Girls on Film: 40 Years of Women in Rock (and the challenges overcome)

Wednesday, January 19: 11:37 a.m.
Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, Grant Park, Chicago: May 1969 (photo by Anastasia Pantsios)

I’m excited to be opening my photo show, Girls on Film: 40 Years of Women in Rock, at the Rock Hall on February 14. Going over my negatives, and picking and printing the images, gave me the chance to reflect on my own trajectory as a photographer and a music fan. I’ve also been mulling over why, after a couple of years of thinking about such a show and vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs Jim Henke saying “Anytime you’re ready, let’s talk,” this particular theme and selection of work is important to me.

The earliest image in the show was taken at a free daytime concert in Grant Park in Chicago (where I grew up) in 1969. I was new to both photography and rock music. I borrowed a camera from my father — he was a serious amateur photographer whose taste in subjects ran to scenery and flowers — and brought it with me to take pictures of Jefferson Airplane, the band that had recently sparked my interest in rock and roll, largely due to its distinctive singer, Grace Slick, who was neither the ethereal Joni Mitchell-style folk girl or the bad-ass blues mama like Janis Joplin (the two accepted niches for women performers). I never dreamed that this would lead to entwined lifelong passions.

I wanted to write about rock music, but that clubhouse door was firmly bolted and sporting a sign that said “No gurlz allowed.” So I turned to photography. There too were roadblocks for women. While Annie Leibowitz had the timing, luck, and talent to have Rolling Stone magazine behind her, many in the male-dominated music business looked at women with cameras as aspiring groupies. But for every girl who did indeed pick up a camera to meet musicians, there was a girl who was simply passionate about the music and, like the boys who made up the new club of rock music journalists, wanted to express how the music made them feel.

I spent the ’70s writing and shooting for local publications, eventually having my photos published in national magazines like Creem, Circus, and Phonograph Record Magazine. But roadblocks persisted. Local record company promotion men — they were all men — didn’t welcome young women photographers to concerts, backstage meet-and-greets, and post-concert parties. Male photographers could schmooze with band members and go on the road with them as partying buddies. A woman couldn’t. I avoided the after-concert hangouts at the old Swingos bar because being seen there too often branded you a groupie — but it was how men made contacts.

In photo pits at shows I met two other young women, Janet Macoska and Stephanie Janus Saniga, who were encountering the same problems. We decided to form a company called Kaleyediscope Inc. Although we each still worked independently, we felt that incorporating, and having a logo, stationery, and an answering service would give us the appearance of legitimacy we needed to further our careers.

It worked. Both Janet and I spent the ’80s shooting virtually every artist of that active and diverse period, and getting our work used by publications, record labels, bands, and book publishing companies all over the world. Both of us continue to shoot a variety of subjects. Stephanie took some time off to raise a family, but today she has a photography studio in Wadsworth using the old Kaleyediscope name.

Becoming a rock music fan in an era that wasn’t welcoming to women — onstage, in the music business, or in the media —gave me an appreciation for the obstacles women performers confronted to do what they do, obstacles that were incredibly formidable when a band like Fanny, one of my earliest images in the show, were together. New Wave opened the door a crack in the late ’70s, but MTV’s 1981 debut aggravated appearance prejudices — for women. Ann Wilson, Heart’s powerhouse singer, was shunted to the background as she gained weight. Bands like the Bangles were polished and glammed up. Runaway Lita Ford had extensive plastic surgery. No one commented on the unattractive, overweight members of .38 Special filming videos with fashion models draped all over them. But I vividly remember MTV VJ Alan Hunter apologizing for the appearance of Romeo Void’s heavyset singer Deborah Iyall.

For a while in the ’90s, women gained serious ground when the Nirvana revolution kicked open the door for a horde of acts that had been bubbling under in indie rock scenes that were more open-minded than the mainstream. Players like Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), and Kim Deal (the Pixies) were members of the team, not pretty show ponies.  By the end of that decade, the sexist music industry had reclaimed control to some degree, making appearance for women — especially in commercial pop music — more important than ever. But too much had changed for them to drive talented, unconventional women off the stage entirely.  For every Britney Spears, whose main talent is looking pretty, there’s someone like Paramore’s Hayley Williams. It’s no longer exceptional to see a band with a great woman guitarist, and “all-girl” bands, once marketed as novelties, are common. (One of Cleveland’s most promising acts is the female quartet HotChaCha.)

In Girls on Film, I wanted to pay tribute to the women — from older R&B stars like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, to rock pioneers like Fanny and the Runaways, to contemporary artists like Gwen Stefani and Bjork — who have fought to do just what the guys get to do: express who they are through their music.



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