Sterility reigns in the conference room with wooden walls, and men in subdued suits, sitting at a wide central table, eerily resemble each other, as if duplicated. But there is one standout element in this high-level corporate meeting photo – a woman with short curly hair sitting on the left. She fits in perfectly with the group’s symmetry, but she catches the eye in her jewel-colored blue dress, her bare legs showing through the hem.
Humes explained in a phone call that she had become “obsessed” with Clarke’s image. “What was it like for her? What difference does it make in her life that she was “the only woman”?
This image directed by Shirley Clark in 1962 in New York was the catalyst for Immy Humes’ book The Only Woman. Credit: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Studies; Shirley Clark Papers
Humes soon couldn’t see the pattern anymore, finding pictures of “the same constellation” everywhere, she said. She has collected images of scientists, comedy writers, athletes, and politicians, among many others, from the mid-19th century, when photography was popularized, to the present day.
“It started to get almost supernatural,” she said.
Graham’s photo intrigued her because of the image’s history. The imposing publisher inherited the Washington Post after her father and husband died. According to Humes’ book, she never thought she would be in the role, but she ran the newspaper during an era of high-profile reporting, publishing both Pentagon papers and investigations into former President Nixon’s administration that led to his resignation. She became the newspaper’s first female publisher and later CEO. She was also the first woman elected to the board of directors of the Associated Press, the group she sat with in this particular image.
“She’s obviously flattered to be put in front,” Humes said. “In this case… the woman takes pride of place because of her exclusivity, because she is the only woman.”
This does not apply to all images, and Humes found herself classifying them as she worked on the project.
“There were different ways to become the “only woman”. Either you were a queen… or you were a great, great discoverer,” she explained. And in some cases, women were given access to all-male spaces because of their work as maids, secretaries or prostitutes, she added.
Humes notes that as society moves away from strictly gender-based work, these images are becoming more vivid. This makes the weirdness of each image even more pronounced. “It starts to look absurd to our eyes – it starts to look comical. The more we move away from it, we can see it differently.”
Top image: 1975 photograph of Katherine Graham, the first woman elected to the AP board of directors.