at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, NYC (through July 29 2022)
Reviewed by Phoebe Hoban
The small scale of Donna Ferrato’s snapshot-like black-and-white photographs belies their personal and political power. Whether they document the medical sinks and shelves in a now-shuttered Texas abortion clinic, or hone in on the badly bruised face of a domestic violence victim, they pack a sucker punch directly to the gut.
Not all of the images in this show, timed to coincide with the Supreme Court’s shocking if sadly predictable overturning of Roe Vs. Wade, implode like visual hand-grenades. A few are joyful and liberating, like the one of Ferrato’s daughter giving birth at home. Or an elderly woman, identified as a concentration camp survivor, a “Swinger” and a Jewish grandmother, finding “her G spot.” Or “Medicin Centre,” taken in 1978, a simple shot of empty cots in Paris, identified, in the blocky print Ferrato uses to augment her work, “My Abortion, I did my time on love + marriage. Wasn’t ready for the baby carriage….Divorced traveling the world as a free spirit following the dream. Be a photographer. MY MIND, MY BODY, MY CHOICE”
Ferrato’s photographs somehow manage to be simultaneously clinical and intimate. She’s a WeeGee of the battle of the sexes. Now 73, Ferrato, known for her 1991 Aperture book, Living with the Enemy, has been documenting domestic violence since 1981, collecting evidence of its casualties and scars. Her choice in subjects is aggressive: her images are dramatic. Her point of view is unwaveringly clear. Thus, showcased, is a lovely portrait of Margaret Atwood, famous for her 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which forecast a time, not so unlike our own, when women’s reproductive freedom no longer exists. Instead, the “handmaids” are forced into reproductive servitude by a cadre of patriarchal, totalitarian leaders who have overthrown the United States government.
Sound familiar? Trump may not have succeeded in his attempted coup, but he consummated the creation of the ultra-conservative Supreme Court which has, in fact, now effectively eliminated women’s sexual and reproductive freedom by enabling states to outlaw abortion, making it nearly impossible for women to safely choose when and if they want to give birth. Some fear limiting or even banning access to contraception could be the next draconian step.
Atwood is pictured as a sort of patron saint of Ferrato’s work; a circle behind her head in the 1986 photo emulates a halo, and Ferrato’s handwritten caption reads, in part, “I took Atwood’s book as a chilling warning of an ugly world….I began to immerse myself in the war on women.” In her 2021 book, Holy, spanning 50 years of her work — which was originally sparked by the 2016 election of Trump, and published just a few weeks after the January 6 insurrection — Ferrato is even more explicit: “[Atwood’s] book spoke to my core being. I became a soldier in the war on women. The camera, my weapon.”
Ferrato wields her weapon to striking effect. It is telling that among the very first pages in the book is the picture of Atwood, a literary champion of women’s rights. Atwood is immediately followed by a 1987 picture of Hedda Nussbaum, whose beaten face flooded the media as the ultimate poster victim of domestic violence. (In fact, Nussbaum survived her husband’s extreme abuse, but he beat their illegally adopted daughter to death.) Ferrato’s hand-written caption reads: “Hedda Nussbaum, Four Winds Hospital, Katonah, N.Y. 1987. This piece of film, damaged in a flood became a symbol of the invisible damage Hedda suffered. Under the skin.”
In addition to some of her better-known photographs, the show, Holy, includes 40 never-before-shown collages (including one that features the Nussbaum image) created between 2018 and 2019 as the basis for the eponymous book. Ferrato’s work is a clarion call to arms that viscerally raises our consciousness, while forcibly — and often painfully — getting under our all too vulnerable skin.
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Featured Image: Donna Ferrato, “Diamond. Minneapolis, MN 1987“
Phoebe Hoban is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).