes, here in the Western world, that we are more or less okay, but we see it's not. It's not more or less okay. There are still fights. And we see how insecure women are still in the street. So in that sense, I think that these insecurities are really related to the body itself.”


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        Laia Abril

Contemporary photographer