Susan Wood has captured four decades of era-defining women, from Gloria Steinem to Yoko Ono
“The 1960s and 70s were a pivotal time for women,” recalls veteran photographer Susan Wood, who has spent decades immortalising some of the world’s most prominent female figures, capturing their nuances and singularity in the process. “It was a period when women were starting to come out of their shell; they were no longer background figures. Celebrating their inherent strength and poise has always been my primary focus.”
Despite a life-long penchant for portraiture, Wood began her career with an interest in food photography, which the art school graduate viewed as a rich chromatic subject. “I wanted to change the constant Renaissance-style visual depictions of food, make it a bit more… Matisse,” she explains. “I started using different techniques, colour combinations and lighting, and through my involvement in this niche I met some of the most influential people in the food industry, most of which were women – Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Barbara Kafka, Julee Rosso. I was so impressed by them and I wanted to create an image for posterity that would do justice to their incredible energy and intelligence.”
Fast forward 50 years, Wood’s most recent personal project – a lavish book of photographs titled Women: Portraits 1960-2000 – preserves the artist’s initial desire to complexify the predictable narratives surrounding mainstream depictions of the female identity. “I want this collection of images to remind people that there were some phenomenal women achievers, full of talent, brilliance and courage far from the stereotypical quiet homebodies they were so often made out to be.” The book includes a selection of long-unseen photographs of icons from a myriad of fields ranging from fashion to film, business, politics and academia – Helen Gurley Brown, Nora Ephron, Diane von Furstenberg, Jane Fonda, Betsey Johnson, Jayne Mansfield, Yoko Ono, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Cheryl Tiegs, Alice Waters and Gloria Vanderbilt are featured, among numerous others.
The feminist ethos has always been at the core of Wood’s practice – yet, she admits, her affiliation with the movement wasn’t set in motion by personal struggle as much as by a deep sense of solidarity. “I’d always been aware of all the limiations that women were facing, but I was lucky enough to get work and decent opportunities despite the general climate,” Wood remembers. “Knowing Gloria [Steinem] and Betty [Friedan] really changed my perspective and made me understand how deep and systemic the discrimination actually was. I’ve been involved in the feminist fight for equality ever since.”
Wood unapologetically channeled her sociopolitical sympathies into her visual work by capturing strength, humour and wit while at the same time embracing sensuality. “There is a lot of sensuality, beauty and sexiness in these images, but none of it is obvious,” the photographer concludes. “When men are behind the lens, they are so taken with the female beauty at face value, that they don’t notice all the small details that come across through her personality, the charisma, the intelligence… Women photographers find sensuality in so many different places. There is this unspoken recognition of something that we women know, a certain empathy and understanding that really come across in the imagery. Unearthing this has always been my motivation.”
Women: Portraits 1960-2000, published by Pointed Leaf Press, is out now.